“ALEXANDRE, GOOD morning.” Charles Bonfils, the patriarch of Bonfils Bibendum, the highly prestigious London wine merchants, a cousin of an English baronet, and a personal multimillionaire—if he ever had the poor manners to share actual financials with anyone other than his personal advisors—inclined his distinguished, salt-and-pepper-haired head at the young man sitting on the other side of his desk. “Good of you to turn up on time.”
Alex Bonfils inwardly winced. His father was one of the few people who could, without fail, make him feel four years old again. He resisted rubbing his palms dry on his designer slacks, but only just, and nodded in reply. “Papa, when you call, I come. Of course.”
Charles lifted one eyebrow; that was all.
It was enough.
“Father.” Alex took a deep breath and ran his hand through his blond hair, inevitably destroying the artful work of his personal stylist. “Okay, so I know I haven’t been your most reliable son—”
“I only have two,” Charles murmured. “And all I ask is that they are both full participants in the family business. Or any legitimate business, for that matter.” He sounded calm, but his fingers tightened dangerously around his antique ink pen.
“Yeah.” Alex assumed this summons was something to do with him missing the latest Bonfils management meeting. Or maybe it was because of those embarrassing paparazzi pictures taken in the nightclub last weekend with the twin male models. Or when he gate-crashed the Queen’s garden party last summer, or the fact that Alex had never bothered to finish his university business management course, preferring to go backpacking in Ibiza, or… or… oh, many more examples of how he continued to disappoint his august Papa.
“I think the time has come to face facts,” Charles said.
“Yes? I mean, it has? What about?”
Charles grimaced, obviously struggling to keep his temper. “You have shown little enthusiasm in the business to date, whereas Henri….”
Alex bit back a snort. Henri. His revered, very sober and sensible elder brother, with a gorgeous aristocratic wife and two precocious children to carry on the Bonfils family line. Henri was their father’s chosen heir to the business dynasty. Henri was brighter, smarter, more reliable, more respectable, more predictable—
“Alexandre? Are you listening to me?”
Alex jolted back to attention. “Sure. Go on. You were talking about Henri. How does that affect me?” He hadn’t meant to sound snappy, but constant comparison to a preferred sibling would do that to a guy.
“He’s Bonfils’s CEO for a reason, Alex. He’s committed to the company, a fierce supporter of the industry. He listens, and he learns. Then he works hard.”
The implication was there—Henri was and did all the things Alex wasn’t and didn’t.
“I can work hard.” Alex wished he sounded less defensive. He could work hard. He was just so rarely inspired to. Or rather, he was distracted by things more exciting, more dramatic, more intriguing than profit and loss accounts, stock turnover ratios, and five-year operational budgets.
He hid his shudder at the mere thought.
Surprisingly, his father didn’t scorn his protest. Instead, his gaze almost softened. “Believe me, I know you can. And you do, for the things you love. You have many excellent qualities, and the good intention of using them. But I can’t rely on mere intention for the continuing, successful management of this company. It needs to be your life’s work.”
Alex blinked hard. What was Charles saying? “Jesus, Papa. Are you firing me?”
Charles blew out a tight breath. “I cannot fire you, as you so quaintly put it, when you have a unique position as my son. However, I see no reason to burden you with an operational role any longer.” His tone hardened. “Alexandre, I think you should find yourself a new, personally satisfying project. You will no longer be needed at the monthly management meetings. Your personal allowance will continue—it was your mother’s last wish that all members of the family are supported, regardless of their role in the business—but I think it best for both our expectations if you distance yourself for a while from Bonfils’s Bibendum.” He placed his pen down on the desk blotter with exaggerated care.
Alex was speechless. It was an unfamiliar status.
For a long moment, Charles was still. Then he stood and half lifted his hand from his side, as if he was about to shake Alex’s hand or maybe—just maybe—pat him on the shoulder. Instead, he sighed deeply and gestured gently toward the door for Alex to leave. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment elsewhere.”
ALEX WAS still in a state of shock a half hour later. He sat in one of the luxurious chairs in the office reception area, nursing a cup of coffee that had gradually gone cold. Just for a while, he wasn’t sure where else to be. He’d put aside most of the day to meet his father, assuming his periodic hauling over the coals would take its usual thorough and teeth-clenching time. However, it had taken Papa less than fifteen minutes to dump his own son. Okay, so that was melodramatic, maybe, and Papa had dressed it up in a civil way, but that was the gist of it. His father had probably assumed that Alex would be relieved to step away from daily management, to leave the hassle and complexity to Papa and Henri. After all, that’s what Alex usually did, wasn’t it?
