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When Sophie is bored, she creates stories for herself. She doesn’t use them during cons (though sometimes her invented details spill through into whichever face she is wearing that week), but builds them into all the other people she might have become if she hadn’t decided on Sophie Devereaux.

All her histories begin in the same way: normal childhood, boarding school, blah blah blah. Sophie can find ways to make the background more interesting—parents who traveled the world in the sixties or who were hippies or drug addicts or who gave her an upbringing that wasn’t so stereotypical and British—but she prefers to stick with what actually happened. The truth is boring, at least in this case, but this beginning led Sophie to art school and the Louvre, and she wouldn’t trade her art for a different history.

At that point, though, there were choices, and Sophie could have taken her training and her eye for forgery and worked in art verification and found some bloke to marry and had a couple of kids. Might have been nice, in its own way, with a middle class salary and afternoons at the park, but most of the time Sophie thinks that kind of life must be insufferably boring. A few minutes into the fantasy she’s rolling her eyes at just how twee the whole thing is. A few minutes after that, Sophie remembers that this is pretty much the path Maggie Collins (Ford) followed, and she shakes her head.

Normal doesn’t seem to work out for many people, and Sophie is fairly happy she left it behind the first time she stole a painting. Doesn’t mean that between then and now she didn’t sometimes (only very rarely, not that she’d admit this to anyone) envy those women whose incomes didn’t rely on seducing someone not their husband. (Not like that, at least not very often. Sophie isn’t a common whore. But sometimes, she thinks she might be an uncommon one.)

She doesn’t envy them these days, because she knows Maggie Ford (Collins). She knows Nate.

And besides, if she’d gone legit, she would never have known Nate.

(This is also the problem with the stories in which she becomes an actress. Sophie knows she’s good, probably could have made it big, but she can’t quite manage to invent a situation where Nathan Ford, married insurance investigator specializing in stolen art recovery, ever makes it to a playhouse in Brighton. And if he’s there, he definitely doesn’t stick around to treat the leading lady to a drink.)

The only reasonable path, then, is grifting. She’s the best there is, though sometimes the masks come a little too easy. Like now: how many overweight, balding, American crooks is she going to have to pretend to appreciate before someone challenging comes along? Miss Whoever-She-Is-Today smiles sweetly and bats her eyes and this one is in the bag, as Mr. Oh-Give-Me-A-Break falls all over himself to do exactly as she asks.

Many of the cons are difficult, fascinating, worth the team’s unique set of skills. This one is not, and Sophie is bored. It doesn’t help that Hardison and Eliot are bickering in her ear while she’s trying to seal the deal.

She tries to block them out, thinks instead about Paris and Tuscany and Rome and Damascus. Change one detail and the story spins differently. She imagines that Nate caught her, early, or that maybe it wasn’t Nate at all, but Sterling or some local cop on the take. Sophie Devereaux (Jenny or Anna or Harriet), common criminal, languishing in some dirty jail with no hope of escape. Sophie Devereaux (absolutely), who escaped by shooting that bastard of an insurance man through the head. Sophie Devereaux, kicked out of the country, never to return (except as Jenny or Anna or Harriet, when the time is right).

But she doesn’t like those scenarios. Not that it wouldn’t have been lovely to get the jump on Sterling, but back then she wouldn’t have had reason to shoot him at all. Would have been more likely to grift him, and she shudders to think what might have happened if it had gone too far.

Jail would be better. She imagines where she would be if that first job with Nate had ended differently, if he’d caught instead of simply chased. He wasn’t good enough then, of course, all young and fresh and—Nate, young and fresh, now that had been something to see. He had just reeked of goodness and right and probably smelled like flowers, not that she’d stuck around long enough to find out. Back then, he couldn’t run a con to save his life, but he was smarter than the rest and better, because he’d understood what it was like to love the art and the game. She’d run, he’d chased, she’d won.

If he’d won, though, that would have been it. Open and shut, or some other terrible saying that meant years behind bars, even if she pled down or something. She wouldn’t be the one that got away.

Since that day, she’s been the chink in Nate’s armor. Oh, she knows this. They all do. Then, it wasn’t about affection or friendship or romance or whatever the hell they’re trying to figure out now. Then it was about sheer mastery; he was the pretty (very pretty) boy who had yet to lose.

He’s lost more since then. Much more than Sophie has slipped through his grasp, and she wonders, just sometimes, if she would give him that easy win if she could. If it would matter.

