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'The trouble with weddings is that they bring out the idiot in people.'
The cynical remark made Marcel Falcon glance up, grinning with agreement. The man who'd come to sit beside him was a business associate with whom he was on cordial terms.
'Good to see you, Jeremy,' he said. 'I'll get the drinks. Waiter!'
They were at a table in the bar of the Gloriana Hotel, one of the most luxurious establishments in London, providing not only rooms but wedding facilities for those who could afford them. Marcel gave his order, signed for it to go onto his bill and turned back to his companion, saying, 'You're right about weddings. No good to anyone. I'd just as soon have avoided this one, but my brother, Darius, is the bride's ex-husband.'
Jeremy stared. 'And he's a guest at her wedding to another man? I've heard of sophisticated, but that takes the biscuit.'
'It's for the children, Frankie and Mark. They need to see their parents acting friendly despite the divorce.'
'And I'll bet your father had a hand in the decision.'
'There aren't many decisions my father doesn't have a hand in,' Marcel agreed wryly. 'He actually got them to delay the wedding until a certain date had passed, so that he could come to england without incurring a huge tax bill.'
Amos Falcon was so extravagantly wealthy that he'd had to flee to the tax haven of Monaco where he lived for most of the time, venturing back to england for only ninety days of the year.
'Frankie and Mark are his only grandchildren,' Marcel said, 'so he's determined to stay part of their lives.'
'Strange, that. A man with five sons and only one of them has carried on the line so far.'
'He says the same thing. He's always urging us to marry, preferably Freya.'
'His stepdaughter, the closest thing to a daughter that he has, and he's set on marrying her to one of us, and so binding her into the family.'
'Don't any of you get a say in your choice of wife?'
'Are you kidding? This is my father we're talking about. Since when did anyone ever get a say?' Marcel spoke cynically but with wry affection.
'Failing Freya,' he went on, 'then some other wife to continue the great Falcon dynasty. But except for Darius we've all disappointed him. Jackson seems to find wild animals more interesting than people, Leonid is a man we hardly ever see. He could have a dozen wives, but since he seldom leaves Russia we wouldn't know. And Travis doesn't dare marry. He'd lose all his fans.'
He spoke of his younger half-brother, born and raised in America, and a successful television actor with an army of adoring female followers.
'No man could be expected to risk his fortune just for marriage,' Jeremy agreed solemnly. 'That just leaves you, the amorous Frenchman.'
Marcel grimaced. 'Enough!' he said. 'If you knew how that stereotype bores me.'
'And yet you make use of it. The life in Paris, the endless supply of womenall right, all right.' He broke off hastily, seeing Marcel's face. 'But since you have what most men would give their eye teeth for, the least you can do is enjoy it.'
The waiter arrived with their drinks. When he'd gone Jeremy raised his glass.
'Here's to being a bachelor. I'd give a lot to know how you've managed to stay single so long.'
'A sense of reality helps. You start off regarding all women as goddesses, but you soon see reason.'
'Ah! Let you down with a crash, did she?'
'I can't remember,' Marcel said coldly. 'She no longer exists.'
She never really did, said the voice in his head. A figment of your imagination.
'Well, I reckon you've got it right,' Jeremy said. 'All the women you want, whenever you want.'
'Stop talking nonsense.'
'I'm not. Look at those girls. They can't keep their eyes off you.'
It was true. Three young women were at the bar, buying drinks then glancing around, seeming to take stock of the men, form opinions about them, each pausing when they came to Marcel. One of them drew a long breath, one put her head on one side, and the third gave an inviting smile.
You couldn't blame them, Jeremy reckoned, Marcel was in his thirties, tall, dark-haired and well built but without a spare ounce on him anywhere. His face was handsome enough to make the girls swoon and the men want to commit murder.
But it was more than looks. Marcel had a charm that was delightful or deadly, depending on your point of view. Those who'd encountered only that charisma found it hard to believe in the ruthlessness with which he'd stormed the heights of wealth and successuntil they encountered that ruthlessness for themselves. And were floored by it.
But the willing females at the bar knew nothing of this. They saw Marcel's looks, the seemingly roguish gleam in his eyes, and they responded. Soon, Jeremy guessed, at least one of them would find an excuse to approach him. Or perhaps all three.
'Have you made your choice?' he asked caustically. 'I don't like to rush it.'
'Ah yes, of course. And there are some more just coming in. Hey, isn't that Darius?'
The door of the bar led into the hotel lobby, where they could just see Marcel's half-brother, Darius Falcon, pressing the button at the elevator. A young woman stood beside him, talking eagerly.
'Who's she?' Jeremy asked.
'I don't know,' Marcel replied. 'I think she comes from the island he's just acquired. A man who owed him money used it to pay the debt, and he's living there at the moment while he decides what to do. He told me he'd be bringing someone, but he didn't say a lot about her.'
By now Darius and his companion had stepped into the elevator and the doors had closed.
'I must go up and greet them,' Marcel said, draining his glass. 'See you later.'
It was an excuse. Before visiting Darius he meant to call on their father, who'd arrived an hour ago. But instead of heading straight for the main suite, he strolled about, inspecting his surroundings with the eye of a professional. The Gloriana might be among the top hotels in London but it couldn't compete with La Couronne, the hotel he owned in Paris.
He'd named it La Couronne, the crown, to let the world know that it was the queen of hotels, and his own pride and joy. He had personally overseen every detail of an establishment that offered conference facilities as well as luxurious accommodation, discretion as well as flamboyance. Anybody who was anybody had stayed there: top level businessmen, politicians, film stars. It was a place of fashion and influence. But most of all money.
