"If it isn't Neal Caffrey in the flesh," the woman said, rising from her desk in the office that was more like a glass perch looking down on the inner workings of an investment firm. "We have been wanting to meet you for some time."
Something in the intonation of the word 'we' made Neal look around.
"Yes, this conversation is being transmitted to many interested parties, and recorded for those who are not free to listen," the woman said with a vague gesture to the air. There was little in the office except a few pieces of art, so the place must be just as cunningly rigged for surveillance as the security at the door was set up to prevent it.
"I feel like your security man downstairs owes me a drink now that we're on such intimate terms," Neal said, aware he was being studied.
"Forgive me, I haven't even introduced myself. I'm Marina DeGioia." She extended her hand and then laughed. "Of course, you would be nervous about shaking hands. Please, sit." The woman who had invited Neal to her office was about 45, quite short, well-preserved, black hair cut into a short bob that swayed right around her prominent cheekbones. "You'll find that etiquette gets all mixed up in our circle, because we know a great deal about some things and nothing at all about others."
"I think I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in that respect," Neal said, completely relaxed because his mixture of aversion and curiosity for this group was not an act.
"Your assistant found us very quickly, and was even more skilled at assuring us you came, if not in peace, at least with none of your criminal friends in tow."
At points Marina seemed to be listening to a hidden conversation, and she looked away for a moment. "Then you really don't know very much about me, because I'm not the type to hire hitmen," Neal said drily. "But you were right about one thing. I only want to understand."
Marina stood up and retrieved some glass bottles of sparkling water from a small embedded refrigerator. "Perfectly safe, I assure you. As is the office, which is why I chose to invite you here, for your reassurance."
"Yes, I did appreciate being able to leave my canary at home." Neal sniffed. The air smelled of a light mixture of citrus and jasmine. It smelled expensive. He made a mental note to always have someone in his life to alert him if his space ever started to smell like that.
"Most of us have never met each other in person. Everything is done through employees and assistants. But then, you are a very special case, Mr. Caffrey, and we've already seen each other twice this month."
"Yes, at that art opening with the yarn and all the interactive SMS messages being projected upon it—'TEXT-iles'—I liked it, other than the title." Neal searched his memory.
"And, oh yes, the Whitney, but I have seen a little bit of you regularly since being released from prison. You only started collecting in earnest when I was out of the game."
"Once my husband died and there was no one driving the business into the ground, I was finally able to pursue my real interests." Marina burst out laughing suddenly. "Can you see his face?" she asked an invisible watcher. "No, Neal, may I call you Neal?" She didn't wait for an answer. "We're not in the business of murder. My husband had a genetic heart ailment that finally caught up with him."
"I'm sorry, Marina, but maybe you could tell me exactly what you're in the business of, and then we can go from there."
"Adjustments," she said, looking over the top of her scarlet-framed spectacles she wore on a chain around her neck. Everything she was wearing, and much of the room, was red, white or black.
"Adjustments. As in karmic adjustments?"
"Very well said. But since most of us are in the financial sphere, it doesn't feel as though the deal is sealed until money changes hands. Hence the wagers. But most of all we consider it to be a developing science, and the real pleasure is in exchanging techniques and explaining how a man, externally upstanding, can be inwardly corrupt, rotten. And how such a man-who could go on forever as he is, using the momentum of a long-vanished virtue-how he can be made to reconcile his two natures. Take a bribe, perhaps. Accept an illegal business transaction—"
"I believe I've met a man such as you describe," Neal said, sipping his drink. "Was choking on a handful of dolls and champagne your—" he swept his hands around to encompass his invisible audience–"Your doing?"
Marina touched a device in her ear and gave him her full attention. "You're upset. You're looking for someone to blame. And that is natural after what you've been through. But dear Neal, you have nothing to fear from us. You won!"
"I won some crazy bastard's fortune and monthly checkups on my kidneys?"