**

Sophie’s job is done on this one, and there’s no question that Parker and the boys will wrap it up cleanly. She heads to her flat and curls up on the couch with a throw and a glass of wine. It’s a good life, this one Sophie Devereaux leads, except that when she is alone, she wonders if her story could have gone differently.

(Sometimes she wonders if the wondering matters, but not tonight.)

Sophie will always be curious if anything would have happened if Nate hadn’t been married. It wouldn’t have been after that first job, or even the second or third, but somewhere in those ten (eight) years, Sophie can’t help but think that his resolve might have crumbled, just a little, and they could have fallen into bed, or in love, or into the background, fading away from their high-stakes lives for just a little while.

Then again, if he hadn’t been married, Nate might have become a bloody priest, and he’d have been just as serious about those vows as the ones he’d taken, only probably much less fun. And besides, Sophie can invent no particular reason for an international art thief to know a Boston vicar.

If he hadn’t been married, Nate would never have become a father. (He’s far too Catholic for that.) Sophie’s glad he’s divorced because he’s finally available, but she would give up that and everything else to put the past back together if it meant Sam lived. She wants to rewrite Nate’s story more than hers; he deserves it so much more—even if it would mean he was off somewhere, still married to someone else.

But honestly (very honestly, several glasses of wine honestly), Sophie must admit that she probably wouldn’t have found Nate nearly as interesting if he hadn’t been married. Because Sophie Devereaux, the naive version that met that young Nate Ford who smelled like flowers, wanted to cause him trouble.

Trouble is easy to come by when you’re a beautiful woman and he’s young, handsome, and married. Easier still when you’re both older and wiser, and he’s drunk off his ass.

Sometimes, he’s far more trouble than he’s worth.

**

The next day, the next con. She’s not Sophie Devereaux today, but Allison Grady, mid-level manager and all-around good girl. The skirt is longer, the heels shorter than she’s used to. Because Allison Grady wears sensible shoes and doesn’t flirt. She gets up early to go to the gym and eats granola for breakfast, then arrives early to work because she’s most productive in the morning. She has lunch (and sometimes dinner) at her desk and leaves a little late before going home to a cat.

Two cats. Harold and Maude. James and Bond. Sonny and Cher. John and Yoko? (“Just shut up!” says Eliot, in a tone he typically reserves for Hardison.)

Allison Grady is the most boring person Sophie has ever met, but the mark is surrounded by young pretty women, and Nate thinks that earnest will get this one more than sex appeal will. Sophie hasn’t met many men who aren’t swayed by sex (appeal), but she knows a few (one), so she buys a suit from Ann Taylor and puts on Parker’s comfortable shoes.

Nate gives her a crooked smile as he takes in her outfit, but before Sophie has time to parse the look they are out the door and on their way. So that Allison Grady, bona fide good girl, can worm her way into the confidence, business, and files of yet another American crook.

Sophie never had it in her to be a good girl. Most people think thieving is wrong, but somewhere between the boarding school and the blah blah blah, Sophie discovered that she could get anything she wanted if she found ways to give others what they (thought they) wanted. So her later school years were spent trying on personas, trying out cons: Rebecca Long was valedictorian her senior year. Emily Harriston stayed after hours in special collections and, well, Sophie still has those beautiful old books. Mabel Lawrence thought seriously about running off with the headmaster. (Sophie does not have a thing for men in authority positions. But Mabel did.)

She might have done well as Emily Harriston. Emily preferred illuminated manuscripts to impressionist art, loved the detail in the brush strokes, the evolution of craft and religion all tied together. Emily could have done well in art school, could have become an expert forger, an expert linguist.

Emily wouldn’t have stolen Degas. She’d have stolen the Lindisfarne Gospels instead.

But Emily was definitely not a good girl, and Sophie has a hard time getting into this role. She isn’t like Nate, doesn’t know what it is to show up on time every day for your entire life and doesn’t want to. She isn’t like Parker, and hates sensible shoes. She isn’t like Rebecca, and her kind of intelligence is better outside the classroom.

Here, she has to pretend to be book smart but street stupid. She feels like this is a little beyond her, and wishes she could flash some leg and be gone. But Allison Grady wouldn’t do that, and Sophie sighs. Emily and Rebecca and Anna and Mabel (and Sophie Devereaux) would find this inane.

