‘Yes, we fell in love,’ she said again. ‘We shared a bond because we both lost our parents at a young age. Is that so difficult to believe?’
Leoni faltered. ‘You lost your parents too?’
Cat nodded. ‘In a skiing accident when I was fifteen. It affected me deeply . . . the way it did when it happened to Olivier . . . and you too, I assume.’
Leoni raised her eyebrows sceptically. Their parents’ death had barely seemed to register on Olivier’s radar at the time. If anything, he seemed to use it to justify his irresponsible behaviour. Leoni could recall many a time when Olivier had held his lack of parental guidance up as an excuse for his increasingly debauched actions and, if she remembered rightly, it had been a favourite chat-up line of his to con girls into feeling sorry for him.
Was that the case with Cat? she wondered.
‘Incidentally, was Olivier drunk when he proposed to you?’ she asked laconically. ‘Because my brother was drunk quite a lot of the time, you know. He had a bit of a problem, in all honesty, but we all ignored it.’
Cat swallowed. ‘Was he . . .
when he proposed to me?’ What sort of question was that?! ‘I think this conversation is over,’ she said stiffly, her heart crashing in her chest. ‘I appreciate that Olivier was your brother and that you can’t bear the thought of him marrying anyone, least of all me. But I can’t listen to any more of this.’
Cat stalked away from the pool house with her head down.
Leoni flushed. She couldn’t seem to stop herself from trying to hurt Cat and prove that her marriage to Olivier was a sham. But, in all honesty, she didn’t feel very proud of herself right now.
Scuffing his feet on the gravel path outside La Fleurie, Max lit another spliff. Life at home was becoming so intolerable, he was almost tempted to go back to his horrendous college early, just to get away. He was thoroughly fed up with all the drama.
Bloody family, he thought crossly. All they did was fuss and moan and ask him what he was up to all the time. Even Seraphina was doing his head in being all concerned and caring, and the last thing he wanted to do was yell at her so he had slipped away to be by himself.
Sometimes, being wealthy was shit, Max decided grumpily as he glanced over his shoulder at La Fleurie. It should be fun but most of the time it was rubbish.
Poor little rich boy,
he mocked himself, knowing how pathetic he sounded. Who wouldn’t envy him his lifestyle? His family owned one of the most beautiful and luxurious houses in Provence and he wanted for nothing. Well, almost nothing.
Angrily, Max ground his spliff underfoot. Everything had gone wrong since his mother died, everything. He was so furious with his father, he didn’t know what to do with himself, but he knew he wouldn’t know what to say to him even if there was the remotest chance he could spend five minutes alone with him.
Looking up warily, Max caught sight of a girl he knew from his boarding school. A nondescript girl with long brown hair and pretty eyes, Madeleine was the daughter of Clare and Phillipe Lombard who were friends of the family. Clare had been a close friend of his mother’s so Max felt obliged to be vaguely polite to Madeleine, even though he really wasn’t in the mood to talk. He settled for a smile that he hoped wasn’t a grimace.
‘How are you?’ she asked. Wearing jeans with a black velvet jacket and a cream scarf knotted round her neck, she looked as though she should be cantering around on a pony. Randomly, Max wondered if she ever rode but he couldn’t be bothered to ask.
‘I’m home for the weekend but I’ll be back at college on Monday,’ Madeleine went on when Max didn’t respond. ‘Do you know when you’ll be back?’
Max shrugged. He was being rude, he knew that, but he just couldn’t find it in himself to make small talk. He realised everyone in the town must be talking about Olivier’s sudden death and about his widow’s arrival and it made his blood boil. Couldn’t they find something else to talk about?
Madeleine’s green eyes were full of compassion. ‘It must be so hard losing Olivier after everything you’ve been through.’ She tentatively touched his arm. ‘If you ever want to talk . . .’
Barely listening, Max gave her a careless nod. He could hear the roar of approaching motorbikes. Three of them shot down the path and skidded to a halt next to Max and Madeleine. Pierre and Thierry, two of the older kids from college, tore off their helmets. Veronique, a sexy-looking sixteen-year-old was on the third bike, her black hair spilling out across her shoulders. She had been at Leoni’s party the other night but she wasn’t officially Max’s girlfriend. Giving Madeleine a withering look, Vero fixed her eyes on Max with intent.