"You won your freedom." She pointed to his leg. "No tracking anklet."
Neal laughed a bitter laugh that surprised him. "Having a suddenly very rich person as the indentured servant of the white collar division didn't wash very well. Especially with that person suddenly very well-represented legally and thus in a position to sue over almost getting killed in an operation he wasn't even aware he was a part of—" He took a deep breath. "It was an embarrassing situation the FBI was glad to have washed their hands of." He didn't realize how far the FBI had gone down in his estimation recently.
The look in Marina's eyes was one of deep sympathy. "Neal, it may not seem like it now, but you'll right yourself very soon. That's what I want, what we want. You deserve a second chance after what you've been through."
Neal rubbed his eyes to buy himself a moment to think. If this woman was good at detecting lies, Neal was twice as good, and she seemed sincere. "Remember Scott seemed sincere, too," his brain told himself. "So the idea is, you put people to the test and if they aren't totally destroyed, they win a prize?"
She gave an impatient gesture. "Let me start at the beginning. Each of us, for one reason or another, found ourselves attracted to this pastime-of giving human nature certain choices and seeing which way the chips fell. More meaningful than a roulette wheel, I think you'll agree, particularly when there is a great deal of skill in laying these paths without seeming to be involved.
"Prentiss Lloyd Scott was the original systematizer, and a brilliant player. Unfortunately he began to lose a sense of proportion." Neal couldn't suppress a snort. "Perhaps someone should have realized. He was retiring more and more from business pursuits that were ceasing to have meaning, but that happens to successful people very often. Me, I mostly concentrate on art rather than finance, in addition to this hobby of course.
"Throughout the year, we meet—always virtually—pose scenarios and take wagers, but mostly we share tips and experiences, always looking to push the science of human nature further."
"Such as with exotic chemicals?"
She gave a wry smile. "I'm a purist, as are many of us. But some have tried that route, yes."
"What was the wager on me?"
"You mean the amount or the stakes? I have no idea. Really I don't. The end of the year competition abides by totally different rules—meaning little sharing until the great reveal. And Scott didn't live long enough to reveal what his plan for you was, though he did have us on the edge of our seats all year as he told us more about you. A very talented criminal and an artist of rare passion, he called you. A mass of opposites."
"He was totally cracked," Neal said bluntly.
"I'm sure he was, yes, certainly he was," Marina said soothingly. "Which is why we've started having a face-to-face with at least one member of the group every so often. You and I, we move in the same circles, so it's quite natural we would fall in together."
Neal fell back on his trick of thinking of something pleasant so he wouldn't reveal his true feelings about 'falling in with' Marina DeGioia. He thought of Peter.
"Now that I think we've established that you have nothing to fear from us, Neal Caffrey, are you still interested in learning more? You could walk away right now, and as long as you respect our privacy we will continue to respect yours."
"Yes, Gaspar told me that a VIP lost everything recently, someone he had been looking at as a possible contact for this group."
"The person you are referring to did something unforgivable, in that he invited a second person to take a wager, totally off the books, about a third member of the group. Every pastime has rules, or it's total chaos, isn't it?" DeGioia asked reasonably. "I suppose it's only natural that you would have concerns about how this works. Perhaps it would be good for you to try a wager or two, to see our psychological investigations in action?"
Neal was congratulating himself on how easily he'd gotten in to the ring when he heard his hostess asking, "You must have many scores to settle with your criminal types. We're all dying to see your methods in action—there's a lot to learn from you, Neal."
"We don't—I don't know how to explain it. Crooks tend to be a little too busy for elaborate payback schemes. And honestly, I'm the kind that sheds my skin and doesn't look back. Most of my underground friends stopped talking to me when I went to the FBI, and the Feds have these bursting files on Neal Caffrey, master criminal, and think there's nothing more to be learned."
