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Priceless

Priceless

Prologue

The St. Honoré Room at the Hotel Bristol in Paris, one of the most elegant private dining rooms in the world, thundered with applause as Cécile Everett rose to accept the Legion d'Honneur honoring her late husband, industrialist Cameron Everett. Soft light from the crystal chandeliers, the candles on the tables and torcheres in the garden bathed the darkened room, while on the podium, Mrs. Everett stood still—the spotlight sparkling off her jewelry and honey-colored hair—and prepared to receive the ribboned sash from the president of France. Once the black-tie crowd of international industrialists and celebrities quieted, the president spoke.

"Your husband was a visionary," he said. "His talents helped fashion the future of French industry."

Mrs. Everett kept her smile firmly in place, posture perfect, hands at her sides. She had a lot of experience at this sort of thing, standing by Cameron when he was alive and being presented with honors and, now, standing alone to receive his posthumous recognition. She knew the president would go on for several more minutes and then she would receive the sash and say a few words. Finally, she would be able to return to her suite and call it a day.

She was a very beautiful, very well-kept woman. How old? Maybe sixty, or seventy, or eighty. Cameron had taken such poor care of himself that by the time he fell dead in mid-sentence at a board meeting at age eighty-two, he looked every year of it. But with Mrs. Everett, it was hard to tell, her plastic surgeons had been so skillful, and the investment in the care of her skin and body over the years had been so huge. She had magnificent skin on her face—pale, translucent, pampered. Her midnight blue satin gown was long-sleeved, high-necked, covering up tell-tale spots and sags on her arms and decolletage that might give better clues as to her actual age. The skin on her hands was white and spotless. Her oval nails short and bright red.

In spite of Cécile Everett's beauty, what really drew the eye was her jewelry. To be sure, her pink diamond and pearl drop earrings, and the stones in her rings and bracelet were extraordinary, but they all paled in comparison to the brooch that was attached to her necklace—the Pink Elephants. It was a large piece of three elephants walking in a row, Papa, Mama and Baby—with Mama and Baby following tail-to-trunk. They were solid pink diamonds, set invisibly in platinum with sapphire eyes and smiling ruby mouths. On the lead elephant's head was a crown of rubies with a diadem: the fabulous Pink Elephant Diamond. The largest, most perfect pink diamond on earth, twenty-seven, brilliant-cut carats of sparkling cotton candy. Cartier had designed and fabricated the piece for Mr. Everett as a twenty-fifth anniversary gift for Cécile—he had given it to her long ago in a tent at Tarangire National Park in Tanzania where they were on safari, surrounded by real elephants and spear-toting Maasai warriors. They'd toasted each other with shots of gin out of stainless steel coffee cups.

Cécile smiled at the memory as she turned to face President Gerard.

"It is my honor to present this award to you on behalf of the French people." The president draped the blue-red-and-white sash over her head where it made a striking contrast against her gown, as she knew it would. He kissed her elaborately on both cheeks.

"Thank you, Mr. President. Cameron always had deep affection for the people of France and this award would have meant more to him than any other. I'm sorry he isn't here to accept it in person. I am proud to accept on his behalf." Mrs. Everett turned to face the room and smiled as the heart-felt applause from her husband's friends and colleagues buffeted her. Then, President Gerard helped her down from the podium and escorted her back to her table. He offered his apologies about having to proceed to his next official engagement and made a quick exit via a side door.

"Excuse me," Mrs. Everett whispered to her seatmate. "You've been so helpful to me all evening, may I ask one more favor?"

"Of course."

"Do you mind walking me back to my room? I'm feeling a little overwhelmed."

"Not at all. It would be my pleasure."

It took several more minutes to make her way through the crowd of well-wishers and into the cool, uncrowded lobby.

"You're so kind to do this," Cécile said. "I'm sorry to take you away from the party."

"Please, Mrs. Everett," her escort replied, holding steadily to her arm, and guiding her into the opulent, old-fashioned elevator cage. "I'm happy to see you safely upstairs. That was a beautiful tribute to your husband."

Cécile nodded. Her eyes were slightly glazed. "I suppose. These evenings just seem to go on for hours. I imagine he's glad he's dead and doesn't have to attend."

They both laughed as the ancient contraption jerked its way to the eighth floor, and the equally ancient operator slid open the door.

"I had almost nothing to drink but it just seemed to hit me. I think I need a good night's sleep." She wobbled slightly as they made their way down the corridor. The companion held her more securely and slid the key into the lock.

"Here we are." The door swung open easily to the exquisite Suite Panoramique with its antiques-filled living room, wood-burning fire place, sumptuous bedrooms, huge white marble bathrooms and private fitness studio. Outside, the lights of the Tour Eiffel and the Sacré-Cœur twinkled across the rooftops of Paris. Below, the traffic on the Faubourg St. Honoré passed in a silent stream.

Dim lights burned on the desk and beyond in the master bedroom.

"Do you need anything? Would you like a nightcap?"

"That sounds wonderful," Cécile answered. "A little scotch, please. Lots of ice."