‘Want a ride?’ she drawled seductively, revving up her bike.
Max didn’t need asking twice. Leaping on behind Vero, he snapped on the spare helmet she offered him and wrapped his arms round her waist. He let out a whoop as the bike shot off at high speed. A dismayed Madeleine stood in a cloud of dust, her black velvet jacket ruined. Max felt a momentary pang of guilt, but then he pushed it aside and tightened his grip round Vero’s narrow waist as they sped off into the distance.
Later that day, Leoni headed into the kitchen to make herself a black coffee. The staff had been given the afternoon off and she was glad; Leoni couldn’t face small talk right now.
Finding the espresso machine up and running, Leoni helped herself to a strong, black coffee. She couldn’t stop thinking about her altercation with Cat. Either she was a very good actress, or the girl had genuinely been in love with Olivier. The thought disconcerted Leoni.
Xavier strolled in. ‘Hey.’ He kissed her cheeks fondly. ‘I’ve missed you, cousin. Where have you been?’
‘Oh, just with friends. And I saw Ashton, too.’ Leoni flung her arms round Xavier’s neck and clung to him briefly. He smelt reassuringly familiar and the tang of cigarette smoke and cologne made Leoni feel grounded after such an unsettling morning. She adored Xavier. Apart from Ashton, who was a different kettle of fish altogether, Xavier was the closest thing she had to a brother now that Olivier had gone. And he was a damned sight more reliable. Well, unless it came to women, of course, but that didn’t concern Leoni.
Xavier looked as glamorous as ever in a pair of jeans and a black polo shirt with the collar all twisted up – accident rather than design, Leoni presumed, but he got away with it.
‘Bad morning?’ Xavier asked.
Leoni shuddered. ‘You could say that.’ She filled him in about her confrontation with Cat.
‘I was pretty vile to her.’ Leoni chewed her lip. ‘She might be genuine, but I’m not sure. Would you really marry someone without knowing who they were or what their background was?’
Xavier rolled his eyes. ‘Exactly. She’s not normal – she can’t be. If she really did love him and she’s not after his money – and we don’t know that for sure yet – then at the very least she’s certifiable. Hey, are you attending this meeting with her later?’
Leoni’s brow furrowed. ‘No. I wasn’t asked.’ She slammed her hand down on the counter, making her coffee cup shake. ‘Don’t tell me, you were? Damn it! How typical is that? I am so involved in this business, far more than you, Xav, and yet your father and our grandmother
take me seriously—’
‘Leoni, calm down!’ Xavier held up his hand. ‘The only reason my father asked me to attend the meeting is because he was making yet another unsubtle attempt to draw me back into the business. Don’t take it personally, he’s just using any old excuse to try and get me involved.’
Leoni couldn’t help thinking Guy had a point; after all, now that Aunt Elizabeth had died, Xavier’s exceptional talent as a
was their only way of advancing the business. Otherwise, it would slide into obscurity. Leoni was itching to say as much but she kept her mouth shut because she didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Xavier’s hot temper. Guy was putting enough pressure on Xavier, he wouldn’t welcome more from her.
Toying with his lighter, Xavier changed the subject, clearly bored. ‘How was Ash?’
Leoni leant against the kitchen counter, her hand wrapped round her coffee cup. ‘Fine. He was working on a gorgeous property in Mougins and then I think he went back to Paris. He’s missing Olivier but aren’t we all?’ She sighed and rubbed her temples. ‘I just wish it would all get sorted and then I can concentrate on work again. I have so many big plans but I can’t seem to concentrate. The sooner Olivier’s widow is out of here, the better, as far as I’m concerned.’
Xavier nodded but said nothing, watching Leoni over the top of his coffee cup. He admired her dedication to work but he couldn’t help wondering if she was ever lonely. She rarely had boyfriends and he couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a serious relationship. All she seemed to care about was the business. Spreadsheets and perfumes got Leoni going, not men. He looked up as Therese came into the kitchen, her red hair all over the place.
Leoni’s eyes widened. Xavier’s girlfriend was wearing a silky lavender robe that didn’t do much to disguise her jiggling, bra-less breasts.
‘This is Therese,’ Xavier explained, looking slightly exasperated at Therese’s appearance. He didn’t care personally but he thought she could have made an effort in front of his family.
