Gustav Levi is the hero of my Unbreakable Trilogy, about to be re-named The Silver Chain series as his brother Pierre's story is released. In the first book, The Silver Chain, Gustav meets his heroine, the photographer Serena Folkes, and offers to finance and launch her debut exhibition in return for her company and sexual favours. As they get to know each other and overcome the damage wreaked on them by her wretched childhood and his abusive marriage, the arrangement swiftly moves past the professional, and they become passionate lovers. From being reserved and mistrustful, Gustav has been won over by Serena's naïve yet single minded passion and has asked her to live with him.
But just as they are celebrating the success of her sell-out exhibition and are making plans to travel to New York together, Gustav's estranged, manipulative younger brother, Pierre, appears out of the blue. With Serena’s encouragement Gustav longs to restore their old closeness, but in The Golden Locket Pierre's presence in their lives re-opens old wounds and threatens their hard-won security.
I won't reveal how their story ends for those who haven't yet read the series, but to whet your appetites we're going back in time to meet Gustav halfway through their tumultuous story.
He's torn himself away from Serena's side in their stunning new penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side, to have a chat with us tonight.
1. The dark night when Serena first met you she had you down as a Halloween vampire. What is your family background?
Did she? Cheeky minx. Well, she would make a very juicy Dracula’s victim, I must say. That beautiful pale skin of hers. I can just imagine piercing her long, swan-like throat with my teeth… but going back to your question, she wasn’t far off the mark. My family did originate in the mountains and forests of Transylvania but both sets of grandparents travelled and settled in Paris, which is where I was born and raised.
2. How did losing your parents at an early age and raising your little brother shape the way you are today?
I was 15 and Pierre was 3 when they died in a fire at our Paris apartment. I was a normal, rebellious teenager when it happened but I had to turn myself around to take care of Pierre. We became incredibly close as a result, which I guess is one of the few good things that came out of the tragedy. I wanted to prove to them and to him that I could do a good job, and that meant making a new life for us in London, working hard to make a home for us. But I became obsessive, I think. I wasn't with him as much as I should have been. Without the guidance of my parents I made some terrible choices when it came to women, too, which ultimately caused the rupture between Pierre and me.
- Which brings us to the awkward question of your first marriage. Can you tell us a bit about that?
As the song goes, where do I begin? With all the diasastrous couplings since the world began.Adam and Eve. Samson and Delilah. Antony and Cleopatra. I was lonely. I was a rich young man, living like a single father, and Margot was a heat seeking missile. But there are no excuses. I was like any other man in the end at that point. I was led by what's in my pants. I was blinded with lust, but I told myself a female around the house would be good for Pierre, too. But not long after we were married she became, there's no other way of putting it. Toxic. A couple should enhance each other, but we just consumed each other. She was a very strong personality, quite a bit older than me – oh God, this is turning into a bit of a therapy session, isn't it? Maybe I thought she would lead me? But I should have recognised before it was too late where we were going. I worked hard all day, and at night I'd come home and it had become her world. She wasn't just a hyper-sexual woman. She was a professional dominatrix. Punishment, obsession, addiction were her bread and butter – and strangers in my house were queuing up to be part of it. What on earth kind of menage was that?
My poor brother was left on the sidelines. I kept it from him as much as I could, and he never, until he was a grown man, actually witnessed anything, but of course he sensed things were deteriorating. I sent him off to boarding school and then university to get away from the situation, but the rot had set in by then. It was no longer our home, or his haven. It took me five years to recognise what was happening to us and when I found the strength to tell Margot the marriage was over her revenge was to carry out her threat, which started off as a joke in the early days but became deadly serious, of corrupting Pierre and taking him away from me, so I was left with – sorry, this chokes me still to remember it. I was left with nothing.
- Is that personal history the reason you refused to let Serena anywhere near you without a professional agreement?
I warned Serena from the beginning, or tried to, that my life experiences had killed my trust in people. Either I wasn't articulate enough, or she just wasn't paying any attention. Thank God. But I honesly thought I was no good for anyone. I was better alone. I had been battered emotionally, and physically, by the wrong woman, and then I'd lost the one person I loved most in the world, Pierre. Oh, I knew deep down that not all women would be like Margot – no-one could be as evil as her – but I couldn’t let my guard down until Serena wandered into my life. I am a red blooded male. I needed sex from time to time. But as soon as they started trying to get closer, burrowing into my life, my house, although I accept that it was natural for them, it was anathema to me. I couldn't risk letting any woman under my skin again.
