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Papa was behind the Van Court emerald theft last week, wasn't he?" Gianni Coretti kept his voice low as he looked across the table at his brother, Paulo.
The other man shrugged, took a sip of his scotch and smiled faintly. "You know Papa."
Gianni scowled and shoved one hand through his hair. That answer was deliberately vague, he told himself. Yet he hadn't really expected anything different. Of course Paulo would side with their father.
Letting his gaze slide from his brother's, Gianni looked out at the well-lit, exquisitely tended lawns of Vinley Hall. Crouched in the heart of Hampshire, on the southern coast of England, the luxury hotel was always the Coretti family's inn of choicenot only for its innate elegance, but also for its convenience to Blackthorn private airfield.
The Corettis never flew commercial.
Today, Gianni was taking his brother to Blackthorn for a short flight to his home in Paris. On the way, of course, they had stopped for a drink. Paulo had been in London visiting for three days and frankly, to Gianni, it had felt like three years. He didn't care for visitors, not even family. And Paulo in particular could push Gianni to the ends of his patience faster than anyone else he knew.
A waitress in a black skirt and smart white shirt made her way across what was once Vinley Hall's library and now served as an elegant bar. In response to her presence, Gianni switched from English to Italian as he reminded his brother, "You and Papa do remember that just a year ago I bargained with Interpol to get us all immunity for past thefts?"
Paulo shuddered visibly and took another sip of scotch before replying in Italian. "Being that close to that many police? Don't know how you managedor for that matter why you bothered." He set the heavy crystal tumbler down onto the polished oak table and ran his fingertips around the rim. His gaze locked on his brother's. "We didn't ask for immunity."
True. They hadn't asked. But Gianni had secured that promise of safety for them anyway. Unfortunately, his family not only didn't appreciate it, but they were also appalled at the thought of giving up the "family business."
The Corettis had been jewel thieves for centuries. Skills were handed down from one generation to the next. Secrets and tricks of the trade were taught to children who grew into adults with quick hands, quicker minds and the ability to slip in and out of locked doors without leaving a trace of their presence.
There were police on every continent of the globe who would give anything for one iota of evidence against the Corettis. But so far, the family hadn't just been good, they'd been lucky. And Gianni was convinced their luck, eventually, would run out.
Try to tell that to a Coretti, though.
"You're serious about this, aren't you?" Paulo asked.
"About what?" Irritation colored Gianni's tone.
Paulo snorted. "This new life of honesty and goodness, of course."
That irritation inside him flared brighter. "You make it sound as if I'm becoming a" he paused to think of the best way to put it "Boy Scout."
Laughing, Paulo asked, "Aren't you?"
For a year they had been talking about this and still his brother and father didn't understand Gianni's decision. But then, he told himself, it was hardly surprising. A legacy of thievery didn't usually lend itself to suddenly becoming a law-abiding citizen. But Gianni had had an epiphany of sorts more than a year ago.
His sister, Teresa, thank the gods, understood, because she had chosen years ago to leave behind their family traditions. But Teresa was the only one to understand, because the changes he had made to his life had not only perplexed most of his family, but also, at times, himself.
"You have a job now, Gianni." Paulo gave a dramatic shudder again as if the very thought of being employed shook him to his soul. "Corettis do not have jobs. We go on jobs. There is a difference."
Across the room, a fire burned in a stone hearth, casting flickering shadows on the oak-paneled walls. Outside the casement windows, stately trees rattled their leaves in the near constant English wind. It was a perfectly pleasant room that normally he would have enjoyed. If he weren't faced with talking to his hardheaded brother.
"And that difference could send my family to prison."
"It hasn't yet," Paulo reminded him with a smug smile.
No, it hadn't. But Dominick CorettiGianni's fatherwas getting older. And even the best of men lost some of their skills with age. Not that Nick would ever admit to such a thing. So Gianni had arranged for his father's safety because there was simply no chance his papa would survive a prison sentence.
Of course, that hadn't been the only reason Gianni had, as his father continued to phrase it, "betrayed his very heritage." While being a world-renowned thief had its perks, it also wasn't without its downsides. For example, having to look over your shoulder your entire life.
Gianni wanted something else.
