Authors: Sidney Sheldon
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
E TURNED AROUND AND
looked back down the empty church, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“She’s not coming, is she? She’s changed her mind.”
“Of course she’s coming, Jeff. Relax.”
Gunther Hartog looked at Jeff Stevens with genuine pity.
How terrible it must be to be so in love.
Jeff Stevens was the second-most-talented con artist in the world. Sophisticated, urbane, rich and charming, Jeff was wildly attractive to the opposite sex. With his athletic build, thick dark hair and intensely masculine aura, Jeff Stevens could have had any woman he wanted. The problem was, he didn’t want
woman. He wanted Tracy Whitney. And with Tracy Whitney, one could never
be sure . . .
Tracy Whitney was
most talented con artist in the world. It had taken Jeff Stevens a long time to realize that he couldn’t live without her. But he knew it now. The sinking feeling in his stomach got worse. Thank God there were no guests in the church. No one to witness his humiliation, apart from Gunther and the crotchety old priest, Father Alfonso.
Where is she?
“She’s fifteen minutes late, Gunther.”
“That’s a bride’s prerogative.”
“No. It’s more than that. Something’s wrong.”
The old man smiled indulgently. He’d been honored when Jeff asked him to be best man at his and Tracy’s wedding. In his late sixties, with no children of his own, Gunther Hartog loved Jeff Stevens and Tracy Whitney like family. Their union meant everything to him, particularly after the blow of their joint decision to go straight. A tragedy, in Gunther Hartog’s opinion. Like Beethoven retiring after his fourth symphony.
Still, it was wonderful being back in Brazil. The warm, wet air. The scent of
bolinhos de bacalhau,
the delicious codfish fritters cooked on every street corner. The riot of color that existed everywhere, from the jungle flowers, to the women’s stunning dresses, to the frescoes and stained glass windows of the tiny, baroque Chapel of St. Rita, where they now stood. All of it made Gunther Hartog feel young again. Young and alive.
“What if Pierpont got wise?” The worry lines deepened on Jeff Stevens’s face. “What if . . . ?
He stopped, midsentence. There, silhouetted in the church doorway, stood Tracy Whitney. The sunlight blazing behind her looked almost like a halo, as if Tracy were an angel sent from heaven.
Jeff Stevens’s heart soared.
Tracy’s slender figure was shown off to perfection in a simple, cream silk dress, and her shining chestnut hair cascaded around her shoulders like poured molasses. Jeff Stevens had seen her in countless guises over the years—Tracy’s was a fluid, changeable beauty, which accounted for part of her success as a con artist—but he had never seen her look more lovely than she did today. Tracy’s mother used to tell her that she had “all the colors of the wind” in her. Jeff Stevens understood exactly what Doris Whitney had meant. Today Tracy’s eyes, incredible eyes that could change from moss green to dark jade according to her mood, sparkled with happiness, and with something else besides. Triumph, perhaps? Or excitement? Jeff Stevens felt his heart rate quicken.
“Hello, Gunther, darling.” Tracy walked purposefully toward the altar, kissing her mentor on both cheeks. “How wonderful of you to come.”
Tracy Whitney loved Gunther Hartog like a father. Tracy missed her father. She hoped he would have been proud of her today.
Turning to Jeff Stevens, she said, “Sorry I’m late.”
“Never apologize,” said Jeff. “You’re far too beautiful for that.”
He noticed that her cheeks were very flushed, and a fine mist of sweat had begun to form on her brow. Almost as if she’d been running.
“I have a good excuse. I was picking up your wedding present.”
“I see.” Jeff smiled back. “Well, I do like presents.”
“I know you do, darling.”
“Especially when they’re from you.”
The priest interrupted grumpily, looking at his watch. “Perhaps we could begin?”
Father Alfonso had a baptism to perform in an hour. He wished these tiresome Americans would get a move on. The explosive sexual chemistry between Jeff Stevens and Tracy Whitney made Father Alfonso deeply uncomfortable. As if he were committing a sin just by standing next to them. On the other hand, they had tipped him very handsomely for the use of the chapel at such short notice.
“So did you get it?” Jeff asked, not taking his gray eyes from Tracy’s.
“My present, of course.”
“Oh yes.” Tracy grinned. “I got it all right.”
Jeff Stevens kissed her passionately on the mouth.