But it still hurt, and in a rather perplexing way. He’d never really worked anywhere else but Bonfils. During school vacations, he’d helped out with menial tasks in the office or one of the warehouses, though he realized now he’d never given work the same attention that Henri did. He didn’t need to work, was the issue at the heart of everything. He had family money, excellent schooling, the youthful confidence of a well-bred English man in his late twenties, and—no point in being coy—natural good looks. That had sufficed him through life so far. His lovely French mother had died when he was only thirteen, his bereaved father continued to work all hours God sent, and Henri was already working toward his position at Papa’s side in the business. So there was little rein on Alex’s behavior. What was he meant to do, with such minimal supervision? They were damned lucky he hadn’t gone completely off the rails. As it was, he’d spent most of the time enjoying every opportunity his position and wealth made available. He sighed rather theatrically, though no one paused in their scurrying past him, to and from the meeting rooms. Everyone knew their place here, and their duty to the Bonfils family.
Except me, apparently.
“Mr. Alexandre? Would you like some more coffee?” The two beautifully groomed assistants on reception were very polite, but maybe a little nervous as well. People weren’t used to seeing Alex in the office. And when he did pass through, it was always in a rush of laughter, impatience, and widely dispensed flattery. Not this unfamiliar introspection in the guest seating of his own family’s domain.
“I’m fine, thanks.” He didn’t miss the quick glance between the young man and his female companion. He might have been introspective but he wasn’t blind. From their shared expression, they were wondering whom to call on his behalf. His father? A doctor? Security? Alex bit back another sigh. He seemed to remember confidently flattering both of the lovely young things in the past. No wonder they were bemused.
His gaze drifted to the large windows beside the reception desk. Here on the eighth floor of an exclusive building in the heart of the financial district, they maximized a superb view over London. Birds wheeled around the top of the tower blocks, the late October sun glinting off their myriad windows. Black cabs trundled along the road, so far below Alex that they looked like Matchbox toys. Homegoing office workers scurried onto double-decker buses and down into the Tube system, swarming and swerving around each other with the same innate sense of purpose and direction as soldier ants. Souvenir shops splashed the red, white, and blue colors of the British flag in their merchandise, coffee chains tempted passersby into their premises with seductive menus, the occasional, select fashion stores displayed the latest glamorous styles on androgynous models. On the Embankment, the London Eye loomed over everything, its pods revolving so slowly, so soporifically, that Alex wondered if he should just sit here another hour or so, watching them as meditation. It reminded him of that vacation he took in the Himalayas one year, on the quest for life advice from that grizzled old guru—
Yet it was the memory of another place that struck him now with a rush of joy, peace, and some bittersweet memories. The Fairweather Vineyard in England’s West Country, where the grapes for Bonfils’s sparkling wines were grown, had been part of Alex’s life from when he was a child, from when… Mama was still alive. He found himself yearning for that now, for the quiet yet vibrant fields enclosing the site, the lush grass under his often bare feet, the rustle of the vines on their supports. He and Henri had played there as kids, and even in Alex’s later years, he would visit there when he needed to break away from the hectic city life he led. They’d helped with the harvest until their late teens—well, as much as youngsters could help who didn’t depend on the crop for their wages and got caught eating the too-sharp grapes too often to be efficient. The managers were grimly tolerant of him, Papa had rolled his eyes, and Mama…? While she lived, she always smiled even after she chastised him, even though the smile was sometimes sad. She’d loved the vineyard too and had helped plan the hospitality suite they ran there for guests and tourists. She’d chosen the warmest side of the building to build a luxurious patio, where she herself could sit and enjoy the view across the Devon hills at any time of day or night, gazing over the heads of the vines and the surrounding hedgerows, sipping a glass of her family’s best wine.
It was one of his most vivid memories of her.
A well-dressed, attractive woman in her early thirties sat down abruptly in the chair beside him. “Alexandre? Good to see you here. We need to talk.”
Good God. One of the grimmest phrases in the English language, in Alex’s honest opinion. He could remember more than a few exes starting off their final conversations with him with just those words. “Tina, ma chère! Hello to you too. Are you bringing a message from my father?”
“No. What were you expecting?”
