When Nathan Ford was sober, his curiosity was boundless. Poking into dark corners where others didn’t look for fear of the dark was one of his many obsessions. It was also what made him the investigator he used to be and the mastermind he was today.
Trying to function in the present to keep from slipping into his past pain and grief, his attention turned to the remaining members of his crew after Sophie’s departure. Parker and Hardison were complex personalities, but straightforward enough that they didn’t hold Nate’s attention for long.
Tara didn’t even appear as a blip on his curiosity’s radar. A grifter used to working alone spelled ex-spook to him so he dismissed her out of hand except---she kept after Eliot. Sophie must have warned Tara that to win over the team she would need to be in the retrieval specialist’s good graces, and Nate didn’t particularly like the extra attention the blonde gave ‘his’ hitter.
With Sophie having jumped ship, Nate struggled not to suffocate the remaining three with his need to keep them close. Since Sam’s death and his divorce from Maggie he seemed to have developed a few abandonment issues. He could always tell when he was coming on too strong. Eliot would narrow his stormy eyes and intercept Nathan’s attempts to collar and leash Parker and Alec.
That steel-eyed look and a low growl would make Nate back off and leave them in peace until the alcohol no longer quieted the anxiety and their dance would start again.
Nathan Ford watched from the deck of the ship as Eliot herded his crew…no…his family onto the helicopter. The expression on the retrievalist’s face did not bode well for Nate when they met up again. For now he was no better than Sophie in Eliot’s eyes. He had conned his own team, and though Eliot would stay he would no longer trust the mastermind.
All these thoughts raced through his mind as his knees began to buckle. He knew the others had lost a lot of respect for him when he had taken that first drink after almost a year sober, but knowing he had lost Eliot’s trust left him colder than his blood loss.
Oft times the team would spend time together between jobs---but Nate now saw more of Sophie and Hardison than Eliot and Parker.
After the job at the high school reunion Eliot disappeared. When Nate asked Hardison to find him the hacker refused.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Nate looked incredulous.
“We got a system. It ain’t time to find him.” Alec went back to his research for their next job.
“What system?” Nate closed the lid on the laptop.
“Ask Sophie, I’m busy.” Nate stared as the hacker snatched up the computer and left.
“It’s Eliot’s system.”
Nate startled at Parker’s voice and spun around so fast he fell backwards onto the couch.
“Parker!” Nate’s hand shook as he lifted the glass of whiskey from the end table.
“What!? You said you wanted to know.”
Nate’s heart finally stopped thumping like a jackhammer against his ribs. He gestured with his glass for her to continue.
“So what’s this system?”
“When we leave town we give the others a date.”
“If we’re not home or call by that date then we start looking.” Parker said with her head in the freezer. “Ah cool. There’s some left.” She pulled out a package.
“What if I want him for something?” Nate queried as he watched her pull something out of a bag and toss it in the microwave.
“Want don’t count. You gotta need. Eliot always knows when we NEED him. Like this one time while you were in jail and Sophie…”
“PARKER!” Sophie’s voice cut through the thief’s recitation. “Nate doesn’t need to hear about the boring stuff we did while he was away.”
“Actually I do.” Nate’s quiet voice was an undercurrent to the two women, which they ignored.
Nate sighed into his glass as he tried to formulate a plan to corner Eliot when he returned.
That same retrieval specialist, hitter, enigma was standing in the dining room of one of the grand dames of New York City frowning darkly at the occupants, arms crossed over his chest.
The three culprits sank back into their chairs and continued their meal. June and Mozzie exchanged a smirk over Neal’s head as the doorbell rang. Eliot was headed that way before the chime completed its dulcet tune. All three heads turned toward the door when they heard the strident tones of FBI agent Peter Burke followed by the Eliot’s growled response.
“I know everything I need to know about my boy, Agent Burke. Just ‘cause your wife’s outta town don’t mean you can intrude on Neal’s free time for a little entertainment.”
“If you’re insinuating…”
“Ain’t insinuatin’ nothin’. Got eyes and ears.” Eliot snarled. “She goes, you come sniffin’ ‘round like a hound on the hunt. Heard ya talkin’ down to ‘im…makin’ ‘im feel like ya don’t trust ‘im… bringin’ ‘im low.” Eliot dropped his voice to keep the others from hearing. “Ya don’t start treatin’ my boy right he can disappear.”