Maybe that’s why it all goes to hell. (It isn’t. They tell her later that they were blown from the beginning, that no amount of scheming or acting or beating people up could have stopped what happened next, but she can’t help but wonder if this role was just too much. “Not enough like you?” Nate asks, much later, before grinning in a way she’d like to hate.)

She’s put on a light American accent, pointing out some figure in her presentation that (Hardison’s internet) research has shown will make the company billions without any hint of malfeasance. Allison Grady doesn’t do malfeasance. (Allison Grady also doesn’t get laid.) She smiles earnestly and moves to the next slide.

“You can see here that—.” She doesn’t get to say what they can see, because she hears Nate in her ear, quiet and very unhappy (“Sophie, you need to get out of there.”) and watches the door burst open so men who carry themselves like Eliot and have Parker’s manic expression can run in and surround her.

“Not sure that’s going to be possible,” she says into thin air before one of the thugs gets a hand on her. He knows she’s wearing an earbud, knows that she can’t break his hold, reaches for the side of her head. She jerks away, hears herself say, “Nate!” before the second (or third) thug lands a punch on the side of her head.

She thinks she hears, “Sophie!” as she falls, but she’s not sure. She hopes his name isn’t her last word. That would be far too cliché for Sophie Devereaux.

**

All actors relish death scenes. Death scenes focus the attention of the audience on a single person in a single moment; they communicate final, important messages—the playwright has his say, but so does the actor. The actor decides what those messages mean, what impression this life will leave.

(Then, when the lights dim, the actor rises, exits to the wings, and waits, bored, for her curtain call.)

Sophie has imagined her own death countless times. Usually, it’s something romantic or dramatic or both, if she’s doing it right. The entire world will remember the swan dive off the Eiffel Tower or the single bullet to the head in the middle of a heist or a red Maserati careening over a cliff into the ocean. All her choices, appropriate sendoffs for Sophie Devereaux.

Of course, the times Sophie has been confronted with death haven’t been nearly as noteworthy. If the hijacked plane had crashed, it would have made headlines, of course, but nobody would have cared if Sarah Jane Baker died with jet fuel burning around her at (almost) a thousand degrees.

There was a deal in Barcelona that landed her—well, landed Jenny Meathe—in the hospital with a knife wound that required abdominal surgery. The surgeon had grumbled at her: an inch one way or another, and she (Jenny) wouldn’t be walking, breathing, or stealing great masterpieces ever again. Sophie takes heart in the twisted thought that Jenny didn’t speak any Spanish and was, in a way, spared the knowledge of just how close a call that had been.

Eliot hates guns. Sophie hates weapons. She can stare down the barrel of a gun, has at times carried and used one, is rarely without a switchblade tucked away, but if she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing, no one pulls a gun or a knife or anything while Sophie is still in the room. Weapons mean the job has gone terribly wrong.

(She hasn’t ever forgiven Nate for shooting her, even if it now makes for a good story at the end of a long con, when it’s just nice to be Sophie for a while. Sophie shot Nate, and Nate shot Sophie, and once they’d stitched each other back together, there was coffee and flirting and a surprisingly lovely discussion of the compositional impact of the Dadaists on later movements.)

But the gentlemen who had removed her from the board room at—where was it?—they had guns and knives and fists, and Sophie wakes up tied to a chair in a dank, filthy basement. Her leg hurts like she burnt it on the stove, but that doesn’t make sense, and she thinks—what, a brand? A break? A way to make sure she can’t make a run for it?

Not that she could go anywhere, bound as she is. Hands, wrists, a narrow rope and then a heavier one—she’s surprised at this, but it’s traditional and effective. Struggling will simply cause her wrists to bleed, and then get infected, and if she’s going to die on the floor of this crappy place surrounded by these miserable, unseen people, it’s not going to be because she gave herself sepsis.

Sophie figures that if they were going to kill her, they’d probably have done it by now. But the fact that she’s alive, freezing in a torn suit in this hellhole (that, there, that is a rat, and she won’t scream, but it is a disgusting rat and she is surrounded by rats in this place, and her suit is torn and it is cold because the idiots who captured her don’t care if she gets frostbite or sepsis or anything else)—the fact that she is alive means that she is a bargaining chip. And there is only one person (four people) in the world who would care.

Somewhere, Eliot is demanding proof of life. (Maybe there’s a camera in the room, but if there is, it’s behind her or above her or well-disguised.) Somewhere, Hardison is finding a way to track her down. (Her com, perhaps? Her thugs know better than to keep it with them.) Parker is designing an exit. (Sophie is sitting too close to the door for explosives to work without killing her.) Nate is drinking and scheming and pretending he’s fine. (Eliot and Hardison and Parker know he isn’t, but they don’t say anything, because that’s Sophie’s job.)

