He pulled her to him, feeling her nakedness against his clothed body. Her lips were slightly parted; her cheeks had reddened, almost blushed. He had known all along how he felt about Sophie, but it was in this moment when he knew it- he was in love with Sophie Devereaux.
Nate was the only man who had the strength to chase her, knowing that, in the end, he would have to let her go. He was also the only man stupid enough to never stop chasing.
The True Love Story of a Liar and a not-yet Thief.
Nate has never spoken about how he and Sophie first met, ten years ago, in Prague. And certainly he is quite right for doing so considering that he and Sophie did not meet because Nate had hunted her down or because Sophie cleverly escaped him. No, Nate first met Sophie when she successfully conned him.
Ten years ago, a rather splendid collection of 19th century artwas displayed in Prague. In particular, a two million dollar Degas painting, insured by IYS, was there. IYSsent Nate to ensure that nothing happened to it.
It was 1999, June. Nathan Ford was, at the time, thirty-four years old. He had been working with the company for the past ten years, give or take a few months. Three weeks ago marked his fourth anniversary of marriage to his wife, Maggie, who was currently at home in LA with their nine month old son.
Let's remember that Nate was a good Catholic and an honest man. He loved his wife very dearly, and possibly loved his son more. He had no time for cheaters and was truly disgusted by the thought of promiscuous men. He was married and his mind and libido understood that. Unfortunately, his eyes did not. Or, at least, not this once.
Part of the collection also included three paintings donated by Dame Katherine Owen. Nate knew this- as he knew everything about the collection- but, what he didn't know, was exactly what Dame Katherine Owen looked like. He found this out at precisely 8.34 pm on Monday the twenty-second when she entered the exhibit.
He noticed her eyes first. Brown, warm and deep. He couldn't imagine her ever being able to hide emotions.
He saw her face next, the complete vision of beauty. High cheek bones. Tanned but not exactly olive skin. Full, pouty lips.
Her hair was pulled back, but strands of wavy hair were purposely falling against her cheeks, not quite into her eyes. He imagined instead her hair down, curled around her shoulders, framing her slender face. Both were quite spectacular.
His eyes roamed down. Strong but delicate neck. Bare shoulders. Purple fabric clung to a full bust and sensuous hips. The material fell nearly to the floor, covering what he expected were shapely legs.
She grew closer and he heard her speak. Music, that's what her voice reminded him of. The tone of her voice, the feminine inflections, the foreign dips and rises of her English accent, the carefully chosen words- she was a composer and he was lucky enough to be in attendance of her latest performance.
She was approaching him. On her side, Mr. Markovic, the owner of the Degas, was speaking to her in his slightly broken English. "And this is Mr. Ford. Mr. Ford, this is Dame Katherine Owen."
"Mr. Ford, pleasure."
He didn't think that she could possibly look any more beautiful. And then she smiled. Anything written that attempted to describe such a sight would merely fall into cliché, but the immediate thought of Nathan Ford was that she looked like a Greek goddess reborn into the perfectly formed body of an English Dame. When she smiled, the world became only about her.
"Dame Katherine graciously contributed pieces from her own collection to our exhibit tonight."
"Yes, I noticed that. You have good taste."
"Thank you. They are some of my favourites. Though," she said as she turned to Mr. Markovic, "Degas is my favourite artist."
"Good to know." She turned and smiled at him again and he couldn't help but smile back at her. It gave him plans to keep her smiling all night.
"Mr. Ford works for my insurance company- he's here to make sure that nothing... happens." Sophie nodded at Markovic, but her eyes were focused on Nate. "Excuse me for a moment. I'll be right back." Markovic fled to the left, but Nate didn't pay any attention to why he was leaving. His eyes were trained on the Dame.
"So you protect artwork, Mr. Ford?"
"I track down the thieves who steal them, specifically. But sometimes prevention is a much easier course."
"I would imagine."
"And you can call me Nate."
"Nate. I'm Katherine." He smiled at her again and she smiled back. Then her arm slipped into his and she led him away from the centre of the room. "Let's go find ourselves something to drink."
Now don't be fooled into thinking that Nate had suddenly lost all inhibitions, forgot completely about his wife and child, and jumped into bed with Dame Katherine. No, hardly. For right now, this woman meant nothing to his heart, and even very little to his incredible intellect, but she was doing quite a lot to his mind. Remember, this is merely the start of a very long and rather obtusely complex love story. The sex and all that come later. For right now it's important to remember that Dame Katherine, aka Sophie, managed to distract Nate all night.
