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Authors: Peter Mayle

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Chapter
22

Ah, the joys of entertaining.

The Fitzgerald house was being transformed for the party that would take place the following evening. Workmen were putting up the white canvas awnings around the terraces. Three men with musical credentials were assembling the miniature bandstand, and deliveries seemed to be arriving every five minutes: Trois Étoiles Chez Vous, the most fashionable catering company on the coast, had organized tablecloths, napkins, and cutlery, and a supply of every kind of intoxicating liquid, from Champagne to beer. Three dozen
flambeaux,
the flaming torches that were an indispensable part of Riviera parties, were being installed at strategic points along the drive and around the garden. And then there was a fusillade of phone calls, principally from the florists, who were dithering about the correct balance between orchids and lilies. In the midst of it all was Kathy. She had been joined by Coco, who had volunteered to act as interpreter and second in command. Fitz had, very wisely, locked himself in his office until the dust settled.

Kathy pushed the hair from her eyes and drew a deep breath. “I don't know what I'd have done without you,” she said to Coco. “You've been terrific.”

“I've enjoyed it,” said Coco. “The house is going to look wonderful. Now tell me—what are you going to wear? The men will all be in dinner jackets.”

Before Kathy could reply, the phone rang yet again. It was Philippe, who was in Nice, asking if he and Mimi could come by for one last look at the arrangements. “Sure you can,” said Kathy, by now almost giddy with pre-party anticipation. “Come on over.”

By a happy coincidence, when they arrived half an hour later the last of the
flambeaux
were being placed along each side of the drive, and Mimi hopped out of the car to take a quick shot. “These will look sensational at night when they're lit.” Then she took another shot, this time of Kathy, who was walking up the drive to meet them.

“Absolutely not for publication,” said Kathy, with a smile. “My hair's a total mess. Now, where shall we start?”

They toured the terraces. They admired the bandstand, the long dinner table, the placing of smaller tables and chairs around the pool, with Mimi making notes or taking shots of promising locations.

As they were leaving, Philippe asked Kathy, “What time would you like us to get here this evening?”

“Listen,” said Kathy, “as far as Fitz and I are concerned, you're two of our guests, and we want you to enjoy the evening—pre-dinner drinks, dinner, dancing, the works. I just know the other guys are going to love you.”

“Well,” said Mimi, “this place is a photographer's dream. I think you'll be pleased. This is going to be one of those evenings we call ‘suitable for framing.' ”

—

On their way back to Marseille, Mimi and Philippe compared this with their recent experience of eating in the hotel kitchen at the Sofitel. “You've met more Americans than I have,” said Mimi. “Are they all like that—you know, generous and so enthusiastic?”

“I think so,” said Philippe. “It must be something in the genes. They make some of us Europeans look like a pretty sad bunch. Anyway, it's going to be a good evening, I think. Let's stop off and see Elena and Sam—tell them to be on their best behavior.”

They found Elena and Sam at their new house, in a state of mild euphoria. All the kitchen equipment had just been installed, and they were playing with the appliances like a couple of children with a bunch of new toys.

“Isn't this great?” said Elena. “It might even get Sam to take up cooking.”

Sam was scratching his head over a manual that described the joys of using a ceramic hob to prepare his culinary triumphs. “Not a chance,” he said cheerfully. “I'll never figure out how all these damn things work.”

But Elena wasn't going to let him off the hook. “I'm going to have Alphonse come over. He'll explain everything.” She turned to Mimi. “How did you get on at the Fitzgeralds'?”

“Very good. It would be difficult to take a bad shot there. It's a marvelous setting, and they've decorated it beautifully. Coco has done a great job.”

At the mention of Coco's name, Sam looked up from his manual. “She's over there a lot, isn't she?”

“Kathy says she's a godsend.”

We'll see, thought Sam. We'll see.

—

The morning of the party saw Kathy up early, looking for any signs of unsettled weather. But the sky was deep blue, with only two small cotton-ball clouds fighting a losing battle with the rising sun. Greatly relieved, she saw that this was going to be one of the three hundred days of sunshine promised each year by the tourist board.

She set off on yet another check of the preparations. The awnings were perfect, the little bandstand quite charming, the tables and chairs around the pool arranged just so, the
flambeaux,
even unlit, promising to look spectacular. She consulted the list that had been her constant companion for the past several days: just three last-minute arrivals—the caterer with the food, the florist, and the hairdresser Coco had organized for the houseguests—were scheduled for today. It was all going according to plan.

—

Six thirty on a glorious evening, and the advance party had already arrived. Kathy had asked Elena, Mimi, Philippe, and Sam to come early, and they were having a drink on the terrace with Coco. They made an elegant group: Coco and Elena in their best long dresses, Mimi in her black silk frock coat and white silk pants, Philippe in a white dinner jacket, and Sam, who disliked dressing up, in what he called undertaker's black.

“Coco, I'm impressed,” said Elena. “With all you have going on, how did you manage to do so much for Kathy?”

