A Whole New Ballgame, Part Five

by J. Rosemary Moss

~oOo~

Michael Ramirez folded his arms as Neal walked up to him. Then, with a sardonic lift of his eyebrows, he turned to Sarah. "We've got a celebrity criminal here," he said. "This is Neal Caffrey."

Neal smiled, making sure he appeared amused rather than offended. "Have we met?"

"No. I recognize you because you made the front page when you jumped out of that judge's office."

That called for a slightly embarrassed grin; Neal managed it, along with an adorable blush. "Ultimately they cleared me of the diamond heist I was arrested for," he told Sarah. "They got the real guy." Then he turned back to Ramirez, holding out his hand. "And you are?"

Ramirez looked at Neal's hand, appraising it. "Michael Ramirez," he said at last. "Didn't you serve time for fraud before your last arrest? And don't you have a reputation as an art forger and thief?"

Neal pulled off an elegant shrug. "I've never been convicted of any art theft or art forgery." He paused to give Ramirez a measuring look. "Why the extensive knowledge of an alleged art criminal?"

Michael grinned. "Let's say I don't trust you anywhere near the stuff on our walls."

"Our walls?" Neal asked. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize. Should I be congratulating you two?"

"Yes," Sarah managed, looking out of her depth as her eyes darted from one man to the other. "Michael and I are engaged."

"Mazel tov," Neal said, using the Israeli pronunciation.

"Thank you," Sarah said. "I'm sorry, but I--I didn't hear how you knew my father."

Neal allowed his eyes to soften. "Your father was a good man. I was homeless for a few months in the city. I remember how he not only supported the soup kitchen I went to but worked there himself. We got to talking and--well, he helped me out."

Sarah's eyes reflected a mixture of pride in her father and sympathy for Neal--she believed him. Ramirez, however, wasn't buying the story.

"Touching," he said. "I'd love to hear more about your interactions with him. Why don't you hang around a bit--we'll grab some lunch."

Sarah looked nervous at that; presumably she didn't like the idea of her fiancé keeping company with a convicted felon. Michael gave her a reassuring look that must of worked; Sarah didn't voice her objections.

"It's a date," Neal said, looking at Ramirez as if the man were his best friend in the world.

~oOo~

Neal's triumphant smile faltered as he walked back to Peter. His partner must have overheard every word of his conversation with Sarah and Ramirez--and he didn't look pleased.

"That went well, don't you think?" Neal whispered as he came up to Peter's side.

"I ordered you not to talk to Ramirez," Peter whispered back. "What part of that order didn't you understand?"

It wasn't a yelling kind of whisper. It was a Peter-has-his-anger-under-tight-control kind. That boded ill for Neal; Peter wasn't going to blow up at him, he was going to find a way to punish him instead. Neal knew Peter wouldn't send him back to prison--not for this offense, anyway--but he might be angry enough to restrict Neal's radius.

"Peter," he said soothingly, "I had to talk to him. I had to find out why he recognized me. And who knows what I might find out over lunch?" Ramirez might incriminate himself--Neal didn't add that, but he knew he didn't have to.

"You better keep our investigation under wraps."

Peter's voice still had that tight quality. Neal was in for it. If he was really lucky, Neal could talk Peter into spanking him when they got home. A spanking would arouse both men and Peter's anger would dissipate in the bedroom. But if Neal wasn't lucky . . . well, no use borrowing trouble.

"I will," Neal promised.

"And you better come straight back to the office after your 'date.'"

"I will."

"I'll be waiting."

~oOo~

"So you've turned into an FBI snitch."

It wasn't a question--not the way Ramirez said it. Neal raised his eyebrows.

"Don't waste that innocent look on me," Ramirez advised, leaning forward as he set his menu aside. "Your anklet isn't that well hidden. Besides, the papers had a lot to say about you."

Neal cursed inside his head. Just his luck that Ramirez would prove to be so conscientious about reading up on him. But he would, wouldn't he? One conman always had an interest in another.

