She first noticed it when they took down the dirty fight promoter in Nebraska. When she looked at Eliot's battered face, and into those dead winter eyes—her stomach felt like she'd swallowed a boulder.
Eliot barely let the nice doctor take care of his cuts before he took his ice pack and headed to the van. He seemed his usual self the next day when they gave the gym keys to the Howorths, but Parker's curiosity had been pricked and she didn't like feeling that rock lying in her stomach.
The feeling stopped eventually, so she pestered the retrieval specialist until he taught her to fight. He taught her how to compensate for her smaller size and when to fight and when to run. It made her feel good that he trusted her judgment as to whether or not she could handle an opponent.
Vanquishing Blackpoole seemed to have cauterized the bleeding in Nate's soul so when they came together for Sophie's really bad musical debut, it felt like they'd never been apart. The only thing that felt out of place was Hardison acting like he wanted to go steady.
Parker had never been on a real date, and the last time someone flirted with her, she'd stabbed him with a fork. She knew she could pretend to be normal, and if not for Archie she would probably be dead or in jail. The old thief hadn't tried to change her, he just taught her how to be a better thief, and to rely only herself. The one thing Archie had failed to teach her was how to interact with people, and be sociable. He'd taught her to be invisible, so skills like flirting had fallen by the wayside while she learned to crack safes and exploit weaknesses in security systems.
One thing she had decided while they'd been apart was that she didn't want to pretend with the team. They knew she was crazy just like they knew you didn't startle Eliot, drink the last orange soda, mess with Sophie's tea, or talk about Sam. She'd have to ask Sophie how to tell Hardison in a nice way that she'd rather watch Eliot cook than go to some fancy restaurant where they smiled fake smiles when they served your food. When Eliot smiled at her she knew it was real.
She ignored Hardison's flirting, and forgot about it all together as she watched Sophie lying in that coffin. When the grifter decided to leave it was like Sophie really died and Parker didn't know how to handle the barrage of emotions. Apollo had distracted her with their little competition, but when she saw their female hitter salivating on Eliot, her fingers itched for something pointy.
Parker walked toward the bar for a refill when she noticed Eliot showing Dayan a scar from a bullet wound. Dayan bragging she'd been a sniper at the same time Eliot had been shot had her moving toward their booth until she'd caught Eliot's eye and he'd given a little shake of his head. With a pout she smacked the woman in the head with her elbow then gave her a saccharin smile of apology as she continued walking.
They ran. Everything was in sync. She'd never had a partner work with her so seamlessly, plus he always kept himself between her and anything that would hurt her. Getting back to Nate's condo to find Tara Cole sitting smugly waiting for them filled her with anger at Sophie for thinking this blonde person could replace her.
She got that rock in the stomach feeling again when Tara constantly turned to Eliot for approval as though she'd zeroed in on the retrieval specialist as being the one that was holding them together in Sophia's absence. Then Nate started drinking, and the three of them did turn to their enforcer to protect them from Nate's self-destructive tendencies.
Always watchful of the actions of people around her, there was nothing in Tara or Eliot's demeanor that said Eliot had given in to Tara's flirtations or manipulations. The hitter continued to eye her with suspicion as she attempted to twist them into accepting her.
Tara had finally stopped beating herself against the sharp rocks of Eliot's distrust when she followed his plan for getting Maggie and Nate back from the kidnapper. Sterling took the credit for retrieving the Faberge egg, and they proved once again that Maggie sucked at picking boyfriends.
Then it got hard, and Parker started to drown under a mountain of unfamiliar emotions. Dalton Rand knowing about her brother and the accident that killed him had her rattled until Tara and Eliot explained Rand was a con man not a psychic.