Ice cubes tinkled in crystal tumblers and single-malt splashed on top. "Is that enough?"

"Perfect, thank you. Salud." She held up her glass and they clinked.

"Salud, Mrs. Everett."

They stood comfortably, side-by-side, admiring the view of Paris as they sipped their drinks.

"I'm so glad the evening's over," Cécile said. Her words came out in a slur. "Oh, dear, that's a sign it's time for me to go to bed." She swayed as she placed her drink on a side table.

"Are you all right? Can I help you?"

"I'm fine. Just so, so tired. Thank you again." She turned and headed toward the bedroom. "Good night, dear. Lovely to see you."

"Good night, Mrs. Everett. Sweet dreams."

Cécile Everett was so concentrated on trying to make it to her bed, she didn't notice that her escort was still on the premises and had casually taken both of the cocktail glasses into the kitchen and was washing them out, drying them carefully to remove all fingerprints, and returning them to the bar. Cécile's head spun, as though she were very, very drunk. She pulled off the jewelry while she walked—earrings, bracelets, rings, necklace—and dropped it all with a clatter onto the glass-topped table in her dressing room. She reached behind her head and unzipped her dress, stepping out of it on her way to the king-sized canopy bed that beckoned like a soft puffy boat.

The companion gave her two more minutes before entering the bedroom and tucking her in under the covers. Cécile was unconscious. She never made a sound or opened her eyes. The rest went like clockwork. It really was ridiculous how easy this was, how trusting these women were, these widows and divorcées. And how helpful that little extra something in her drink was. As usual, it worked like a charm and had the added benefit of being an amnesiac: Mrs. Everett would not be able to remember anything past leaving the party. Furthermore, she would be too embarrassed, too prideful—too frightened of what had become more and more frequent lapses of memory—to admit she'd lost track of the Pink Elephant Diamond.

The array of pink stones lay like a pile of make-believe, dress-up jewelry on the dressing table. Each piece extremely valuable in its own right. But this was a big-game hunt. Any hack could steal jewelry from an incapacitated widow, but for this thief, only the finest trophy, a priceless piece, would do. The Pink Elephant brooch was easily unhooked from its diamond rivière necklace. It went into one pocket and out of another came a small, slightly battered bouquet of shamrocks tied with a satin ribbon. And a note:

The Shamrock Burglar

The thief left the suite—cautioning the maid in the hall with a finger to the lips that Madame was sleeping—returned to the party and danced until two.


Chapter One

"Kick," my husband said.

"Yes, Thomas?" I shook the table cloth and it floated onto the grass like a fresh sheet.

"If this is what you're doing for our six months' anniversary, I can't imagine what you've got in mind for six years."

"Six months of sheer pleasure," I smiled. And that was the truth.

There is so much to be said for love when you're grown. I learned years and years ago—I won't get into exactly how many years, just 'years and years' will do—that a point comes in your life that when you open your eyes in the morning, there'd better be more going on in your bed than matinee idol good looks and a strong libido, because if you're going to make it for the long haul, at some point you're going to need to have a conversation. And if that conversation isn't interesting, well, forget it.

Thomas and I weren't quite yet "Love Among the Ruins," but, thank God, we weren't children with stars in our eyes, either. Let me put it this way: We were experienced. We had the good sense to appreciate the subtleties and refinements of life: when to speak, when to stay silent; the rich satisfaction of enjoying each other's company over excellent food and fine wine; sharing common interests in books and art and music; the pleasure and intimacy of love without any silly show-off acrobatics; long, quiet walks. And finesse. Ah, yes, finesse—the ability to do something grand without appearing to have done anything at all.

"Where do you want me to set the pie?" He'd carried it carefully from the house. I think it was the most perfect lemon meringue pie I'd ever made.

"Here, I'll take it." I placed it in the center of the cloth. "Why don't you open the wine?"

"With pleasure." Thomas slid one of the mildly chilled bottles of Chinon from a wicker basket.

"This is lovely," he said. "Clos Varness '98, I see. Nicely done, Kick."

The late May sun sparkled through the apple tree's limey-green leaves, my apple tree on my beautiful little farm in Provence—La Petite Pomme—just outside of Éygalières. I'd owned the farm for several years. It was as close to paradise on earth as one can get—several acres of crops, sometimes sunflowers, sometimes lambs lettuce, flower, herb and vegetable gardens, and an apple orchard whose trees produced little pink apples, slightly larger than crabapples but smaller than normal. A rocky, olive tree-lined lane meandered its way to the little yellow farm house with its hyacinth blue shutters and jasmine espaliers.

I moved here, permanently, from London over a year ago, happily single, wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. Ill-gotten gains to be sure, but now I'm in the process of trying to rectify all that. I live a completely respectable life, one without secrets. Well, with fewer secrets at any rate. I have so many, it would be impossible to abandon them all at one time.

My name is Kick Keswick and I am—or rather was—the Shamrock Burglar—revered in the annals of London's criminal archives as the finest, most successful, most talented and most notorious jewel thief in all history.

© Marne Davis Kellogg


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