And by distract, I mean she kept his eyes on her and his mind deeply entrenched in their conversation. There were people he was supposed to be talking to and security systems and things that he was supposed to be looking at. He was supposed to have arranged to see a test of the system that night. None of which he did. Had he done so, Nate very likely would have noticed a slight deficit in the museum's sensors or noticed the camera's blind spot.
The next morning Nate showed up to the museum promptly one hour before the gallery opened. He found the Degas missing, the guards clueless, and no evidence to follow. The next three days he spent desperately searching for clues, pacifying the museum curator, his boss, and the painting's owner.
There were never any official clues that led anywhere. They never had a real suspect; the Degas never appeared, as far as he could tell, on the black market. But he was pretty certain he knew who had done it. The night after the theft, a note appeared on his hotel pillow. It was scrawled in black ink, the handwriting large with elegant loops and quite evidently female. All it said was, 'I had a lovely night. Sorry to ruin your morning. -S'.
It took twenty months to find her again. February of 2001 he was sent to Damascus to monitor the movement of five extremely delicate paintings. They had been bought in private auction and were being shipped to Paris and then back to the states. He was responsible for making sure they made it there.
Of course, there was one woman who had self-imposed the responsibility upon herself to make sure that something made it there, just not the five paintings.
Her entrance this time was less glamorous- no extensive make-up or fancy gowns or perfectly styled hair- and yet it was no less impressive. She stood tall, even against the well built men flanking her. She had her face hidden behind blue silk and her skin glistened with a healthy tan and a hint of sweat.
Nate couldn't tell immediately who she was, not behind her veil. Her voice rang strangely in his ears and, for a short time, he believed the accent. He also believed the con, but only briefly.
Rida Ismail she had called herself. Said she worked for Dhamir al-Sahhah, the original owner of the pieces. She was there to ensure that things went well on their end. But there was something about the way she spoke- her cadence, her inflections, her eyes- that set alarms off in Nate's head.
Of course this is a love story, not a crime novel, so the details will be spared. In the end, Nate switched the crates, which had already been switched, so that the proper artwork was on the plane and heading to Paris, where someone from his company would be waiting for it. The fake artwork was on its way with the Middle Eastern men who had accompanied "Rida". And Rida, shewas handcuffed and in a car heading to the airport with Nate.
Every now and then he would glance over at her and smirk at the sight of her. Her veil had been yanked, rather abruptly from her head when she began sulking twenty minutes ago. Her lips were drawn into a pout and she refused to look at him, just huffed in annoyance now and then.
"So who are you really?"
"Just telling you would be far too easy. No, Mr. Ford, you'll have to figure that out all on your own."
Ironically enough, these were exactly the first words they ever spoke to each other. The first words, of course, when there were no pretences, when they were both at their absolute basic of identities: Nate, the honourable good-guy and Sophie, the dazzling liar and thief.
When they made it to the airport, she held her veil in her cuffed hands and objected, even struggled some, when he wrapped his firm hard around her elbow. He hushed her and, after that, she waited, oddly patiently, as they navigated their way to and through security. Until, of course, he was asked for his passport.
"It was just here." He patted his coat and pockets and searched through his briefcase, all the while giving his prisoner only a fraction of the attention he should have. When he straightened, she was gone. "Where'd she go?"
"The woman who was with me. The one in the cuffs."
The Syrian looked at him strangely and pointed just in time for Nate to look up and see his prisoner waltzing through security, likely with a diplomatic passport. She waved at him, free of her cuffs, and smiled devilishly.
He didn't find his passport, which kept him detained and unable to follow her. Without her and unable to produce the faked artwork, he had very little to report to his boss when he returned. What he did find, though, was another small piece of paper, embellished with looping figures. It read, 'Sophie Devereaux. I'm looking forward to next time.'
Now you may think that the thirty-five year old Nathan Ford was not quite as perceptive or clever as the forty-four year old Nate, who founded the Leverage team. You may think that he simply overlooked how Sophie kept her hands hidden by the veil while she was busily freeing herself from the cuffs. You may think that he overlooked her struggling against him, which was her perfect opportunity to snatch his passport and slip the paper into his pocket. He didn't, of course, because Nathan Ford has always been as good as he is. And that's why he knew that Sophie had no interest in stealing the paintings and why she manipulated him into switching them for her, so she could blame him and not her own deception when the Syrians questioned her. That's why she had the foresight to write him a note and why he had the courtesy to turn a blind eye to her while he searched for his passport. All of two days together and they were already a pretty fine team.