"Well, I don't feel that way at all," the woman said in a motherly tone. Then she reflected. "And perhaps it would be better to start out with people who are more recognizable. None of us, I think it's safe to say, have any intersection with your underworld connections, and thus we have to take your word for it that so-and-so, a violent scoundrel, was finally caught at being a sadist."
"There would be the police report," Neal pointed out, not sure that he disliked any criminal enough to put them under the scrutiny of the group.
"The police," Marina said with real disdain. "Were they ever in the business of justice?"
"Since I've seen charges magically appear and disappear from my record, with little to do with what I actually did or did not do, I'd have to say probably not," Neal smiled. "But I have come across a couple of people you might recognize—I don't feel comfortable revealing any past activities that I wasn't specifically exonerated for, you understand," he unfurled his full smile.
"How exciting," Marina said with just a smidge too much excitement.
"But now that I have the means, I was planning on at least making a sort of statement to these people. You know, they're the kind that think regular people aren't made of the same stuff as they are, so something to the effect of 'I'm in your world now, and I remember what you did,' that kind of thing."
Not at all sure whether he worded it right, Neal was relieved to find his hostess nodding. "That would be very good. Someone with whom we can all track your progress, learn from your methods. Starting wager is normally $10,000. I can show you how to disseminate the proposal through the network. Or I can have this information transmitted securely to your assistant, if you prefer."
Neal leaned back, suddenly exhausted. "Yes, that would be best, because Gaspar is very particular in his way of managing my affairs." Actually, Neal wanted to make sure that his "assistant" was part of everything he did. He didn't want to be alone in this matter, and Gaspar was always a stabilizing influence.
He stared at the woman smiling at him from that glass precipice where the noise of business was just a hum. "Just like that, I'm in? That makes me a bit nervous about your other security precautions."
She looked at him steadily over her glasses. "You've been in our sights for some time, Neal. We don't believe that you pose a threat to any of us. And I've told you we want only the best for you."
Neal felt a sudden chill but tipped up the glass bottle to finish his beverage. "Gaspar will be in touch, then, with our details." He stopped. "Thank you, Marina. It's actually a great relief to start to give a form to this amorphous force I've been living with for some time." He stretched out his hand. "It's a huge weight off my mind."
Marina grasped his hand and shook it warmly. "If there's ever anything I can do—my contacts for buying or selling art might be useful for you."
"Thank you. I'm sure I'll see you at the opening at the Guggenheim next week."
Neal left the office with a spring in his step. He stopped in to see Gaspar and forced himself to spend an hour looking at potential candidates for a karmic adjustment. Then, he went back to his apartment to use the equipment Mozzie had advised him to buy to check for any bugs he might have picked up at the meeting. His instincts had been right—there weren't any. He called Gaspar and asked him to order another set for the office.
Feeling lighter with his first contact finally established with the group, Neal changed clothes and went for a run. He stopped for a stretch and made a call using his dedicated phone, leaving a detailed message to the number the FBI had set up for him. "She said in not so many words that they have eyes on me—please keep that in mind on your end."
Neal jogged a little more so he could drive in the last sentence, which was equally meant for himself. He'd learned from Prentiss Scott that sometimes the worst thing you can do is get on someone' good side, and this lady seemed to have a soft spot for him. At least they didn't say anything about his love life.
It was only smart to stay far away from Peter at Diana's wedding in a few weeks, but picturing his tuxedoed lover at the far end of a rented hall was enough to wash away all the remaining conflict Neal felt about his mission now in progress.
A few weeks previously, Hughes sat in his glass cage and took off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. No one was bothering him. They didn't, as a rule, so much anymore. He was like the great dinosaur who lumbered out of his lair every once in awhile, roared a little bit, and then went back. When everything started being about computers, the FBI agent had kept himself afloat better than others of his cohort, many of whom took advantage of the changes in white collar crime to find cushy posts where they could make others take care of the details.
But Hughes had endured. His marriages notwithstanding, the veteran agent was good at what he did precisely because of his grasp of human nature-he never lost sight of the person cooking the books. People weren't balance sheets. They were messier and more interesting.