- What about the silver chain you made Serena wear when you were together? Jewellery, or restraint? Symbol of permanence, or sign of insecurity?
All the above. I can't deny it. I wanted to give her something, but not reveal anything of myself. I wanted it to symbolise our agreement, and to make sure she wouldn't get away. She had never had any jewellery, so the bracelet I gave her to hook the silver chain on to was the first precious thing she'd ever owned. She was furious when I once left her chained in the house in Lugano, but the little wildcat chopped it off with an axe or something and got the chauffeur Dixon to disobey orders and drive her to the airport! Secretly I saluted her for that show of defiance, even though it was my fault for leaving her there. Anyway, it became part of our life. And a very kinky part of our lovemaking. It still is. But I'm planning to give her another special piece of jewellery for Christmas..
- Serena comes from a very different background from yours. What, apart from the obvious physical attraction, is it that draws you to her?
Maybe that’s exactly it. Her total individuality and.. difference. She’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met. And as for her background, that's an unknown. She was adopted by a pair of monsters. She was a little newborn foundling. I would love to know what her biological background is. No-one has ever come forward. I suspect she comes from someone beautiful, artistic and big hearted, because how else has she come through all that neglect still determined to find someone to love? I guess that’s your answer. She doesn’t even know it, but she has this fire, this determination, to see the beauty in life, not just through her camera lens. I’ve never thought of it before, but you could say she’s the polar opposite of my ex-wife, and that's why I'm so lucky to have found her. Serena turns her strength of spirit into something positive, and she’s pulled me into her orbit as well
7. You and Serena had a business arrangement which became personal. What was the moment when you fell for her?
Everything in my life has to be written down, a contract. Since my parents died. It’s my clumsy way of feeling safe, I suppose, and my arrangement with Serena, though it looks ridiculous now, had to be on the same terms. She doesn't know this but she was the missing piece of my jigsaw, and that lightbulb moment was when she was standing in my gallery after we'd signed that contract. We were just leaving, and she stopped beside my favourite photograph, entitled 'Rapunzel', which was part of an exhibition of sepia images of French prostitutes awaiting their turn in a bordello. I collect pre-Raphaelite studies and sketches, and she looked so like the beautiful, pre-Raphaelite girl in the photograph, that face that's so mournful when in repose, those rivers of golden treacle-coloured hair – it took my breath away. I reckoned she was the face I'd been searching for. My pet name for her, when we're alone, is Rapunzel'.
8. She's younger than you. What has she taught you?
She's brought a kind of fresh air into my life, light, sunshine, an incisive viewpoint. She surprises me every day with how beautiful she is and how much she loves me, even though she had to work so hard to win me round. She's actually like a magic camera. You see life differently when you're with her.
9. You have made your fortune now. Are you ready to retire?
I could retire tomorrow. Financially that's true. But I'm only just 40, so there's no way I'm going to sit around doing nothing, especially with such a young girlfriend to keep on my toes. And she would tell me I was an old git if I did, to use her charming turn of phrase! If the businesses are in good hands and Serena's photography is launched, I would like to extend my pre-Raphaelite collection and also to launch a trust fund related to the arts which could benefit abandoned children.
10. When you're not acquiring businesses and properties, what are your hobbies?
Travelling and cooking for pleasure, rather than necessity. My current project, when we have time, is teaching Serena to cook. She can just about boil an egg. And I love drawing and sketching.
- What's next now you're both ensconced in New York?
Well, most of that is under wraps for now. We have some tentative meetings with Pierre to negotiate, now that he's come back into my life. He's been living and working in New York all these years, and the most extraordinary coincidence is that he's been dating Serena's cousin Polly. So I'm determined to find a way to forgive each other for what's happened in the past. Serena's my othe priority, of course. She already has several prestigious commissions here from people who have seen her work in London, and I aim to stand back and let her make her own way.
- Tell us an unusual thing about you?
I play jazz trumpet. Pierre plays piano, and we used to jam in little clubs around London before I met Margot. Not even Serena knows that, and please don't tell her. I'll surprise her one day, but I haven't played since I met my first wife. She thought it sounded stupid.