Sophie gasped and collapsed on the bed next to Nate. They lay panting in wet, satisfied silence.
"You," she said, "are getting very good at that."
Nate grinned, eyes still closed. "Good to know the honeymoon isn't over yet."
Sophie smiled and curled into her husband's side. He put his arm around her as they both floated back down to earth.
Her husband. Even six months after the wedding — a large, fancy affair worthy of Sophie Devereaux, which took place in an English castle (unbeknownst to its vacationing owners) and was attended by royalty, nobility, former clients, criminals, and law enforcement — the word husband still sounded new and odd. But she loved being married to Nate. They'd spent the months before and since their nuptials traveling the world, eating, drinking, shopping, and sight-seeing to their hearts' content.
And, of course, having lots and lots of sex. Wonderful, amazing, fantastic, world-shattering sex.
She pushed herself up and slapped Nate lightly on the chest. "Okay, now it's really time for a shower."
He groaned and reached for her. "Let's just meet them for dinner tomorrow. They'll understand."
She dodged him, her feet landing nimbly on the floor. "We are meeting them for dinner tomorrow."
"Then why are we getting up at all?" He pulled the covers up around him. "Come back to bed."
She threw his pants at him. They landed on his head.
"Because we have plans tonight."
Nate pulled his pants away, frowned, and finally propped himself up on his elbows. "Wait, we were supposed to meet them at the brewpub for dinner tonight. I talked to Parker about it last week."
"And I've been talking with Parker since Wednesday, and we agreed to have dinner tomorrow night. They need to finish up their last job before Christmas, and I thought we could go do something fun in Portland for a night."
Nate flashed a naughty grin. "I'm pretty sure we just did."
Sophie rolled her eyes. "There's an art auction, and I'd like to go."
"Are you in the market for something, Ms. Devereaux? I figured you for the woman who had everything."
She beamed. Even after six months of being a newlywed, she still felt like the luckiest woman in the world. Most of the time.
But that had nothing to do with this.
"I like art auctions. I thought it might be fun to attend one like …"
"A normal person?"
"Exactly. Maybe bid on something like a mark. How fun would it be to outbid someone?"
Nate snorted. "Or, how about we don't pretend that's a brilliant idea and instead …" He beckoned her to bed. "We just order room service and relax."
"Boring. Come on, Nate." She said his name in the way she knew always drove him crazy. "It'll be a nice, quiet night out. We haven't had one of those in a while."
For a moment, his eyes bore into her with an intensity she'd not seen since they'd left the team. He was thinking. Plotting. Planning. What, she didn't know, and that frightened her. She wasn't the best grifter in the world for nothing; she read people for a living. But if she couldn't read the man she'd married … She nearly squirmed under the pressure of his gaze.
In the next instant, he grinned, and she breathed again.
"If that's what you want to do, fine. But let's do it like real, normal rich people." He stood, pulling her into his arms. "I want to dress up, get drunk, and spend way too much money."
"Mr. Ford." She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him until she stopped worrying about what he was thinking. "You do know how to sweep a woman off her feet."
Sophie flipped through the program as she waited for Nate to come back with his second drink. There were several holiday-themed pieces of art up for auction — mostly paintings and sculptures of the Nativity — and if that weren't enough to remind everyone what time of year it was, the enormous tree in the lobby and the lights and garland around the auction house surely did.
This was Sophie's favorite time of year, but Nate hated the holidays. The excess of decorations and his second glass of whiskey were not unrelated. She wasn't worried yet, but she might have reconsidered their quiet night out if she'd remembered how much Americans loved flaunting Christmas.
"A beautiful woman like you shouldn't be alone," a voice drawled behind her. "Or without a drink."
She turned to see a tall, white man with far too much product in his hair grinning at her. He was wearing an ill-fitting Italian suit and a gold Rolex that seemed at odds with the rest of him. He fairly oozed sleaze.
She read people for a living, and she disliked him immediately. Even before he looked her up and down like a piece of meat.
But she was the best grifter in the business, so she smiled and said, "I'm not thirsty or alone. My husband's over there."
He didn't seem to care, which she'd already assumed from the fact that he'd ignored the enormous ring on her left hand.
"Married? What a shame," he said without the slightest hint of shame. "Name's Bobby Wilson."
Nate appeared at her side as if that line had been his cue. "Everything all right, sweetheart?"