He put on his glasses once more and read the notes left by the profiler on the Scott case. The yellow legal pad had been boxed up with everything else from that phase of the investigation, and had thus come to the attention of Hughes.
The handwriting wasn't great but the notes were collections of ideas and full sentences, so the FBI supervisor was able to make some sense out of them. The last entries were the ones that had interested him from the get-go, when he read them right after Scott's death.
"People always justify the hell out of what they do. Rich people give to causes to show what good people they are. How does somebody go from writing their monthly check to the Police Benevolent Association to betting on whether they can ruin somebody's life? Can't put a price tag on it, can't write it off on your taxes. No way there's not a paper trail. Scott's not like the rest—throwing off our calculations. Need to find out what makes a bunch of people sitting around in their fancy offices in Singapore, Japan, France, NYC get all riled up enough to be invested in exposing an affair some random dude is having with some other random person."
That was the last of the rational notes. Thankfully, there was only one more page. The rest was gibberish, a sign of the poor man losing his marbles. Hughes had a lot of sympathy for people who had to resist temptation on daily basis. Manic-depressives, addicts like himself, thieves like Caffrey.
Caffrey. Hughes had always liked the kid but felt no need to follow him around with a dustpan and broom, waiting for him to make a mess so he could capture the evidence and show everybody. The man would sink or swim, that was none of Hughes' concern, but in the meantime, what a mind to have at their disposal.
But Burke's thing, damn him, Burke had no subtlety, he'd never had to learn it. He was an excellent agent when it came to black and white cases, but somehow Neal Caffrey had opened up the man's eyes to the other colors in the spectrum and now—
Hughes got a can of mineral water from his personal refrigerator and put a couple of herbal drops recommended for anxiety in it.
He knew all about the allure of the forbidden. Hughes' second, short-lived marriage had been to a young woman he met through A/A, someone he knew full well hadn't put her partying days behind her.
But these two, this criminal and his overly earnest keeper had somehow developed something that was enough to make Hughes' toes curl when he was in the same room with them.
The old agent knew that he'd gotten to the point in his life when he needed to see things happen in other people's lives because not much was going to happen in his own. So the fact that part of him was rooting for this unlikely flame that was burning so hot for so long didn't surprise him.
What did was the next thought. Maybe what the profiler was getting at was that this secret society wasn't made up of people who were overtly insane, like Scott must have been.
They might be people like Hughes, who'd all but given up on justice in the world, and were sorely in need of a moral victory.
For dried-up people like himself, this epic Burke-Caffrey love affair might be very interesting indeed. And any failings in that epic relationship might be even more compelling.
"Damn you to hell, Burke." Hughes had too many things on his mind without having to keep one eye on an angle he couldn't publicly acknowledge, made up of two completely unpredictable people.
The day of Diana's wedding finally came. After some consultation with Neal, she had decided upon a tuxedo with a very feminine jacket that had a ruffled peplum like a frock coat. Suzette was wearing a short, white dress, no lace, just white satin and a similar ruffle as the one on Diana's jacket.
"I didn't want to be too matchy-matchy, but do we look like we're getting married to each other?" Diana asked Elizabeth before the ceremony.
"You both look beautiful, and yes, you look like you belong together. Not like one wedding I catered where the groomsmen were all wearing a Star Trek theme and the bride got her way with a huge fantasy train. Not a good omen."
"Thank you, Elizabeth. You've been here every step of the way for me—I had no idea planning a wedding was enough to bring a badass like me to my knees."
"She's not half as badass as she pretends," Suzette observed, slinging an arm around her mate.
"We need to create some superstition about the brides seeing each other before the wedding, because you're going to make me cry already," Diana protested, dabbing at her mascara. "Out!"
