‘Olivier’s sister,’ Cat breathed. Leoni was the spitting image of Olivier with her glossy dark hair and the deep brown eyes – somewhat masked by the unattractive glasses she wore. Even her chin was the same – small with the faintest cleft. Wearing a chic black column dress, Leoni wasn’t a pretty girl but she had presence.
‘How dare you come here like this?’ Leoni hissed in English, her face turning pale. ‘It’s my birthday party. You have no right to turn up and make yourself at home!’
Appalled, Guy touched his niece’s arm. ‘Leoni! Remember your manners.’
Leoni shook her head vehemently. ‘No, Uncle!’ she snapped in French. ‘She’s not welcome and I won’t pretend that she is.’ She turned furious eyes to Cat and continued in French. ‘You are not family, do you understand me? And you never will be.’ Her lip quivered. ‘Just because you married Olivier doesn’t mean you belong here. Whatever you think you’re entitled to, you can forget it, do you hear?’
Cat recoiled and the crowd of people gasped collectively. The look in Leoni’s eyes was one of utter hatred. Cat flushed. What had she done, apart from marry the man she had fallen in love with? She wanted to hit back at Leoni but she stopped herself; it wouldn’t be a good idea, not when the atmosphere seemed so volatile. She wondered if Leoni assumed she did not understand French.
Guy swiftly cut in. ‘They laid on an extra flight and I’ve only just had word from my driver, Leoni. He should have called me at the airport and then we would have had more warning.’
‘Pah!’ Leoni was incensed. ‘It is disrespectful to Olivier’s memory to burst in on a family party.’ She turned her back on Cat.
Guy ushered Cat to one side. ‘Leoni is still struggling to come to terms with Olivier’s death,’ he explained in a low voice. ‘Please forgive her. Er . . . where is your luggage?’
Still reeling from Leoni’s onslaught, Cat had to think for a second. ‘It’s outside in the garden.’ She winced, knowing she must sound crazy.
‘I’ll get the staff to collect it for you.’ Guy led her towards the door and nodded at the quartet to start up again. ‘But for now, I will show you to your room. You must be in need of a bed or, at the very least, a hot shower.’
Cat blinked. The staff? She followed Guy out of the room and heard the conversation resume loudly as soon as they left.
‘You have caused quite a stir.’ Guy smiled as he led the way into a spacious hallway and up a sweeping, marble staircase edged with an elaborate wrought-iron banister. ‘I would show you around the house but it’s too dark now. The stables are located at the back of the house by the lavender fields, and there is a graveyard just in front of them. Olivier is buried there. You may wish to visit his place of rest while you’re here.’
Suddenly exhausted, Cat felt tears pricking her eyelids. This was so much harder than she’d imagined. In some ways, Olivier’s death felt like a lifetime ago but being here, with his family, made it all seem very real and very recent. Embarrassed, Cat wiped her eyes. Guy pretended not to notice. He showed her into a pale room with raspberry-coloured curtains, an ornate four-poster bed and what looked like immaculately preserved Louis Quinze furniture.
‘You should sleep, perhaps,’ Guy suggested kindly, thinking how vulnerable she looked with her red-rimmed eyes and pale face. ‘Feel free to join us downstairs if you wish but if you’re too tired, we’ll understand.’
Cat shook her head and sank down on to the four-poster bed. ‘Sleep sounds good.’ She didn’t want to say it out loud, but nothing short of near-death could have persuaded her to go back to the party. Something occurred to her.
‘Are . . . are Olivier’s parents here?’ She asked. It was suddenly important to know that the only thing Olivier had lied about was his upbringing. The death of his parents had been key to their relationship, it had been what had bonded them so deeply and she had to know for sure that Olivier had been genuine about the terrible riding accident that had snatched his parents from him at a young age.
Guy looked puzzled. ‘Olivier’s parents are dead. I’m so sorry, I assumed you knew. They died some years ago.’
Cat let out a ragged breath. All at once she felt better. She listened tiredly as Guy told her where to go for breakfast in the morning and she was hazily aware of him mentioning a meeting in a few days’ time in a boardroom. Shortly afterwards, he left the room.
Cat sent Bella a text to tell her she’d finally arrived, then lay down on the bed fully clothed. She barely stirred when someone quietly brought in her luggage. Soon she fell into a deep sleep.