Father Alfonso coughed loudly. “Please, Mr. Stevens. Restrain yourself!
Estão na casa de Deus.
This is a place of worship. You are not yet married.”
“Sorry.” Jeff grinned, looking anything but.
She did it. Tracy did it. She outwitted the great Maximilian Pierpont. After all these years.
Jeff Stevens gazed at his wife-to-be adoringly.
He had never loved her more.
TEN DAYS EARLIER . . .
SCHIPHOL AIRPORT, AMSTERDAM.
RACY WHITNEY LEANED BACK
in her first-class seat, number 4B, and sighed with contentment. In a few hours she would be reunited with Jeff. They would be married, in Brazil.
No more capers,
but I won’t miss them. Life will be thrilling enough just being Mrs. Jeff Stevens.
Their last con, stealing the priceless Lucullan Diamond from the Netherlands diamond-cutting factory in Amsterdam, had been a fitting swan song. Together, Tracy and Jeff had outwitted both the Dutch police and Daniel Cooper, the dogged insurance agent who had tracked them all across Europe, in a daring and dramatic heist.
We’ll never top that,
And we certainly don’t need any more money.
It was the perfect time to retire.
A puffy, dissipated-looking middle-aged man was standing over her. He indicated the window seat. “That’s my seat, honey. Great day for a flight, huh?” There was a leer in his voice as he squeezed past her.
Tracy turned away. She had no interest in making conversation, especially with this creep.
Sitting down, her companion nudged her. “Since we’re going to be seatmates on this flight, little lady, why don’t you and I get acquainted? My name is Maximilian Pierpont.”
Tracy’s mental Rolodex whirred into action, but she displayed no visible sign of emotion.
Maximilian Pierpont. Legendary corporate raider. Buys up companies and strips them. Ruthless. Three times divorced. Owner of most valuable Fabergé egg collection outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
“Countess Valentina Di Sorrenti.” She offered him her hand.
“A countess, eh? Charmed.” Maximilian Pierpont pressed his lips to Tracy’s wrist. They were wet and slimy, like a toad. She forced herself to smile.
Tracy had first heard the name “Maximilian Pierpont” on board the
many years before, when she and Jeff Stevens found themselves passengers on the same voyage bound for London. Jeff had been planning to rob the famously unscrupulous Pierpont, but had ended up pulling an ingenious betting scam with Tracy instead, tricking two chess grand masters into playing each other in a rigged game.
Later, Gunther Hartog had commissioned Tracy to rob Pierpont on the Orient Express train to Venice, but he never turned up.
Tracy’s beloved mother, Doris Whitney, had killed herself after a local mafioso in her native New Orleans, Joe Romano, tricked her out of her family business. Tracy’s father had spent his life building up the Whitney Automotive Parts Company. After his death, Romano raided the company, firing everybody and leaving Doris penniless.
Tracy had long since taken her revenge on Joe Romano. But her hatred of corporate raiders never left her. As far as she was concerned, there was a special corner of hell reserved for the Maximilian Pierponts of this world.
You won’t get away this time, you bastard.
THE FLIGHT WAS LONG.
Tracy chatted amiably with Pierpont for almost two hours before he fell asleep, snoring loudly like a beached walrus. It was enough time for her to embellish her alter ego a little. Tracy had played the Countess Valentina Di Sorrenti before and knew her history well. (She’d written the countess’s Wikipedia page, after all.) Valentina was a widow
(Poor Marco! He died so young and so needlessly. A Jet Ski accident in Sardinia. Valentina witnessed it all from the upper deck of their yacht,
and came from an ancient, aristocratic family. She had recently lost her father and hinted at a large inheritance, without being drawn into details. Details were best avoided, in Tracy’s experience, especially while a con was still being formulated. She also made sure to display a charmingly feminine lack of understanding about financial matters and the ways of the world that made Maximilian Pierpont’s greedy eyes shine almost as much as they did when he looked at her breasts, something he did frequently and with no hint of embarrassment. By the end of the conversation, Countess Valentina had agreed to meet him for dinner the following evening at one of Rio’s finest restaurants.
Relieved that the odious Pierpont was finally asleep, Tracy picked up an in-flight magazine. The first article she read was about the soaring value of beachside property in Brazil. One featured estate boasted an Olympic-size infinity pool and formal gardens that could have rivaled those at the palace of Versailles. Tracy ran a finger over the pictures in awe.