"I didn't want to bring it up in front of Suzette, because you don't know her as well—"
"I'm fine. Peter's on his way, and we're both so happy for you and that's what we'll be focusing on. As, I'm sure, will Neal."
"Do you know who his plus-one is?"
"Not a clue, but hopefully nobody too famous."
It was a beautiful ceremony during which everyone managed to keep it together until the point at which the minister said, "I now pronounce you wife and wife," and one lone sniffle set off a wildfire of emotion. Whatever was supposed to happen at that point was forgotten as the two women stood arm in arm, watching their friends and family blubber like fools. Peter stood nearby with a big smile, taking advantage of the general emotion to exchange a glance with Neal for the first time. For a few seconds, the heiress or starlet or whoever she was next to Neal didn't exist, and it was only the two men, in on the secret of love.
"It was bound to happen sooner or later," Diana said of the new marriage law.
"But it happened to us," her new spouse said.
"I think you need to break out the good booze, stat," Peter relayed in a stage whisper.
The two women walked through the crowd of their loved ones, receiving congratulations and leading the way to the hotel hall where the caterers had been at work.
After most had a chance to gulp down a glass of wine, people seemed calmer, and Elizabeth nodded at Diana before she stepped forward with Peter for the best man speech he was going to give the introduction for.
"I hope it stays in this room that the best way to totally immobilize a bunch of FBI agents is for one of their own to tie the knot," Peter joked. "And I want to tell you why I was so moved by these two ladies exchanging vows." Elizabeth darted a glance at Diana—Peter was off-script.
"This is not an against-all-odds speech. What I see before me are two classy women who did the impossible—they made falling in love look easy, and every single thing I've seen them do together since has been graceful, and giving. And I have every reason to believe that they're going to continue making the hard work of living look easy, just to remind the world that it can be done. Something wonderful can happen in life, and because these two are smart, they've found a way to make it stay."
Suzette handed Diana a kleenex.
"Diana is family to me, so all I want to say is, welcome to the family, Suzette."
Peter put his arm around Elizabeth, and the toasts continued. "I can tell he appreciated that," she whispered to him.
"I meant it for all of us, not just Neal. Things aren't too graceful for the three of us right now," Peter replied from behind the pleasantly neutral expression he'd been perfecting recently.
Two FBI couples they knew came up and Peter and Elizabeth were absorbed into the routine that had sustained them for a number of years.
"Why do you keep looking at that woman?" pouted Violet, the society girl Neal had chosen as his current flame because she had a perpetually bored expression and a languid way of flouncing around that served to distance people.
"She's an old friend," Neal said, following her gaze to where his eye had been unconsciously tracking Peter next to Elizabeth.
"An old girlfriend?" Violet persisted. She was a showstopper, and people who read the society column had whispered when they walked in. But she was also endlessly insecure, and Neal had seen the telltale mannerisms with her nose when he picked her up before the wedding—evidently she felt more confident about dealing with an unfamiliar environment with a sprinkle of coke. "There's not much to her."
Whether this was a comment on Elizabeth's diminutive stature or her character, Neal could only laugh at Violet's estimation. "I want to introduce you to someone, Violet," he said, and brought her over to Jones, who had goggled at the six-foot-tall strawberry blonde when Neal arrived.
"Jones, this is Violet. She's very interested in firearms." Actually, she seemed to have an interest in anything bloodthirsty, and was always fishing for violent, mob-connected tales from Neal's past.
The music was starting, and Neal sidled up to an Elizabeth who was talking to other FBI wives. "May I have this dance?"
They glided off together. "I forgot how good of a dancer you were," he told her while studying her face. "How are you? I've been worried about you."
Elizabeth laughed shortly. "You worry about me, I worry about Peter, he worries about you. Let's take a night off from all that. I think we learned the other night that we don't have to be this lowest common denominator together."
Neal looked at the woman in his arms, someone so rich and deep there was no end to her—that's what he looked for in a woman, someone who made him have to stretch a little to keep up. "If things were a little different for you and me, Elizabeth," he said, swinging her lightly this way and that, her body responding perfectly to the pressure of his hand on her waist.