He was speaking to her, but he speared Wilson with the glare that had made even Damien Moreau blink.
Wilson was no Damien Moreau.
He almost immediately looked past Sophie and said, "Ah. It appears Mr. William Hallifeld is here. He's the president of the Arlington Club. Excuse me."
And he left, leaving the strong scent of cheap cologne behind him.
"Wow," Nate said into his glass. "Someone wants to get into one of the oldest rich white men's clubs on the west coast."
"In that suit?" Sophie started toward their seats. "They'd never accept him."
"Now remember," Nate said, taking her arm. "If you raise your paddle, you're bidding real money that we will have to pay if you win. Are you sure you don't want to just steal something?"
She slapped him gently with her paddle. "Normal rich people, remember?"
"Mm-hmm." He took a swig of whiskey as they sat. "I give you five minutes."
"I accept that challenge," she said lightly.
She opened the program and scanned it for the fifth time. None of the items were particularly exciting to her. Oh, sure, there were several items she'd have loved to steal, but to buy? She didn't see anything worth spending actual money on.
As she turned the pages, she tried to ignore the fluttering in her stomach. It had been so long since she'd stolen anything. Or grifted anyone. Or done anything that was even remotely illegal. And there was a Gaston Bussière staring up at her. She loved the symbolists.
She let her gaze drift around the room, taking in every person — guests, auction house employees, security guards — and noting their wealth, status, and potential access to the Bussière.
"Three minutes and forty-seven seconds," Nate said.
When she returned her attention to him, she found a stern look waiting for her.
"That's how long it took you to start planning a grift," he said. "Let me guess: the auctioneer has the most access to items and important people, so you'd swoop in with one of your art expert aliases and say you're pretty sure the Gaston Bussière is a fake. You'd convince them you needed to take it for analysis, name-drop a curator — probably the one at the Portland Art Museum, for local flavor — and walk out the front door with the painting."
She dropped her gaze to the program once again. The Bussière gazed back.
"Seattle Art Museum," she murmured. "Portland's small enough that everyone here probably knows the curator personally."
"Of course," Nate said. "Maybe we should go. Bringing an art thief —"
"— to an auction is like —"
"Taking an alcoholic to an open bar?" she asked, with a significant glance the glass of whiskey in his hand.
"Functioning alcoholic, darling." Nate pointedly took a large swig and plastered on a grin that was a bit too sharp to be real — she'd hit a nerve. "Remind me, what name are you using here tonight? I know it's not Sophie Devereaux. Is it one of the old ones you supposedly buried, or a completely new identity?"
His shot hit its mark, somewhere deep inside her chest, and she barely managed to hide a wince.
Damn him. All her myriad identities were buried, in a part of her past that she wanted to stay in the past. He had proposed to her using her real name, and he still called her Sophie because that was who she was now, but she'd moved on from the rest, and the name she'd used tonight was just that — a name.
But Nate Ford always knew which knives to twist.
She summoned her best grifter smile, closed her program, and began to fan herself with her paddle.
"I'm going to buy that Bussière, and I don't care how much it is."
She didn't see his face, but from the corner of her eye she could tell that he emptied his glass.
"And now, for our final item of the night, a 1912 Gaston Bussière."
Finally. Two hours was far too long to wait to spend millions of dollars on something. She could have implemented even the most complex of her plans and been out the door with the painting thirty minutes ago.
"We'll start the bidding at five million. Do I have five — Five million."
Sophie shot Nate a smug look as she lowered her paddle.
"Do I have five million five? Five million five."
Sophie whirled around to see who had bid against her. Arlington Club-member-wannabe Bobby Wilson gave her a little wave.
Infuriated, she turned to the front and shot her paddle into the air as the auctioneer finished saying, "Do I have six million?"
But the sleazy wanker outbid her again, flashing her a smile that made her skin crawl.
Now it was just the principle of the thing — well, another principle.
"Something's not right here," Nate said. "He's way too invested in that painting. Back off."
"No," she whispered, raising her paddle for seven million at the auctioneer's call. "I'm going to buy this. We're both dressed up, you're getting drunk, and I'm going to spend a lot of money."
But Nate was scanning the room.
"Do I have seven-five? Seven million five," the auctioneer said as Wilson raised his paddle.
"Stop now," Nate hissed urgently. "You're not supposed to be bidding on this."
"I can bid on whatever I want," she said, and raised her paddle.