Eliot's growl was a purr to her ears because he was prepared to kill the phony psychic for making her cry. She had just come to grips with all that mess when they were suddenly up to their asses in guns, Sterling, The FBI, and she wanted to drop Tara off a building for what they thought was her betrayal—Then Sophie was there, but Nate was shot and had conned them like Sophie had with the two Davids. Then Nate was yelling at Sterling as Eliot forced them to get on the helicopter while Nate collapsed bleeding before they took him to jail.
For a month afterward they moved from safe house to safe house until they were sure Sterling kept his end of the bargain when he promised Nate to leave them alone in exchange for his testimony.
Tired of Alec's incessant whining about connections or the lack thereof, they finally went back to Nate's condo where Eliot swept for bad guys, Hardison swept for electronic bugs, and Leverage Consultants was back in business.
Eliot sat beside Sophie in the back booth of McRory's. He knew the couple sitting across from them by reputation, but had never worked with them.
David and Emily Ambrose were master thieves specializing in corporate espionage. They had accepted what was to be their final job before retiring to raise a family, but Emily had gotten pregnant and health issues had them scrambling to cover the job.
"When we decided to go legit, we wanted to do the whole picket fence gig. I'd get a job and Em would be a stay at home mom …" They both snickered before David continued. "So I get this cherry job as head of security with this research and development company ... A private think tank. I'm going through old files, casing out the company when the old man disappears, and things start getting strange so I take the files home so I can get Emily's take on it."
He handed Eliot a thumb drive as Emily picked up the narrative.
"There's nothing missing, but there's stuff going on with a couple big projects the brains are working on that's slowing them down. Stuff anyone could figure out. When David took his findings to his boss, who's just as big a brain as the others, he tells David to handle it."
"So what exactly do you want us to do?" Sophie asked. "We help people that have nowhere else to go."
Eliot and David exchange a look.
"They want us to take their place." Eliot prompted the grifter.
"We don't have anywhere else to go." Emily said. "You're the only crew we can find that can do what we do. Kit's a great guy, but his dad handled all the day to day stuff, which allowed Kit and his people to do what they do."
"If we can't get Jonas back or figure out what it is they're trying to get their hands on, Carson Enterprises could lose everything." David finished.
"Fine." Sophie stood signaling the meeting was over. "We'll look over the information and let you know." If she was surprised when Eliot remained at the table, she didn't let it show. "I'll see you at the office." She told Eliot pointedly.
David started to stand when a strong grip on his arm forced him to stay in the booth. He glared at Eliot, whose return glare drew a gasp from Emily.
"What really happened to this Jonas fella?" Eliot growled. "I'm not lettin' my team go in half blind because you're holdin' an ace."
"We don't know. He just disappeared one day."
"Is this a K and R or mid-life crisis?"
"Only Kit knows and he's not saying."
Eliot eyed the older man. He leaned across the table his eyes narrowing.
"You got about two seconds to come off with whatever you're holdin' or I send you out the door nursin' more than a bruised ego." He growled quietly.
"How'd you …? Never mind." He slid another flash drive under Eliot's hand.
The enforcer palmed the small USB drive and leaned back.
"That's all the information I have on all the people and companies that have been panting after the ideas that come out of Carson Enterprises."
"Don't try that again. I've been conned by the best and you're nowhere near as good as they were. Now what aliases were you going to use, and who was tryin' to hire you?"
"Daniel and Ellen Boothe had just received an email from Marcus Rostov. Near as we could find out, Rostov is a 'fixer' in an expensive suit. His clients don't want to get their hands dirty—that's why they hire Rostov." David slid a folder to Eliot then he and Emily quickly left the booth. "That's everything we have including the back story on the aliases." Anxious to get away from the man who could see way too much for their comfort, they were out the door before Eliot finished reading.
Shaking his head at the contents of the file, he headed upstairs, where he tossed the second drive to Hardison.
"Things got more complicated."
All eyes turned to Eliot.
"David thinks one of these outfits is holding the kid's father using his continued safety as leverage."