She gave him a look through her lashes that comprehended everything. "In another world, but not this one." Elizabeth's voice was bittersweet. "I don't think my life is going to have any lightness for awhile."
"I wish you could see yourself the way I see you now," he breathed in her ear. "The thing about you, Elizabeth, is where other people brood or let things fester, you disappear. It's easy for me to see now after our evening together. There was barely a slip of you present when I saw you as I was walking in."
"It's nice to come out of hiding," she said, fingering the material of his suit. "During a dry spell I know how to survive on very little."
"Under ordinary circumstances I'd tell you to leave the bastard, he's not worth it," Neal said ironically.
"It's odd, but it was so much easier when I had to look at Peter being happy with you. Now he's completely closed off, and I'm forced to see that I can't help."
Neal had opened his mouth to reply when suddenly Violet was there, looming above him.
"What is it with this bitch?" she demanded, obviously having seen nothing wrong with having a little coke in the bathroom at an event crawling with law enforcement. "Find your own man," she said to Elizabeth.
It was too similar to the jealous scenario they'd jokingly played out together, and fatally, Neal and Elizabeth started to laugh.
"What are you laughing at?" Violet's bravado was quickly slipping into vulnerability. "Why are you laughing?"
"I'm sorry, Violet, it was wrong of me to leave you, sweetheart," Neal was trying to say with his best smile on. The last thing either of them needed was for her to get busted, and he could sense Diana's concerned eyes on his back.
"Neal's a much better dancer than I am, so my wife enjoys cutting a rug with him when she gets a chance," Peter walked up to say, looking everywhere but Neal's face. "We haven't met. I'm Peter Burke; I used to work with Neal."
Peter extended his hand and shook Violet's hand awkwardly. It seemed so odd to him—this random woman who was so obviously not Neal's type was allowed to touch him, but Peter was not.
"Yes, Violet probably looks familiar to you—she's well known for her fashion sense," Neal jumped in to help excuse Peter's frank look.
"That must be it," Peter said. He caught Neal's rather frantic expression, and remembered the surprise he had planned for Diana. "Did Neal ever tell you about the time he impersonated a New Age guru to help unmask a moneymaking scheme?"
"No kidding!" Violet said, and Neal mouthed a silent thank you as he slipped off with Elizabeth.
"Yes, and another time, I pretended to have a severe social phobia, and he was my life coach," Peter recalled, trying to think of ways to keep the girl distracted.
"I think I have one of those for real," she said. "I was nervous about coming here."
"Don't you basically go to parties for a living?" Peter asked and then wondered whether that was rude.
She laughed. "I model, too. And I've done a little acting. But I see mostly the same people, all the time, lots of people I've known my whole life. When I'm outside my element, everything I do feels all weird, like people are looking at me through one of those carnival mirrors."
"I kind of have the same problem," Peter confided, getting them both glasses of sparkling water rather than alcohol. "Maybe that's why I joined the FBI—it's a very tight-knit group."
"Guess your situation is better 'cause you have a gun and you're in control." Violet mused. "If you're feeling shy you can say, 'I ask the questions here, shithead.'"
"No criminal has ever faulted me for my inability to do chit chat," Peter laughed. He suddenly looked at this girl by his side and saw her as something other than a headline or a clothes horse. That wasn't even how he'd been seeing her, he realized. She was something for Neal to endure, to prove to Peter he wasn't having a good time in his undercover persona. Now Peter felt terrible to be complicit in such a scenario, even if the girl was rambling in a hyper tone of voice.
Musing on this new idea, he tuned her out for a minute. "I was pretty sure Neal was gay but I guess he's not," he suddenly heard her say.
"What made you think that?"
