There is no easy way to find out the man you love has been unfaithful, let alone that he is a liar and, possibly, a con-artist. When Flora Mascolo met a handsome chef after the death of her husband Guy – co-founder of the Toni & Guy hairdressing empire – she believed that, at 48, her life was starting over. Michael Riemenschneider was 15 years younger, but that did not seem to matter as they fell in love and made plans to open a restaurant.Swiss-born Michael had worked with some of the world’s greatest chefs – including Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay – and seemed destined for similar success. Tatler described Canvas, his Chelsea restaurant, as ‘thrilling’ and the man himself as ‘a scientist and artist rolled into one’. Energised by his talent and dynamism, Flora agreed to bankroll his new venture just weeks after they met in September 2014.
Her new boyfriend told her a restaurant had come up for sale in Frankfurt, Germany. It would need renovation, but he was sure he could turn it into a world-class establishment. Flora, who was involved in a fashion business and property development, was thrilled at this fresh opportunity – and touched that Michael wanted to call the restaurant Atelier Wilma, after his grandmother.
But, from the moment he boarded the plane for Frankfurt just before Christmas (having resigned from Canvas), she felt uneasy. At first, it was because she feared that being so far apart might spoil their relationship. But over the next year or so, as the cost of kitting out the restaurant escalated to more than £2.27 million – way beyond the £300,000 investment she had first envisaged – alarm bells rang for other reasons.
Michael had still not signed their business agreement, but continued to ask for large amounts of money. Flora, suddenly suspicious, hired a private investigator and, in a visit to his office, her dreams turned to dust. ‘I sat for three-and-a-half hours, watching videos and hearing the truth. I couldn’t even cry,’ she says.
It turned out that her boyfriend of 18 months had a string of failed restaurants behind him, yet had somehow acquired a fleet of luxury cars. More woundingly, he had been engaged to four different women over the previous few years and while he was seeing Flora he was living part of the time with another woman.
In the conventional script for this drama, the deceived, older woman nurses her broken heart and tries to hide her shame at being a fool. Not Flora. ‘Here, in front of me, was this coward of a man,’ she says. ‘I took 37 pages of notes [as the detective revealed what he had learned] and I knew from that moment on that this was going to be my story.’