The curator appeared close to tears as she gazed at the painting, newly returned to its rightful place courtesy of the FBI's White Collar division.
More specifically, thanks to the efforts of Peter Burke and Neal Caffrey.
"Oh, you just don't understand what this means," she said softly. "My father brought that painting with him when he escaped Nazi Germany. It was the first piece we had when this gallery was opened."
"It's good that it's back home then," Neal said. From the case work, he knew that Ada Schulman's father had barely escaped with his life.
"And I'm glad we could help," Peter added.
Neal looked around at the other paintings in the room, smiling. "This is really a very nice gallery."
"Thank you. It's always wonderful to meet young people who appreciate art."
The sound that came from Peter's throat might have been a scoffing laugh, but he covered it as a cough. Neal glanced at him quickly and then back to the curator. "I don't suppose it would be possible to get a sneak peek at that post-impressionist display, while we're here anyway."
"Oh, I wish I could help! But most of the pieces haven't even arrived yet, and those that are here are still crated."
"No problem. I just thought I'd ask."
Ada opened the portfolio she carried and extracted an envelope. "We are having a special preview reception this Friday," she said, handing him the document. "Then we'll make final preparations over the weekend before opening to the public on Monday. The reception is mostly for our members, but you're welcome to attend."
Neal took the envelope, nodding his thanks. "I'm sure it will be very successful."
"Oh, I hope so! It has generated a lot of interest already." Ada turned away, responding to her name being called by someone. "Ah, the work never ends," she said. "If you'll excuse me?"
"Of course," Peter said. "We'll see ourselves out." He waited as the curator walked away and then nodded at the envelope in Neal's hand. "You realize this gallery is…"
"Outside my radius," Neal finished, sighing. His left leg suddenly felt much heavier. "I know. I don't suppose you…"
"I have tickets to the Knicks game."
It was just one word, but the disappointment it conveyed was huge. And it generated a moment of pure inspiration for Peter. "I might let you go the reception," he started.
"If you're willing to do something for me on Saturday."
A niggling little voice in the back of Neal's head was saying that he should ask more questions before agreeing, but he really, REALLY wanted to go to this reception…
They put in some long hours during the week, which led Peter to decree that they were leaving a little early on Friday. Sure, part of it was a reward to his team for their dedication and good work.
But mostly he wanted to get home, get changed, meet his buddies for dinner, and get to the arena with plenty of time to be settled, beer in hand, before tip-off.
He pulled the car up in front of June's to let Neal out. "All right, enjoy the reception."
"I'll enjoy that as much as you enjoy your basketball game."
"That's a lot."
Peter grinned. They might not agree on the best way ways to spend free time, but each of them had a worthy event tonight. "Don't forget," he said as the younger man got out of the car. "My place, 6:30 tomorrow morning."
"That's really early for a weekend…" Neal started.
"I'm not complaining, just commenting. Can't you tell me…"
"You agreed, details unheard."
Neal nodded. "I know. But maybe just a clue?"
Peter considered that for a moment. "Dress casual," he finally said. "And wear comfortable shoes."
He started the car rolling, which prompted Neal to close the door. And then he drove off, leaving a puzzled partner on the curb.
All right, he'd opted for jeans – designer, of course. And in deference to the holiday season, a green Scandinavian sweater with a pine tree pattern. A short leather jacket topped the ensemble.
His feet were clad in comfortable shoes, as instructed.
Still, there was a bit of trepidation as Neal rang the doorbell at 6:28 that morning.
It was reinforced when Peter opened the door wearing ragged old sweatpants and a t-shirt that was so faded Neal couldn't even guess what color it had been originally. Whatever it had advertised was a bit of a faded mystery as well.
"Good, right on time," Peter said, with a grin that made Neal want to wince.
"Can you tell me now what I'm on time for?" he asked carefully, reaching down to scratch Satchmo's ears.
"Yes, Peter, why don't you tell him?"
That was Elizabeth, coming down the stairs – and that was definitely a frosty tone to her voice.