"Because he's kind of somewhere else a lot of the time. A lot of gay guys are like that, but it's cool, because they know you have a dream because they have their own, it's just never going to be the same one. It's, like, a beautiful, sad dream and they let you have it. A lot of times it's better than being with a real boyfriend who's totally hung up on his band or something."
Peter saw Elizabeth come back into the room and his heart wanted to break for making her live with a dream.
Violet followed his eyes. "I still think you should be careful of your wife. I haven't seen Neal relax so much as when he was with her, and she lit up like Christmas to see him. She's got that substance thing going, and that must have been what pissed me off so bad."
"You have a lot more going for you than you give yourself credit for, Violet," Peter said, feeling he was talking to a coked-up prophet. "Tell me what else you've noticed about Neal. None of us have heard much from him since he left the bureau."
She shrugged. "He paints all the time and has me pose sometimes. I like how he's real careful with me, like I'm made of glass or something. A lot of guys treat models like they're mannequins come to life, and we have no feelings. Neal knows how to make a lady feel like a lady, and that's something gay guys are good at, too."
One of Suzette's friends stood up and struck her wineglass to get everyone's attention. The music stopped. "Our newlyweds are going to cut the cake, so gather round."
Diana and Suzette cut into the cake and then raised a fork to the other's mouth to feed each other a first bite. Just as the cake made it close to their open mouths, an unearthly sound reverberated through the hall.
It was Neal's famous insider trading aria.
The two brides missed each other's mouths and Diana doubled over laughing at the expression on Suzzette's face and that of everyone not from the FBI who couldn't understand why someone was singing opera in a falsetto.
Neal strode into the room, still singing, and the FBI contingent clapped and cheered. He sang through to the end and then transitioned into "It Had To Be You."
"Oh my god, that is so hilarious," Violet clapped her hands while Peter told her the story. "I had no idea it was so fun to be in the FBI, other than being able to say," she dropped her voice, "Step the fuck back, I'm from the FBI."
"The first time I said it I'd practiced it fifty times in front of the mirror beforehand," Peter admitted.
"No shit, show me how you say it," Violet prompted.
"FBI, drop your weapon," Peter said in a way that was nothing like being in the field, but it was good enough for Violet.
"Holy crap, that's so badass."
"The trick is, you drop your voice on the 'I.' Always remember that—if you want to seem strong, don't fall into the habit of ending your sentences on a high note."
The young woman tried to imitate him, but the effect was ruined by her giggling. "You're fun, Peter. And sweet. You're like the kind of guy I wish I could have—smart, strong, solid." She thumped his bicep. "Your wife should take better care of what she has or someone else will."
Violet took advantage of the momentary paralysis her words produced in Peter, and her crafty smile was on his mouth before he could react. It was a very thorough kiss. "Consider that a big thank you for entertaining me," she said, striding away with a vixen's gait to reclaim Neal, who had finished singing and was being hugged by Diana.
Peter didn't know where to look or whose eyes to fear most—those of Neal, Elizabeth, or Hughes. He wasn't sure if any of them had seen, but Jones had, because his fellow agent's stunned expression was the mirror of Peter's reaction to the kiss. Hughes was approaching the newlyweds to take his leave, as he tended to before the night wore on too long.
"That was nice of you to take charge of Violet so Neal could do his surprise number," Elizabeth said from his elbow. "He was mortified when we were setting up the sound. Neal had never known her to use cocaine before. Peter, do you think it's all right?"
"Nobody's in the mood to go to work right now," he said. "And she's actually pretty interesting—but maybe used to people thinking otherwise."
Peter looked down at his wife, who was not the person who had been dancing, and not the person with whom he'd shared a wedding, all those years ago. Then, he used to see a light come into her eyes when she looked at him, and it made him feel like the best of himself was rushing to meet the best in her, like magnetic fibers that couldn't be kept separate for long.
Now it was simply a fact. A veil slipped over their eyes when they saw each other. For Elizabeth, it was a protection, designed to keep that last tiny hope alive.