“What? Gotta a fancy FBI issue trackin’ anklet, made a deal with the Feds to be their pet thief for four years? I know people that can make it look like he’s sittin’ on yer lap at Fibbie headquarters while I got ‘im thousands of miles away. So don’t push me Agent. Burke.” Eliot’s tone sounded like Peter was something he’d scraped off the bottom of his boot. “The second he don’t wanna be here…I’ll be takin’ ‘im.”
Giving him a predatory smile, Eliot shut and locked the door.
Peter Burke was flummoxed. June had never denied him access to Neal, even when she knew the young man didn’t want the FBI agent around. She feared retaliation from the agency against Neal so went out of her way to be accommodating, but the man who had just faced him down and called him on his behavior didn’t seem even remotely acquainted with the word fear when paired with the initials FBI. He pulled himself out of his stupor and headed home. He wished El was home. He really needed to talk this out with her, see if her observations matched that of the wolf that kept him from Neal’s door.
“I didn’t slave over a hot stove all afternoon so you could stir my cookin’ into pabulum, darlin’.” Eliot’s rough tones made Neal gasp as they suddenly appeared in his ear.
“I…” Seeing the expression on Eliot’s face, Neal knew there was no winning.
After which, Eliot shoved him up the staircase to his rooms and into the shower.
“You smell like Feds. All I wanna smell is Neal.” Eliot voice rumbled as he nipped an earlobe causing the slender thief to shiver in anticipation.
Peter watched Neal slink through the room like a tom cat on the prowl. He looked and acted more like himself than he had since Kate’s death. A long talk with his wife had cooled his anger at the long-haired stranger who had accused him of mentally abusing Neal.
Instead of taking his side she pointed out that some of the remarks he thought were witty could be hurtful and make it seem like Neal was somewhere under Satchmo on his friends list.
“Honey, you send Neal mixed messages. You worry and nag when he’s in danger, but you know all his soft spots. Sometimes you lash out and hurt him worse than the bad guys.” Elizabeth’s voice was soothing but firm, “He’s changing---try giving him the benefit of the doubt once in a while.”
He blinked back to the present as Neal sauntered into his office and they settled into their case.
“Neal, who was the man that answered the door last night?” Peter looked out the corner of his eye as he sipped his coffee.
“A friend.” Ernest pale eyes turned on the agent. “I do have friends, Peter.” Neal turned away to refill his cup.
He used the time to paste on his game face.
“Is he a bad guy?”
Peter’s breath caught in his throat at the soft expression that crossed Neal’s face before the slick smile was back.
“Naw. He’s the best. Always got your back no matter what---if you know what I mean.” Neal winked and walked back to his desk before Peter’s brain started to function enough to ask any more questions.
Still stung from his conversations the night before, Peter took time to watch Neal. He felt a swell of pride when other agents came to young man to get his opinion on their cases. Neal had really carved a place for himself in the White Collar division.
That pride crumbled later in the day as he paused in hall to make sure he had the file he needed for today’s departmental overview. He caught the voices of other agents heading to the same meeting.
“If you’re stumped go ask Burke’s pet con. A pat on the head and an ‘atta boy’, and Caffrey will roll over and show you his belly.”
Peter felt the bile rise in his throat. Apparently his off-handed treatment of Neal caused the other agents to consider him merely an asset. He remembered the long haired man’s words from the night before.
“Ya don’t start treatin’ my boy right he can disappear.”
Peter turned the corner and turned over a new leaf.
“Gentlemen, I couldn’t help but overhearing…” The conversation went downhill from there. Senior Agent, Peter Burke stepped to the plate for his friend and co-worker, Neal Caffrey.
Warm, bruised and sated, Neal burrowed into Eliot’s side. The man was like a living furnace.
“Eliot, why are you here?” Neal’s tone was tentative.
Eliot cracked open one eye. “Seriously? Was that your clone I just had my wicked way with?” He chuckled.
“Besides that. You’ve been in New York an awful lot in the past year.”
“You really suck at pillow talk, sweetheart.” Eliot rolled with a cat’s grace out of the bed and away from a suddenly cold Neal.
“You’re the only one that I’ve kept. The only one that knows all of me, Nicky.” The usual rasp was a choked growl as Eliot fought his emotions.
He clamped his mouth shut and escaped the room still pulling on his shirt.
Before Neal could follow he heard the cold tones of Eliot Spencer, retrieval specialist on the phone.
“That job you wanted done…text me the details and have my fee ready. I’ll call you when it’s done.”