A groveling apology from Papa for ever doubting him? A plea for Alex to come back to the board, to bring his unique blend of charm and wit to the stuffy old agenda? Not gonna happen. Alex knew it as certainly as he knew the young man at reception—quickly replacing the handset of the telephone, having called in his reinforcements—was now very obviously blushing at him, and could be tumbled into a compromising position within the hour, if Alex wished it. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had refused him anything. Well, until today’s meeting with Papa.
“You heard I’d been brutally sacked? Told to keep out of the damned way?”
“Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t like that at all, Alex. Heavens, everything’s so melodramatic with you.” Tina graciously thanked the young woman who brought them fresh coffee, as if magically conjured up. Tina Archer was his father’s PA, and a dear family friend. She was unflaggingly professional and always discreet, but she also took no nonsense.
“I’ve been fired. Discarded. Abandoned.” Alex was working himself well into the role of victim. “I’ve never wanted to be anything but a Bonfils.”
“You always will be. But did you think that was a one-way street? That you wouldn’t have to offer your time and effort in return?”
“I am family. That should be enough.”
Tina snorted in a very unladylike manner. “Yes, like I said. You make everything a performance.”
Alex opened his mouth to protest angrily, then rethought. If he were honest with himself—and he almost always was—she was right. But dramatic effect made life more exciting, didn’t it? His life, anyway. His hedonistic, rather empty, purposeless life. Dammit. He couldn’t help but recall his father’s earlier sigh of disappointment and frustration. Maybe it was merited, after all.
Tina sipped her coffee and her expression became more sympathetic. “You are so lucky, Alex. You have looks, charm, access to almost limitless money. Yet what do you do with it?”
He was pretty sure have fun wasn’t the right answer.
Her gaze softened. “I love you dearly, Alex. We’ve been friends since you were a teenager and I first came to work for the company, remember?”
He did indeed. Tina had arrived in the London office with the glowing references that Alex would have matched to a much older, more serious, and extremely dull person. Instead, he’d met a witty, pretty, perceptive young woman who, over the years, had paid as much care and attention to the Bonfils family members as to the company’s smooth operation.
“Back then, you and Henri were enthusiastic, caring, fun-loving young men. I know what he grew up to be—”
Alex tried hard to keep his expression neutral, he really did.
“—and yes, I know you think that’s boredom personified. But what about you? You’ve swung so totally the opposite way, I sometimes don’t recognize you. You’ve created this frivolous, careless playboy image, then take every opportunity to thrust it in everyone’s face. Your timekeeping is appalling, you chase after every latest fad, you serially date any and all young men who take your fancy, you habitually waste money, and above all, you show little business interest in the company. Is it any wonder Mr. Charles has grown tired of trying to engage with you? It must seem to him that whatever you’re given, you expect more. That you really do think everything is yours for the taking.”
Wow. No holding back there, then. Yet her words reverberated in his mind. Am I really like that? He knew exactly how well and enjoyably he lived, yet he didn’t want to believe that was the whole story of his life. An unfamiliar flush heated the back of his neck.
“Wait.” Tina reached out to take his hand, shaking her head. “I haven’t finished.”
“Good God, really? Well, don’t feel you have to hold back on my account—”
“No, you idiot.” Tina laughed at his aggrieved tone. “I know very well that isn’t the sum of Alex Bonfils. You have far more to offer, you’re intelligent and compassionate, and care for far more than entertainment. You just hide it too well! For example, who really knows it was your idea to start a Bonfils sommelier internship, open to all applicants?”
“Well, no one outside the board, but that was so obviously a good initiative—”
“And that you’ve been mentoring Liam, the new assistant in HR, developing the training program?”
“I mean, yes, but that’s no hardship, when he’s got great potential and is so very enthusiastic—”
Tina pressed on, more firmly. “And when the company budget wasn’t adequate, you paid personally for all the staff in Packaging to attend training in the new inventory system?”
Alex was silent for a few moments. Busted. “We needed to take more notice of their feedback and enthusiasm. I didn’t do it for the praise. It’s just the right thing to do.”
“Exactly. It’s good work, and perfect for the company. Your heart and loyalty are in the right place, Alex. You just need to master the rest of it.”
He grimaced at the smirk on her face. “You mean foreswear the relaxed timekeeping, the delight in every change of fashion, the joy of spending money?”
“Oh, but yes. Maybe you should consider monogamy, too, as a gesture towards showing your maturity…? Well, okay, from the look on your face, maybe that one’s a step too far.”