"Working for the Feds isn't a bad life," Neal said with a nonchalant shrug.

Ramirez gave him a pointed look. "You got a good thing going, huh? Yeah, you do. I saw the way you interacted with that Fed pal of yours--and I saw the way he watched over you."

Neal considered denying that Peter was a Fed, but quickly dismissed the idea. Somebody might as well stamp 'FBI agent' on Peter's forehead--at least when the man was dressed for work.

Neal shrugged again as he took a sip of his water. "Peter's a good guy. I like working for him."

"Yeah? Well, if he's investigating me, you can tell him not to bother. I've got a good thing going too--and I'm not stupid enough to wreck it."

Neal narrowed his eyes. He could pretend not to know what Ramirez was talking about--but that would be pointless. Michael wasn't an idiot. Thanks to the fact that he had recognized Neal, he now knew that the Feds were looking into him. Neal swallowed. Peter would be even less pleased when he found out.

"Your MO is to seduce your marks and then have your buddies con them or rob them," Neal said, trying to put Peter out of his mind.

Ramirez snorted. "Why would I want someone to con or rob my fiancée? Everything she owns will be mine too next month."

"So this is for real? You're not planning to screw her over?"

"No, I'm not."

"Did she ask you to sign a pre-nup?"

"No."

"Then you could screw her over and walk away with half of everything."

"I could," Ramirez admitted. "And if I did, it wouldn't be any of the FBI's business. Marriages fall apart all the time--there's nothing illegal about that." He paused to take a sip of his drink. "But I'm not going to walk out on Sarah. I like her. I like being part of her family. Why would I walk out?"

Neal considered that. Ramirez looked sincere, but that wasn't hard for a conman. On the other hand, Ramirez had a vested interest in staying with Sarah and protecting her from any scams. "So all this is for real? Your engagement, your conversion--all of it?"

Ramirez sighed and looked away for a moment. "Yeah, it's all for real," he said at last, looking Neal in the eyes again. "I'm going to stay with Sarah and raise a family with her. I'm going to send my kids to Hebrew school. Satisfied?"

Neal stalled by pretending to look over his menu again. He thought about Peter and Elizabeth and what they had together. And what, maybe, he had with them. Damn it, was he just over-identifying with Ramirez again?

At length he set the menu aside and nodded. "Yeah, I'm satisfied. You want the white picket fence, huh?"

Ramirez grinned. "I want the Park Avenue version of the white picket fence."

Neal grinned back. "Complete with the Monet on the wall. Nice."

"Yeah--you stay away from that wall."

"Don't worry about me. I'm on the straight and narrow now."

"Me too. So will you tell your Fed pal to lay off?"

"He won't," Neal warned. "But if you stay clean, man, he won't have anything on you. Not unless he can link you to an old job."

"Hey, man," Ramirez said, holding up his hands, "there's nothing to link me to."

Neal grinned again. "Don't worry--I'm not wearing a wire."

Ramirez probably didn't believe that, but it didn't matter. They kept to innocuous topics for the rest of the lunch and parted amiably. Ramirez even picked up the check.

Neal left the restaurant slowly. He was in no rush to confront Peter. Not only would his lover still be pissed at him for disobeying a direct order--he would be disappointed that Neal had bought Ramirez's innocent act. But Neal couldn't help it. He believed the guy. Why would Ramirez want to leave a woman like Sarah? But maybe Neal was selling Peter short. Maybe Peter would understand. He had Elizabeth, after all; he knew, first hand, what a difference the right woman could make.

But Peter was still going to be pissed with Neal for disobeying him. Neal slowed his steps again, thinking of ways to seduce Peter into forgetting his anger. He sighed. It was a shame he had to meet Peter back at the office. It would be damn hard to seduce him out of his anger there.

Neal stopped in his tracks, heedless of the other people on the street who almost bumped into him. He smiled suddenly. It would be damn hard--but that's what would make it so much fun.