“Spencer.” Neal tried again. He hoped using Eliot’s real name would pull him back.
“I came here for you. Only for you. When Moz called after the explosion I’d already heard and was on my way. Since it seems you don’t want or need me anymore I might as well make it a profitable trip. Gotta keep the old skills sharp.” Eliot sneered.
“Please, Spencer, come back to bed and in the morning you can tell me about the job you just took.” Neal cajoled.
Eliot never moved. Then he looked at the man who had grown from the skinny kid Eliot took under his wing when he was a senior and Neal was the new kid, and a freshman in high school. Back when they had different names and normal lives.
He was a sucker for those liquid blue eyes then and he was still a sucker for them now. His growl was all bluster as he followed the slender con man back to bed.
“What’s the job?” Neal asked as he started into his breakfast with an enthusiasm he’d lacked since the explosion.
“Simple retrieval. Ruby and emerald necklace client gives his mistresses. They’re supposed to return it when he trades ‘em in for a younger model. The last one kept it.” Eliot explained around a bite of omelet.
His look turned sly. “She just loooves that artist…what’s his name…ooh yeah…Nicolas Elliott.” He watched Neal through the screen of his lashes. “I see he’s doin’ a show this weekend and the mistress is on the guest list for the opening.”
Blush creeping up his neck, Neal looked at Eliot.
“What do you need?”
“A solid ID from Mozzie, and a spot on the guest list, Nicky.” Eliot’s grin was mischievous.
“I’ll tell Moz when I call him about the ID.” The blush deepened.
Only two people knew con artist extraordinaire, Neal Caffrey was really Nicolas Elliott, reclusive, highly successful artist and Wall Street wunderkind. There were no pictures of the man and only the most basic of paper trails. Anyone looking would run into multiple brick walls set in place by his paranoid fixer friend, Mozzie, and reinforced by Eliot.
Nicolas Elliot tried not to squirm as he waited for the rest of his graduating class to get their diplomas. His best friend and sometime lover was supposed have gotten leave, they’d settled their plans when Spencer had called last week.
Ceremony ended with no sign of Spencer. Nicolas sat quietly in the backseat of his parents’ car as they drove home disappointed and worried. His heart plummeted to the floor when he saw the black sedan with people in khaki uniforms sitting inside. The man and woman approached as they got out of the car.
“Nicolas Elliott.” The woman, a major, asked Nic’s father.
He pointed to his son. “That’s Nicolas. What’s this about?”
The major ignored the question and turned to Nic. She handed him a file with a look of genuine sorrow.
“It is my duty to inform you that Staff Sergeant, Spencer Michaels was killed in service to his country.”
Nic stared at her blankly as her words finally registered and the world shattered.
He remained in a fog of apathy until Spencer started to invade his dreams cajoling, sneering, growling at the younger man to get off his dead ass and read the file. Since he was dead he wanted to Nicky to have his dreams.
Wanting nothing more than quiet the voice in his head, Nic opened the file that contained a heavily redacted report, Spencer’s dog tags and will. He slipped the tags over his head and started to read. Tears stained the pages as he read, but when he finished Nicolas Elliott had a plan.
On his birthday, a postcard with a picture of galloping horse arrived in his dorm mailbox with only his name, address, and a postmark from Croatia. Every year on his birthday another postcard would arrive with a picture of a horse from somewhere in the world. Nicolas wasn’t sure what it meant, but an ember of hope started to smolder in his heart.
Nicolas Elliot tried not to squirm as he waited for the rest of his graduating class to get their diplomas. Taking no breaks and carrying the heaviest course loads they allowed, Nic was graduating, he only had a bit of polishing on his thesis to do before he got his BA and Masters in art and finance. A nervous thumb rubbed the dog tags that still hung around his neck.
A sharp eyed stare from the perimeter of the ceremony drank in all these details like a man dying of thirst. As the ceremonies concluded, the man started to leave but got caught up in the crowd pouring from the bleachers.
Something bumped him hard from behind, he spun around, fighting survival instincts ingrained over the years, and came face to face with the one he’d been hoping to avoid. Those liquid blue eyes blinked as the body recognized the one it loved, but the brain refused to believe what the eyes were seeing.
Arms wrapped around the shorter man and refused to let go as Nicolas breathed in a scent he never thought to smell again.
“Spencer.” He breathed out.
Spencer moved them out of the stream of people to keep from being trampled. Still Nic refused to let go.
