"Josh caught the bus with thirty seconds to spare," announced Charlie as she returned to the patio where Henri Langlois sat. "Was Emma ever this bad in the mornings? Thank you." Picking up the coffee he poured for her, she stood at his side, looking across the harbour.
"Not as I recall. But then Madeleine bore the brunt of those early years. I was too busy commuting around the Far East," Langlois said, a trace of regret in his voice.
"Emma adores you," Charlie told him with a smile.
"This weekend was a great success. She likes you."
"And I her. No, I do. She's going to be beautiful in a couple of years," Charlie added, with the authority which only a beautiful woman would dare to possess.
"Do you think so?" said Langlois doubtfully.
"I'm sure of it." Sitting next to him, her narrow feet propped on the rim of his chair seat, she stole a slice of mango from his plate.
Langlois squinted in the glare of the sun, smiled and fed her another portion of fruit. She sucked gently on his fingers.
"Josh seems to be settling down well, don't you think?" she said.
"I am certain of it. You have no regrets?" he asked abruptly, yet to credit his good fortune in tempting this delicious woman into his life.
"About what?" Her bare toes tickled his thigh.
"Leaving Sam. Living with me."
"Staying with you," she corrected, but she smiled when she said it. "None on that score. These last three weeks have been wonderful. Josh was the only reason I tried to make the relationship with Sam work. It was a mistake to try and regain the past."
Langlois swallowed the impulse to remind her that she had persevered for a scant month. A realist, he accepted that Charlie had needed a man in her life and her ex-lover had been available. Sam was not the real issue and they both knew it.
"Josh needs to get to know his father," she continued. "Sam and I have made our own custody arrangements and they seem to be working. Perhaps I should have given it longer, but after a week with Sam I was so bored I could have screamed. I think I did once."
"You outgrew him, chèrie. I shall endeavour to ensure I am never dull."
"You couldn't be," she replied with a conviction which surprised them both.
"No? I am pleased to hear you say so. You know that I am in love with you, of course."
While Charlie's expression softened, her eyes were wary. "Don't, Henri. Please don't. It's too soon."
"After James Griffin?" They had never spoken of Griffin but Langlois had made it his business to learn what he could about Charlie's first few weeks in Australia.
"That whore." Bitterness thinned her beautiful mouth.
"And yet you love him still," Langlois said mildly.
Charlie stared out across the shimmer of sun-dappled water. "I hate him," she whispered.
"Hatred and love often run in tandem. He hurt you." Langlois' thumb caressed the tender inner skin of her wrist. "It will grow easier. Perhaps one day you will be able to see his photograph in a newspaper and feel nothing."
"You knew!" Her tone was accusing.
Nodding, he kissed her palm. "Do not look so tragic on my account. We French understand these things. But Griffin is not worthy of your heartache."
"I know," she said shakily. "That's what makes it worse. Damn it, he skates over life like a fly on water. Scratch him and he'll bleed aftershave. Nothing touches his heart. Oh, hell." She gave a peculiar grimace and began to cry with the same intensity with which she attacked life.
Relieved that her brittle control had finally broken, Langlois took her in a comforting embrace, crooning softly as he stroked her back and hair.
Slow to calm, Charlie unselfconsciously wiped the tears away with the back of her hand. "I don't know what made me do that," she said crossly.
"I hate being made a fool of!" she burst out passionately. "I trusted James. He made it too easy to trust him. Oh, he's so clever. He understands women too well. He made me feel so - so everything - desirable, cosmopolitan, feminine and...brave. While he never made the mistake of trying to take charge of my life, he was always there when I needed him. You don't know how wonderful and rare that is." There was a dreamy, distant look to her face. "I'd never met a man like him. He blinded me. I'm sorry," she whispered, contrite when she saw Langlois wince. "I didn't mean to...this isn't fair to you."
"You may let me be the judge of that," he murmured, paying her homage with his eyes. Her courage, her femininity and her pride had been badly bruised, first by Griffin's skilled manipulation of her emotions when she was already vulnerable, and then by that clod Sam, who would never appreciate what a treasure he could have had in Charlie. "But I don't believe Griffin's days have been as comfortable as you imagine."