Hardison plugged in. While they were waiting for him to finish, Sophie went through a stack of magazines, freshening her knowledge of who was doing who—wearing what, while Parker made repairs and modifications on several of her harnesses. Eliot was setting lunch on the table when the hacker came up for air. He held up his remote to start his presentation.
"After lunch." Eliot's tone brooked no argument.
When the kitchen was put to rights, and everyone settled, Hardison once more picked up the remote.
"Carson Enterprises was started by Jonas Carson as a place where a group of his inventive genius friends could work in a protected, free thinking environment. Everything about this guy is above board. No skeletons in any closets, pays his bills, his taxes and made a boat load of money for him and his friends. His son, Kit Carson," the hacker paused at Parker's bark of laughter, "yes, that's his real name, turned out to be a prodigy. He started playing with his dad's think tank cronies when he was twelve. Then about a month after David Ambrose goes to work as head of security, Jonas Carson goes missing. Before you ask, Ambrose is clean in this—they really are getting out of the business. There's no money missing from any accounts, weird charges on his credit cards or anything else to indicate that he left voluntarily."
He flipped a new set of slides.
"Kit Carson, child prodigy, MIT graduate at sixteen, for all intents and purposes a young version of the absent-minded professor. He's almost as brilliant as me, but unlike myself, not very grounded in the real world. He's been able to hold things together at the company with the help of David and his father's assistant. If anyone knows anything about where Jonas went they're not saying."
"What about any of the other employees? Is there anything in the information on the second drive?" Eliot asked.
"The employees at Carson are so clean I nearly got a cavity, with the exception of one or two. The second drive has files on companies Carson did business with over the years and companies that have tried to poach the brain trust, hack, buy or steal plans before they get them under licensing or patent."
Hardison tossed folders on the counter.
"Here's all I could find about Carson's customers and competitors, and any information I could find on Rostov. If I had to make a guess, I'd say Carson's geeks were working on something big, and Rostov's been hired by one of them."
Before Hardison could continue, his computer dinged. He typed for several minutes before a new picture and information flashed on the plasma screens.
"The answer to the question, who hired Rostov is … AA Andret. An investment group of obscenely rich trust funds, old family names, and diplomatic immunity to hide behind." The hacker frowned.
Silence reigned in the room for several minutes as they digested the information. It was Eliot that broke the quiet.
"Parker and I will take Rostov and Andret. Hardison set us up with the aliases Ambrose already established with Rostov. Sophie I want you to use David to get into Carson—get Hardison plugged into their system—we'll do the same. I want Hardison having information Ambrose hasn't thought of so we're not blindsided."
"But …" Hardison started.
"But what?" Eliot growled.
"Parker and I usually do the couple thing." He pouted.
"Where are you? High school? Remember the last time you were face-to-face with Russians? What do you know about kidnap and retrieval? You have a plan for gettin' Carson out if you find him? Can you get yourself, Carson and Parker out without gettin' them all killed?" Eliot barked at the younger man.
Sophie started to step forward as Hardison went pale, but a glare from Eliot stopped her. The hacker had to learn.
"This is a job, not a date." With a growl Eliot grabbed his phone and walked into the workroom to call David.
Confused Parker looked between Sophie and Hardison. Hardison's expression was sheepish while Sophie's was indulgent with a touch of pity.
"What was Eliot talking about?" Parker asked.
Hardison quickly busied himself on the other side of the room while Sophie steered the thief toward the kitchen.
"Hardison was making noises like a jealous boyfriend, and Eliot was reminding him that we're working a job."
"Why would Hardison sound like a jealous boyfriend?" She frowned.
"Because he has feelings for you, and your part of the con requires you to pose as Eliot's wife."
"Hardison has to stop that." She insisted.
"It's not simple to just stop caring about someone." Sophie tried to keep her tone patient and soft.