Four months later he was in London, England. It was Sunday and his day off. He was flying back the next morning. He was sitting, enjoying the view, his coffee, and the Sunday paper, when he saw her again.
Or, more accurately, heard her. "Hello, Nathan."
He smiled as the voice- the playful tone and the polished British accent- filtered through his memory and her face registered in his mind. He imagined the first time they met- Dame Katherine in her long flowing gown and her dark bangs curled around her face, her brown eyes focused solely on him all evening.
"Didn't expect to see you here."
"London has quite a bit of art."
"It certainly does." Her voice itself sighed; he imagined that she was imagining stealing it all. It made him remember her more as he last saw her, miffed but plotting, skin slicked lightly with sweat and hair tussled but still, somehow, perfect.
She slid into the seat beside him, then took his coffee cup in one hand, sipped at it, and began pondering his crossword puzzle.
"Thirteen down is van Gogh. I'm very disappointed in you, Nathan, missing that one."
"I didn't miss it. I'm not that far yet."
"Can I have my coffee back?" Purposefully, she met his gaze and brought the coffee back up to her lips.
Then, the question forgotten, she went back to the crossword, still holding and sipping at his coffee. Nate sighed and looked back down at the paper. But he wasn't reading it anymore; now he was thinking about Sophie. Next to him was a thief, a con-artist (a rather impeccable one, he must admit). He was sure that she had stolen dozens of pieces of art, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, if not more, and yet he was also quite sure that there was nothing tracing back to her. She wouldn't be caught. And he couldn't arrest her.
Having solved that particular moral dilemma of sitting next to a known thief, Nate moved on to his second one: sitting next to an incredibly attractive woman who had certainly stolen his attention. In Prague he had fallen in love with her beauty, with her wit and her elegance. He had enjoyed every moment of that night, until she turned out to be a thief. In Damascus he had been taken by her cunning. She had outwitted him, sort of, and he found that particularly sexy.
Except not, because, as he kept reminding himself in the five silent minutes that passed between the two of them, he was married. He had Maggie and Sam and a home in LA and a great life. And that's exactly why he planned on standing up, saying good-bye to Ms. Devereaux, and finding himself a pub to enjoy.
What he did instead was turn to her and ask, "Is this another game, Sophie?"
She smiled at him, sipped his coffee again, and replied, "Not really. I just thought that I'd say hello. And help you with your crossword. I like crosswords."
"That's very kind of you."
"You still haven't written in van Gogh. And I've figured out nine more."
And that is how Nate spent his afternoon on the third Sunday of June in 2001. Later Sophie brought him back to the coffee shop where she bought him another coffee, to make up for the one she drank most of, only for her to eventually drink most of his new one as well. She gave him the brief tour of London atop a double decker bus. They ate fish and chips while they rode because Nate insisted on being a tourist. When it grew late, Sophie paid for the cabbie to drop them off in front of Nate's hotel.
"It was a lovely day."
"It was. I had fun."
As they stood there, Nate watched the sure confidence and bravado from earlier fade from Sophie's body. She couldn't quite look at him and she couldn't quite keep still. He thought she looked cute, but he doubted that was how she intended the night to end.
She looked at him finally and her face softened. She stepped closer and rested her hands on his sides to support her as she rose up onto her toes. Her lips brushed his cheek, but very faintly. Her breath warmed his ear when she whispered, "You're welcome."
She moved away, smiled and tucked her hands into her pocket. "Goodnight, Nate."
He watched her walk away. Eventually she faded into crowds, just as she had trained herself to do. He shook himself and snapped his gaze away from the street. As he waited for the lift, he shoved his hands into his pockets and sighed. It was a good day, a great day, just like that night in Prague. It had been a good day until the lift doors opened and he reminded himself about his flight tomorrow, the one taking him home to his wife. He was married, he scolded himself. He was married and Sophie was a thief and that ended that. For a few months anyway.
You see, after returning home from London, Maggie and Nate hit what one might call "a rough patch". This being a "patch" of their marriage that was rubbed raw by Maggie's annoyance with Nate's job, by Nate's absence, by Nate's preoccupation with several unrelated thefts that he refused quite harshly to talk to her about, and to the fact that Nate had agreed to travel to Madrid three days before their son's third birthday. It was the last part that was particularly important because Sam's third birthday was in September of 2001, three months after Nate had spent a Sunday afternoon in London with Sophie.