Peter cleared his throat and looked between the other two people in the room. "Well, El needs some help today. I was going to do it, but something came up…"
"In other words," Elizabeth clarified, cutting him off. "He had agreed to go Christmas shopping with me today, but he's decided he'd rather play basketball."
"Honey, Bill's only in town a few days – and all I do is carry packages all day anyway. Neal is more than capable of doing that."
"Wait, that's what you expect me to do? Shop and carry stuff?" Neal hoped that was his best indignant tone.
"Neal, I'm sorry," Elizabeth said. "Peter told me you were going to go, but I didn't realize until this morning that he hadn't told you."
"No, he was a little fuzzy on the details."
"You agreed," Peter argued. "In exchange for the reception last night…"
"Oh, a three hour reception versus a full day?"
Elizabeth sat down to put on her shoes. "Look, Neal, it's fine. I usually get Peter to go along because I like to go to a couple of the big malls outside of the city. It can be a long way back to the car. But I'll manage."
Neal offered Peter one more scowl and then turned to Elizabeth. "No, it's fine. I did make the deal, details unknown, and I'll go. Like Peter said, I am capable of carrying things."
"Elizabeth, really, it's fine. Your lift 'em and tote 'em servant awaits."
She stood up and pulled on her jacket, then walked toward the kitchen. "You should have told him," she said as she passed her husband.
"Yeah, you should have told him," Neal echoed as the kitchen doors swung shut.
"You got what you wanted. So…"
"So help me Peter, if you say 'cowboy up' I may puke all over your living room."
"Then how about suck it up, Caffrey."
"Let's see, malls are open late for the holidays, so we're talking about three hours versus, what? Twenty? Walking endlessly, playing the pack animal."
Peter shrugged. "Maybe I'll owe you another reception or something," he said. "A short one!"
Neal just rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right."
"Look, you get to go someplace new," Peter said. "I've called the marshals, you're not being monitored today."
"Oh, good, then I won't be getting zapped by the anklet every few minutes. Really a great innovation on this new model, Peter – especially when I found out about it because you forgot to call the marshals and tell them I was working late with you."
Peter at least had the good grace to look a little bit guilty. "And I have apologized for that – and for laughing at the way it made you jump the first time it happened."
"Look, I'm trusting you here, Neal. You're off of monitoring for the whole day, and you're going off with my wife."
"I know she's your wife, Peter. Do you really think I'm going to make a move on her or something?"
"No, I don't. But so help me Neal, if you get distracted by something shiny and ditch her somewhere…"
"I would not do that to Elizabeth."
Any reply Peter might have made was cut off as Elizabeth came back into the room carrying two travel mugs of steaming hot coffee. Peter reached his hand out, but she neatly sidestepped him and handed the second cup to Neal. "Ready to hit the road?"
Neal lifted the mug in salute toward Peter, a slight smirk crossing his lips. "Shopping, here we come."
He followed her out to the car, actually hurrying a little. Something to note – Elizabeth walked very fast when she was annoyed. She was already behind the wheel and buckling her seat belt when he slid in on the other side.
She started the car and then sighed, turning to look at him. "Neal, I'm really sorry about this. I'll drop you off at June's…"
He turned toward her, his smile growing. "Elizabeth, I really don't mind shopping."
Neal shook his head and settled his cup in the nearest holder. "Peter hates shopping, so he just assumed I do too."
"So that was all an act in there?"
"Well, not all. I mean, he only gave me three hours last night, versus a whole day?"
"True, that isn't quite even."
"Really, I don't mind shopping – and it's been a long time since I've been able to go to a suburban mall. Plus, the idea of spending the day with you is quite pleasant." He offered her his most sincere smile. "If Peter had just asked, I would happily have agreed to do this."
"So all that in there was just a big con?"
"He already admitted he owes me another few hours off monitoring."
Elizabeth laughed. "Neal, you can be so bad at times!"
"Are you going to tell on me?"
She considered that for a moment. "Maybe not – if you promise to give me honest opinions on clothing options today."
Neal leaned back against the headrest and laughed. "You Burkes and your deals! But I can live with yours – and contrary to popular opinion, I can even do honest."