They both laughed and Alex hugged her. That should set the office gossip cat among the pigeons, the wayward son clutching the very prim PA in full view of London’s business district!
“I worry about you,” Tina murmured into his shoulder.
Flushed, she lifted her face up to his. “You make people think you have so much fun. But I think… maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re a little lost.”
Alex didn’t want to parrot again, but he did. “Lost?”
“Forget it.” She shook her head.
“I have grown up, Tina, whatever people may think. And I dearly want to contribute. I just haven’t found… well, the right opportunity so far.” An aimless daydream skittered into his head, featuring his father asking him to help steer the company through challenging times ahead, in a warmer voice than Alex had heard for several years. And Henri, clasping his brother’s shoulder in gratitude for his help and companionship in decision-making. Alex brightened. “You think I should call Papa and talk this through?”
“Um. No. You need to give it more time.” Tina looked alarmed. “To be honest, he was very disturbed by that rumor about a reality show with you and the circus performer. And so soon after the garden party debacle. The Palace was most displeased.”
“Look, the show was never going to be made, right? And the Palace? I had an open invitation from the underbutler. In writing.” Almost.
Tina’s rueful smile confirmed none of his excuses were working on her. “I’m sure, after a few months, Mr. Charles will welcome you back into the fold, and then you can prove your worth, can’t you?”
A few months? Alex’s dreams of immediate board appointment as joint CEO with Henri began to deflate.
“I know you’re not the most patient of men,” Tina continued, correctly reading his chagrin. “But just make sure you keep in touch with your father in the meantime.” She looked earnest. “Maybe I could see about getting you on the occasional guest list for his monthly industry dinners.”
Alex’s dreams popped with a loud farting noise. “No way,” he said shortly. Industry dinners? Boredom #101, to say nothing of the implied insult in “occasional guest.” How mortifying for a Bonfils son! “If I’m to prove my worth, it should be with something much more important.”
Tina looked genuinely shocked. “But that’s not going to happen overnight, is it? I don’t mean any offense, but you know so much less about the business than either your father or Henri.”
“I can learn. I can catch up.”
“Of course you can. Just not in the middle of this troublesome period.”
“Now you’re patronizing me.” And wait a moment… he forced his gaze away from the smoochy-eyed looks the man on reception was giving him and glared at Tina. “What do you mean, a troublesome period? What trouble is there at Bonfils’s?”
Tina’s eyes widened and she went very red. A-ha. So she obviously shouldn’t have said that. Jesus, was Papa keeping everything from him?
“There have been… worrying events,” she said slowly, lowering her voice. “Breakages in the warehouse beyond usual tolerance levels, an increase in customer complaints about deliveries. There’s a certain amount of tension at work because these are the months leading up to the UK Heritage Wines Awards and we need everything to run smoothly. Your father is relying on that event to launch our new Angel’s Breath sparkling wine. It will be a magnificent triumph.”
English sparkling wine was growing in worldwide prestige and popularity, and Bonfils Bibendum had always excelled in their selections. Even though he hadn’t attended all the management meetings, Alex knew that Angel’s Breath was something special. Unlike French producers, Bonfils had decided not to whole bunch press the English grapes but to crush them first. This wouldn’t work well in a hot climate but in Britain’s cooler climate, it boosted the flavor. It was a masterstroke.
Alex leaned forward, eager for more detail. “Is that the Bristol warehouse?” It was the nearest to the vineyard. “You suspect industrial sabotage?”
Tina rolled her eyes. “Remember what I said about reining in the melodrama? No, I’m sure they were just mistakes. But while Charles and Henri are sorting all that out, they don’t want…. Oh, hell. You know what I mean.”
Yes, Alex did, and he bit back his dismay. They didn’t want bad publicity from the profligate lifestyle of the second son. They didn’t want Alex associated with a serious business with serious problems, despite it being as much his inheritance as Henri’s. Dammit! He’d have to show them he could be trusted, after all. He could contribute to strategy; his passion could be of invaluable use to the company’s future. Couldn’t it?
I’ll prove my worth before Papa even has to ask for it.
Inspiration came suddenly: a weird, amazing, bizarre idea that had just popped into his mind. “Tina? This thing about me not knowing the business….”
“Hm?” Tina glanced at her watch; she must be due back on duty with his slave driver of a father.
“Wouldn’t it be better….”
“Alex,” Tina said warningly, her eyes widening as if she dreaded what he’d say next.
