Leoni headed outside for some air. She wanted to develop a new fragrance, two even . . . a home fragrance line . . . a store in Paris . . . Ducasse-Fleurie had been conceived as a ‘fragrance only’ line like Fragonard, Annick Goutal and Pierre Bourdin, and for several decades it had outsold some of the most popular household names. The ongoing obsession with celebrity had saturated the fragrance market in the same way it had the publishing world, and classical perfume lines had been hit hard, with celebrity scents stealing most of the coveted top ten spots each summer. Leoni sighed and got into her navy sports car, the most sedate-looking car the Ducasse family owned. Since Olivier had died, nothing seemed right, Leoni thought. Her private life seemed stark and empty, and professionally she felt equally dissatisfied. She needed something, anything, to give her a new lease of life.
God, she missed Olivier so much it hurt! The grief she had barely allowed herself to acknowledge rose to the surface and threatened to suffocate her. And some other emotion was hovering nearby – fury. Leoni was so angry with Olivier, she could barely see straight. How dare he leave her like this, she raged as she activated the security gates and headed up La Fleurie’s vast driveway. Didn’t Olivier know how lost she would be without him? Didn’t he realise the vulnerable position she would be in? Olivier might have been an irresponsible playboy but he had been her rock, the only one who ever took her work ideas seriously. Without him, working in the family business would be harder than ever.
How could he marry some stupid English girl and then get himself killed, the stupid idiot, Leoni thought tearfully. And on top of everything, her twenty-ninth birthday was only a few days away and a huge party had been planned, which was the last thing she wanted. She couldn’t even summon up the enthusiasm to comment on colour schemes or food ideas.
Leoni came to a halt in the driveway just as another car smoothly pulled up next to her. With a sinking heart she realised it was her grandmother’s bullet-grey limousine. The matriarch of the family was back, she thought gloomily, and that could mean only one thing. Aside from rocking her already unstable position in the family business and making a grand entrance before her birthday party, Delphine’s arrival signified something Leoni had been absolutely dreading. After an inexplicable eight-month silence, Olivier’s widow must be on her way. Maybe the strikes the French airport staff had promised would keep her away, Leoni thought hopefully. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Leoni slammed her hand on the steering wheel. She couldn’t bear it, she really couldn’t. Wasn’t it bad enough that Olivier had spent the last few weeks of his life with someone they didn’t even know? And now this girl was actually going to be staying at La Fleurie with them; they would have to speak to her, eat with her even. It was nothing less than intolerable.
Feeling panicked, Leoni took out her mobile phone.
‘Ashton?’ she turned on her car engine. Remembering how terrible his French was, she spoke in English. ‘I need a drink right now. Do you want . . . La Belle Vie is fine. I’ll meet you there in five.’
‘Should we disturb him?’ Seraphina fretted as they loitered outside Guy’s office. She fiddled nervously with the long white-blond plait that hung over one shoulder. ‘I really want to spend some time with him before we go back to that horrible college again.’
Max shrugged, looking sullen. ‘He’ll be too busy. He always is.’ He folded his arms across his chest, the gesture unconsciously defensive.
Seraphina sighed. Max was sensitive but the barriers he erected around himself made him quite unpleasant to be around at times.
Seeing Seraphina’s nut-brown eyes cloud over with disappointment, Max relented.
‘Fine, let’s try.’ But don’t say I didn’t warn you, his expression said as he moved closer to the door, his arms still folded and his chin tilted angrily.
Seraphina knocked on the door of their father’s office.
‘Come in!’ came the rather curt response.
Seraphina unconsciously squared her shoulders. She glanced around the office, noting how disorganised it was. Cardboard boxes containing sample perfume bottles were stacked under the window, paperwork to be signed sat in a neglected pile on the desk and reams of the lilac ribbon Ducasse-Fleurie was famous for spilled down from the shelves. The air was infused with a rich, heady aroma from tester tabs and open bottles belonging to other perfume houses.
Guy looked up irritably. ‘Yes?’
‘We wondered if you wanted to do something,’ Seraphina ventured timidly.
Seraphina cringed, mortified by her father’s slightly withering expression. ‘Er . . . together, you know. You, me and Max.’