“They told me you were dead.”
“Can’t tell ya.”
“You! It was you that sent the postcards.” Nic stepped back and took in his best friend.
The long dark hair, muscular body, dead eyes, and quiet posture made Nic reluctantly agree. Spencer Michaels was dead.
“Who are you?” He stepped back further---a fissure of fear wriggled down his back.
The silence stretched between them. Eliot settled his cap back on his head.
“Congratulations, Nicky. Take care of yourself.” He turned to walk away.
“Please, Spencer.” He cajoled. “Come with me so I can get to know Eliot.”
Two sets of blue eyes clashed until Eliot looked away.
Peter watched an energized Neal Caffrey reading through a stack of files on his desk, making notes and shipping them back to their original agents. He hadn’t seen the thief so animated in months. He had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. As he continued to watch he had Jones double check that the anklet was working properly. Finally he got up and headed to the coffee machine.
“What’s got you so buzzed this morning?”
Broad shoulders shrugged under the tailored jacket. “Sometimes old friends can remind you of things you’ve forgotten.” Neal answered cryptically.
“What things?” Peter’s eyes narrowed.
The devil danced in pale eyes. “How it feels to wrap your fingers in long dark hair…” Neal’s voice dropped hypnotically, “full lips over yours…sculpted body…strong hands that pin you in place as they mark your body in the most intimate places…the stretch and burn…”
“Enough!” Peter jumped back, his breath hitching. “You could have just said you got laid.” He frowned.
“Oh Peter. I never do anything as mundane as get laid.” Neal teased. “My friend makes it an experience that stays with me for weeks.” The thief winked knowingly before turning back to his files. “Was there anything else? I really need to get back to these. I have an all you can savor buffet waiting for me when I get home.”
“More than I wanted to know, Caffrey.” Peter headed back to his office.
“But you always want to know everything I’m doing, Peter.” Neal smirked.
Peter retreated to his office blushing deeply.
Diana was waiting when he got back to his office. She handed him a folder.
“Whoever he is…he’s good. Avoided the cameras outside Neal’s. We didn’t get any clear shots of his face, and if I didn’t play for the home team I’d give Neal a run for his money.” The computer tech practically drooled.
Peter tried to remember what the man had looked like, but he’d been so rattled by the smaller man all he could say that he was medium height and medium build with long dark hair.
“Is it time to start looking yet?” Nate asked as he sailed through the door.
“Looking for what?” Hardison lifted his magnifying visor.
“Eliot.” Nate snapped.
“Oh. Already talked to ‘im.” The hacker settled the visor back over his eyes.
Nate waited a few beats. *When did Hardison begin to not over share? Obviously now.* His brain chided.
“Well what?” The hacker was starting to sound annoyed.
“When’s he coming home?” Nate huffed.
“Couple days. Now do ya mind? Little busy here.” He flipped the visor back down ending the conversation.
Nate moved into the kitchen grumbling to himself. *Why would the anti-social hitter be gone so long? What could he possibly be doing unless he was still doing outside jobs.*
“Eliot knows lotsa people.” Parker frowned at the mastermind
Nate’s head snapped up. He didn’t realize he been muttering out loud.
“Some are like us, and some are a little nuts---if ya know what I mean.” Parker winked.
Nate’s eyes got wide. Eliot had a friend that Parker thought was nuts. He was too sober to be having this conversation with the thief.
Parker continued munching her cereal. “Eliot used to take us out and let us steal stuff from his friends….I mean we had to give it back, but it was fun and they paid us.”
He turned to yell for Hardison only to find the hacker watching him.
“What’s his problem?” He asked over Nate’s head.
Parker shrugged. “He thinks he’s the only one that learned new things while he was in prison.”
“Huh.” He grabbed a soda and headed back to his workbench.
“Think he’s jealous ‘cause Eliot’s not as creepy when he runs a job.” Parker added in a stage whisper.
“Could be.” Hardison nodded. “You ready?”
“Really?!” Parker’s face lit up. “But I thought Eliot said…” She cut her eyes toward Nate before giving the hacker her *Oh shit* face.
“Said it was fine.” Alec soothed.
With a grin Parker raced toward the other room.
Nate’s glass hit the counter with a thump. One short conversation brought home many realizations to Nathan Ford. He’d forgotten that Eliot Spencer wasn’t just a hitter. He seemed to have helped Sophie fit into her own skin, settled Parker and got Alec out from behind his computer.