She could not, he noticed bitterly, stop herself from asking. "You should start reading the newspapers again. Marius Melville's Will was read a couple of weeks ago. He disinherited Griffin. Publicly humiliated him. No-one has seen Griffin since he flew out of Sydney."
"Disinherited?" Charlie's eyes widened. "That would have hurt him," she said positively. "He has the arrogance which only the truly rich possess. But he'll survive. He'll make sure he never gets his hands dirty while he plays at working. His kind always prosper."
Langlois thought she had never looked more like her father. "From what little I have heard, the last few weeks cannot have been a pleasant time for him."
She shrugged, then looked up, but he knew it was not him she saw but Griffin's damnably attractive face. Langlois experienced a surge of hatred which shook him with its intensity for the man he felt shared their bed. To cover the fact he poured himself a cup of cold coffee.
"I hope they've been the worst months of his life," Charlie hissed vindictively. "Now he's lost his power, the prestige he took for granted, I hope some calculating bitch comes along and uses him the way he used and humiliated me."
Langlois smothered his impulse to smile. Charlie hated to lose almost as much as he did. They were well suited. "Such an opportunity could probably be arranged, if it means that much to you." He chose his words with care.
A Cassidy never forgot and rarely forgave. "It does. He used me."
"Then consider it done." Langlois' expression was bland as he gazed into the middle distance. "From what I have heard of Griffin's eclectic tastes, it does not necessarily have to be a woman who breaks his heart."
"What!" Charlie straightened in her chair. "Are you telling me James Griffin is gay? I don't believe it," she said positively. "No man that experienced with women could be."
Langlois was too wise to smile at her naivety. "Not gay, bisexual. He has been actively so since adolescence, I understand. You did not know?" With well-concealed satisfaction he watched her lose another illusion. While Charlie would never admit it, she shared some of her famous father's prejudices as well as his temper.
"No. Break him for me, Henri," she demanded, waiting only for his nod before stalking into the house.
Hearing the sound of breaking glass soon after her retreat, Langlois smiled and picked up the telephone at his side. He was given to acting quickly when he wanted something - and he wanted Charlie’s full attention. Possessing varied contacts, he ordered an in-depth investigation into every facet of James Griffin's life.
Ten days later a report six inches thick arrived; it contained both more and less information than he had expected. Griffin guarded his privacy with a care which bordered on the obsessive, but when one employed servants and lived in a hotel one's privacy was vulnerable. The report told Langlois a substantial amount about the external man, from which Italian designers Griffin favoured, to the aftershave and brand of condom he preferred. His taste in music, literature and food was documented, as was his passion for astronomy. A cold science for a cold man.
These details, allied with a host of others, were those which interested Langlois the least. When it came to the internal man facts were so thin that even supposition was difficult. Everything suggested it would be easier to arrange Griffin's death than to steal his closely-guarded heart. The former was not an option which Langlois considered for long, despite the temptation to rid himself of his rival once and for all, and so he considered his second choice in the light of the information to hand.
It was unusual to find a man with Griffin's advantages in life - wealth, power, looks, intelligence and charm - who was so alone. The investigation had spanned continents; over one hundred and fifty people had been discreetly pumped or openly bribed, including servants, business colleagues and fellow gamblers. Only a couple of lovers had been identified; Griffin had chosen his partners wisely, they as discreet as he. Whatever the gender or nationality of those questioned, a common phrase reoccurred: 'I never felt I really knew him.' A few had seemed puzzled by the realisation, Griffin obviously adept at concealing the fact he kept people at an emotional arm's length.
Everyone except Charlie.
She had told Langlois more of the inner man than anyone, even if she did not seem to appreciate how much of himself Griffin had revealed to her in a few telling sentences. Where Charlie saw only a ruthless manipulator, Langlois began to glimpse a man torn by conflicting emotions. It could have been no easy matter to be Marius Melville's son. If Griffin had loved Charlie, losing her would have hurt him; add that to his other losses and you had a man vulnerable and alone.