Therese nodded at Leoni briefly and looked around for something to eat. Picking up a fresh brioche she found in a basket, she bit into it as though it was an apple. Leoni watched her, thinking how child-like she was for a grown woman. Catching Xavier’s eye, she could see he was thinking exactly the same thing and she almost giggled.
‘Anyway, I can’t wait to hear what happens at this meeting,’ Leoni said distractedly, watching Therese helping herself to Xavier’s coffee without asking. ‘Grandmother can be so intimidating.’
About to comment, Xavier was cut short by Therese, who seemed to have some thoughts on the matter.
wouldn’t be intimidated,’ she informed them confidently. ‘But then I’m not after something the way she is.’
Leoni said nothing. Personally, she thought Therese was no better than Cat; she was out for what she could get from Xavier and although he was undeniably gorgeous, his wealth had to add another string to an already appealing bow.
‘Therese!’ Xavier reprimanded her, trying to recall exactly why he had thought she was girlfriend material in the first place. Apart from a penchant for skinny-dipping, the attraction was beginning to wane. Idly, Xavier wondered if Monique was still in Provence or if she’d gone off on another modelling assignment.
‘I’m going to have a shower.’ Therese sniffed, tossed the remains of her brioche on the table and flounced out of the room.
Leoni picked the brioche up and put it in the bin. ‘She’s nice,’ she mocked Xavier. ‘So grown up . . . so intelligent.’
‘Oh, shut up,’ Xavier snapped, dropping his cigarette into his coffee cup with a hiss.
Cat took a deep breath as she made her way to the top floor of La Fleurie for her meeting with Guy and Delphine. She had changed into the only vaguely formal dress she had thrown into her luggage, which was a belted grey number she used for work, and some high heels.
She hesitated at the open door to the boardroom and Guy beckoned her in. Beside him at the head of a glossy oval table sat a stern-looking woman in a strawberry-pink Chanel suit.
‘This is my mother, Delphine,’ Guy informed Cat politely.
Delphine’s austere brown eyes assessed Cat coolly.
‘How nice to meet you at last,’ she said in fluent English, her voice friendlier than her eyes. ‘We have been so looking forward to meeting Olivier’s widow.’
‘Er . . . thank you.’ Cat was uncomfortable with the word ‘widow’. At twenty-six, she felt far too young for the title. ‘I understand French so please don’t feel obliged to speak English on my account.’
‘Good. Listen, this is all rather delicate,’ Guy started, uncapping a gold fountain pen, ‘but I’m afraid it has to be done. When it comes to finances, I always find it best to be as open as possible.’
‘Finances?’ Cat stared at him and he found her direct gaze unsettling. He felt rather like the spider chatting casually to the fly before devouring it and it wasn’t a role he was comfortable with.
Delphine’s eyes narrowed. ‘Surely you knew Olivier was a very wealthy young man when you married him?’
‘No, I did not,’ Cat said firmly. ‘He never mentioned it and I had no idea he lived in such a beautiful château.’ She could have added that he’d denied his family’s very existence but the last thing she wanted to do was destroy their positive view of Olivier.
‘Really?’ Delphine responded, her eyes disbelieving. ‘I find that astonishing.’
‘It doesn’t really matter either way,’ Guy cut in. ‘What is important now is to protect our family.’ He pushed the papers towards Cat. ‘Hopefully you can understand our position. All you need to do is sign where the crosses are marked and then our business is concluded.’
Cat scanned the papers quickly. Most of the legal French was too complex to understand fully but she grasped enough of it to comprehend that the Ducasse family were trying to ring-fence Olivier’s inheritance. The final paragraph stated that she would be paid a lump sum in euros – a huge one – if she agreed not to contest Olivier’s will and if she relinquished all claims to his shares in the Ducasse-Fleurie perfume empire.
‘Ducasse-Fleurie,’ she said slowly, her mouth suddenly feeling rather dry as the penny finally dropped. The perfume empire.
Guy nodded, his eyes watching her astutely.
Cat was pale with shock. ‘Dear God. You . . . you own Ducasse-Fleurie Perfumes.’ The Ducasse family, the château called La Fleurie – she simply hadn’t made the connection. The family crest was stamped on the legal papers, and it was one she’d seen on boxes and bottles in duty free in department stores all over the world. This family were surely millionaires . . . several times over.