He thought back to when Parker had gotten stuck in the Wakefield building. She hadn’t screwed up. She was used to Eliot and Hardison being with her. When she found out the two men were in the building, she’d settled and the three had worked together seamlessly even with their usual snarkiness.
Another thought hit him. They’d worked a Steranko. There couldn’t be that many Sterankos in use. He headed upstairs to his room. One box in the bottom of his closet held contact names and numbers from his IYS days. He hoped Peter Burke hadn’t transferred out of the White Collar division.
Elizabeth Burke was almost giddy with excitement. She’d been trying to break into the world of art gallery showings, but it was such an insular segment of the catering and event planning business it was hard to get a foot in the door.
When Archie Goodwin had called her explaining he was Nicolas Elliott’s personal assistant and wanted her bid to cater Elliott’s next showing---she’d been over the moon.
As she looked over the preparations her people had made, a smile of satisfaction lit her beautiful face. If this worked out, she hoped to garner enough business to cut back on her traveling. She was tired of being away from Peter and Satchmo.
Hearing a familiar voice, she turned to see Mozzie talking to one of the art students that had helped stage the paintings.
“Mozzie?” She walked over, curious.
Moz never missed a beat. “I’m sorry, who? I’m Archie Goodwin, Mr. Elliott’s assistant…and you must be Elizabeth Burke. I recognize you from your picture on the website.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that you remind me of someone I know.” Her voice was baffled.
“No offense taken. I just have one of those faces. It’s one of the reasons Mr. Elliott hired me. Blending in…one of the crowd. Now then, to business. Everything is set? We open the doors in less than an hour.”
Elizabeth gathered her composure. “We’re ready anytime you are, Mr. Goodwin. I hope this is the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial partnership.”
“Yes…well…let’s hope so.” He checked his PDA. “Gotta dash. Lots to do.”
Closing the door to the office, Mozzie let his breath out in a whoosh.
“It worked.” Two sets of blue eyes looked toward the door.
“Mrs. Suit. She totally bought that I’m ‘Archie Goodwin’. Mozzie beamed.
Eliot narrowed his eyes. “You set yourself up as ‘Archie Goodwin’? He looked at the ID Moz had given him. “’Conrad Cain’? Seriously? What are you---a Tim Hutton fanboy?” The retrieval specialist’s voice teased.
“Thought you didn’t own a TV?” Neal teased.
“I don’t. I read. The books always print the names of the actors in the movie on the jackets. Besides why buy a TV when everyone I know has two or three?” He smirked.
Neal reached over and straightened Eliot’s collar. The pearl studs contrasted beautifully with the royal blue silk shirt turning the changeable eyes a beautiful shade of grey.
“You’re starin’, man.” Eliot shifted slightly.
“Just a jaded artist admiring a thing of beauty.” Neal whispered as he stole a quick kiss from the full mouth.
“Humpf.” Eliot returned the kiss then smiled shyly.
Mozzie looked at his watch, but before he could say anything, Eliot straightened.
“Showtime.” He strode for the door, Neal in tow.
Neal was pleased. The critics liked his paintings…he’d already had offers on several…well Nicolas Elliott had offers through Archie. Eliot had disappeared with his mark and should be returning any time. He’d had a pleasant conversation with Elizabeth. He was chatting with another guest when he heard a commotion at the door. Peter and another man stood arguing with security.
“Sir. This event is by invitation only so unless some crime has been committed or you have a warrant, I’ll have to ask you to leave.” Security stood firm. Neal melted into the shadows. Eliot had shown him a picture of his Boston crew so he recognized Nathan Ford the minute he got a clear view of the man.
“Then I need to speak with my wife.” Peter insisted.
“And who is your wife, sir?” The guard was polite, but dubious.
“She’s catering the event.” Inwardly Peter cringed.
Elizabeth had been trying for years to crack this particular nut. If he screwed this up he’d be sleeping with Satchmo.
“Not for long if this is the kind of commotion using her company brings.” A short bespectacled man approached the door.
Peter frowned. “Mozzie?”
“That’s the second time today someone’s called me that.” He glared at the FBI agent. “The name is Archie Goodwin. I am Mr. Elliott’s personal assistant. Now what seems to be the problem?”
“Yes Peter, what could be so important that you’re jeopardizing my business?” Elizabeth’s tone was frigid.
“Honey, hi.” He said sheepishly.