"Eight million. Do I have eight-five?"
"Dammit, Sophie!" Nate jerked his head in Wilson's direction.
A man had appeared seemingly out of nowhere to speak with Wilson.
It was Eliot.
"Eight-five? We have eight million, going once …"
"This is the job they're finishing up," Nate said.
"Going twice …"
"No," Sophie whispered, eyes wide, as the Wilson shook his head at something Eliot told him.
"Sold! To bidder forty-two. That's it for tonight, ladies and gentlemen."
Wilson stormed out of the room. Eliot shot her a glare before chasing after him.
"What the hell are you two doing here?" Parker appeared suddenly on Nate's other side.
"Congratulations, Soph," Hardison said, sitting down next her. "You just bought a fake painting full of drugs."
Never had a ride in Lucille been so fraught with tension.
Hardison drove while he and Parker spoke to Eliot through the earbuds. Sophie sat in the back with Nate, who glared at the floor, jaw clenched and arms crossed.
"It won't work," Parker said. "I'm pulling the plug."
"We might be able to —" Hardison started.
"No!" said Parker. "We convinced him that owning that specific painting was his ticket into the club. Now he thinks Eliot set him up. He won't fall for anything else. Get out of there, Eliot, you're burned."
"But don't punch him," said Hardison. "We might be able to salvage something —"
A pause. Hardison winced, his hand moving to his ear. Sophie wrung her hands as she imagined Eliot's side of the conversation.
"I don't know what was going on." Parker's response was surprisingly calm. "But would have been nice if we'd had a heads up that someone else was running a con."
"Who else was running a con?" Sophie asked.
Hardison gaped at her in the rearview mirror. "Are you serious?"
"Me?" She couldn't believe what she was hearing. "If I had been running a con, you'd know. I was just trying to buy a painting!"
Nate snorted, a nasty smirk on his face. She glared at him.
"Yes, you heard that right," Parker said, presumably to Eliot.
"That's … awkward. And ironic." Hardison sighed. "If we'd known that —"
"We still should have been able to recover," said Parker.
"It all happened fast, babe," Hardison said quietly. "We couldn't have —"
"Ishould have been faster," Parker snapped.
Oh. She'd wondered why they hadn't said something as soon as she started bidding. But if they'd been trying to figure out her angle, then they wouldn't have had time to figure out a counter-plan before she blew the con with her stubborn and not a little spiteful desire to legitimately buy a painting. Because of her, they'd failed disastrously — and in front of her and Nate, too.
She buried her face in her hands. It was all she could do to keep from bursting into tears.
When they arrived at the brewpub, Parker slammed the passenger door closed and walked in without saying anything else.
Hardison grabbed his computer from the back of Lucille, along with the carefully wrapped fake painting that Sophie had purchased for eight million dollars.
"Welcome back." It was unclear if he was speaking to them or the painting. "Merry Christmas."
And Sophie had thought she couldn't feel any worse.
Eliot was waiting for them when they walked into the back room of the brewpub. He stood completely still in the far corner, arms crossed, and followed them with his eyes like a particularly angry suit of armor in the corridor of a haunted castle.
Hardison tossed the painting carelessly onto a table, opened his laptop, and began to type. Parker paced around the room in a silent frenzy.
Nate had retrieved a bottle of whiskey and a glass from the pub's bar and downed two generous pours in quick succession before flopping into one of the room's more comfortable chairs — still holding both bottle and glass and without spilling a drop.
Trying to ignore the growing ache in her chest, Sophie cleared her throat and said, "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"Tell that to our client." Parker spun on her heel and paced in the other direction. "Then I won't have to."
Sophie looked at Hardison, who launched into a briefing.
"Devon Jackson. His life was ruined when his high school football coach — the mark, Bobby Wilson — planted crack on him because he refused to dope. Lost a full-ride scholarship. His friends and family didn't believe he'd been set up, so they didn't support him. He went to prison for five years for possession because mandatory minimums are racist. And now the mark's a college coach. Who knows how many other kids he's forcing to dope so he'll look good?"
"But that whole situation was a black mark on his career," Parker picked up. "What he wants is to get into the rooms where things happen. With all the rich people."
"The Arlington Club," said Sophie.
"Exactly." Parker turned around and paced again. "Eliot convinced him he could do that by purchasing this expensive painting. Give him some street cred, make him look cultured and legit. But it's a fake, and we planted it with coke so he'd go to jail and have his reputation ruined."