“Oh, it was a pleasure—much easier than dealing with a bunch of temperamental workmen. Although I must say they did a good job on your kitchen. I hope you're pleased.”

“Thrilled,” said Elena. “I'm going to buy Sam a chef's hat to celebrate.”

The reluctant chef was quick to change the subject. “Tell us about the other guests.”

“I think you'll like them. They're amusing, and they love parties. It should be a very pleasant evening, as long as I can keep Hubert from joining the musicians.”

“Why's that?”

“He tries to sing, and it's terrible.” Coco shuddered. “Like a frog croaking.”

The sound of suppressed giggling and the clatter of high heels announced the arrival of Kathy, Fitz, and their six houseguests. The ladies were resplendent, with diamonds everywhere—necklaces and earrings, brooches and bracelets.

“Putain!”
said Philippe to Sam, in a whisper. “It looks like a Cartier sales convention.”

Mimi was already organizing the ladies into a glittering group in front of their husbands, ensuring that everyone had a glass of Champagne and the widest possible smile.

She was still taking the “just one more” shot that photographers can never resist when the other guests started to arrive. Armand and Edouard, the gay couple who worked in one of the big Paris fashion houses, were first, both in white suits with matching red carnations in their buttonholes. They were obviously friendly with the next arrival, the ageless Nina de Montfort, accompanied by her latest young admirer, and there was a minor explosion of air kisses and compliments.

Coco, of course, was the only one who knew everybody, and she was in charge of making the introductions, followed closely by Philippe, who was busy putting names to faces.

Some were easier than others. For instance, the polo-playing Alain Laffont, tall, dark, and thirsty, and the equally statuesque Stanislavska, were not a pair one could forget. But Coco's new clients, the Osbornes, although young and pleasant, were in no way memorable. Hubert, the cosmetic surgeon crooner, and his wife, the wrinkle-free Eloise, had a certain bizarre charm. And finally there was Coco's father, Alex, suave and deeply tanned.

Coco had asked Elena and Sam to circulate, and Sam made at once for Alex Dumas. “Hi,” he said. “I'm Sam, one of Coco's satisfied clients. You must come around and see what she's done for us. How long are you down here for?”

Alex smiled and shrugged. “Not long, unfortunately. But I come down to see her quite often. Maybe during my next visit? How about you? I hope you'll have time to enjoy your house.”

While Sam was getting the measure of Alex, Elena had been chatting to Armand and Edouard, who had immediately made a good impression.

“What a fabulous dress,” said Edouard. “Where did
that
come from?”

“Not Paris, I'm afraid. It was a little place in L.A.”

“Do you know, I thought so,” said Armand. “Americans are
so
good with bosoms.” He kissed his fingertips, and Elena could feel herself blushing.

Fitz had moved in on Alex to renew the acquaintance that had begun in Paris, and Sam had taken his empty glass to the bar, where he was suddenly joined by Nina de Montfort, eyelashes aflutter as she looked him up and down.

“Where have
you
been hiding?”

Chapter
23

Elena was not amused. “Sam Levitt, I was watching you with that woman. What did you think you were doing?”

“Mingling, my sweet. Kathy told me to mingle, and I was mingling.”

“You had your arm around her waist.”

“Mimi's fault. She wanted to take a picture of us. I could hardly stand six feet away. So relax. You know that I am forever a slave to your charms.”

“I know that you're full of it. But if you get me a drink I'll forgive you.”

They stood at the bar, watching the crowd. Hubert had persuaded Mimi to take a selfie of the two of them. Nina was now having a very intimate conversation with Alain, the polo player. The American guests seemed to have established an
entente cordiale
with the French. Coco and Kathy were doing the rounds from group to group. The atmosphere was convivial, with plenty of laughter. It looked as though Coco's prediction of an amusing evening was coming true.

Kathy called for everybody's attention by climbing up on the bandstand and waving her arms. “OK, everyone—it's time we gave you something to eat. Follow me.”

She led the way over to the west terrace, where name cards had been provided for each place. To his relief, Sam found that he was seated between two of the houseguests, a safe distance from Nina de Montfort. Elena was also pleased when she found that she would be sitting between Armand and Edouard, with the promise of some indiscreet fashion gossip. When everyone was seated, Mimi asked them all to raise their glasses toward the camera, and she took a few quick shots.

Kathy took over to make a short speech of welcome, which ended with heartfelt thanks to Coco for all her help. “Not only all this,” she said, waving an arm at the table, the flowers, and the other decorations, “but she even fixed us up for a weekend on the beach in Saint-Tropez. What a girl! Please join me in a toast to my friend and guardian angel, Coco Dumas.”

Conversation resumed, and dinner was served, a light summer banquet: chilled Green Zebra gazpacho, cold lobster on basil linguine, and, for homesick Americans, chocolate cheesecake. As coffee was served, the band on the other side of the house could be heard getting into their first number, an upbeat version of
La Mer.

Some guests stayed, chatting at the table; others drifted off toward the music. Sam guided Elena onto the tiny dance floor, where they could catch up on how they spent dinner.