But even in this instance, they were not on the same wavelength. Because for Peter, it was a curtain carefully drawn so as not to wound Elizabeth with the light that burned for another.
He put his arm around her as they watched people drink and take turns singing karaoke. Peter kissed the top of her head and she looked up and smiled. A smile of infinite patience. He thought of the way Neal moved next to Violet, how he obviously treated the girl like a penance and hated himself for it.
Peter hadn't even had the sense to hate himself for what he was doing to Elizabeth, the last woman in the world he wanted to diminish in any way.
"This must be hard for you—don't you think you could afford to talk to him a little?" his wife was asking him, misinterpreting his saddened expression as being due to his forced separation from his lover.
Abruptly, Peter wanted to scream. "I have to start making changes. This isn't fair to Elizabeth," Peter was telling himself when Neal and Violet breezed by.
"You should come out with us," Violet said, squeezing his arm. "He's fun," she said to Neal.
"Peter is fun," he agreed, but the look on Neal's face was closer anguish than anything else.
"We're leaving soon, but maybe some other time," Peter said. "Take care of yourself, Violet."
"You too, Peter," she said, dropping her voice several octaves at the end of the sentence.
Then it was time for protracted goodbyes.
Peter was called into work that Sunday to help with the new strategy for Neal's first wager with the group. White Collar needed to be able to track the money he bet, and the messages he left, without leaving a discernible trail.
The FBI was full of hope that they were laying the groundwork that would catch a network of sadists, who thought themselves to be invulnerable, in a crime.
A month went by without Peter having to think about anything but work. He was tired at the end of the day and very grateful for being able to fall asleep without worrying about how to make his outward actions more in line with his inner feelings. Short of having to take a drastic step like quitting his job.
Then on Monday morning Hughes called him into his office. Since Peter hadn't been doing more than exchanging a coded sentence with Neal a day, his conscience was clear when he closed the door behind him.
"How've you been, Burke?" was the unusual opening to the conversation.
"Fine, sir. Busy."
"A little too busy, perhaps?" The eyes looking over the glasses gave him an appraising glance.
"Work is work, sir."
"Not feeling under the weather at all, are we, Burke? You seem a little subpar, to tell you the truth."
"You know things are up and down with this job, sir."
"I do indeed. That's why I'm asking you to go to the doctor." He slid a piece of paper across the desk. "As much as I loathe having this conversation, Caffrey tested positive for Mononucleosis during his regular kidney checkup. I'd prefer for you get this taken care of now, rather than being out for two months, like what happened to Carter last year. And I assume you wouldn't want a positive result on your official record."
"But sir, I haven't even seen Neal—"
"Save it, Burke, I'd rather not talk any more about your love life."
Peter took the piece of paper and then was seized by a vain hope. "Does this mean that Neal gets out of his obligation to the bureau?"
Hughes snorted. "His lawyers tried that, but given the number of starlets he's been photographed with, he could have gotten it from any of them. Get the test and let's move on."
Peter was shocked to find out that he had, in fact, contracted mono, when he hadn't even kissed Neal during the incubation period for the illness.
Despite his best efforts, he had to stay home for almost a week with the rash, night sweats and sore throat associated with the infection. He lay there, too tired to move, but with his brain telling him that it was Violet, Violet's kiss had put him in the position of having a suspicious illness right when the FBI was abuzz with Neal's attempt to get out of his agreement because of his exposure to an infectious agent.
"How are you feeling, Peter?" someone from Team B said on his first morning back.
"Must've caught a bug, but I'm on the mend."
"Glad you're okay, man," Jones said.
All day long, an exhausted Peter tried to cling to some sense of normalcy but he felt his life beginning to shift underneath him because of a suspicion that had begun eating away at his foundations. He saw it staring out of all the eyes around him.
Did they know? They must know. Hughes already knew, but now he must think Peter was flaunting his affair.
He had to talk to Neal.