Langlois sat back to consider the matter further.
Left without a job or family ties, Griffin had never known such freedom, but what should have been a rebirth as he emerged from the shadow his father had cast over his life seemed only a terrifying void. He had spent too many years trying to become what was expected of him to be certain what or who he was. Once he had known, but even the most stubbornly held dream could be worn away by the grinding weight of Marius Melville's formidable will.
Griffin landed at Schipol airport and froze, the unstructured hours in front of him seeming an enemy to be fought. Numb with fatigue, but unable to face another empty hotel room, he hired the fastest car available and tried to lose in motion his sense of alienation.
Langlois read reports of Griffin's progress as he criss-crossed Europe, driving like a man with the Furies crouched at his shoulder and waited for exhaustion to force Griffin to stop somewhere for longer than one night.
Some impulse made Langlois telephone his nephew. A flamboyant twenty-three-year-old, Raoul was a popular figure in London society.
"I need your help," announced Langlois, cutting short his voluble relative.
"Then you have it, of course," said Raoul, sobering. "You are in some difficulty?"
"Not me. A friend." Outlining the nature of his problem, Langlois added, "Can you recommend someone for the job? Preferably male. I know it may take some time to achieve the desired result. I am willing to pay whatever it costs."
"It could take for ever. It may never happen."
Langlois was more sanguine. "The target has lost all he cherished most. He is friendless and alone. Vulnerable."
"Have you considered hiring...a whore to all intents and purposes? I can suggest a few names from the London circuit."
"Griffin, the target, is a sophisticated and wealthy businessman of forty. He is personable enough not to need to buy sex. Besides, his preference seems to be for those of his own kind. I need someone in their late twenties, perhaps even older; sophisticated, discreet, trustworthy, intelligent, ruthless - and gay."
"Is that all?"
"I am serious, Raoul."
"Yes, I can hear you are. Wait, let me consider."
Langlois listened with impatience to the sounds of liquid being poured and a cigarette being lit.
"This job," said Raoul finally. "Is it within the law?"
"More or less."
"How much less?"
"I am not sure," Langlois admitted. "I want someone who can draw the heart from Griffin's body and when it is theirs, destroy it by telling him their services have been hired. I do not know if that is legal or not."
"If it is, it shouldn't be," said Raoul with feeling. "What has this man Griffin done that you should hate him so?"
"Devastated the woman I love. He wanted information and tried to obtain it by stealing her heart. He hurt her and she cannot forget him. I want him to know what it feels like to be so humiliated. I want him to remember that feeling for a very long time."
Pulling a face at his uncle's grim tone, Raoul began to take him seriously. "Griffin may be incapable of forming a deep attachment to anyone. To be alone at his age with all the advantages you say he possesses is not usual."
"Unless he fears commitment. Will you help?"
"Far be it for me to interfere with the course of true love. London is dull. Is Griffin here in England?"
"Not yet but I expect him to arrive soon. I want him to be tempted to stay, partly because I know you will keep an eye on him but mainly so that the entrapment can begin. He holds a British passport but, apart from his years at school, university and a few business trips he has spent no time there. Will you help?" Langlois repeated.
"Of course. Would I do for this sinister Mr Griffin?"
"No," said Langlois with restraint.
"You always contrive to sound more like a disapproving father than Papa," complained Raoul. "Am I so bad?"
"If you were I would hardly be talking to you now. Can you suggest someone who could - and would - undertake the task?"
"Perhaps," said Raoul with reluctance. "But I would not recommend trying to buy the man I have in mind. He will need to be convinced as to the justice of your cause. He runs a highly successful and discreet security agency. When the gallery had that problem with the forged Klee he worked on the case personally. More, we got our money back without a whisper of scandal reaching the press."
"Tell me more. Everything you know about him."
"Everything?" asked Raoul mischievously.
"You are impossible," sighed his uncle. "And completely without shame. Is he an ex-lover?"
"No, to my sorrow. Kilroy is somewhere in his mid-thirties and is very English. He loves their unappetising food, their sport and drinks Californian wine from choice."