“Those two guys,” said Elena. “They're scandalous. You have no idea what goes on in those Parisian fitting rooms.”

“Do I want to?”

“Probably not. How was your dinner?”

“Fine. Two very nice women, and you'll be pleased to hear I didn't lay a hand on either of them.
Ouch!”

“Sorry. Was that your foot?”

Other couples had joined them on the floor. Fitz, a latter-day Fred Astaire, was gliding Stanislavska around the floor, and Alain was doing the same with Kathy. Nina and her young admirer, Hubert and Mrs. Hoffman, each couple was exhibiting its ballroom techniques, with Mimi flitting among them. The reaction of dancers to the camera varied—the more adventurous men bending their partners backward, the others smiling or waving. Nina had taken a rose from the vase on her table and tucked it into her cleavage before posing for Mimi.

—

The dance floor had filled up, and Elena and Sam were taking a break. They noticed that Coco's father was dancing with his daughter, hardly moving and deep in conversation, when they were distracted by the sight of Hubert making his way in a determined fashion toward the bandstand. Coco, fearing an outbreak of singing, left her father, swooped on Hubert, and twirled him into the middle of the floor. Her deserted dad shrugged, smiled, and came over to join Elena and Sam.

“Poor Coco,” said Elena. “Does she have to do that often?”

“I don't think she minds. She'd rather do that than have him sing. Are you both having a pleasant evening?”

Sam nodded. “I think everybody is, largely thanks to Coco. She's really worked hard. I hope she gets a little rest in Saint-Tropez.”

Alex shook his head. “Unfortunately, we both have to be in Paris for a meeting on Monday. One of my friends has bought a place near here and Coco has some ideas to show him.” He looked across the dance floor. “I see she's managed to get Hubert away from the band—I'd better go and help her guide him to the bar.”

With a final flourish of the guitar, the music had stopped, to be replaced by a roll of the drums. Stanislavska, who had been a frequent visitor to the bar, was standing in the middle of the floor, one arm raised. Slowly, she bent forward and took hold of the hem of her long dress. More drumrolls as, inch by inch, she pulled the dress up to her hips and kicked off her shoes.

“Is this the cabaret?” said Sam.

“Well, I don't think she's going to sing.”

She didn't. Instead, she performed a slow-motion split to a rapt, mainly masculine audience. One last drumroll, and she was finished, her head bowed down. There was a brief silence, and then a burst of applause as she stood up, bowed, picked up her shoes, and sauntered off the floor.

“Well, that definitely beats singing,” said Sam. “What do you think she does for an encore?”

—

A few minutes after midnight, Mimi and Sam were talking to Kathy when they saw a car coming down the driveway. Mimi started checking her camera.

Sam was squinting into the headlights as the car pulled up. “This is a hell of a time to arrive at a party.”

Kathy smiled. “These aren't guests. It's the security service. Great guys—they come by every hour all through the night.” She turned to Mimi. “I'm sure they'd love a picture.” She beckoned them to get out of the car.

Mimi placed the men on the side of the driveway between two of the
flambeaux. “Alors,”
she said. “Look fierce.”

The two men put on their sunglasses, puffed out their chests, scowled, and folded their arms. “Perfect,” said Mimi. “I'll give the shots to Madame Fitzgerald.”

By the time they had rejoined the party, it was beginning to wind down. The band was playing one slow, romantic tune after another, and it was time for the first farewells. Once again the night air was filled with the sound of air kisses, murmured vows of friendship, and the exchange of invitations to lunches and dinners that often mark the last moments of a successful party.

But for Fitz, the evening wasn't over. He had raided his private bar and found a 1936 Cognac that he said would be the only fitting way to end the day. His exhausted houseguests declined, having already had too much of a good thing, and so they left Fitz with Kathy, Mimi, Elena, Philippe, and Sam.

The
flambeaux
were flickering, the moon was up, the scent of the flowers as smooth and intoxicating as the Cognac; it was one of those rare moments of shared well-being, and there was a long, contented silence, finally broken by Fitz.

“Great evening,” he said. “I thought all you girls looked terrific.” He looked over at Kathy and winked. “Good to see all those jewels get an outing.”

“Certainly was,” said Sam. “That was quite a display.” He took a thoughtful sip of Cognac. “I hope you won't mind my saying this, but I wouldn't recommend that you take them down to Saint-Tropez. There have been one or two incidents on the coast with hotel safes that weren't too safe.”

Kathy was nodding. “You're so right. That's why I've told the girls we'll all have to make do with beach jewelry, and leave the Sunday-best stuff here. Fitz had this safe installed—it's as big as a coffin, with a door six inches thick. Plus, there are those security guys. Anyone tries to break in, they're here in two minutes. So I think we'll be fine.”

“Good,” said Sam. “Oh, before I forget. There's a great beach restaurant not far from where you'll be staying, Le Club 55. Very informal—you can have lunch in your bikini.”

Fitz grinned, and patted his stomach. “I'll bear that in mind.”

BOOK: The Diamond Caper
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