And if his father and brother kept screwing up, Gianni's future was in jeopardy, too. In spite of the deal he'd made with certain agents of Interpol, if it was proven that the Coretti family was still making off with the jewels of Europe, he had no doubt that his deal would be broken and that his new "friends" would find a way to lump him in with his family.
"You worry too much, Gianni," Paulo offered. "We are Corettis."
"I know who we are, Paulo."
"Do you?" Tipping his head to one side, the other man studied Gianni for a long moment before saying, "I think you've forgotten. And when you finally remember, you will leave this new life of yours behindeagerly."
Gianni finished his own drink, then stared at his brother. "I know exactly who I am. Who we all are. I gave my word in exchange for the immunity, Paulo."
He snorted again. "To the police." As if that didn't matter.
"It's my word" Gianni growled. "And the deal I struck with Interpol only includes past crimes. If you or Papa are caught now "
"Again you worry." Paulo shook his head. "We will not be caught. We are never caught. Besides, you know Papa. He could no more stop stealing than he could stop breathing."
"I know." Gianni wished he could order another scotch. But once Paulo was on the plane to Paris, he himself would be driving back to his home in Mayfair. And he really didn't need a cop pulling him over for weaving along the streets.
His expression must have been easy to read since Paulo laughed again. "Papa is who he is, Gianni. Also, Lady Van Court was practically begging someone to take those stones."
And the ease of the job would have been impossible for his father to resist. With a sigh, he said, "When you see him, tell Papa to lay low for a while at least until the reporters move on from covering the theft. In fact, if you have to, lock him in the closet at your place."
Paulo laughed, finished his scotch and set the glass down again before standing. "I won't even respond to that last idea, as we both know that it would take more than a simple lock to hold our father when he doesn't wish to be held."
"True enough," Gianni mumbled. He stood up and followed his brother out the door and along the gravel drive to Gianni's car. The airport was a short drive from the inn and all too soon, the brothers were standing on the tarmac with an icy British wind buffeting them.
"Watch your back out there in the world of respectability, brother," Paulo said.
"Watch your own," Gianni told him, pulling his brother in for a hard, brief hug. "And Papa's as well."
"Always," Paulo assured him, then picked up his bag, turned and headed for the private jet waiting for him.
Gianni didn't stay to watch the plane take off. Instead, he walked back to his car and drove home to his new life.
"So," Marie O'Hara whispered into the darkened silence, "clearly, crime pays pretty well."
She was in a position to know, since she was, at the moment, sneaking through the private lair of one of the world's most notorious jewel thieves. Her stomach jumped with nerves and breathing wasn't easy. All of her life, she'd followed the rules, obeyed the law, and tonight, she'd thrown all of that away for a chance at justice. Sadly, that thought didn't help the nerves much. But she was here now and she was determined to search the place quickly and thoroughly.
After following Gianni Coretti for weeks, studying his habits, she was fairly sure the man would be gone for hours, but there was no sense in taking chances.
Marie didn't turn on any lights; she didn't want to risk it. Though the chances of neighbors spotting her slinking through his apartment were slim to none. Gianni Coretti's luxury flat was a tenth-floor penthouse with a spectacular view of London. There was a glass wall of windows displaying that view and letting in enough moonlight that lamps weren't really necessary anyway.
"It's pretty but it's more like a contemporary museum than a home," Marie murmured as she walked across the gleaming, white marble floor. The whole place was white. It was like walking through a marshmallow, except it had too many sharp angles and harsh lines to be that soft and comfy. Shaking her head, she left the sterile, if beautiful, living room behind and continued on through a long hall. The marble ran throughout the flat and her heels made light, quick taps on its surface. She winced at every tiny sound as if it were a bullhorn announcing her presence.
Her short black skirt, sky-high heels and red silk shirt weren't exactly designed for stealth. But she'd had to get past the security guard/doorman and she'd had to dress the part of one of Coretti's many assignations. That was lowering, but it had gotten her past the thief's first line of defense.
The kitchen was as austere and off-putting as the rest of the place. It looked as though it had never been usedrestaurant-grade stove and sub-zero fridge notwithstanding. Just off that kitchen was a dining room with asurpriseglass table, surrounded by six ghost chairs, so that it looked as though there was nothing there even though it took up quite a bit of room.