"Where'd you hide the drugs?" Nate asked conversationally. "Between the canvas and the back of the frame?"
"Yeah," said Hardison. "There's about a kilo in five-gram baggies."
"What?" Parker snapped.
"Nothing." Nate downed another glass. "That's probably what I would have done."
Parker stopped at that, apparently confused by complimentary-sounding words spoken in a bitter, disappointed tone.
"Congratulations," Nate said to Sophie in the same tone. "You just bought a kilo of coke. Want to be normal rich people and have some fun with it?"
Why was he doing this? She was already on the verge of tears. "I just — it was a Bussière! I love the symbolists. And we had an evening to kill, and I wanted to go to an auction."
"So you crashed ours?" Parker said.
"Portland ain't exactly crawling with high-end auction houses." Eliot finally spoke up. "And none of them are ours. Stop acting like it was on purpose."
Sophie almost sighed in relief that someone was defending her, even if that someone should have been her husband.
Parker resumed pacing. "I just find it really hard to believe that two of the greatest thieves in the world couldn't smell a con by their own team playing out right in front of them."
"I figured it out," Nate said. "But not soon enough."
"We can fix it," said Sophie. "Eliot's burned, but I can —"
"No." Parker and Nate said at the same time.
"We've done enough," Nate added.
His cold sharpness sliced into her like a knife.
"We don't need you to swoop in and save us," Parker said. "We can fix our own problems, okay? I just need to think!"
With that, she stormed up the stairs to the apartment she and Hardison shared, slamming the door behind her.
Hardison closed his laptop and followed her. "I got her," he said to Eliot. "Night, everyone."
Eliot, unmoving, watched Hardison until the upstairs door shut with a click. Then he walked slowly toward Nate and Sophie.
"Tell me this wasn't on purpose." His words were quiet, but they carried a menace Sophie knew well.
Her jaw dropped. "Why would we —?"
"As a test." Eliot looked pointedly at Nate. "Sounds like something you'd do."
Nate poured himself another glass of whiskey. "I wanted to stay in the hotel room and have sex. Blame her."
Eliot blinked. He clearly hadn't expected such a blunt statement from Nate, who had never seen a personal problem he couldn't repress. Sophie could hardly believe it herself.
They were in Portland to spend Christmas with Hardison, Parker, and Eliot. As much as she loved married life, Sophie had missed them.
But before they'd even had a chance to say hello, she'd ruined their job and now they were all, in one way or another, accusing her and Nate of doing it deliberately. And Nate, her husband, was throwing her under the bus and she didn't understand why.
Eliot turned to her, and his eyes softened. He always understood more than he let on.
"We'll fix it," he said. "Parker identified a bit too much with the client this time around, and she was looking forward to being done. But we've come back from worse."
That made Sophie feel even more terrible. Eliot noticed; as he crossed to the door, he placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
"Things'll look better in the morning."
He departed, leaving Nate and Sophie alone.
Nate downed his glass and went to pour another. Sophie snatched the bottle away.
"I think you've had enough for tonight."
"So you can waste millions of dollars and blow a job to prove a stupid point, but I can't get drunk for free?"
Sophie slammed the bottle on the counter and whirled around. "Let's not pretend I was the only one who didn't notice the con right under our noses."
Nate's laugh was so cold it made her shiver. "Sure, as long as we don't pretend you ever listen to me."
"Just because I didn't stop bidding the instant you said so —"
Nate launched himself from the chair and stumbled in her general direction. "I told you going to the auction was a bad idea. But you didn't care."
"You said you'd rather order room service and have sex. Excuse me if I've been getting a bit tired of that lately."
Nate's jaw clenched. "So after six months of marriage, you're already bored with me?"
"Don't put words in my mouth. All I wanted was to go out and have some fun tonight. Like —"
"We used to?" Nate snapped. "Because that's what you really wanted. Stop pretending this was about a quiet night at an auction. This was about you wanting to pull a con, and an auction was the closest you could get."
Sophie's throat tightened, and she dropped her gaze. "I don't understand what's so terrible about that."
"Because we're done. We left the team because we didn't want to do that anymore."
"Did we?" Sophie asked. "I agreed to marry you. I wasn't aware that included an agreement to never grift again."