"Then buckle up."
"Yes, ma'm," he replied, complying. "Let's go!"
The mall was already packed with holiday shoppers when they arrived. Elizabeth found a parking spot – somewhat less than a mile from the mall entrance, Neal noted – and they walked inside.
The corridors were decked for the season, with wreaths and garlands, bows and stars. Signs pointed the way to Santa Land, and a large kiosk in the rotunda offered gift wrapping services.
Elizabeth seemed to know the mall well, and had her plan of attack thought out ahead of time. She confidently led the way to stores she wanted to patronize, and Neal followed, quite content to just take in the experience.
When he expressed interest in something, Elizabeth was more than willing to stop.
Time passed quickly, and Neal soon found himself juggling quite an assortment of bags. In fact, it was a struggle at times to keep up with Elizabeth, trying to get through the crowds with his load.
He caught up with her when she stopped outside a salon, admiring the illustrations for various nail designs.
"We have extra manicurists in today," the salon employee was saying. "We can get you in right away."
"What do you think, Neal?"
"Honest opinion?" he asked, smiling.
Elizabeth just smiled in return and nodded.
He shifted a couple of bags and pointed at one illustration. "I think that would look fantastic with the outfit you just bought for the office holiday party."
"Oh, you're right!"
"Why don't you give me the keys," he suggested. "I'll make an attempt to find the car again and drop off these bags."
"Maybe we should have dropped breadcrumbs or something on the way in," Elizabeth said, handing over the keys.
"Then I'd have something to eat to retain my stamina," he replied with a wink.
"I'll buy you an ice cream cone when you get back."
She laughed. "Sure, why not."
"All right, I'll meet you back here in a little bit."
The way out to the car took him past a small shop where Elizabeth had admired, but passed on, a scarf. It soon was added to the items he was already carrying.
He saved the receipt, just in case Peter questioned the legality of the acquisition.
A quick stop at the gift wrapping kiosk, some pleasant flirtation with the young woman who boxed and wrapped the scarf, and then he was on his way to the car.
The parking lot was even more jam-packed now, and he waved several drivers on, disappointing them that he wasn't opening up a park space.
By the time he got back to the salon, the manicurist was just finishing up with Elizabeth.
"What do you think?" she asked, holding out her hands.
"Very nice. It really compliments your eyes."
The manicurist was smiling. "You're very lucky to have such a perceptive husband."
"Oh, he's…" Elizabeth caught herself and smiled. "I am very lucky," she agreed.
Buoyed by late morning ice cream, they spent a couple more hours at the first mall and then headed for the second shopping mecca on Elizabeth's list. The trip included a stop at a favorite seafood restaurant of hers.
When the bill for lunch came, Neal was planning to pay. But when Elizabeth pointed out that if she used her check card, it would sort of be like Peter was paying, he grinned and let her have the check.
The second mall was as packed as the first one…
Elizabeth stepped out of the changing room into the waiting area and Neal stood up, eyes widening in appreciation of what he saw.
"You like?" Elizabeth held out her hands and turned slightly. The shimmering silver material of the gown floated around her hips and legs.
"Definitely." He stepped in closer, studying the dress from several angles. "Yeah, that looks very nice on you."
She ran her hands over the skirt, looking in a mirror. "I've never done such a formal event as this New Year's party. And it's a big client. There could be a lot more events if this one goes well."
"Elizabeth, you'll do fine. You're good at what you do."
"Mmmmm… I hope so." She took one more look at her reflection and then turned to him and smiled. "All right, remember this one. I'm going to try the other dress."
Neal pulled out his phone and took a couple of steps back. Switching to the camera mode he snapped a photo. "Got this one down."
Elizabeth disappeared into the back and Neal took his seat again. It wasn't long before she was back, peeking around the corner.
Neal got to his feet. "Something wrong?"
"No, just wondering if you were alone. Can you zip me up?"