She can’t help but wonder what the game is. Not just Nate’s ruse to get her out, because if the thugs knew who she was, they know Nate and the gang, would recognize them if they waltzed in the front door. Sophie wants to know what the cross is, what it is that Nate has that is so valuable that she would be shoved in a freezing, filthy, rat-infested basement and held as bait. (Rat bait, she thinks, because Nate is far too smart to fall into any trap, though she can guarantee that part of the plan is to make the fools who grabbed her think that he’s willing to play.)

It might be easier if someone came in, asking questions. She could get a read on the situation that way. Instead, she clenches her teeth because her fucking leg bloody hurts and she can’t imagine a way out of this one (Sophie Devereaux, captured by common criminals, left to rot with rats, dumped unceremoniously into the harbor like so many pounds of British tea, never found; Nate holds a memorial service before drowning himself in Jim Beam).

There are no good stories when you’re tied to a chair, thinking about being someone you’re not. Allison Grady has two cats (Peter and Paul, the folk singers, not the saints). Jenny Meathe faded away like Emily Harriston, both victims of the need for better alternatives. Mabel Lawrence should have run off with her professor and saved all of them a great deal of trouble.

Sophie Devereaux will yell at Nate Ford for getting her into this mess, but she can’t do that until he gets her out of it.

**

She wakes up surrounded by cotton and down and the smell of stale whiskey. It is soft and warm and would be comfortable if she didn’t feel like someone had put her entire body through a meat grinder. Explosives? She doesn’t know, can’t remember.

There are no rats. This is important.

She is warm. This is good.

Something worked. (Explosives, Parker tells her later. Only way, Eliot explains gently, and they took a risk with her life because the bastards who took her told Nate that he had twenty-four hours before they killed her.) She is home. Home and warm.

Sophie opens her eyes. The light is dim, which is good, because she’s sure that her eyes and ears won’t work well for a few days. (She hopes it’s just a few days.) But she can see, isn’t surprised to note that they’ve put her in Nate’s room, somewhere with privacy but where they all can keep an eye on her. Ever so faintly, she can hear the television downstairs, Hardison and Eliot pretending everything is fine.

Parker will be quiet and withdrawn until she has tangible proof that Sophie is healthy. Later, perhaps, she’ll ask Parker to teach her card tricks she already knows, letting her sit quietly in the same room and listen to the familiar sound of someone breathing.

The familiar sound of—.

Nate. There, sound asleep next to her, sprawled fully clothed atop the bed like he couldn’t find the energy to do anything but pass out. His shirt is torn, his face lined with dirt and a hint of blood Sophie hopes belongs to someone else. Slowly, Sophie turns to face him; the movement hurts, but other than her leg—did Eliot set it?—she doesn’t feel as though anything is broken. Bruised, battered, but whole.

Whole and home and warm.

She rolls to her side, tucking a fist under her cheek. Nate, bruised and battered and never whole again, but beside her because, she thinks, he couldn’t be anywhere else. Because, she hopes, he loves Sophie Devereaux despite both of them.

Bloody cliché, but they’ve been shot and blown up and chased (each other) around the world, and Sophie thinks that it isn’t worth editing this story to make it less than it is.

She reaches her free hand to the smudge at his temple, brushing her fingers against his skin and then through his hair. And again, because she can’t get past warm and soft and Nate after the cold and rats and thugs. Maybe she’ll just stay here and watch him sleep. Sleep herself.

But (of course), Nate wakes up. He doesn’t move, but his eyes come open without a hint of grogginess as he takes in his surroundings. It’s a criminal instinct, that one, and Sophie wonders how long he’s had it, if there is ever a morning when he doesn’t awake wondering what terrible thing is about to happen.

Nate stares at her for a long moment. She lets him look, lets him see what she has already concluded: she’ll be fine. Back to the game in no time at all (a few weeks, or a month or two). He works his jaw, chewing on something he wants to say.

He settles on, “Sophie.” A little gruff, very tired. Relieved.

“Thanks for the rescue,” she says, letting herself pat the side of his head and rest her hand there. Like it’s something she does all the time. Like they are closer than they are. And he lets her touch, lets her see what she has already concluded: he’ll be fine. Now that she’s here.

