Angelique gave her an icy stare and flapped her hand in dismissal. Adoration was one thing but endless fawning became so boring after a while.
She flipped through the papers with little interest until she reached the society pages, where she spotted a picture of Xavier Ducasse with a glossy brunette on his arm. Angelique sucked in her breath. Xavier Ducasse, handsome, rich and sexy, always stylishly dressed and eminently beddable, as she knew first hand.
Angelique read the caption. ‘Xavier Ducasse attending a charity ball with Monique Rouman, a model and aspiring actress, on his arm . . . they’ve been dating for a few weeks – could it be serious?’ Angelique’s stomach tightened with jealousy.
As she read the article beneath, her eyes widened in disbelief. It appeared that Olivier Ducasse hadn’t died single, as was first supposed. It now transpired that he had married someone shortly before his accident, which meant that his inheritance – in other words, a sizeable slice of the family perfume empire – now belonged to his young English widow. Angelique read on, shocked to discover that Olivier’s wife was a girl he had met in St Tropez last year.
Well, well, well. Angelique sat back, a smile playing across her lips. What an interesting turn of events. She would have enjoyed witnessing Delphine Ducasse’s reaction to learning that Olivier had left a widow. If Angelique knew Delphine as well as she thought she did, the family matriarch would be fighting tooth and nail to make sure this unknown English woman didn’t manage to get her hands on a single Ducasse euro or bottle of scent.
And what about Xavier, what did he think about it all? Xavier . . . the one that got away . . . the one man who had rendered her putty in his hands. At the time, their relationship had been private – not even the press had got wind of it, which was exactly how Angelique had liked it – and it might prove advantageous now, she thought.
She tossed the newspapers to one side, her blue eyes sparkling with anticipation. All she had to do was think of a way to be accepted into the Ducasse family fold once more. But would they welcome her back? She had tentatively tried to re-enter their circle a few times before but it had been tricky; the Ducasse family were a difficult clan to infiltrate, especially when it had been achieved once already.
Xavier, La Fleurie, the Ducasse family – everything about them represented what Angelique so desperately wanted from life. The respect that came with old money, the lavish yet somehow discreet way they enjoyed the privileges their long-established name brought them . . . Angelique looked at the newspapers again. This news changed everything. She knew that now was the time to make a move. All she needed was a legitimate way in . . .
Mystified, Cat leant forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, I think there must be some mistake,’ she said in rapid French. ‘We’re going the wrong way, we must be.’
She sighed as the driver ignored her. Her French might be a little rusty but it was perfectly competent. The driver must have understood her but for some reason he wasn’t responding.
Cat glanced out of the car window again. The sky was darkening as evening descended and they were heading south of a pretty village at the foot of Mont Ventoux. Cat was sure they must be lost but she was so tired after her terrible journey, she wasn’t sure she was up to having a full-scale row with her driver. She was surprised he had even turned up. After being delayed for days at both Gatwick and Nice due to strikes by French airport staff, she had half-heartedly dialled the number given in the letter, not really expecting anyone to answer. She had been taken aback when a voice informed her that a driver would be with her in quarter of an hour. And, give or take a few minutes, he was.
Now Cat was beginning to think she should have made her own way to Olivier’s parental home because after passing between two enormous security gates that had magically and soundlessly opened as they had approached, the car was heading down a long driveway overhung with trees. Occasional lamps marked the side of the gravel and bright lights flitted in and out of sight in the distance but it was impossible to see too far ahead.
‘I’m looking for . . . for La Fleurie,’ Cat repeated in French, glancing down at the address on the crumpled letter. What did La Fleurie mean? She racked her brains. Flowery? Full of flowers? ‘It’s probably very small . . . I’m sorry but we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere.’
‘We are going the right way,’ the driver assured her in accented English. He liked her cascade of messy, butterscotch-coloured hair and sexy, almost athletic body and wondered if this was Olivier’s much-debated widow. He decided she must be; after all, who hadn’t heard of the Ducasse estate around here? And she was English, as the rumours had suggested, even though she spoke decent French with a reasonable accent. In his opinion, she didn’t look much like the gold digger everyone in the village said she was, but then what did he know?