Jeff and I could be happy in a place like that. Our children could swim in the pool. They’ll all be amazing swimmers. And one day our daughter could get married in the gardens, with a line of flower girls in front of her, carpeting the lawn with rose petals . . .
She laughed at herself. Perhaps they should get married themselves first. One fantasy at a time.
The second article was about the environment, and the devastating effects of erosion on communities south of Rio. Tracy read about farmers who’d lost everything, of entire villages that had been abandoned, reclaimed by the sea. She read about terrible accidents, in which slum dwellers by the coast had drowned, and those inland had been buried alive under rivers of wet mud.
What a terrible way to die,
thought Tracy. In Brazil, more than anywhere else in the world, there was one country for the rich and another for the poor.
It wasn’t until the seat-belt signs were switched back on and the plane began its descent into Rio that it came to her. As the images rolled through her consciousness one by one—of her and Jeff at an altar, getting married; of infinity pools and mansions and slums and mudslides; of Maximilian Pierpont pressing his revolting wet lips to her skin; of her mother, eyes shut tight, holding the revolver up to her temple—she suddenly murmured the word “Yes!”
“You all right, little lady?”
Pierpont, awake again now, leaned in closer. His breath smelled of stale onions.
“Oh, sorry. Yes, I’m fine.” The Countess Valentina collected herself. “I love to visit Brazil. I always get excited when I’m going down.”
“So do I, baby.” Maximilian Pierpont squeezed her thigh and winked suggestively. “So do I.”
MAXIMILIAN PIERPONT TOOK TRACY
to Quadrifoglio, a Michelin three-star restaurant in the quaint, backstreet neighborhood of the Jardim Botânico.
“This is really too generous of you, Mr. Pierpont.”
“Please, call me Max.”
“Max.” Countess Valentina Di Sorrenti smiled.
She was looking particularly ravishing tonight, in a white lace Chanel blouse and floor-length black skirt from Ralph Lauren that emphasized her tiny waist. The diamonds at her ears and neck were flawlessly cut, perfect enough to convey serious wealth, yet small enough to mark her out as “old money.” Max Pierpont was a vulgar man, but he despised vulgarity in others, especially women. No danger of that with this lady. Max had Googled the Countess Di Sorrenti as soon as they landed. Her family was one of the oldest and grandest in South America.
Max wondered how long it would take him to get her out of her couture clothes and into his bed.
“So, Valentina. What brings you to Rio?” He filled Tracy’s glass to the brim with red wine from the bottle of vintage Quinta de la Rosa he’d just ordered.
The Countess Di Sorrenti’s beautiful face fell. “Business.” She looked up at Pierpont with sad, soulful eyes. “And tragedy. My father recently passed away, as I told you.”
Maximilian Pierpont reached across the table and closed his clammy hand over hers.
“He left me a beautiful property. Almost a mile of land along the coast. I thought of building a home there. It could be an exquisite estate. I have all the permissions to build and the views . . . Well, you have to see it to believe it. But”—she sighed heavily—“it was not to be.”
“Why not?” Like a hound picking up the scent of a fox, Maximilian Pierpont’s business instincts stirred to life. Coastal property in Brazil was going through the roof.
“It would make too sad. Always to be thinking of Papa.” The Countess Di Sorrenti gave a heartfelt sigh.
“That’s a shame. So what will you do with the land?”
Maximilian Pierpont framed the question casually. But Tracy could see the naked greed flickering in his piggy little eyes. She sipped at her wine.
“I thought about keeping it as is. But in the end I decided it was too much of a waste to let it just sit there.
should enjoy the beauty of that spot, even if I can’t.”
“That’s a very generous way of looking at it. I can see you’re a real giving person, Valentina.”
“Thank you, Max.”
Their food arrived. With typical arrogance, Max had ordered for both of them, although Tracy had to admit that the food was delicious. The
polenta caviar with egg yolk—was a highlight. Tracy could see why the likes of Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro had chosen to dine here, along with all of Rio’s business elite.
“Perhaps we could help each other out, Countess.” Maximilian Pierpont shoveled food into his mouth as if he were eating at a McDonald’s.
“Valentina,” Tracy purred.