“…if I started right now, at the beginning? If I got a job and learned about the business from the shop floor?”
Tina’s pretty jaw nearly hit her chest. “What are you talking about? You’ve never actually worked anywhere! And anyway, your father would never let you take a staff job. You’re a Bonfils son, after all.”
Alex blithely ignored the jibe about him never having actually worked anywhere. How unfair! After all, he’d run a disco one night in Ibiza, erected yurts in a Himalayan village, held a “Golf Sale” sign in the middle of Trafalgar Square for an old school friend one afternoon…. “But I won’t be a Bonfils.”
“I could go undercover. You know, like that TV program? Where the boss goes into the business in disguise to see how it’s really being run.” Oh my God, what a laugh that’d be! “I can join up using another name. I may even find out where these problems are starting. Your special spy!”
Tina started to laugh, then bit it off at the look on his face. “Alex, no. That’s a daft idea. Why can’t you just show a little patience? Your father will come around and find you a new role.”
He barely heard her: the plans were already spinning in his mind. A new project always brought out the best in him, especially if it involved some risk. He’d need a new hair color, a set of appropriate clothes—he always used his personal account at Harvey Nichols for his clothing, did they do workwear?—and a necessary distance from his family for a few weeks. That could be the sweetest advantage: a whole new life with no one interested in his financial worth or harassing him about his alleged flakiness. “You’ll help me, right?”
“I’ll—?” Tina nearly choked and, for a few seconds, the woman behind reception looked genuinely concerned for her health. “No I won’t! What would Mr. Charles say?”
Alex waved his hand airily. “He won’t know.”
“I’d be going undercover from him, too. If he knows, it’ll ruin the whole thing. It’ll blow my cover.” He was even starting to sound like a secret agent.
“Blow your cover? Good God. You’re sounding like James Bond.”
“It would be like a detective novel—”
And then Tina just snapped. “The business is not a novel, Alexandre! Not a spy movie, nor some kind of game. It’s been in existence for nearly a century, and both of our families have served it loyally. Two of my siblings work in the warehouse, and before the death of my parents, my mother was a buyer for the London office. Its reputation is terribly important to your family.”
He blinked hard. “Tina, ma chère, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I know it’s where our millions come from.”
“It’s not just that. It’s the reason your family thrives as it does. We’ve produced a wide range of extremely superior wines, developing a rewarding relationship with many of the best European vineyards. The prestige, the superior quality, the Bonfils reputation known throughout the world? That’s been your grandfather’s and your father’s life’s work. And Henri’s.”
“And it should be yours.” She sighed. “Forgive me, I’m overstepping the mark again.”
“It’s fine.” It was Alex’s turn to put his hand on hers in reassurance. “You have every right to say it.” Just as Papa did.
“Your honesty does you credit.” Tina smiled gratefully. “Now I really must get back to work. I have duties to pass to my assistant before I go on annual vacation next Saturday. I’m really looking forward to three whole weeks of relaxation, and no contact from the office.” They chatted briefly about the remote Greek island she was going to with her husband, and then Alex stood as she took her leave.
“Look after yourself,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “You’re not a bad boy at heart, I know.”
“Is there a but hovering there?”
“You know your real problem?”
“That I hate that sentence?” Alex said wryly.
Tina grinned. “You’ve always been too rich for your own good. And, to be honest, that’s not really your fault.” She glanced briefly and perceptively at the man on reception, who began busying himself with shifting papers. “And try to avoid corrupting our staff, will you?”
Alex scoffed. “You’re the one said I’m not a bad boy at heart, remember? You can rely on me.”
Tina paused, halfway between the chairs and the corridor leading to the meeting rooms. “When you say I can rely on you….”
“Yes, ma chère?”
She almost whispered, but he heard her clearly enough. “Can I rely on you to drop this silly undercover scheme?”
“Alex? I know you, remember.”
“I said so, didn’t I?” He laughed brightly and waved as she passed out of view. Then he brought his other hand forward: he’d been hiding the crossed fingers behind his back. A silly childish superstition, maybe, but as he had no intention of dropping the silly undercover scheme, it seemed sensible to have something on his side. He moved toward the elevators, on his way out of the building, but had already pressed a direct dial button on his phone.
“Good morning, this is the HR department of Bonfils Bibendum” came a young, bright voice. “How may I help you?”
“Come for lunch, Liam,” Alex said, confident that Liam would recognize his mentor’s voice. “And I’ll explain exactly how!”