Cat scratched her head. Where on earth were they going? Olivier said his family – what was left of them – lived in a tiny, rundown house in a little-known village. Even in the disappearing light, it was clear that this vista was far too grand. Cat sat back tiredly, wondering if the driver thought she was on holiday and in need of a flashy hotel to stay in.
Cat wished this was the case. She felt tense and anxious at the thought of meeting the Ducasse family – petrified, in fact. And this hapless driver going off course on to what looked like a millionaire’s private grounds wasn’t exactly helping.
The car swept round the final neat curve of the driveway and Cat gasped.
‘La Fleurie,’ the driver announced grandly as the car slid to a halt.
‘It can’t be,’ Cat whispered in utter disbelief as she stared at what was a bona fide French château. It had three floors, with beautiful duck-egg blue shutters and a grand, double doorway flanked by lion statues. It was breathtaking.
As Cat climbed out of the car, she was hit by a rich, earthy scent. Looking up, she guessed it must be coming from the abundance of bright yellow blossoms that grew in a graceful arc across the front of the house.
‘Le mimosa,’ the driver explained helpfully. ‘They. . . ’ow you say . . . bloom very early ’ere.’ He nodded, giving her a wink. ‘Useful for the
‘Er . . .
,’ Cat agreed, nonplussed. Why on earth was he talking about perfume? Too stressed to think about it, she glanced down at her outfit, suddenly conscious that her black skinny jeans, dove-grey sweater and low-heeled boots might not be appropriate attire in a grand old château. Especially one that France’s answer to royalty might reside in.
‘The Ducasse family . . . they are very well respected in France,’ the driver informed her. ‘They have history . . . they are old money, you know?’
‘Right.’ Cat was feeling more anxious by the second. Old money? Well respected?
‘Good luck!’ the driver said with a grin after he had heaved her luggage out of the car. He waved away her attempts to pay him or even give him a tip. ‘Guy Ducasse has taken care of everything.’ Realising belatedly that he’d forgotten to advise the Ducasse family of Cat’s arrival, he took the decision not to mention this to his passenger. ‘You no longer need to worry about money, eh?’ he added in rapid French.
Before Cat could ask him what he meant, he was back in his car and heading down the driveway, his mobile phone glued to his ear. Cat swallowed. Time to get on with it. She rang the doorbell at the front of the château but there was no response, so she headed round the side, dragging her bags behind her. She could hear classical music in the distance and she soon found herself in beautifully kept gardens lit by spotlights.
A sound to her right made her squint into the darkness. There was silence for a moment but then the noise came again – a distressingly pitiful sob. Dumping her luggage, Cat headed towards the sound and stumbled upon a small alcove, covered by a pretty tangle of roses. Inside the alcove was a young girl curled up in a foetal position, her long platinum-blond hair obscuring her face as she wept unrestrainedly.
Cat faltered, unsure whether she should intrude on the girl’s distress. She could only be about fifteen.
Abruptly, the girl stood up, pushed back her blond hair and quickly wiped her eyes. Wearing an ivory silk dress that made the most of her porcelain skin she was astonishingly beautiful close up. Not noticing Cat standing in the shadows, she slipped out of the alcove and headed towards the château.
Cat gulped. She now knew for a fact that she was underdressed; judging by the girl’s outfit, there was some sort of party going on inside the château. Forgetting about her luggage and taking the same path as the girl, Cat found herself staring up at the back of the château which was just as beautiful as the front, with balconies, shutters and outside lighting. About to go inside, she caught sight of a young boy, no older than the sobbing girl, reclining on a wrought-iron chaise longue. He had dark hair and chiselled cheekbones and he was smoking the most enormous spliff. An older-looking girl sat next to him, giggling uncontrollably. Spotting her, the boy held the joint out.
’ he asked, his eyes slightly glazed.
