Layla faced the mirror and took a deep breath. When she went out there, she had to be effortlessly confident. She certainly looked the part, in a rose-colored Givenchy dress that complemented her olive skin and tasteful diamond earrings. She’d swept her dark hair off her neck into a smooth chignon and her makeup was perfect. She’d been prepping for this night for weeks. I can do this.
She stepped out onto the wide marble stairs leading down to the patio. At least fifty guests had gathered for the soiree, standing in groups around the pool or sitting in the gazebo, gazing out at the Cairo skyline under a nearly full moon, as waiters circulated with champagne and hors d’oeuvres. The guests were an eclectic, international group, ranging from a seventy-eight-year-old Belgian duchess to a twenty-something Japanese deejay, with one important thing in common. They were all extremely rich.
Farwadi joined her on the steps. He was a dapper little man in his mid-forties, wearing a tailored, pale gray suit, with a thick mustache and dark, wavy hair shellacked into place. “Are you ready?” he asked her nervously.
She nodded. “Are you?”
He looked out at his guests and tapped a small fork against the side of his champagne flute. The buzz of conversation quieted down and the guests turned their attention to Farwadi. He raised his glass. “Thank you all for being here tonight. I have someone very special I’d like you to meet. My cousin Layla.” He tipped his glass in her direction and she smiled in return. “Layla is the youngest daughter of my beloved Aunt Fatma. I know that most of you have heard me tell stories about Aunt Fatma and her wild hat collection.” A chuckle from the crowd confirmed this. “She was the only person I loved as much as my own parents. When she married and moved to San Francisco I know it broke my mother’s heart. But she had a good life. Six years ago, we lost this wonderful woman to cancer.”
Layla thought that Farwadi was laying on the sentiment a little thick, but his guests seemed to be eating it up. He went on, “My uncle has since passed away, and my cousins have scattered around the world. But Layla has always made the effort to stay connected to her mother’s side of the family. And now she has moved to Cairo to pursue her interest in Egypt’s rich cultural history. I hope I can count on those of you with expertise in that area”—Farwadi looked pointedly at a few of his guests—“to guide her as she builds her personal collection.” He turned to her and raised his glass again. “Welcome, Layla!”
“Thank you, Nesim,” said Layla. Now several of Farwadi’s friends approached her, inspired by his heartfelt speech, eager to connect with his favorite cousin.
“I met Nesim fifteen years ago at an auction in Bruges . . .”
“I met him in Tokyo . . .”
“. . . in Moscow . . .”
“. . . at my own gallery in Florence. I have some pieces there you might like.”
Her cousin had quickly left Layla’s side, she realized with some worry and annoyance. As she scanned the party, she spotted Miriam Goldman, a world-renowned collector of ancient Sumerian artifacts. Goldman was a widow in her late forties, with glossy, dark brown hair cut in a short, no-nonsense bob. Layla had seen her home in featured in a design magazine.
Layla introduced herself, and congratulated Goldman on her latest acquisition. “I hear that you beat out twelve different bidders for the cylinder seal of Ashur.” By all accounts, the woman was a fierce negotiator who never backed down from a fight.
“Fourteen, actually. It’s a remarkable piece.”
Layla leaned in, lowering her voice to a confidential hush. “Wasn’t there some debate about its authenticity?”
The woman scoffed. “Rumors spread by my competitors to drive down the price. The seal has been authenticated by three different experts, and I’ve personally met the archaeologist who excavated the site.”
“I don’t blame you for being careful,” said Layla. “There’s a lot of fraud in the antiquities market.”
“Yes. There is,” she said. Then she smiled and took the younger woman’s hands in her own. “I would love to introduce you to my boys.”
Goldman led her over to a pair of young men...