“Well, Valentina, it just so happens that real estate is one of my passions. I could take the land off your hands and build something beautiful there. If I sell it for a good price, we could split the profits. How does that sound? That way the land wouldn’t be wasted, and everybody would gain.”
“It’s a lovely idea.” Tracy sighed again, leaning back in her chair. “If only I’d met you sooner, Max. But I’m afraid it’s too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“I already agreed to sell the land to the Church. It’s six acres, the perfect site for a small monastic community. Monsignor Cunardi showed me his plans for the chapel he wants to erect there. Very simple and elegant. I think Papa would have approved.”
Maximilian Pierpont experienced a stabbing pain in his chest.
Forget Papa. Who builds a church on prime beachfront land in Rio?
“May I ask how much the monsignor has offered you?”
“Five million Brazilian reals. He’s been very generous.”
Maximilian Pierpont almost choked on his Quinta de la Rosa. Five million reals was a little more than $2 million. Six acres of land on the coast,
planning permission, was worth ten times that amount at least! The stupid bitch clearly hadn’t even had the property appraised.
“It’s a good price, Valentina.” He looked at Tracy with a straight face. “But what if I could do better? Say I offered you six million. As a friend. I could build your dream estate exactly as you imagined it.”
“Well, that would be wonderful, Max!”
“Great.” Pierpont grinned triumphantly. What a stroke of luck, meeting this rich, sexy airhead on the flight. Now he would get to screw her
screw her over. And all for the price of one measly dinner! “When can I see the property?”
Tracy gave him a pained expression. “I’m afraid it’s too late.”
“What do you mean”
“My deal with Monsignor Cunardi closes tomorrow.”
“Yes. That’s why I’m here, to oversee the transfer of the funds. If only we’d met sooner. Anyway, enough about business. I must be boring you stiff! I hear the desserts here are to die for.”
She began to peruse the dessert menu. Maximilian Pierpont wore the expression of a man who could feel millions of dollars slipping through his fingers.
“Look. I don’t need to physically
the land. You say you have the necessary planning permissions?”
Tracy nodded gravely.
“If you could get me copies of those tomorrow morning, along with the deeds to the property, that’d be enough. Do you think that’s possible, Valentina?”
“Well, yes!” The Countess Di Sorrenti’s eyes lit up. “Of course. But surely you wouldn’t want to pay such a huge amount of money without even
the land? I mean, one has to walk there to understand the true magic of the place. Papa always said—”
“I’m sure.” Maximilian Pierpont cut her off, unable to listen to another minute of her vacuous rambling. As if he gave a damn about the “magic” or her stupid dead father. He
still want to maneuver the countess into bed. But he’d better wait until the deal was done first.
“Well . . .” Tracy smiled broadly. “I’ll send over the paperwork in the morning, then. I must say, this really is incredibly kind of you, Max.”
“Not at all, Valentina. I’d hate to see your dream for that land slip away. Waiter!” Maximilian Pierpont clicked his fingers imperiously. “Bring us some champagne. The best in the house! Countess Di Sorrenti and I are celebrating.”
THAT NIGHT JEFF CALLED
“I’m trying to reach the future Mrs. Stevens.”
Just hearing his voice again made Tracy’s heart leap.
“I’m afraid you have the wrong number. This is the Countess Valentina Di Sorrenti.”
No man had ever gotten to Tracy the way that Jeff did. Not even Charles Stanhope III, the first man she’d thought she wanted to marry, back in Philadelphia, in another life. Charles had betrayed her. When Tracy was sent to prison for a crime she didn’t commit, Charles Stanhope III hadn’t lifted one powerful finger to help her.
Jeff Stevens was different. Tracy trusted him with her life. And he had saved her life once. That was when Tracy first realized that he loved her. Every day with Jeff was an adventure. A challenge. A thrill. But the irony wasn’t lost on her:
The one person on this earth that I trust completely is a con man.
Jeff said, “I thought you said we were done with capers?”
“We are. Just as soon as I’m done with this. It’s Maximilian Pierpont, for God’s sake!”
“How long will it take?” Tracy could hear the pout in his voice.
He misses me. Good.
“A week. Maximum.”
“I can’t wait that long, Tracy.”
“Valentina,” Tracy teased. “Although you can call me ‘Countess.’ ”