Shaking her head at the fact that the wrong people had all the money, Marie moved on, headed past two guest rooms and straight for the master bedroom. The closer she got, the faster nerves swam in the pit of her stomach. Marie really didn't have the breaking-andentering personality at all. Unlike the man who owned this palace of white, glass and chrome.
"Honestly, would it kill him to have a little warmth in here?" Her voice seemed to reverberate through the empty flat, making the whole place seem a little creepy.
Shaking her head at her own errant thoughts, she told herself to focus on the reason for this little enterprise. She was there to find something she could use against Gianni Coretti. Sure. No problem. Police around the world had been trying and failing to get evidence against the Coretti family for years. Yet, she reminded herself, she already had one very interesting piece she knew would get Gianni's attention. It had been luck, pure and simple, but sometimes luck was enough.
She just wanted a little more. More was better, especially since she was planning something that most people would consider crazy.
"It's not crazy, though," she assured herself aloud. Creepy or not, she'd rather have the sound of her own voice echoing back at her than the strained silence in this white, ultramodern palace.
The master bedroom also had a wall of glass affording a view of a tenth-floor terrace and the spectacular sweep of nighttime London. Everything in the room was white again, of course.
The oversized bed was against one wall, facing a huge flat-screen TV that hung over a wide fireplace. There were built-in dressers and a walk-in closet and an attached bath that boasted miles of white tile, a bathtub that looked like a gigantic white canoe and a waterfall setup in lieu of a shower.
She might not love all of the white, but Marie could appreciate the luxury of the place even though the style was nothing she would have picked. "You're not here to be a decorator, Marie," she told herself firmly.
Turning to the closet, she looked through everything quickly, neatly. She didn't want Coretti to know anyone had been here. She checked pockets of coats, jackets and slacks. At least the man had taste when it came to clothes. She rifled through drawers and tried not to notice that the thief in question preferred black silk boxers. So not the issue.
When she found nothing, she went down on her knees to look under the bed. Everyone hid things under their beds, didn't they? She spotted a flat, long box and grinned.
"Secrets, Coretti?" she whispered, stretching out on the floor to reach one arm out for it. Her fingernails scraped along the side of the wooden box and she frowned, scooting closer, wedging herself farther under the bed.
Suddenly she went still. Was that a noise? Marie held her breath and waited one second. Two. Then she told herself it was just the nerves battering at her mind and heart. Everything was fine. She was alone in this cold palace. And she was just moments away from discovering whatever it was Gianni Coretti thought was worth hiding. A little farther and got it! She drew the box closer and whispered, "So what am I going to find in there?"
"The question is," a deep voice announced from somewhere behind her, "what is it I've found?"
Marie only had a second to shriek in surprise before two strong hands grabbed hold of her ankles and yanked her away from the bed.
Gianni had known the moment he entered his flat that he wasn't alone. Call it a sixth sense. Call it an ingrained survival instinct, whichever. He'd felt the difference in the place immediately and had slipped effortlessly into the kind of moves he'd left behind him more than a year ago.
Well, thought he'd left behind him. Seemed lifelong skills never really left you. He moved through the apartment without a sound, his body nearly liquid in the way he slipped past furniture and along the walls, blending into shadows. Moonlight slid through the rooms, painting walls and floors in shades of ivory and cream. Gianni listened, tuning his ears to the slightest sound. A whisper of clothing. An unguarded sigh. A scuff of shoes on the floor.
He didn't so much as glance at the wall of windows as he passed, not noticing his own reflection stalking along with him. He moved through familiar rooms and felt that tingle of awareness bubble inside like fine champagne. He focused and followed the instincts clamoring inside him.
The hallway seemed longer than usual, since he was forced to pause and check out the guest rooms and the baths. But he knew even as he made that quick inspection that the intruder wasn't there. He couldn't have explained how he knew, but again, he felt it in his bones. Instinct, intuition, whatever it was, pulled at him and he went with it, continuing on down the hall to the master bedroom.
He heard her before he saw her. Talking to herself in hushed whispers. Her voice sounded low, throaty, and had him intrigued before he even saw her. Gianni stopped on the threshold and looked down at the woman lying on his floor, with one arm stretched out under the bed.
Not a cop.
No cop he'd ever known was built like that.
He did a quick, appreciative scan. Red silk blouse tucked into a very short, figure-hugging black skirt, long, shapely legs and on her small feet a pair of black, four-inch heels.
Definitely not a cop.