"He's not supposed to care that way because we pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend … I mean I like Alec because we're a family. Nate said so, and it's weird and we're a really messed up family, but Hardison's like a geeky younger brother that doesn't always get it, but he tries 'cause that's what you do when you're family … And …"
Sophie held her hand up to stop the torrent of words, and looked past Parker to see the pained look on Hardison's face.
"It's alright, Parker. We can't always help who we love."
"You mean like you and Nate?" She asked bluntly.
Sophie winced. "Yes, exactly."
The grifter caught dark blue eye watching the door to the workroom. When she spoke she made sure her voice wouldn't carry. Eliot always seemed hear and see things you didn't want him seeing and hearing.
"Parker, do you have feelings for Eliot?"
Her eyes went wide then she ducked her head.
"He won't say anything." She whispered.
"Hardison. He doesn't want to upset Hardison." She moved closer so they were almost touching. "Eliot's like Nate, except the drunk part, and the creepy part. He knows everything before you do." Her eyes twinkled with mischief. "He smells good, too—Eliot not Nate."
Sophie just stared at the thief. She'd really been away too long. She'd forgotten the sharp minds Parker and Eliot hid behind their masks. She'd fallen into Nate's mindset: Hitter, Hacker, Grifter, Thief, and mentally chastised herself for pigeon-holing them.
"I'll just tell Eliot Hardison knows I like him like a brother, not like a boyfriend then Eliot can be my boyfriend."
"I wish it were that simple."
"It's not?" Parker was back to being confused. "Why not?"
"Because … Just because." Sophie sounded exasperated. "You have to let Hardison go to Eliot to commiserate over his broken heart. Eliot will take him out to some bar, where Hardison will proceed to 'drown' his sorrows over the girl that got away while Eliot is secretly glad you threw Hardison over. He'll feed Hardison hangover cures in the morning, and a week from now he'll be asking you out, or whatever it is you all do for courting rituals."
"Men are sure complicated." Parker grumbled as she gathered up her harnesses, sailed out the door.
Sophie chuckled softly. Eliot didn't stand a chance.
Parker was confused. Everything had played out as Sophie predicted except Eliot never asked her out. David had gotten Sophie established at Carson while Eliot had been waiting for word from Rostov.
She had barely finished reading the email from Rostov as Eliot began their part of the operation.
"Book the rooms around the one they reserved for us. I don't want any surprise visitors." He told Hardison. "Parker get your gear and clothes for working and for dress up. Hardison, did you get anything on the financials for Rostov or Andret?"
The thief had gotten better about knowing what clothes to wear, but was wishing for Sophie as she began packing harnesses and rope. Her 'work' clothes were packed, she was chewing a cuticle over what Eliot meant by 'dress up' when the office door opened to reveal an exasperated Sophie.
Sitting down with their after dinner drinks, Sophie briefed them on what she had learned.
"It seems various agencies have been courting Carson hard to come into the government think tank fold. Jonas had been quietly looking to move the operation off-shore ala a private island away from prying eyes and grasping fingers."
The information had Hardison typing furiously.
"He'd had several meetings with Rostov who was trying to steer him toward Andret with money and real estate that could be obtained for certain considerations."
"So we don't know if the government or Rostov has Jonas?" Eliot ran his hands through his hair in frustration.
"Wait a minute." Hardison admonished. "Here is the footage from cameras around the places Carson was for a few days before he disappeared."
Parker pointed out several people that seemed out of place at various times in the footage while Eliot noticed vehicles following the CEO.
"Damn." Eliot murmured.
"What?" Everyone turned their attention to how still the retrieval specialist had become while staring at the screen.
"I need to see the names connected with Rostov and Andret." Eliot turned on the hacker.
Quiet for once, Hardison handed him a folder. After reading several pages, Eliot threw the folder down and went into the work room. When he returned he was holding a black case and his EMT bag.
The others looked through the file while Eliot was gone, but could not find what had made the retrieval specialist edgy. Three sets of eyes widened when they saw the RFID chips in the black case.
