Today's Reading

ONE

Sandro Grainger is probably the most beautiful human being I've ever met. Or ever expect to. Sitting opposite him in the upmarket Kensington restaurant he'd chosen for this meeting, I felt as though I was lunching with a flesh-and- blood Botticelli angel. Plentiful blond-tipped brown hair pushed carelessly back from his face, skin the colour and consistency of beige satin, chocolate-brown eyes surrounded by thick gold eyelashes, a full Pre-Raphaelite mouth.
Magnificent. And not in the least bit effeminate. A perfect blend of his parents: Dominic's classic Anglo-Saxon good looks mingled with Maddalena's dark Mediterranean beauty.

I'd met them many times, since Maddalena was a cousin of my Italian brother-in-law, Carlo. I'd even spent holiday time at their villa on Corfu, along with Carlo and his wife, my sister, Meghan. The Graingers were legendarily rich. As well as Corfu, there was the house in Rome, the house in London and an apartment in New York. Plus vast tracts of southern England.

As for Sandro, I'd known him for years, first as an adorable toddler, then as a beguiling and—mercifully—pimple-free
adolescent, and then as an almost-adult in his early twenties. We went back a long way, but sadly only on an occasional and casual basis. I wasn't quite old enough to be his mother, unless I'd been knocked up by some perv. So it came as something of a surprise when he'd telephoned and asked me out for lunch. Flattered? Not really. Obviously he wanted something.

I swallowed the last morsel of my chocolate cheesecake, wiped my mouth with my starched linen napkin and leaned back in my chair. 'OK, Sandro,' I said. 'Nitty-gritty time. So spill.'

His eyes slid away from mine. 'Uh...' he said.

'Your company is delightful,' I said. 'And I've very much enjoyed our extremely good lunch. But I can't kid myself that a twenty-five-year-old guy such as yourself would seek out a woman of my age if he didn't have some kind of an agenda. Am I right?'

He squirmed. 'Uh...'

'So level with me.'

He fiddled with his water glass, then with the salt cellar in front of him. Picked up his dessert fork and put it down again. 'Thing is, Alex...' He fell silent.

'Yes?' I encouraged.

'Look, I know...' Another silence. He rootled in a pocket, brought out a small Swiss Army knife, put it back. I got the impression that he was not at ease.

'Which is more than I do,' I said.

'Uh...' He cleared his throat. 'You used to be a police officer.'

'This is true.'

'So you must be something of a detective.'

I smiled. 'And you want me to do some detecting on your behalf?'

His face relaxed. He gave a half-laugh. 'Exactly.' He gazed round the room like someone whose troubles were finally over.

'This is fascinating stuff, Sandro. But could you give me some further details?'

He thought about it, then sighed. 'Yeah. I guess I have to.'

'Otherwise there's not a whole lot I can do.'

'I quite see that.' More nervous fiddling with salt and pepper. More twisting of the water glass.

'Sandro!' I placed my hand on top of his. 'For goodness' sake, tell me what the problem is.'

'OK.' He nodded fiercely to himself. 'So, earlier this year, I was staying in my Uncle Cesare's place in Venice, while he and my aunt were attending some high-level meetings in Geneva. He is the Marchese Cesare Antonio de Farnese de Peron, to give him his full title, and has this rather grand apartment in one of the palazzi along the Grand Canal. And I decided to hold a dinner party, you know, a real grown-up dinner party, to celebrate my birthday. Catered, private chef, black tie and all. My generation tends to go round in ripped jeans all the time, so I thought it would be fun to dress up a bit.' His eyes were wide with earnest sincerity, while I thought that many of his generation probably weren't able to afford much more than jeans, ripped or otherwise.
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