She backed into the waiting area and he stepped up, managing to fasten the zipper with minimal touching of her back. He wondered if Peter had considered that part of the shopping process when planning his trade, because the zipper started pretty low…
Elizabeth stepped toward the mirror, smiling as she saw her refection. And as Neal took a step back, he smiled too. This dress was light blue, off the right shoulder, with a refined ruffle holding it up on the left.
"What do you think?" she asked. "And don't say both, because I really can't do that."
"This one," he said, with no hesitation. "The other one was great, but this one really highlights your eyes. And the way it fits – it was made for you."
Elizabeth turned back to the mirror, her smile growing as she turned to check several angles. "I do like this."
"You should. It looks great."
"It's the more expensive of the two…"
"It's perfect for you."
She turned toward him, grinning. "If Peter was here, he'd be looking at the price tags, wondering if there wasn't a clearance rack somewhere."
"Then it's a good thing you have me here," he returned, matching her grin. "And I am fulfilling my promise of offering honest opinions."
"All right, this one it is. Can you unzip me please?"
A group of carolers was performing in the rotunda as they strolled by. Actually, Neal corrected, there was no strolling about it – it felt more like swimming upstream just before hitting Niagara Falls. The area was packed with people taking a break and listening to the singers.
Apparently some people had other reasons for stopping…
Neal suddenly darted to his right, and a moment later his hand closed over the wrist of a teenager who was just reaching into a purse. A steely glare, and a firm shake of his head, and the boy's eyes went wide. As soon as Neal loosened his grip, the boy disappeared into the crowd.
Elizabeth was grinning when he rejoined her. "Look at you, stopping crime even on your day off."
"Maybe I should have a super hero cape. Anti-pickpocket Man. What do you think?"
"Yeah, I'll talk to Peter about that."
They laughed and moved on, finally stopping in front of a store advertising diamonds, gold, silver…
"Peter told me not to let you in any jewelry stores."
"What if I promise to be good?"
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and grinned. "From what I hear, you were always good – that just wasn't always good for everyone else."
"True," he conceded. "I was always good. What if I promise to be honest and good?"
"I'll accept that," she agreed, leading the way into the store.
There were some beautiful pieces, he had to admit. Oh, maybe not the multi-million dollar settings he might, allegedly, have coveted at one point, but still very nice. And really, the store's security procedures were so slim as to be almost laughable. The old itch started to appear…
He concentrated on what Elizabeth was looking at, offering opinions and advice. His practiced eye caught flaws in some of the stones, to the chagrin of the assistant manager who was helping them. In the end, he helped Elizabeth settle on a simple but brilliant necklace to compliment the gown she bought.
And he walked out of the store with his honest-but-good promise intact.
They shopped some more, though even Elizabeth laughingly admitted she was slowing down. When they finally left the mall they headed over to a nearby steakhouse for dinner, sharing a bottle of wine and cherry cheesecake for dessert.
Neal drove back to the city, while Elizabeth massaged her sore feet.
He finally pulled up in front of June's and cut the engine. "I hope I fulfilled my duties as beast of burden to your satisfaction."
"I'll give you a good recommendation."
"Are you sure you don't want me to go with you and help carry things in? I can always get a cab back."
"Oh, I don't think Peter should get out of all the work today, do you?"
"I really had a good time today, Neal. Thank you."
"I had a good time too."
"And since you were so helpful, I'll tell Peter you hated every minute."
He laughed. "In that case, start dropping hints about going after Christmas shopping."
"Oh, good idea!"
Neal got out of the car and extracted the few purchases he'd made as Elizabeth walked around to the driver's side.
"See you tomorrow at the Bureau party?" she asked as she got in.
"Save me a dance."
"Thanks again, Neal."
"Good night, Elizabeth."
He closed her door and stepped back as she drove away.
As the taillights disappeared around a corner, he finally allowed himself to feel the weariness. His comfortable shoes had ceased being comfortable a few hours back, and he was as physically tired as on the worst day when he was on the run. And he still faced a climb to the top floor…
The first snowflakes landed on his nose and cheeks as he contemplated that, and he smiled. It was almost Christmas, and the day of friendship he'd just shared was one of the best presents he could have hoped for.
That thought buoyed him as tackled the stairs…