The argument began like this, "Why didn't you tell him no?"
"I couldn't say no. Maggie, Robertson has the largest contract with IYS. The fact that they trust me to take this job means a lot, it could mean a lot for my future with the company. I can't- I can't not go."
"You're going to miss Sam's birthday. You know your son, the one you never see anymore. I'm surprised he still recognizes you."
"Hey! I love Sam and I hate that I'll be missing his birthday, but can't we celebrate when I get back? It'll only be a few days later."
"No, we can't, Nate, because his party is for Saturday. His friends are coming over on Saturday. So is the magician and the cake and your mother. Besides, that's not the point. The point is that we've talked about how much you've been working. We talked about how you were going to scale it back for a while and spend more time at home."
"I know, I know."
"And yet you haven't done this."
"No, I haven't, Maggie! I like my job. I enjoy what I do."
"You enjoy traipsing across Europe?"
"Of course I do. So do you! But I'm not just roaming aimlessly- I'm there on business."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
The rest of the argument went in a similar manner. Building steam the farther away from Sam's birthday it got and growing in volume until, finally, Nate ended it. "My flight leaves soon. I need to pack."
In the end, Nate barely said goodbye to Maggie, but made a show of hugging and kissing Sam. He was gruff with the security guards and moody with the flight attendant. The long flight just gave him the chance to mope and stew. On top of it, Madrid was hot and humid when he finally got through customs. It took him a while to hail a taxi and then, of course, traffic sucked.
He didn't bother stopping at his hotel and instead headed straight to the museum. The curator offered him a small office out of the way. He left his suitcase in the office.
To continue the pattern of his day, nothing much got accomplished. There were no leads to follow- no prints, nothing on the video. He tried to sort through the crime, put the pieces together to give him somewhere to start, but he got nowhere. When he left for the night, he stopped only briefly at his hotel to check in and ditch his suitcase. He found a bar to spend the next few hours in.
Nate wasn't drunk- that's important to clarify. But he had drunken quite a lot, which made it difficult to remember exactly how to manoeuvre his hand properly enough to fit the card into the slot. Once he accomplished it, he congratulated himself silently and pushed the door open, stumbling very slightly as he stepped inside.
He stopped quite suddenly, sobering fractionally as he stood still in the centre of the room. Something was different. Not wrong, necessarily, but different. There was a scent lingering in the air. It was a very unique scent. Musky and seductive, fruity and playful, a bit too strong but also just right for the senses.
From the bathroom door he heard, "How did you know it was me?" He turned to see her standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. She was smiling at him but he wasn't looking at her eyes or her face, he was taking her in. Her dress was light and dainty, perfect for the summer-like day outside. It covered very little- thin straps held it up, leaving her neck and shoulders and quite a lot of her chest exposed, while the hem ended only mid-way down her thigh. The material itself was purple with white flowers, but that's all he really noticed.
When he did look at her face, he noted mostly that her cheeks were lighter than he remembered and her lips redder. Her hair was pinned back. It looked cute. But he wasn't concentrating on that anymore than the dress's colour. No, he was paying attention to the way she was pouting her lips at him, to the way her eyes had darkened in response to him, to the way she was leaning seductively against the wooden frame. She was also barefoot, though he didn't know why he thought about that.
In three steps he had closed the distance between them and in one motion he had captured her lips with his. Being slightly but not actually drunk like he was and angry but no longer fuming, he forgot to be gentle. His lips were hungrily bearing down on hers and his right hand had curled around her neck, keeping her firmly against him. In the very back of his mind, he knew to give her a chance to stop him, but much of the rest of his brain had realized that she was keeping pace with him. Both of her hands had wrapped around his neck and she deepened the kiss with her tongue. She let herself be moved against the wall, which made it easier to press his body even closer to hers.
He didn't stop even when he needed to breathe, he just moved on to kissing her cheek and neck. As he moved from her neck to her shoulder, he forgot again to be gentle. Small bruises marked his trail downwards. Her hands tangled in his hair and scratched at his neck. She moaned in response despite the roughness.
His lips found hers again. His body pressed her tighter against the wall. His erection was hard against her stomach. She sighed into his mouth.
Their pace slowed. He was still kissing her, though sloppily, leaving time between kisses to breathe. Her hands were against his neck now, rubbing it lightly and playing with his soft curls. Her chest was heaving, pressing her breasts against him in irregular bouts. When he moved in to kiss her again, she tilted her face to the side; he kissed her cheek. Her hands rubbed down his back; his forehead rested against hers.
