Smacking the floor sharply with her cane, Delphine limped out of the room with her back erect and her shoulders square.
Xavier surveyed the effect of Olivier’s bombshell. His cousin would be rolling around in his grave with glee if he knew the commotion he’d caused. However, for the rest of them, it presented a very real and very complicated dilemma. Was Olivier’s wife . . . or widow, as she was now, genuine? Had she known who Olivier was and how much he was worth when she married him?
Xavier shrugged the thought aside. Whatever the truth, this Cat Hayes was in for a rough ride. Unless she had seriously done her homework, she would have no idea how tight-knit and loyal the Ducasse family were. And if his grandmother had anything to do with it, Olivier’s widow would find herself unceremoniously ejected from La Fleurie within the space of a few days, even if they did have to pay her off.
But then, Xavier thought philosophically as he watched his dysfunctional relatives bristling at the possibility of a battle, what family wouldn’t want to protect a multi-million-euro perfume empire? Grabbing his cigarettes with a shrug, Xavier left them to it.
Seven months later
Staring out of the window, Cat numbly poured herself a glass of white wine. She glanced at the box on the table. It contained a neat stack of framed family photographs and a couple of awards she had won at work and the sight of it made her spirits plummet despairingly. As if things weren’t bad enough . . .
The past seven months had been the toughest of her life. Even the usually raucous Christmas season had passed by in a dismal, uneventful blur, failing to lift her spirits and making her all the more aware of her solitary status. The one thing Cat had always been able to rely on – the one thing that had kept her going – had been her job with one of the most high-profile branding agencies in London. It had fired her up with passion and enthusiasm on a daily basis. Until today, at any rate.
Cat pushed her dark blond hair out of her eyes and groaned. Six or seven months ago, she had been a fun-loving, carefree girl with a good job, her own flat and nothing more taxing to worry about than where to go with her friends on a Friday night. What a difference a few months could make, she thought, biting her lip. Recklessly romantic at the best of times, she had well and truly thrown caution to the wind this time. While on holiday with her best friend Bella and a few other girls in glitzy St Tropez, Cat had fallen head over heels in love. A heady tryst with a gorgeous Frenchman had unexpectedly led to a simple but romantic marriage ceremony on a beach with a Provençal sunset shimmering in the background.
‘There you are!’ said Bella, bursting into the flat, a letter clutched in her hand. ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in your own flat? I’ve been banging on the door for ages.’
Cat looked up vaguely. ‘Sorry . . . I let myself in with your spare key because I knew you’d be home early today.’ She gave her best friend a watery smile. ‘I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in my flat, you see. And . . . I-I didn’t want to be on my own.’
‘Why aren’t you at work?’
‘Ah, work,’ Cat said in a flat voice. She raised her wine glass in a mock salute and realized it was empty. ‘I’m afraid I’ve just joined the ranks of the unemployed. Brian fired me this afternoon.’
‘No way!’ Bella slipped the letter into her pocket and slumped down next to Cat. ‘How could he? You’re the best in the business. And after everything you’ve been through too.’
‘Brian doesn’t care about that,’ Cat informed her. ‘He was furious with me for going on holiday, let alone for extending it for my honeymoon.’ She winced as she said the word ‘honeymoon’. Too emotionally spent to cry, she squashed it down and continued. ‘Brian kept me on to finish the Neon Flash campaign, then this afternoon, right after the deliriously happy client left, he fired me, telling me I’d let him down because I took a month off. I mean, seriously, Bel, I took a holiday for the first time in three years!’
‘Bastard,’ breathed Bella.
Neon Flash, a make-up brand developed by a skeletal pop star obsessed with eighties neon, had been an absolute nightmare, the most challenging of Cat’s career. It had involved working twenty-hour days and Cat had dedicated herself to it without complaint both before and after her holiday. It had been gruelling but a welcome distraction from her grief. Now, she had nothing and all she could think about was Olivier.
Tall, with dark, mischievous eyes and hair the colour of glossy hazelnuts, Olivier had been one of the waiters who worked along the beachfront. He was penniless but happy, he said, and he possessed that indolent, sexy charm only the French can pull off. But that wasn’t the only reason Cat had been attracted to him. Olivier was also hugely likeable; he worked hard and had a down-to-earth attitude to life. He had told her that he had been brought up in a dilapidated house in a Provençal village and his parents, like hers, had died when he was young. It had bonded them, giving them a connection Cat had never felt with anyone else. Her heart clenched as she thought about how happy she’d been, how carefree . . .