"Eliot what in the world is going on?" Sophie asked.
"Until this is over I want everyone chipped. They don't turn on unless you activate them, and I need to put them where the mark won't show." He looked up into the confused eyes of his family. "We're either part of a very elaborate plan, or a very elaborate con aimed at us."
"Why would someone do that?" Parker asked.
"Because we are the very best at what we do. Remember Sophie's old partner, Marcus Starke? He said he'd heard Nate was running the nastiest crew this side of the Atlantic." Everyone nodded.
They were just getting back on track from the fallout of that job.
"I once did a job for a fella—rich ... Like obscenely, old money rich. He collected things … Perfect things, weird things, unique things, and not just things—people, too. So he's either tryin' to collect Carson's company because of the brain trust, or he's tryin' to collect us."
"So how do we figure it out?" Hardison asked. "'Cause I'd rather you didn't chip me like the family poodle."
"How many layers did you check Rostov and Andret?"
"The standard …" The hacker trailed off as he grabbed a keyboard.
"Also check any camera feeds you can find so we can see if anyone followed David and Emily to McRory's."
"You don't think David and Emily are involved with this 'Keeper' fellow, do you. They seemed quite genuine in their desire to settle down since she's pregnant." Sophie talked as Eliot numbed the skin on the inside of her thigh then injected the chip with a pressurized hypo.
"I had Hardison check Emily's records at the OB/GYN. She really is having a high risk pregnancy. There's notes about wantin' to put her on bed rest." He sat back on his heels. "I don't want you or Hardison anywhere near Rostov. Parker and I will handle that end. If something happens you DON'T come after us."
"But …" Sophie started to protest.
"NO. You may be the best at what you do, but this man is at the very least a sociopath and at worst a psychopath in a Seville Row suit, and would chew you up and spit you out." Eliot softened his tone. "You play the part of Annie Croy very convincingly, sweetheart, but yer not her."
Eliot got everyone chipped, finishing with the shrilly complaining Hardison. He explained how to activate the chip before Hardison showed them what he and Parker found from the surveillance cameras.
"The Ambroses were not followed here, or anywhere else that I can tell. Whoever our MIB's are, they're not interested in those two. They follow Kit and Krista Newman. Now, Kit and Krista have got a 'thing' goin' on so that's probably why they're following her. They also have a tech guy, but he's a hack. Nowhere near as talented as my genius self." New pictures filled the screen. "This is a shot of the people staying in the Presidential suite of the Taj Boston booked under Marcus Rostov. This is Rostov."
The screen showed a heavily built man, pale complexion with dark hair and eyes. The picture changed again to show a slim blond man with pale eyes who looked to be in his early 40's. Behind him walked a beautiful woman with similar coloring, two obvious bodyguards behind them.
"There's no record of these four people. Rostov handled check-in and key cards."
"Andre and Antoinette Richfield." Eliot provided. "The Keeper, his twisted sister, and Rostov's bodyguards."
"Eliot, you said you did a job for him … Won't he recognize you? Parker asked.
"I dealt with a middle man like Rostov, so we never met, but I make it policy to know whose payin' the bill."
"Anyway. They're in the Presidential Suite. Rostov booked you a room on the second floor. It's at the end of the hall so your Mark Baker alias booked the adjoining room, and there is a connecting door." Hardison handed Parker a case with wireless cameras and mics. "You know what to do, little mama." His smile still held a touch of sadness, but it was genuine.
With a grin Parker grabbed the bag, while Eliot stood at the door with her gear. They left for the hotel to plant Hardison's electronics.
Hardison's gizmos in place, the pair went back to the office to change and pick up their ID's and luggage. Eliot handed Parker hers then took her left hand and slid a plain slim band on her ring finger. Her eyes never left his hands as he gently slid the ring in place then gave her hand a squeeze. Wide blue eyes flew from their hands to his face where she received a soft smile and a wink. He handed her a duplicate of her ring only larger. She trembled as she slid the ring into place. Hardison's voice broke the spell that held her pressed against Eliot. She felt warm lips on her temple before she was released to give her attention to Hardison.