Guy suppressed a sigh and with obvious reluctance put the disappointing spreadsheets he was deciphering to one side. What was it about the twins that irked him so much? he asked himself.
Max was as tall as all the Ducasse men, with tousled dark hair and moody, liquid-brown eyes. But he had a chip on his shoulder the size of Paris and he wore a permanent scowl. He was wildly out of control and under constant threat of expulsion from his expensive college. Hardly the model son. And then there was Seraphina. She was the very image of his beloved Elizabeth with her fragile, luminous beauty and her dreamy, idealistic approach to life. She was wearing tight black jodhpurs and a red silk shirt, a disturbing combination of schoolgirl innocence and womanly maturity.
Guy stared at them, conscious of the inexplicable pain in his heart. He knew he couldn’t deal with them right now. ‘I . . . have too much work to do,’ he stated, averting his eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he added inadequately, not looking up.
Max’s lip curled. It was just as it had been for the last two years.
‘Come on,’ he said to Seraphina, taking her arm. ‘We’re clearly wasting our time here.’ Ignoring his father’s tense shoulders, Max shot him a contemptuous look before leaving.
Seraphina allowed herself to be pulled from the room and followed Max to the stables behind La Fleurie. Nothing seemed to please their father these days, she thought miserably, least of all his children.
Max saddled up his favourite horse, a fine dappled grey named Le Fantome. Some people said greys were unlucky but Max adored his horse. Even after what had happened to his mother, he trusted Le Fantome with his life. He pulled the worn, navy cashmere jumper he always wore out riding over his dark hair and breathed in the stable’s pungent aroma of straw, manure and excited horses. It cleared his head and calmed him, the way it always did. He had found other ways to relieve his stress over the past couple of years but this was legal and far safer than his other hobbies.
‘What do you think Olivier’s wife will be like?’ Seraphina wondered aloud, hoping to distract Max’s dark mood. She smiled as her horse Coco, named after her heroine Coco Chanel, came to the stable door and nuzzled her hand.
Max shrugged, his mouth twisting scornfully. ‘Who cares? She’s probably just some bimbo who found out how much Olivier was worth and made him marry her somehow.’ Inserting a foot into a stirrup, he smoothly mounted his horse.
Seraphina looked unconvinced as she hoisted a saddle on to Coco’s back and quickly did up the straps. ‘I can’t imagine how anyone could have persuaded Olivier to do anything he didn’t want to do.’ She couldn’t help feeling sorry for Olivier’s bride; not only had she lost her new husband within weeks of marrying him, she now had the Ducasse family to contend with. And they were a force to be reckoned with, Seraphina thought grimly. The ones that were left, anyway. Suddenly overcome with sadness, she cast her eyes to the ground to hide her tears.
Max slipped off his horse and put his hand on her shoulder. ‘Stop that, will you? You can’t let this get to you . . . you just can’t.’
‘I know, I know. I’m trying to be strong.’ Seraphina’s shoulders shook as tears slid down her cheeks. ‘It’s just . . . losing Mother . . . and now Olivier . . . it’s too much.’
Max felt despair wash over him. What did she want from him? Why did she keep crying like this? Max felt sorry for his sister but he didn’t know how to deal with her unhappiness.
‘Let’s ride,’ he said roughly, pushing her towards her horse. He remounted his and kicked his heels against Le Fantome’s flanks. ‘Catch me up!’ he shouted as he cantered towards the Ducasse family lavender fields.
Quickly wiping her tears away, Seraphina jumped up on to Coco’s back and headed after her twin. If Max could cope with Olivier’s death without shedding a tear, then so must she.
With the assurance of a seasoned player, Xavier tossed his remaining poker chips on to the table and flipped his hand over. It was a royal flush, with spades – the perfect hand. There was a ripple of applause from the watching crowds but Xavier shook his head modestly. He might be a good bluffer but he couldn’t take credit for the luck of the cards. Thank God he didn’t have Olivier’s penchant for gambling; as fun as it was, everyone knew the house always won in the end so it was a mug’s game unless it was a casual pastime.
Rather like relationships, Xavier thought ironically. Fun was paramount – these days, anyway. He had long since given up serious dating. Just like gambling, it was only for the self-deluded, in his opinion. Catching the eye of a slinky brunette he had dated a few times, Xavier gave her an appraising once-over, wondering how on earth her low-cut satin dress was managing to contain her impressive breasts.