Nate sucked in a breath. "I decided to leave the team because —"
"You wanted to build something. And you did. This." She gestured to the room around them. "Them. You built a self-sufficient team, Nate. I didn't realize you were also running away."
"I wasn't — I —" He turned away from her. "I didn't like what it was doing to me. Spending all my time plotting how to destroy people. It started to make me …"
When he looked at her again, his eyes glistened with desperation.
"Being back here, or at the auction — it's tempting." Nate started to pace. "I don't want to — I can't get sucked back in."
"So we can't see them anymore?" The thought of never seeing Eliot, Parker, and Hardison again made her want to curl up in a ball and cry. The three of them and Nate were her only family.
"We can see them as much as you want. But I can't be around them when they're on a job."
"Then don't. But that doesn't mean that I —"
Nate stopped pacing and whirled to face her. "And what if you get sucked back in? What then?"
"It's not like that!" she said. "I love being retired. But I can't just stop grifting. It's a part of who I am. I need it. I'm —" Her eyes settled on the bottle she'd taken from him, and she almost smirked at what she was about to say. "I'm a functional grifter."
Nate's mouth fell open, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he was speechless. He shook his head and looked away, hand rubbing at his forehead.
"But I'm not," he said. "Almost a year after leaving the team, I've finally managed to stop assessing people's weaknesses the instant I meet them. But all it took tonight was that asshole Wilson to mention the Arlington Club, and within thirty seconds I'd decided that the best way to humiliate him would be to have him spend millions on a fake painting in front of the club president." He let out a disbelieving chuckle. "Thirty seconds and I had at least five versions of Parker's plan. I can't turn it off, Soph."
He stared at her with the dark intensity she'd seen earlier in the evening.
"So I have to avoid it." His gaze dropped to the floor. "And I can't be around anyone doing it."
Sophie reeled. She loved doing jobs with Nate. Especially when it was just the two of them. Hell, they'd metwhile doing jobs together; technically they'd been on opposite sides, but no relationship was perfect. It was a part of her life she shared with him. She'd always imagined that they would continue to do little jobs here and there for decades. But he wanted to stop completely? How could they have been married without her knowing this? How could they remain married if they didn't agree on something so fundamental to who they both were?
"I can't just stop," she said.
"Okay, then," he said softly.
She felt her heart breaking. "I love you, Nate."
Nate scowled at the floor for what seemed like an eternity. Then he took a deep, shaky breath and gave one of his short nods.
"I need some air."
"Nate, I —"
He brushed past her without touching or even looking at her.
He didn't turn back.
She heard the door to the brewpub slam.
That was when she finally let the tears flow. She sank into the couch, buried her face in a pillow, and sobbed herself to sleep.
Sophie awoke to the comforting scent of eggs and bacon.
She'd fallen asleep on the couch in the back room of the brewpub. During the night, someone had placed a blanket over her.
"Morning, Sleeping Beauty," Hardison said, oddly cheerful considering everything that had happened last night.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"Just after eleven." Hardison was typing on a laptop at the counter, as usual. "Your phone's almost done charging."
He pointed without looking to a side table covered in cords and power strips. Sophie assumed her phone was in there somewhere.
"Breakfast?" Eliot swooped into the room and presented her with a plate heaped with eggs, bacon, sausages, hashbrowns, and toast, along with a cup of tea exactly how she always took it.
For a moment, Sophie wondered if she'd just woken from a horrible dream.
"It smells wonderful," Sophie said. "But —"
"You can use the shower upstairs," said Hardison. "Nate brought you a bag with a change of clothes."
"He's talking with Parker," Eliot said. "Eat first, before it gets cold."
She half-rolled her eyes at him. He winked.
"When did Nate get here?"
"No clue." Hardison hadn't looked up from his computer once. "I woke up not too long ago and Parker was gone. The only reason I know they're in there talking is because I listened at the door."
"But he didn't hear anything interesting," Eliot explained.
"Okay, you know what? Ya'll have no idea what I do for you. I make the earbuds, get you phones …"
Sophie smiled into her tea. The bickering was music to her ears.
She ate as much as she could with her stomach roiling from the night before, but she left enough on her plate to feel guilty when Eliot came to sit in the chair next to her. He and Hardison had apparently finished arguing.
Before she could open her mouth, Eliot asked, "You wanna talk?"
It took everything she had not to burst into tears at that. But the problem was something she and Nate needed to work out.