“If we could step outside.” Archie herded them onto the street. “Just so we don’t disturb Mr. Elliott’s guests.”
“Is Mr. Elliott here?” Nate threw in thinking Eliot and Mr. Elliott might be one and the same.
“No. Mr. Elliott never appears in public.”
“Archie Goodwin?” Peter looked confused.
“I’m just thankful my last name wasn’t Wolfe. Mother was a huge fan or the whole genre.” The PA quipped.
“Could we see your guest list?” Nate asked.
“Do you have a warrant? Is there some crime being committed here?” Archie bristled.
“Peter!” Elizabeth hissed.
“I’m sorry for the interruption. No. No crime has been committed. We were simply looking for someone.” He spread his hands in apology.
“You just happened to think this person would be at an exclusive art show opening that’s by invitation only?” Archie pursed his lips in disbelief.
“The person we’re looking for may have done a security consultation on the gallery in oh say the past six months to a year.” Nate pushed.
“Yes. Our insurance company insisted. A very reputable firm that we’ve dealt with before.”
“You have contact information for the company?” Nate tried to crack Archie, but the PA remained calm.
“No. Only Mr. Elliott is privy to those details. I believe the owner is a personal friend of Mr. Elliott’s.”
“Why are you so interested, Mr. Ford?” Archie’s eyebrows rose above his glasses. “You’re on all the insurance companies watch lists. Former investigator gone alcoholic, rogue thief. I’m sure you remember Mr. Sterling? Told me you had your own crew of thieves. Didn’t know you were using the FBI to do your dirty work for you?”
Archie piled on. He didn’t like these two men harassing his friends like they were errant school boys.
Nate was taken aback at the cold disdain in the dark eyes. *And the mouse roared.* He thought.
“Wanna tell why I’m really going to be sleeping on the couch, Nate?” Peter asked as he pulled up in front of the hotel. “Was Elliott’s PA right about you?”
Nathan sighed. Time to pay the piper. His obsession over ‘his’ crew had come back to bite him on the ass.
“I am an alcoholic former investigator.” He tried to coax a grin out of Peter.
“Fine. I have a crew. All top of their former fields. You could say we pick up where you leave off…or we stir the pot enough so you guys take notice.”
Peter stared out the windshield as his mind raced.
“That arms dealer, Kadjic and Culpepper, the FBI informant. That judge…where was it…Juan something or other…Wakefield.” Peter turned to look at Nathan. “I thought you guys were some sort of urban myth.”
“Yeah. We’re trolling for a whale right now…that’s why I’m worried about my head of security.”
“Thought you said he was top of his field.”
“Who is this whale? Maybe we can help.”
Nate shook his head. “Don’t want you anywhere near this. It’s bad news all the way.”
“No Peter. It wouldn’t just be you they’d come after.” Nate said quietly.
Alarm raced through Peter at the thought. “Are the other members of your team worried about your…head of security?”
“What? No. They’ve talked to him since he left.”
“How’d you piss him off?”
“Conned the crew to protect them from Sterling...from Interpol.”
“So you’re---what---a little obsessed about holding on to what’s yours?”
Nate’s chuckle was bitter. “Oh he’s not mine. He belongs to my two youngest, or they belong to him…Not sure which.”
“Keep you humble do they?”
“You have no idea. Unlike you I can’t keep them on a two mile leash.”
Peter frowned at the turn in conversation. “I don’t…I mean…I have to…He’d leave.”
Nate’s bark of laughter startled the agent. “You’re so cute.” Nate sobered quickly. “With the people your leashed thief knows he could leave anytime, Peter.”
*“Ya don’t start treatin’ my boy right he can disappear.”*
The growled words replayed in Peter’s head over and over.
“I don’t think I’d find him this time.”
Elizabeth had been so worried about Peter’s intrusion into the evening that she’d left a case of Grande Siecle champagne as an apology to Mr. Elliott.
Mr. Elliott and ‘Conrad Cain’ were enjoying a glass of her generosity as they settled into one of the chaise lounges on June’s roof. Neal leaned back against Eliot’s broad chest.
“So Nate conned Peter into blood houndin’ for ‘im.”
Neal shivered as champagne cooled lips nuzzled the nape of his neck.
“I thought Elizabeth was going to skin Peter on the spot. Oh and Moz was perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him run a better game.” He rolled to face Eliot. “How was your mark?”
“Drunk.” Lips nibbled the slender throat. “Passed out. I was able to retrieve the necklace without compromising my virtue.”