‘Er, no, I don’t smoke,’ Cat said, backing away. In her confusion, she took a path that headed back into the gardens and with the crazed laughter of the teenagers ringing in her ears, she found herself at the edge of a shimmering pool. Hearing splashing sounds, Cat froze. Nearby, there was a heated Jacuzzi tub, steam rising out of it. Two people were in it, a redhead who looked suspiciously as if she might be naked beneath the water, and a man with sleek, dark hair and broad shoulders.
As the man let out a throaty laugh and turned round, Cat saw an arrogant nose, a wide mouth and sexy, sleepy-looking brown eyes. She caught her breath. For a moment, she was transported straight back to St Tropez, where a grinning Olivier had scooped her up in his arms in the glittering blue sea, his grin infectious as he leant in for a lingering kiss. Swallowing, Cat pushed the painful vision away, desperate not to make a fool of herself by allowing agonising memories to take over. She couldn’t think about Olivier right now.
Scrutinising the man in the pool again, Cat realised that he actually looked nothing like Olivier. He was in his early thirties, he had broad shoulders and he was very handsome but that was where the similarity ended. His hands wandered cheekily to the girl’s breasts, and as if he sensed Cat’s scrutiny, he turned and faced her. Cat backed away and with renewed determination headed for the château. Olivier’s family – if that was who she had just encountered – were not what she had been expecting at all.
Heading back the way she had come and entering through ornate double doors, Cat found herself in a stunning lemon-yellow sitting room full of antiques and tasteful ornaments. The classical music she had heard outside was now louder, as though a full string quartet were at work, and there was a murmur of voices and muted laughter coming from one of the other rooms. Mustering up some courage, she opened the door and went in.
As the final bars of the classical piece died out and silence fell, Cat found herself facing a crowd of people holding champagne flutes, the men in black tie and the women in exquisite evening gowns of silk, satin and lace. They were all staring at her in bemusement, clearly wondering who she was and why on earth she was there. Waiters and waitresses were unobtrusively circling the room with trays of Bellinis and canapés but even they were goggling at Cat as if she were a national exhibit.
Feeling absurdly scruffy in her jumper and jeans, Cat took in the room in astonishment, dazedly noting high ceilings, apricot walls and heavy, expensive-looking curtains at the windows. Period furniture, stunning paintings . . . My God, she thought, was that an original Monet? Her father had adored Impressionist painters and Monet’s water-lily series, glorious studies in rose-pinks, powdery blues and distinctive, cool greens, had been his favourite. The painting, small but striking, had to be the real thing; along with everything else in the room, it looked authentic and priceless.
So much for Olivier’s ‘humble’ upbringing, Cat thought, totally lost for words.
‘You must be Cat Hayes,’ said a good-looking man with sleek silver hair and an amiable smile. His English was flawless. He stepped forward and grasped her hand warmly. ‘I’m Guy Ducasse, Olivier’s uncle.’
Cat looked at him. He was in his fifties, she thought as he gripped her hand, and there was a hint of sadness in his otherwise friendly brown eyes. She realised he was saying something about not expecting her until tomorrow and she hurried to explain herself.
‘They . . . they laid on an extra flight,’ she stammered, wondering at his almost accentless English. Olivier had spoken English with a heavy French accent.
Guy smiled, half guessing what she was thinking. ‘My late wife was English and the children have had many English nannies over the years.’
Even more confused about Olivier’s heavy accent, Cat caught sight of the girl she had seen sobbing earlier. It was hard to believe this was the same person. She seemed self-assured and poised, her brown eyes remarkably clear, if rather frosty.
‘This is my daughter, Seraphina,’ Guy said, still speaking in English. He stared at Cat. This was not the tarty young bimbo he had envisaged Olivier’s widow to be. She looked to be in her mid-twenties and she was very pretty. He caught a waft of Jo Malone’s Lime, Basil and Mandarin and raised his eyebrows approvingly. A radiant, citrus scent with floral tones – a good choice, in his opinion, it suited her looks perfectly. He couldn’t help warming to her, despite his mother’s instructions for all of them to keep their distance. Most of them were in fact doing just that, albeit accidentally, he realised; Xavier, Max and Delphine were all absent.
Someone came into the room and Guy flexed his shoulders as though he was expecting trouble. ‘Ah, this is Leoni. She’s—’