"Sorry. Kit joined the Lessingham Agency about eight years ago, I believe. Since he became the senior partner the agency has increased its reputation and nearly doubled in size."
"What is his background?"
"Army. And, I think, Special Air Services. That is not, you understand, something that is openly spoken of over here. Kit's reputation is formidable, his integrity beyond reproach."
Langlois made a sound of disbelief.
"No, truly. Kit is an honest man, although I suspect he would bend the law for what he considers to be a just cause."
"I am afraid so. Although he would deny it hotly, I think he is the original cynic with a heart of gold. I have heard that he sometimes offers the agency's services free of charge."
"A sound business practice," agreed Langlois dryly.
"Don't mock. For all that he despises the idle rich, he is on the way to achieving a respectable income."
"You seem to know him well."
Raoul gave an audible sigh. "Not as well as I should like. He is single, and when last I met him, unattached."
"Is he personable?"
"He is beautiful. More, he does not seem to know it."
"You like him."
"I wanted him. Unfortunately, Kit did not want me. He was kind but he made it plain I did not interest him sexually. He said I was too young. Kindness is rare, particularly in beautiful men."
Hearing the change in his nephew's voice, Langlois frowned. "He sounds ideal. But will it be difficult for you?"
"Me? No. After all, one cannot always have what one wants. Besides, Kit is not perfect. I suspect he is the type to demand fidelity and me, I love variety."
"It is time you thought of settling down," scolded Langlois, although he could not hide the amusement in his voice.
"I do think of it," protested Raoul in a hurt tone. "Then I decide to wait."
Langlois gave a repressive sigh. "I will have the report on Griffin delivered to you. Read it, and consider what lever we can invent to persuade Mr Kilroy to take the job."
Taking a wicked delight in the mischievous manipulation of the life of a man he had never met, Raoul spent a day reading the dossier sent to him before he telephoned Langlois.
"Your Mr Griffin looks deliciously unlike the businessmen of my acquaintance. When Kit has finished with him I am tempted to offer myself as a consolation prize."
"Resist," Langlois advised him dryly. "Griffin would make a dangerous enemy."
"Perhaps. That makes him all the more exciting. Oh, Papa is here. I am afraid he saw the dossier on Griffin."
"Merde," said his uncle.
"Quite. It could be worse. He does not know what is planned. It transpires that he knows Griffin - or at least he did. They first met over twenty years ago."
"And what does Leon have to say about him?" asked Langlois, his misgivings apparent in his voice.
"That a sweet boy had become a formidable man. But still fuckable."
Langlois sighed, having long since despaired of his elder brother's lifestyle and lamentable frankness. "Is that all?"
"Only that he would be happy to see Griffin working at the bank, were it not for the risk that he would seek to take it over. And a few unsavoury reminiscences. They were lovers when Griffin was at Cambridge. Relax, Papa flies back to Paris tomorrow. He will not interfere. The family cannot afford another scandal at present. Maman has found herself a poet."
"Not another anarchist?"
"That might be preferable. This one is the wife of the Minister of the Interior."
Langlois gave a resigned sigh. "I suppose it was inevitable. Your parents' complicated lifestyles are beyond me."
"Them too, on occasion, I suspect," said Raoul, with a lack of concern which was only partially feigned.
Nevertheless, Langlois smoothly changed the subject. "Now you have read Griffin's dossier do you think it is possible for Mr Kilroy to attract him?"
"Kilroy," said Raoul fervently, "would raise the dead."
"Concentrate. How do I persuade this man of integrity to take the job?"
"Show him Griffin's picture."
"That is more difficult," his nephew admitted. "You will need to fabricate evidence to suggest Griffin is involved in something Kit finds abhorrent. At the same time it must be believable, given Griffin's background."
There was a thoughtful silence before Raoul exclaimed: "I have it! What about physical intimidation of Charlie and her son? Threats of violence to those unable to defend themselves angers Kit, as does any situation where the strong seek to prey on the weak. I allowed him to believe I was being persecuted because I am gay. He was very supportive - until he discovered the truth," he added demurely.