"Daniel and Ellen Boothe—married ten years, met while working the same job, and have been together ever since." Alec pronounced.
"Hardison?" Sophie's voice interrupted. "This Krista Newman, what do we know about her? How long has she been at Carson?"
"Usual genius scientist stuff, and six months. Why?"
"She looks familiar to me. I'm going to call David—see what else you can find on her."
While everyone bustled around her, Parker stared at the thin silver band around her finger—it was real platinum, not silver … Parker's thoughts stopped along with her breath. If the others had been watching and seen the smile on her face, they'd have been worried.
Eliot was watching and saw that his girl understood exactly what he'd said with his actions. He continued to watch as she bounced over to close up her luggage before turning his attention back to Sophie and Hardison. If there was a wild card in the game he needed to know.
They took their time walking away from the registration desk, giving Eliot the opportunity to hear the clerk call Rostov to tell him they were on their way to their room.
Hardison's check on Krista Newman showed that the Richfield's were coming at the Carson men on two fronts. Sophie called to give David the new information.
Eliot wondered if Jonas was still alive since it seemed he was not cooperating with whoever was holding him. Could be they were waiting to see if the honey trap they'd set for Kit was successful before disposing of the elder Carson.
A knock on their door pulled Eliot from his thoughts. He opened the door to one of the Rostov's 'bodyguards' holding an envelope, which he shoved at Eliot and left.
"That was fast." Parker snickered at the bodyguard's actions.
"We've got an hour."Eliot said.
The door to the adjoining room opened to reveal Sophie and Hardison. The hacker had already scanned their room for bugs and had set up his own devices.
Knowing how paranoid Andre was about dealing with outsiders, Eliot and Parker would not be wearing their ear buds when they went to dinner, but they had Hardison's toys to cover them.
"Any sign of Rostov's tech guy or that their jammin' the signals?" Eliot asked as he pulled his hair back into a neat ponytail.
"Naw, I'm workin' through the hotel's Wi-fi and they can't mess with that without alertin' the whole hotel."
A noise from the adjoining doorway had both men looking up.
Eliot recovered his wits first and walked over to the women. Seeing Parker's nervousness, he lightly grasped her hand and kissed her knuckles.
"Darlin, you'll be the most beautiful thing in the room."
Parker blushed at his words before smoothing his lapel. Never looking back at the others, they left the room, Eliot's hand at the small of her back. It was like they had been together for years.
Hearing Hardison's sigh, Sophie turned her attention to the youngest of their group.
"If it's any consolation, it was inevitable." She patted his broad shoulder.
"What?! Why do you say that? I'm just as much a manly man as Eliot." He pouted
"Of course you are, but Parker's a wild thing, and Eliot understands wild things."
"That actually makes a weird kind of sense." Hardison murmured as he turned back to his computers.
As they rode the elevator to the top floor, Parker leaned into Eliot and let his warmth and scent ease her nerves. Eliot's scent always reminded her of standing on a tall building where the air is clear of city smells, everything is fresh, and she feels like she can fly forever.
The ding for their floor made her pull her nose out of his shirt. She looked up through her lashes, and the soft look on Eliot's face stole her breath. Warm lips touch her forehead.
The words cause her legs to wobble as Eliot purred in her ear. Pulling back from his warmth, she swatted his arm.
He waggled his eyebrows as his pale eyes twinkled with mischief. A warm hand in the small of her back and they were walking towards the door of the Presidential suite.
That's opened by the same man that brought the invitation. Marcus Rostov comes toward them grinning like a mule eating thistles, and a loud voice.
"Welcome! So glad you accepted my invitation."
He pumped Eliot's hand enthusiastically and tried to kiss Parker's until she snatched it back and clung to Eliot's arm.