She gave a shaky smile and said, "Sometimes married people fight."
Eliot stared at her, unimpressed.
"But it makes the kids anxious when mom and dad fight," Hardison said from his place at the counter. There was enough tension in his voice that she could tell he was only half-joking. She wondered how much of their argument he and Parker had heard from upstairs.
"Mummy and Daddy love each other very much, darlings," she said with a smile. "And no matter what happens, we'll always love you."
Hardison sighed in obviously fake relief. "Oh, good. We were worried."
Eliot rolled his eyes. Sophie moved to clean up her plate, but he shook his head. "I'll take care of it. Go shower. You'll feel better."
He smiled in understanding and nodded toward the bathroom.
He was right. The steam and intense water pressure of the shower relaxed Sophie, and she took her time getting ready. But she tensed again when Nate and Parker's voices interrupted Eliot and Hardison's resumed bickering.
She centered herself like she always did before a con — which wasn't a good sign, but she needed something to keep her from falling apart in front of everyone — and opened the door.
"Good, you're ready," Nate said, all business. "We have a plan."
She blinked at him. "We?"
Parker flung her arms around Sophie in a tight hug. "I'm sorry I got so mad last night," she whispered in Sophie's ear.
"I'm sorry, too," Sophie said.
Parker didn't let go of her. "It was an accident. A really funny accident." She chuckled. "I didn't get to say this last night, but I've missed you, and I'm really glad you're here."
Sophie sucked in a breath that was halfway between a laugh and a sob. She pulled Parker closer and said, "I missed you, too."
They held each other for several long moments. Sophie heard awkward shuffling and even a cough from the direction of the men, but she didn't care.
When Parker pulled away, Sophie asked, "So what's this plan?"
Parker flashed her evil grin. "We're gonna sic you on him!"
Nate crossed the room in a couple of strides and took her face in his hands. "What do you say we go break the law, Ms. Devereaux?"
Sophie nodded, her eyes filling with tears. "Just one more time."
The kiss that followed was enough to make Sophie forget everything for a few seconds.
When their lips parted, Nate leaned his forehead against hers. "We can talk about it later, but … maybe we can break the law a few more times. Together."
Sophie frowned. "But —"
"Later," Nate said. "But right now, it's all you. Go get him."
Take down the sleaze who'd ruined a young man's life, caused her family to fight, exposed a crack in her marriage, and saw a Gaston Bussière as a mere status symbol?
"But how did you get him to buy back the painting for two million more than you bought it for?" Hardison asked. "Eliot couldn't even get him to bid a half a mil extra to beat you."
"Dammit, Hardison, you heard everything over the earbuds! Quit asking!"
"I mean, I heard it, but I still don't understand it."
"She's the best grifter in the world." Parker's antler hat (with accompanying glowing red nose) blinked at a rate that made Sophie avoid looking at it for fear of a seizure. "What I want to know is how you got the clown and the accountant to show up with the money at the exact time the police arrived!"
Sophie took a dainty bite of Eliot's spaghetti and smiled her largest, most genuine smile.
"That's my girl," said Nate with a grin.
He took Sophie's hand. They hadn't had much time to talk amid the chaos of the day, but he'd told her before she conned Wilson that he wanted her to be happy, and if a bit of temptation every once in a while was what it took, then that was okay with him. She'd said that she would never ask him to do anything he wasn't comfortable with, and that they'd discuss the rest of it after their visit with the team. She wasn't looking forward to the difficult conversation, but at least things were back to normal.
"Yeah, yeah," Hardison said. "All of that is less important than the fact that Sophie is a secret Whovian!" He pointed, as if that was necessary, at his own hat — a TARDIS wrapped in Christmas lights that flashed in time to the blue box's distinctive sound effect — and continued indignantly, "All these years of me quoting the show and creating Doctor Who aliases and you don't say a thing, but the minute I'm not around, you choose to register your paddle under the name Donna Noble?"
Sophie shrugged. "She is the best of the modern companions."
Hardison looked scandalized. "What about Rose?"
She gave him a pitying look. "Why do you think I've refused to discuss this with you?"
"And let's not even get into your criminal underappreciation of Christopher Eccleston and your blatant disregard for the legacy of Patrick Troughton."
"I love the Mighty Trout!" he protested. "I just think Tom Baker was more influential!"