"You are impossible," said Langlois, laughing despite himself at the thought of anyone successfully persecuting his all too competent nephew. "You require more stimulation than your gallery can provide. The family business perhaps."
"Banking," sighed Raoul plaintively.
"Would you rather see it pass out of the family?"
"Never! That," Raoul added ruefully a moment later, "was very devious. I shall become respectable, I promise. One day."
"If you cannot contemplate the thought of working with your father in Paris, come to Sydney to gain some experience. There will be a vacancy in our Hong Kong branch within the year."
"Do you mean that?" asked Raoul with undisguised eagerness.
"With all my heart. You have a good brain, it is time you applied it to some purpose. We will discuss the idea further when I fly over later this week. I want to meet with your Mr Kilroy, by which time I hope to have fabricated convincing proof of Griffin's guilt."
Griffin continued to drive through Europe faster than tourists on a ten-day tour; he took so little interest in his surroundings that only a customs post drew a new country to his notice, but no matter how fast he drove the memories and doubts remained crouched at his shoulder, goading him on. Finally exhaustion forced him to admit he needed more than a few hours' snatched sleep and he abandoned his car to cross the lagoon to book into the most comfortable hotel he could find.
Waking just before dawn to unfamiliar surroundings, it was the quality of the light which drew him to the window, allied to the fact he couldn't remember where he was. A smile of sheer pleasure crossed his face when he saw the view, Venice all soft umbers, greys and blues as the mist rose from the Grand Canal. He stepped onto the balcony, shivering in the chill air, and inhaled unfamiliar scents, watching the city come to life. Succumbing to impulse, Griffin dressed quickly and left to explore the waking city. Hands buried in his pockets and walking quickly because of the cold, within minutes his pace slowed in recognition that Venice was best savoured rather than gulped.
The decaying splendour and shabby grandeur he saw in every quarter touched a chord deep within him. Each stone had a story to tell, every hidden corner likely to offer a piece of crumbling craftsmanship. Disdainful of the tourist haunts choked with guides and tacky souvenirs even this early in the season, by accident he entered the workshop of a picture restorer; he spent the rest of the day there. After that he abandoned sightseeing in favour of searching out those who worked to keep Venice alive: stonemasons, boat builders, glass-blowers and restorers, but above all those who worked with wood. Amongst such artists he found a peace of sorts.
Flattered by the interest of this quiet, well-dressed foreigner with his fluent Italian, the craftsmen made him welcome, delighting in the chance to display their skill to someone who was capable of appreciating it. Smoking his cigarettes, they fed him coffee and bowls of pasta when he gave no sign of needing to eat, and allowed him to take them out to dine at night, where they talked into the early hours, unconscious of how little Griffin said about himself.
Quite what he was searching for Griffin did not know. He made no attempt to question his actions, content to live each day minute by minute, hour by hour. Equally, he stopped thinking about the past. He had spent too much of his life mourning what he could not change. Seduced by the light and the wonderful textures and scents and drunk on colour, senses numbed over the years stirred to life, beginning to melt the icy chill which had helped him to survive the last few months. He even reached the stage where he could spot a slender blonde in the crowd without his heart twisting. Some days he never thought of Charlie at all.
Venice, however, refused to be ignored. His father's dream had been to stamp his vision on a city; but modern skyscrapers offered no lasting monument, many possessing a lifespan of no more than twenty years. With Hong Kong due to be returned to China in nineteen ninety-seven, the brightest and the best, those lucky few with marketable skills, were already fleeing the Colony to make their homes in America, Australia and Canada. Hong Kong as Melville had known it was doomed. It was just one of the topics on which Griffin and his father had disagreed.
A sense of purpose beginning to form, Griffin stayed in Venice until the volume of tourists became unbearable. He hired another car and set off on a more leisurely tour through Europe, taking care to dodge the popular resorts during these holiday months. Soaking up other people's lives, he was content as yet to remain an onlooker.
By the end of August, tanned, relaxed and beginning to tire of his sabbatical from life, he had reached the coast of Brittany. Staring across the Channel, his salt-tangled hair flicking his eyes, he decided to revisit the country of his birth.