‘You are a better poker player than your cousin, Monsieur Ducasse,’ Gaston, the owner of the casino, said in a discreet aside. He nodded at the croupier to pay out, standing beside Xavier with his hands behind his back. ‘Olivier’s death is undoubtedly a great loss. My bottom line will suffer enormously in the long run.’ He smiled genially.
‘I think we both know you’ll be far better off without Olivier wrecking the joint every Friday night, Gaston,’ Xavier commented.
Gaston inclined his head politely. Olivier had rarely left the establishment quietly and usually it had been with the assistance of the casino’s security staff. Xavier Ducasse, however, was a gentleman, known for good play, large tips and impeccable manners. He also boosted the number of female players, who seemed to have inside knowledge about Xavier’s movements, turning up whenever he did, dressed to kill in sexy gowns. They were like groupies around a pop star, simpering and posturing in the desperate hope of being noticed, but Xavier seemed mostly oblivious to their presence.
‘Olivier was reckless,’ Xavier added, ‘in all aspects of his life.’ He scooped up his chips and deftly slipped a hefty one into the top pocket of Gaston’s rather shiny suit. He headed to the bar, accompanied by Gaston. ‘I trust my cheque covered all my cousin’s outstanding debts.’
‘It did. Thank you. You are indeed a gentleman.’ Gaston was aware that Xavier had paid Olivier’s debts out of his own bank account rather than the family account.
‘Ah well, it’s easy to be a gentleman when you have money.’ Xavier ordered a Scotch on the rocks.
‘I disagree,’ Gaston said politely. ‘Your cousin had plenty of money too but he was short on both manners and decorum, if you don’t mind me saying so.’ He flushed. ‘Not that I should speak ill of the dead.’
Xavier sipped his drink, glancing across the bar. The brunette he had spotted at the table was giving him the eye and he smiled at her.
‘I heard Olivier got married before he died. Is this true? Olivier wasn’t the marrying type, surely.’
‘News travels fast around here.’ Xavier stood up and smoothed the front of his well-cut Dior suit jacket. ‘You heard correctly. Olivier’s young widow is due at La Fleurie any day. Our solicitor’s letter arrived at the wrong address, by all accounts, hence the long wait.’
‘She is, perhaps, after the Ducasse fortune,’ Gaston said lightly.
Xavier glanced down at the brunette who had shimmied to his side. ‘Who knows?’ He casually tucked the girl’s hand through his arm, racking his brain to recall her name.
‘Will you get involved in the business again one day?’ Gaston asked hopefully. His mother was a huge fan of Ducasse Perfumes but having worn Rose-Nymphea for years, she yearned for something different – something ‘fresh but timeless’ was how she put it.
Xavier’s chocolate-brown eyes had become distant, and Gaston thought he might have put his foot in it.
‘Oh, I doubt I’ll work at Ducasse-Fleurie again,’ Xavier answered smoothly, guiding the brunette towards the exit.
, he thought triumphantly, that was her name. ‘We have much better things to do, don’t we, Monique?’
Miles away on a film set in Paris, Angelique Bodart was posing for her final scene, wearing a black silk negligée and high heels, her artfully coloured hair reaching almost to the cleft of her bottom. She pouted and slipped the negligée from her shoulders. It slithered to the ground, revealing very full breasts and creamy skin. She stood facing the camera full frontal, picked up a dagger and traced the tip down her naked body. The script called for her to stab herself because her lover had left her for another man. With several breathy moans, she fell to the ground and rolled into her final position. She turned her head to one side, buried her hand in her bush and faked death in the throes of a violent orgasm for all she was worth.
‘And . . . CUT!’ the director shouted frenziedly.
Angelique lay prostrate for a moment before sitting up gracefully and acknowledging the round of applause she received from the appreciative onlookers. She slipped her negligée back on loosely and strode to the director’s chair where she inspected the rushes over his shoulder. Satisfied she looked her best and had given her most accomplished performance, Angelique took a seat at the back.
At once her assistant Celine was at her side.
‘Newspapers,’ Angelique demanded.
Celine hurriedly placed a number of crisp newspapers on Angelique’s lap. ‘Your favourite society pages are in the middle,’ she stammered.