‘And I’ve lost my flat,’ she added in a small voice. ‘It’s going up for sale and I had to put an offer in by the end of the week. I can’t do that without a job, can I?’
‘Oh, Cat.’ Bella squeezed her hand. Cat had been her best and most loyal friend since school and Bella couldn’t bear to see the pain and anguish in her eyes. Until a few months ago when Olivier had died, Cat had been so full of life and laughter, and now she had suffered yet another crushing blow. Bella thought worriedly of the letter in her pocket but she knew she had to tell Cat.
‘Sorry to dump this on you but . . . you know Serena in number ten?’ Cat barely responded and Bella pushed ahead. ‘She’s been away in South Africa visiting that millionaire boyfriend of hers. Anyway, she came back on Sunday and she had this mountain of post and when she finally opened it all, she found this.’ Bella pulled the letter out. ‘It had been posted through her letter box accidentally. It’s from some solicitor in France . . . Provence, to be exact.’ Bella paused. ‘The letter didn’t make any sense to Serena but then she saw your name at the top so she gave it to me to pass on.’
Cat took it listlessly. ‘I guess it’s something to do with Olivier.’
‘It is. Olivier
‘Who?’ Cat asked, confused. Her Olivier went by the surname Laroque.
‘That’s what I’d like to know,’ Bella responded. ‘Because this letter is all about Olivier’s death in St Tropez . . . and it’s from his family.’
? Olivier doesn’t have any family. He said his parents died and he was all alone . . .’ Cat stared at the letter, her eyes skimming over the polite words and formal English phrases, barely taking them in. They could have written it in French, Cat thought randomly; after all, she was fluent in the language thanks to the time she had spent in France with her parents as a child. But she guessed they didn’t know that. Bewildered, she read some phrases aloud. ‘. . .
offer our most heartfelt condolences
. . .
hope you have recovered from Olivier’s untimely death
. . .
please join us at our house in Provence to discuss some business
. . .’ Cat met Bella’s eyes. ‘Business? What business?’
‘I have no idea. Hang on . . . Ducasse . . . Ducasse . . .’ Bella shook her head. ‘Nah, it can’t be them. Forget it.’
Not really listening, Cat reread the letter. ‘Why would he lie about having a family?’
Bella shrugged. ‘Maybe he’s ashamed of them. Maybe they’re a bunch of nutters and he didn’t want you to be put off. Or . . .’ Triumphantly, she threw another idea out. ‘Perhaps he just fell out with them at some point and didn’t want to talk about it. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?’
Cat nodded slowly. ‘I guess so. But I wish he’d confided in me about them, Bella. Maybe I could have done something . . . helped him mend whatever went wrong . . .’
Bella said nothing; now was not the right time. Still, when
the right time? She had tried once before to voice her concerns about Olivier not being who he said he was and Cat had blown up spectacularly. There was a lot about Olivier that hadn’t added up, such as his claiming to be penniless but somehow managing to afford a beachfront apartment in one of the swankiest areas in St Tropez, his phone constantly ringing, even though he claimed not to have any responsibilities elsewhere, his penchant for gambling and vintage champagne . . .
Maybe a rich friend had paid for the apartment, as he said, and for the champagne and the gambling. It was perfectly possible that Olivier had had rich friends who funded his holiday; he had been charming and charismatic enough to attract, well, anybody. But Bella had never managed to quite believe it.
‘You should go,’ she said brightly.
Cat lifted her head. ‘Go? Go where?’
‘To Provence.’ Bella tapped the letter. ‘I mean, you were his wife, you have a right to meet his family, don’t you? Those officials treated you like dirt when Olivier died.’
Cat grimaced at the memory. It was true. When Olivier had been pronounced dead, she had been treated like some silly bimbo who should back off and let those in charge get on with their job. When she had tried to protest that she wasn’t Olivier’s girlfriend, she was his wife, the officials had shrugged dismissively and told her to go home. She’d been in no state to do anything but flee back to England to the security of her job and her friends.