Outside, Xavier was climbing out of the jacuzzi tub stark naked. Rubbing his dark hair with a towel and shivering slightly in the chilly night air, he stared up at the house thoughtfully. So that was Olivier’s wife, he thought, looking round for his boxer shorts.
, he corrected himself. Therese, the girlfriend who had recently replaced Monique, emerged from the tub. Running towards him with her shaven privates on full display, she whipped the towel from his shoulders and made a show of drying her hair with it, her breasts jiggling provocatively.
Xavier retrieved his boxer shorts from a nearby plant pot and pulled them on, slightly unnerved by Cat’s arrival. He hadn’t expected her to be so beautiful, that was for sure – Olivier’s previous girlfriends had been pretty enough but this girl was different, not what he had expected at all. Perhaps she was less dazzling close up. Xavier shrugged and lit a cigarette to get warm. Why did he even care? Olivier dying so suddenly had revealed the extent of his sordid misdemeanours and Xavier had spent the past few months settling tabs with various bar and hotel managers and scaring off drug dealers he had found skulking around the grounds of La Fleurie. Olivier’s widow was most assuredly not his problem. Olivier had had more vices than any of them had guessed and Xavier had resolved to keep most of the details to himself. Leoni was in no fit state to hear any more negative press about her dead brother and there was nothing to be gained from antagonising his grandmother, who already thought Olivier was an impetuous, irresponsible playboy.
Impulsiveness was a family trait; hell, pretty much all of them made recklessness seem like a national sport, but, Xavier thought reasonably as he pulled his white dress shirt over his head, Olivier had pushed the boundaries further than any of them.
‘Oooh, it’s so cold,’ giggled Therese, putting his hand on a breast covered in goose bumps.
Xavier smiled distractedly.
‘What’s wrong, cheri?’ Therese asked, pouting when she saw his serious expression.
‘Just thinking about Olivier’s widow,’ Xavier said, removing his hand from her breast and flipping his Zippo lighter open and shut edgily. He wondered if Cat Hayes knew how out of control Olivier had been. Probably not. She’d only known him a few weeks. No sane person married someone they hardly knew, did they? Marriage was something to be respected, not something to indulge in impulsively, just because you were in the first throes of lust. No, Cat Hayes either had to be a gold digger or she was insane, as far as he was concerned.
Realising he had ten minutes before they were due inside for Leoni’s cake and speeches, Xavier tipped Therese back into the Jacuzzi and slipped in after her.
she just turned up like that and burst into my party?’
The following morning, Leoni was still fuming. Her party had been ruined by the impromptu arrival of Cat Hayes; her guests had talked of nothing else from that point on. Even when her grandmother and uncle had gone to bed and the more boisterous guests had ended up in the pool, Leoni had still found herself fending off impertinent questions about Olivier’s stupid widow.
Leoni had drunk far too much champagne in an effort to block Cat Hayes’s existence out of her head and she now had a terrible hangover that a pint of cold water and four aspirin hadn’t been able to shift. So she’d called up Ashton and joined him at the house he was working on for a client. Situated on the hilltop village of medieval Mougins, near Cannes, the veranda afforded them magnificent views of Grasse, which was all very well, but Leoni would have preferred a strong, hot coffee because that was the only thing she felt might revive her.
‘I just wish she hadn’t turned up unannounced,’ Leoni added sulkily as she threw herself into a padded chair next to him.
‘Well, she couldn’t have known it was your birthday party,’ Ashton pointed out, as he unrolled his architect’s plans. Sensing Leoni bristling with resentment, he hid a smile and continued. ‘And frankly, I can’t see you turning down a lift after being delayed in an airport for two days. You’d have done exactly what she did.’
Leoni stared straight ahead moodily. ‘Oh, whatever. And who leaves their luggage in the garden, for heaven’s sake? The girl is clearly deranged.’
Ashton pinned his plans down with an ashtray and glanced at Leoni. Wearing a black crepe shift dress, she looked professional and ready for work but there were dark shadows under her eyes and her shoulders were hunched with tension. Ashton sighed; if only Leoni were more approachable, he would have given her a good hug.
‘So, how are you really bearing up?’ he asked, going for the easier option. ‘I do realise it must have been hard for you to come face to face with Olivier’s widow like that.’