Money was the centre of his life. And from that centre it stretched out its tentacles to every distant detail. He'd started his business with loans guaranteed by his father, who also added money of his own, to be repaid in due course. Marcel had returned every penny.
At the back of the hotel he found a huge room that would be used for the wedding next day. It was a grandiose place, decorated to imitate a church, although the ceremony would be a civil one. Flowers were being piled everywhere, suggesting a romantic dream.
' We'll marry as soon as possible, won't we, my darling? And all the world will know that you 're mine as completely as I am yours.'
The voice that echoed in his head made him stiffen and take an involuntary step back, as though seeking escape.
But the voice was his own and there was nowhere to flee.
'If you knew how I long to call you my wife.'
Had he really said that? Had he actually been that stupid? Young, naive, believing what he longed to believe about the girl he adored, until his delusions were stripped away in pain and misery.
But that was long past. Now he was a different man. If only the voice would stop tormenting him.
He left the wedding venue quickly and almost at once bumped into his father. They had last met several weeks ago when Amos had suffered heart trouble, causing his sons to hurry to his bedside in Monaco. Now, to Marcel's relief, the old man seemed strong again. His face had aged with the strain of his illness, but he was both vigorous and alert.
'Good to see you better,' he said, embracing his father unselfconsciously.
'Nothing wrong with me,' Amos declared robustly. 'Just a lot of fuss. But I was glad to have you all there for a while. Now you must come up and visit Janine and Freya. They're looking forward to seeing you again.'
Amos's private life might politely be described as colourful. Marcel's mother had been his second wife. Janine was his third. Freya, her daughter by a previous husband, was also part of the family. Amos, a man with five sons and no daughters, had particularly welcomed her as a plan formed in his mind.
'Let's go up slowly,' he suggested now. 'We can take a look at the place and get some ideas. It's not a bad hotel but you could do better.'
'I've been thinking of expanding,' Marcel mused. 'A change of scene might be interesting.'
'Then London's the place to look. Property prices have plunged and you could pick up a bargain. I've got some good banking contacts who'll help, and I can loan you some money myself, if needed.'
'Thanks. I might take you up on that.'
They toured the hotel, each making notes.
'The one thing this place has got that La Couronne hasn't is the wedding facility,' Amos observed. 'You might try that. Money to be made.'
'I doubt if it would increase my profit,' Marcel said coolly. There were many reasons why weddings didn't appeal to him, but none that he was prepared to discuss.
They finished on the eighth floor where there was a bar with magnificent views of London. Sitting by the window, Amos indicated a tall building in the distance.
'See that? Headquarters of Daneworth Estates.'
'I've heard of them,' Marcel mused. 'Things not going too well, I gather.'
'That's right. They're having to sell assets.'
Amos's tone held a significance that made Marcel ask, 'Any asset in particular?'
'The Alton Hotel. It was bought with the idea of development but the money ran out and it's ripe for takeover at a knock-down price.'
He quoted a figure and Marcel's eyebrows rose. 'As little as that?'
'It's possible, if someone with a certain amount of influence twisted the screw on Daneworth so that the sale became more urgent.'
'You don't happen to know anyone with that kind of influence?' Marcel asked satirically.
'I might. How long will you be in England?' 'Long enough to look around.'
'Excellent.' Amos made a noise that sounded like 'Hrmph!' adding, 'It's good to know I have one son I can be proud of.'
'Are you still mad at Darius because he gave his wife too generous a deal over the divorce? I thought you liked Mary. You've come to her wedding.'
'I won't quarrel with the mother of my only grandchildren. But sense is sense, and he hasn't shown any. Do you know anything about the girl he's bringing with him today?'
'I saw them arrive. She looks attractive and pleasant. I'm going to visit them in a minute.'
'While you're there take a good look at her. See if Darius is falling into her trap.'
'Thus spoiling your scheme to marry him to Freya?' Marcel said ironically.
'I'd like to have Freya as my daughter-in-law, I make no secret of it. And if Darius won't come up to the mark'
'Forget it,' Marcel interrupted him.
'Why should I? It's time you were putting down roots.'
'There are plenty of others to do that.'
Amos snorted. 'Five sons! Five! You'd think more than one of you would have settled down by now.'
But Amos himself was hardly an advertisement for domesticity, Marcel thought cynically. Of the five sons, only two had been born to the woman he'd been married to at the time. His own mother hadn't married Amos until several years after his birth. Travis and Leonid were bastards and proud of it. But he didn't want to quarrel with his father, so he merely shrugged and rose to go.
'Tell Janine and Freya I'll be up as soon as I've been to see Darius,' he said.
As he approached his brother's room he was barely conscious of adjusting his mask. He donned it so often that it was second nature by now, even with a brother with whom he was on cordial terms. When he arrived his charming smile was firmly in place.
The door was already open, giving him a clear view of a pretty young woman, done up in a glamorous style, and Darius regarding her with admiration, his hands on her shoulders.
'Am I interrupting anything?' he asked.
'Marcel!' Darius advanced to thump his brother with delight, after which he turned and introduced his companion as Harriet.
'You've been keeping this lady a big secret,' Marcel said, regarding her with admiration. 'And I understand why. If she were mine I would also hide her away from the world.'
His father was in for a shock, he reckoned. Harriet was definitely a threat to his plans for Darius's next wife.