Her words came out in a frail whisper. "Do you want to talk about it?"
She let that hang over them for a moment as she stood still pinned against the wall by his larger frame. There was a flutter of hot breath on her cheek. She could still feel him throbbing against her.
"Do you want to keep going?" She shouldn't have asked it. She wasn't going to, but standing there like that with him was simply driving her insane with need. She could feel that he wasn't getting any better himself. But to ask him was possibly embarrassing. She knew that he was going to say no, he was going to apologize for being drunk and angry about something and for taking that out on her. He was going to walk away and ask for enough privacy to compose himself. And then, once the two of them had calmed down, he was going to ask her why the hell she was in his hotel room. In her defence, sex was not the answer to that question.
"Yes, I want to." His voice was hoarse, even a bit forced, like that wasn't the answer he was going to give. It certainly wasn't the expected one. "But we're not going to."
"What are you doing here?"
When she imagined him asking her that, she imagined that she would still be leaning against the door frame. That her hair would still be perfectly put together and that she would be leering at him seductively. She imagined saying something relatively witty and she imagined that they would have some fun with the following conversation. She hadn't imagined that his chest would be pressed up against hers so tightly that she could feel his heart pounding, or that she would be able to hear him breathing. She didn't expect to be stroking his polo-clad back or tangling her fingers through his curls with her other hand.
"I heard you were here. I wanted to stop in and say hello."
"Did you steal the paintings?"
"Oh, my silly Nathan, I can't tell you that."
"Didn't think you'd admit to it. Hoped, though."
He moved, just enough to take away the warmth of his body and to compel her to slide her hands over his shoulders and onto his chest. His eyes seemed so sad; she didn't know what to do. She stroked his cheek, brushing some hair behind his ear. "What happened, Nate?"
She watched as an interesting conflict took place in his eyes. She could tell that he didn't want to say anything; he seemed content to remain in the dream of this moment. At the same time, she saw his trust in her; saw him moving his lips soundlessly. "My wife and I keep fighting," he said softly.
It would be a lie to say that those words didn't sting at Sophie's heart. She knew he had a wife- what a horrible grifter she would be if she hadn't spied that when they first met- but there was a dark piece of her that hoped his wife was gone by now.
"Fighting about what?"
"Work. I work too much. I don't spend enough time with her or with Sam or at home. She doesn't like how often I come to Europe and she doesn't understand why I like it so much or why I'm sent here so often. She keeps telling me to cut back."
"Why won't you? Travelling all the way from LA must be exhausting."
He didn't answer, just looked at her for a while. He spoke again only once he looked away. "Tomorrow is Sam's third birthday and I'm missing it. That's what we were arguing about." His eyes clouded over and he looked at her again. "I feel like a bad father."
"Nate." She held his face in her hands, stroked his jaw with her thumbs. There was nothing to say to him, nothing that she could think of. She hadn't even known that he was a father. Her eyes were soft and dark and focused solely on him. She rose up on her toes and kissed him softly, gently and with such purpose that his arms wrapped around her back and pulled her to him.
Sophie stayed for a few hours, keeping him company and drinking with him. When she got up to leave, he refused, telling her to stay the night in his room so she wouldn't be travelling alone so late. She was hesitant, but eventually agreed. She washed up and then laid in his bed, wearing a pair of his boxers and one of his dress shirts. He didn't bother to ask when she managed to steal those from his suitcase.
She fell asleep watching him pace around the room, still nursing a glass of rum. He spent the night alternating between watching her sleep and dusting the hair from her face and staring out the window. He honestly couldn't understand this relationship he had developed with this woman, this thief and liar and seductress. He couldn't explain the way he had felt an immediate bond with her in Prague or the ease with which she had earned his respect or how pure their friendship had seemed in London. He didn't understand how he had trusted her so much that night.
He hated himself for how much he had wanted her. If his mind had been clearer, he would never have kissed her, but he certainly would have thought about it, played out that entire scene, before dismissing her. He could blame it on the alcohol, but the reality was something completely different. He just hadn't figured out what reality was yet.
When Nate got home, he ate left over cake with Sam and presented the couple of gifts he picked up while in Madrid. Sammy seemed content to get more sugar and more paper and toys to play with. Maggie stood cross armed and stern in the corner.
Their "rough patch" softened over the next year. Nate purposely asked to handle more cases stateside. He brought less work home and left his weekends open to do things with Maggie and Sam. But Nate couldn't stop feeling like he was missing something.