Nate closes his eyes, and Sophie can feel him take a deep breath. Then another. Then, “I—God, Sophie. I killed two guys.”

For her, he doesn’t say. For Sophie Devereaux.

She (Sophie Devereaux) would kill for Nate Ford. She’s not sure how long she’s known this, but it isn’t something she chose. There isn’t a story she would write for herself that ended up with Sophie Devereaux or anyone else willing to risk it all for a man, any man.

There was one job, long before she was Sophie Devereaux, where she might have killed someone (she doesn’t know, actually, if that cop had lived or died, seeing as it was life or death for her to get out of there without looking back) and she swore up and down that there was nothing in the world worth the consequences of having that kind of blood on her hands again.

Nothing in the world. It used to be true.

She wonders if Nate thought (knew) he would cross this line to get her back. She knows there was a time when he would kill for (die for) his son, but Sophie imagined that Nate’s extreme measures of protective devotion died with Sam.

He’s done foolish things to protect the team, put himself in harm’s way. But Sophie always figured that was more about him, more about doing the right thing (whatever that was) than it was about them.

About her.

Nate Ford killed two men for Sophie Devereaux.

No one has ever done that for her before. She’s never been anyone to inspire anything other than frustration—a mark of a job well done, frustration, but not a life well led. And because Sophie is being honest (very honest, hurt and filthy and just fucking tired honest), she thinks that this life that Sophie Devereaux leads, this life where Nate Ford will cross every one of his lines to get her back, this life where someone cares that she is whole and home and warm—she thinks she likes this life.

She wants this life.

Sophie lets her hand wander from Nate’s temple to the back of his head. She can feel day-old sweat and dirt between her fingers, and she strokes his head like a mother would do for her child (or a woman would do for her lover). He shifts in the bed so he is an inch or two closer to her, almost resting on her shoulder but not quite. Sophie unfolds the hand at her chin and brushes her fingers across his forehead, just barely touching. She lets her head fall to the pillow (his pillow), and they would be almost nose to nose if he hadn’t started to curl in on himself.

“You should know something,” Sophie says, moving her hand so she brushes at his cheek, forcing him to open his eyes, then moving his head so he’s looking at her.

“What, Soph?”

“My name is Sophie Devereaux,” she says. Nate furrows his brow, surely confused. She puts a finger to his mouth to silence the obvious questions. (She likes touching him. Soft and warm and Nate.) “Not the name my mother gave me—and I’ll tell you if you want to know—but when I think about myself, when I wonder about my future, I’m Sophie Devereaux.”

“So I’ve earned some honesty?” Nate asks, suddenly angry. He stiffens, pulls away and her hands fall between them, empty. “This is what it takes, then, to get to know you?

She should have remembered: he will never let her make the mistake of romanticizing Nate Ford.

Sophie shakes her head, pulling the muscles in her neck. It’s not that he killed anyone, not really. It’s that he came back for her, consequences be damned. She thinks he always will.

She tries to explain. “Not at all. I don’t care if you—I don’t care how you—you came to get Sophie, Nate. And you put your life and their lives on the line for Sophie. Not anybody else.” She takes a breath, is surprised that it’s shaky.

Nate blinks at her, face emotionless. She could read him if she was trying—they can’t con each other, not anymore—but she’s so tired and she hurts and she just wants to sit here, with him if he’ll let her, and rest.

It should be easy. (One day, it will be easy.) Now, she says, “I want to be that person, Nate.” She tries to smile at him, but she thinks it ends up a little more like a grimace, because she hadn’t counted on emotional honesty on top of physical pain. (Sophie has never liked either.) “I want to be here with you.”

It’s her last argument, and she lets her eyes drift closed.

Sophie runs through the list of people she will (probably) never be again, burying their details in the back of her mind. The stories she’s created for them will be put to rest (unless she needs them for a con—a lifetime of being other people will always be useful). They are all real, of course, individuals who had hopes and dreams and broken hearts. (Like her.)

She can feel the moment when Nate makes a decision. He shifts, turning toward her again, moving gently as so not to jostle either of them. “Okay,” Nate says. He reaches out to tuck her hair behind her ear, resting his palm at the back of her neck, pulling her toward him. Sophie lets herself move until her forehead is resting against his shoulder.

He doesn’t smell like flowers, this Nate (her Nate). Sweat and liquor and death cling to him like a second skin, but she breathes in deeply as he slowly draws her against him.

“Okay, Sophie.”

***