Pushing her glasses up on to the bridge of her nose, Leoni almost smiled. ‘Bearing up’ – how very English. But then that was Ashton; he was such a gentleman. She felt glad she had him as a friend because she felt so
with him. Their friendship was uncomplicated, almost replicating the brothersister rapport she had had with Olivier. ‘I’m . . . angry,’ Leoni answered truthfully. ‘No, I am more than angry, I am
.’ She spun round to face him, forgetting to speak English. ‘We are supposed to welcome this widow with open arms,’ she spluttered. ‘I cannot . . . I
not do such a thing! It’s undignified and unreasonable and under no circumstances will I lower myself to play nicely with this, this . . . bimbo!’ She stood up and paced the veranda.
‘Leoni, Cat Hayes was
to come to La Fleurie. She didn’t turn up unannounced or uninvited, she responded to a letter she was sent, the one that went astray for so many months, and she did as she was told and booked a flight here.’ Ashton held his hands up in defence, his pencil in the air. ‘And before you accuse me, I’m not just saying that because she’s English, all right?’
About to blast him, Leoni closed her mouth. He was right; Olivier’s widow had simply responded to the invitation to La Fleurie. It wasn’t her fault the letter had gone missing and she had made the effort to visit as soon as she had received it. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Leoni didn’t know any more because her head was in a mess. The arrival of Cat Hayes had sent her spiralling all over the place and the drama of last night was affecting her ability to think clearly. She choked down a sob, feeling desolate.
Ashton watched her, wishing he could do something to help but he knew she would tense up and reject his offer of comfort. He busied himself with his plans, knowing she hated being seen to be weak or emotional in any way.
Leoni looked at him. Ashton would never know but many years ago, when they were teenagers, she had developed the biggest crush on him. It had lasted for years, a painful, unrequited crush that no one had known about until the day a young Ashton had been chatted up by the curvaceous red-headed sister of one of Olivier’s friends. Her brother had caught her agonised glance and, characteristically amused, a youthful and rather wicked Olivier had told his older sister that she clearly wasn’t Ashton’s type and that she should stop trotting around after him like a lapdog. Excruciatingly embarrassed, Leoni had resigned herself to being no more than Ashton’s friend from that point onwards. Unrequited love was a hideous thing and if she wasn’t his type, then so be it. It had taken time – too much time – but Leoni was finally over him.
Dabbing her eyes and pulling herself together, she forgot about the past and retreated into the safety of business. ‘Did I tell you about my plans? I have so many ideas. Obviously, if I could persuade Xavier, I’d get him to create a few new scents, of course, but if not, I’m going to try and convince the family to branch out and develop a home fragrance line. You know, candles and linen sprays.’ Her brown eyes lit up. ‘Some of my favourite British perfumers do this – Miller Harris, Jo Malone. I really think we need to get involved.’
‘It’s genius!’ Ashton smiled supportively. ‘Sorry, I mean it’s a great idea.’
‘Do you think so?’ Leoni brightened. ‘I already have a contact that makes wonderful candles – Jerard something or other. And I also want to open a store in Paris but Uncle Guy is sure to dismiss the idea.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘And if he doesn’t, my beloved grandmother will definitely step in and veto my plans.’
Ashton waved a hand. ‘If anyone can convince her, you can, L,’ he said, unthinkingly using his pet name for her. ‘If you’re serious about this idea, you could always join me when I next head home to visit my family. You could do some research there and visit Jo Malone and Miller whatsit while we’re there.’
Leoni’s mouth twitched. ‘Miller Harris.’ She thought for a moment. ‘That’s a great idea. Thank you, I will.’ She caught a waft of his aftershave as he stood up. Dunhill London, with its crisp scent of apple, followed by the rose heart note and the winey patchouli base tones. It was modern and British. And so very Ashton.
‘I feel much better,’ Leoni said, standing up and giving him a brief kiss on the cheek. ‘You always manage to do that.’
‘Always.’ Leoni smiled. ‘Even my hangover seems to have lifted. It’s almost like having Olivier here again.’ Her voice cracked but she was in control. ‘Have fun with this house,’ she said, jerking her thumb in the direction of the sitting room inside. ‘Please don’t tell me they’re going to install a Jacuzzi tub out here?’