"Y'all have to excuse Ellen—she's a bit touchy about strangers puttin' hands on her." Eliot soothed with a drawl that oozed old southern money, and menace.
"Quite alright. I admit I can be a bit abrupt when I see such beauty." Rostov nearly drooled then remembered his manners. "Let me introduce my other guests, The Richfields. Andre—Antoinette—Daniel and Ellen Boothe."
While pleasantries were exchanged, a valet appeared with a tray of drinks.
"Champagne not to your liking Mr. Boothe?" Andre asked when Eliot turned down the drink.
"I'm afraid too much so, and please, it's Daniel and Ellen. Ya make me want ta look for my daddy when ya call me Mr. Boothe." Eliot's smile was charming. "Water with a twist would do me just fine, thank you."
Andre motioned to the man who returned shortly, and with another nod the valet and bodyguards left the room.
"I'm sure you're wondering why you've been invited here?" Andre settled beside his sister on the couch.
"Since you're probably aware of our occupation, we'd assumed there was something you wanted to acquire that needed our particular brand of expertise." Eliot countered as he moved to perch on the wide arm of Parker's chair.
"Ah, plain speaking. I appreciate that in people." Andre's eyes shot to Rostov before coming back to rest on them. "I wish to acquire a set of plans for a prototype."
"Where and when?" Eliot asked.
"What's the pay?" Parker asked.
Just then the valet announced dinner. The siblings each took an end of the table with Eliot on Antoinette's right, Parker at Andre's, and Rostov in the middle. Conversation turned to mundane things as the chef personally served each course.
"I trust everything was satisfactory?" The chef asked as he served a chocolate mousse for dessert.
"Very good." Rostov commented as he dove into his dessert.
The chef looked at Parker who looked at Eliot.
"What? I just like food, Daniel's the food snob in the family."She smiled when she heard the low growl.
"Not quite what I'd have expected from a hotel of this caliber, but it was palatable."
The chef sputtered his indignation.
"I fear I've insulted your ability, but since I've given up drink, food has become something of a vice." Eliot purred in Antoinette's direction.
"That was very bad of you, Daniel." Antoinette leaned against Eliot's arm, giving him ample view of her cleavage.
"Sister, dear, let us retire to the living room where we can talk privately while they clean up." Andre ground out from between gritted teeth.
Parker knew just how he felt. *Hussy!*
"You two can't tell me you're not curious about the why's and wherefore's of the job we want you to do." Andre pressed.
"You don't survive in our business by asking too many questions." Parker offered.
"There is a certain 'plausible deniability' in only having the bare details." Eliot assured.
"Yes, of course." Andre's smile was all teeth, but little smile.
Before he could go on, Rostov's phone rang. Someone yelling in Russian could be heard from the phone. Rostov said something abruptly then excused himself.
Antoinette handed Eliot a folder.
"As I was saying, the plans are at Carson Enterprises here in Boston. In that folder is the pertinent information, address, file number, which vault the plans are located in—everything we could find out about their security systems. You successfully deliver the plans to the location in the folder and there will be $500,000 in cash waiting for you."
"Half now." Parker barked.
"What?!" The Richfield's seemed stunned.
"Half now, the rest when we deliver."
The siblings looked at Eliot.
"Sorry. My little darlin' handles all our finances. I'm just the strategist." He smirked.
"ROSTOV!" Andre gave an undignified yell.
"Sir." The man's face was red either running to Richfield's bellow or his conversation with Krista.
He left and returned with a briefcase that he handed to Parker. When Parker gave the nod it was all there, Eliot stood.
"We thank y'all for your generous hospitality this evening. Am I to assume Mr. Rostov … Marcus will provide us with any equipment we may require?"
"Yes … Of course … My number." He handed Eliot a business card.
Once in their room, Parker danced across the floor.