Sophie shook her head and sighed in disappointment before turning to Parker. "Tell us how things have been going — that whole dust-up this past summer with the Botticelli had your fingerprints all over it, and I've been dying to ask you all how you did it!"
The table fell silent, and three pairs of eyes widened at her.
"Not literal fingerprints," Nate added quickly. "Metaphorically. It was very Leverage Consulting."
"Oh!" Parker laughed. "I was going to say! We were really careful!"
Dinner and conversation flowed freely, almost as if Sophie and Nate had never left. Eliot and Hardison bickered, Hardison and Parker flirted, all three corrected each other's narratives when they told the stories of their cons, and the five of them reminisced about some of their more fun jobs. The sounds of their laughter and the warmth of their togetherness filled Sophie's heart to bursting, and she soaked it all in.
They didn't hit a lull until after they'd stuffed themselves on Eliot's salad and Eliot's spaghetti and Eliot's tiramisu and Hardison's new coffee-infused beer (which Parker had dubbed the Devereaux Close Porter).
Hardison broke the comfortable silence. "This morning a request came in from a new client. Time-sensitive. Needs to be done before the new year."
"Problem is," said Eliot, "I'm heading to San Lorenzo in a couple weeks to visit General Flores and his family."
"And Hardison and I have been planning this trip to Japan for ages," Parker said.
Sophie's heart leapt at what she knew they were going to suggest and she looked at Nate, whose face was carefully blank.
"It's a perfect two-person con, too," continued Parker.
"But we all really need a break," Hardison said.
After a sufficiently pregnant pause, Eliot asked, "You two up to it?"
Sophie stared into her beer but watched Nate out of the corner of her eye.
"Sounds fun," Nate said.
Sophie frowned at him. "Nate, we said we'd talk about it later."
"Yeah," Nate said. "We can talk about it later … right before we do the job."
"That's healthy," Eliot deadpanned.
"Uh, it's Nate," Hardison said, as if that explained everything.
"Why don't you just talk about it now?" Parker asked. "Sophie still wants to grift, but Nate's worried he'll get sucked back in and turn into some kind of destroyer of men. Go."
"You're not supposed to outright tell them we know," hissed Hardison.
"Please," said Parker. "Like they didn't know we could hear them and then told Eliot right when he got here this morning."
"No." Sophie shook our head. "This is private."
"It's not fair of me to ask you to give up such a big part of yourself," Nate said to his glass of whiskey. Sophie was conscious of the surprise of the other three as Nate spoke out loud about his personal issues for the second time in twenty-four hours. "And I love doing jobs with just the two of us." He smiled at that and met her eyes. "Like that one with Ma Mystère."
Sophie returned his smile with a watery one of her own. "I love doing jobs with you, too."
"It's the masterminding that does it," he said, again to his whiskey. "But when we work together, we feed off of each other's ideas. It's … not so bad then. Because it's not just me plotting. It actually helps. Like today, when I was bantering on the earbud with you."
"Nate." Sophie sighed. "You should have told me you felt like this. I had no idea. But that was partly my fault. I assumed too much."
She took his hand, and he gave hers a squeeze.
"Huh," Parker said. "Communication. Who knew?"
"Are you serious?" Eliot asked. "For our first job after they left, you forgot to tell us the whole second half of the plan!"
"And I learned from that," said Parker. "Which is why I can make jokes about it."
Eliot opened and closed his mouth wordlessly a few times before shaking his head and taking a long drag from his beer. Hardison chuckled.
"So you'll do it?" asked Parker.
Sophie smiled at Nate. "I guess that's a yes."
"Great!" said Parker. "And sometimes we have a few jobs that require five people, but finding people who want to help is hard. Can we call you for those, too?"
"We promise to do the masterminding." said Hardison.
"And to kick you out when you've overstayed your welcome," Eliot added.
They all laughed, even though they all knew it wasn't a joke.
"Let us help you instead of struggling alone," Sophie said to Nate. "And you and I can focus on moderation. We don't always have to say yes if they need us. I don't need to be constantly grifting. We can find a happy medium."
Moderation. Compromise. And better communication. Wasn't that what marriage — and family — was all about?
"Okay, Parker." Nate looked at Sophie as he spoke. "Go ahead and call us. We'll let you know if we can do it."
Sophie smiled at Nate — her husband.
"Excellent!" Parker said. "A toast! To family. Merry Christmas, everyone!"
Sophie raised her glass. She could drink to that.