‘They must want to meet you,’ Bella went on. ‘Why else would they have sent you this letter asking you to join them in Provence?’
Cat shrugged. ‘I just don’t know if I can face it . . . it’s been so hard . . .’ Fiercely, she dashed her tears away.
Bella looked contrite. ‘I can’t even offer you a room in my flat,’ she confessed. ‘That guy I’ve been seeing for a while, Ben? I asked him if he wanted to move in at the weekend and he said yes . . .’ She winced. ‘I’m so sorry, Cat. I can tell him it’s not possible if you need to stay here.’
Cat’s head snapped up. What was she doing, sitting here being miserable? What would that achieve? She might be a jobless, homeless twenty-six-year-old widow, but life went on, she just had to take charge of it.
‘All right, I’ll go to Provence,’ she said resolutely. ‘I’ll book a flight and go.’
Bella grinned. ‘That’s the Cat I’ve been missing for the last few months,’ she said with some relief. ‘I was beginning to think that crazy, reckless girl I used to be best mates with had gone for good.’
Cat held her wine glass out for a top-up. ‘As if.’
Bella started to make plans. ‘I can look for jobs for you while you’re out there. Ben has some good contacts in the advertising business, he used to do IT for Brian’s competitor. I’m sure we’ll come up with something.’ She chinked her glass against Cat’s. ‘By the time you’ve sorted out whatever business you need to in Provence, you’ll have a brilliant new job and life will be back on track.’
‘God, Bel, I hope you’re right.’ Cat gulped her wine. ‘I just can’t help worrying that Olivier’s family might not like me as much as he did.’
‘Why on earth wouldn’t they?’ Bella told her loyally. ‘You’re fabulous and I bet this trip will be just what you need to, you know, get some closure, or whatever they call it.’ She pulled a face at the empty bottle. ‘I just hope Olivier’s family have a big enough supply of wine for your visit . . .’
Sitting in her office at the warehouse that packaged up Ducasse-Fleurie perfumes, Leoni gritted her teeth. She pushed her glasses further up her nose and sketched out yet another idea for the new line she was working on, scribbling rapidly for a good ten minutes without pausing. Finally she sat back and surveyed her handiwork. It was no good, she simply couldn’t concentrate. Just like her other efforts this morning, her latest one was terrible. Leoni screwed it up and threw it in the bin to join the pile of other scrunched-up, angry-looking balls of paper. Her ideas, usually so clear and precise, were muddled and chaotic this morning. Nothing was flowing and nothing made sense.
She stood up and surveyed the thousand-strong workforce that supported the Ducasse empire. They all seemed so laid-back. Where was the spark? Where was the passion? It was all very well being cosy and family orienated but she couldn’t help thinking the business needed a vigorous shake-up. The fact was, Ducasse-Fleurie was flagging. No one wanted to admit to it but the figures spoke for themselves. Sales were down and the once well-respected Ducasse-Fleurie name was fading into the background as trendier, younger and fresher perfumes hit the market.
Ducasse-Fleurie had been resting on its laurels for too long, Leoni mused. No new fragrances had been created for years. Their bestselling classics, Rose-Nymphea and L’Air Sensuel, formed the mainstay of the business, but they were seen as the older woman’s perfumes. Which made the product, and somehow the company itself, seem dated and out of touch. Ducasse-Fleurie still made money, vast quantities of it, comparatively speaking, but it was on the wane.
Leoni smoothed her chic black Roland Mouret dress and marched downstairs into the warehouse. If only she could create a new perfume – or ‘juice’ as it was known to insiders – herself because then she could take control and mastermind a company revamp. But since Aunt Elizabeth, their master ‘nose’ or scent creator, had died two years ago, there was no one to conceive a new fragrance.
Actually, that wasn’t true, Leoni reminded herself as she sternly narrowed her eyes at a gossiping employee who quailed and hurriedly returned to work. Xavier had inherited his mother’s rare and much sought after gift for blending aromas and was more than capable of taking over the creative arm of Ducasse-Fleurie. He just didn’t want to. Or maybe he had reasons none of them knew about, Leoni acknowledged more charitably. Xavier had fallen apart after Elizabeth had died and he had hung up his lab coat, apparently for good.