“That’s good. It never pays to be caught with your pants down.” Neal moaned as he bared his throat to Eliot’s ministrations.
“Then we better move this party to some place more appropriate if you don’t want June to get an eyeful.” Wrapping his arms around the thief he rolled them both to their feet.
“She’d probably applaud then critique.” Neal blushed.
“Gotta admire a woman that’s not shy ‘bout what she likes.” Eliot continued to nibble as he dribbled champagne over bare skin.
“Just women?” Neal pouted.
“Ah hell no. Let’s git a move on, boy.” Eliot hoisted Neal over his shoulder.
June smiled as she listened to the men’s laughter echo through the house.
Peter was cradling a glass of scotch as unseeing eyes stared at the TV. The reporter had been rambling on about the Nicolas Elliott opening and the rave reviews it received. His head turned when he heard the lock on the front door turn.
He watched as his wife emptied her arms and kicked off her shoes. He stood and moved toward her.
She held up her hand to stop him. “Not discussing it…don’t want to know anything except that you will never…ever do anything like that again.”
Elizabeth looked at the hang dog expression and the worried eyes.
“The only reason I’m forgiving you is because Mr. Goodwin was very gracious about the whole affair.” She brushed a kiss across his lips before heading for the kitchen.
“I had a great evening before that. Neal was there and viewed the paintings with me. He’s very knowledgeable.”
“Neal?” Peter’s tone turned suspicious.
“Peter!” Elizabeth chastised.
“Neal can go to an art gallery without planning some kind of elaborate heist, and he had an invitation.”
“Sorry.” Peter blushed heavily.
“You should be.” She grinned and pulled him into a hug.
“Parker!” Alec snapped.
“Sit and Stay.”
“Please Parker. You’re makin’ me dizzy.”
“Oh alright…but Eliot…”
Nate watched the byplay between the youngest of the crew…his curiosity high. It ratcheted a notch when Sophie sauntered in the door her expression directing a question to Hardison.
“Soon.” He dipped his head toward a vibrating Parker.
She joined Nate in the kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee.
“What’s up?” He waved his cup toward Parker.
“Eliot’s coming back today.”
“Finally. We can get some work done.”
“There is that, too.” Sophie snipped.
Nate frowned. “What?”
“Eliot always brings…something.” Sophie waved her elegant hand in the air. “It’s like watching Christmas morning with Parker.” She smiled fondly toward the blonde. Dark eyes turned on Nate. “Oh and don’t be crass.”
Nate blinked surprised.
“I know you don’t like that he doesn’t trust you anymore, but you can’t keep him under your thumb. It’s a good way to get a sock in the jaw.”
“How’d you get him to trust you again?”
“I didn’t. He just gave me one of those ‘see to the bottom of your soul’ looks one day. We’ve had a rough patch now and again, but for the most part we get on.”
Heads turned at Parker’s shout. The cameras showed a long black car at the curb. Eliot’s hands were full as were the driver’s as they made their way to the building.
Eliot thanked the man and reached in his pocket for his money, but the driver waved it away assuring him it had already been settled. Nate noticed the hitter settled his body as though to take a blow.
He blinked rapidly as Parker seemed to launch across the room and wrap around Eliot like a limpet. She whispered in his ear.
“I can’t get it if you don’t let go.”
Nate swiveled his head to watch Hardison’s reaction to Parker accosting Eliot, but the hacker was grinning quietly at Parker’s antics.
“Aren’t they cute together?” Sophie whispered as they all moved to see what Eliot had brought.
A tray of food had a little something for everyone. Sophie gasped with pleasure as she peeked in the gift bag Eliot handed her.
A bottle of the Grande Siecle and some other delicacies left over from the opening. He conjured a flash drive he handed to Hardison with a grin. The hacker grabbed a plateful of food and wandered over to his laptop.
With an indulgent smile Eliot handed Parker a brightly wrapped package.
“Neal wouldn’t let me see it so it must be pretty special.” He whispered so Nate couldn’t hear.
Clasping the package to her chest, Parker charged toward Hardison’s workroom.
Eliot turned to follow.
“Eliot.” Nate’s voice caused him to stop.
“I’d like you to tell me when and where you’re going from now on.”
“I’d like a lot things too, Nate, but I doubt I’ll get ‘em.” Hand on the knob, Eliot paused. “Don’t ever come lookin’ for me again. You won’t like who you find.”