"That was fun!" She threw the briefcase on the bed. "Except for the part where Rostov wanted to slobber on my hand and that hussy rubbed her breasts all over you." She pouted.
"Why Parker, you jealous little cat." Eliot teased.
She wrinkled her nose as she kicked off her heels.
"What's he want us to steal?"
Before he could answer, the adjoining door opened.
"Plans for a purification system that can clean the water used in hydraulic fracturing." Eliot read from the file.
"The patent on that would be worth millions." Hardison read through the file Eliot handed him.
"Sophie, you and David need to sit down with Kit and explain what's happening. Hardison you need to fix up a set of plans that look real, but missing a vital component, but not so blatant that we get our asses handed to us when Richfield looks at the plans."
"What are you going to be doing while all this work is going on?" Hardison sounded suspicious.
"Ellen and Daniel will be casing Carson Enterprises, planning our strategy and sending Rostov out to buy equipment we don't need." Eliot smirked.
He took two bundles of money out of the briefcase before handing it to Sophie, and practically pushing them out of the room.
They'd changed into sweats and were on the king sized bed, Parker curled against Eliot.
"You realize this is a very bizarre date?" Parker asked quietly. "Even for me."
"I figured it'd have all the things you like—playing dress-up, breaking and entering, theft, the possibility of a fight or two, maybe blowing something up …"
"Sounds like the perfect date." Parker giggled.
"Eliot …" Parker's voice got small.
"Sleep, darlin'—it's time to sleep."
With a sigh of relief she did.
They spent the next day acting like tourists and casing the Carson Enterprises building. They even went inside to inquire about Ellen's cousin Krista Newman. They were informed that Krista Newman had transferred to the Wooster office.
They called Rostov with a list of equipment, stopped for dinner at Neptune's Oyster before going back to the hotel. All they had to do was wait until Rostov and Hardison finished their part of the job.
Luckily the hacker and Rostov finished at the same time, so they would lift the plans tonight and meet Andret's plane at first light.
While they were waiting, Parker had been through all the duct work on the top floor looking for Jonas Carson, and because she was bored, she checked all the other floors with no joy. They'd even gone to the airport and checked the plane.
When they were getting dressed to break into Carson, Parker noticed the extra layers Eliot was adding.
"It's not going to be that cold." Parker quipped.
Eliot paused for a moment before he answered. He'd never lied to Parker, and he wasn't about the start now.
"Since we can't find Jonas, they must have him wherever Richfield keeps his toys. I'll be on the plane when it takes off."
She stopped what she was doing.
Eliot cringed at the plaintive note in her voice. He wouldn't lie so he answered with his silence.
Knowing she only had one chance to change his mind, she looked around for something that would make an impact on the armor of his stubbornness. There it was—the light glinted off the chains around his neck. There on the chain he never took off, was the wedding band he'd worn until they started to get ready. She reached under her shirt and pulled out the chain that held the ring she'd worn. Left hand clasped around the ring she poked Eliot in the chest hitting the ring.
"If you're alone, why are you still wearing that? Why isn't it in your pocket or duffle or back at the office?" She tried to keep her voice steady—she hated tears, but she could feel her eyes welling at the thought of him going off alone.
Grabbing her hand to still the poking—it was starting to hurt, he looked into dark blue eyes sparkling with tears.
"I've always gone into these situations alone. It's my job, Parker." The rough hand reached out to cup her cheek. "It's my job to protect the team—the family from danger, even from themselves." His voice was raspy as he fought his own emotions.
"But isn't that what this is? We're not alone any more—we're together—we have each other's backs. You … You taught me how to fight so I would be safe—so I could cover Hardison's ass …" Both of their chuckles were watery. "How could I not do the same for someone I have all these frickin' feelings about?" She grumbled.
Eliot threw his head back and laughed.
"Oh, darlin', you are nuts … Fine, but you have to listen to me. No gettin' a wild hare up your ass, and doin' somethin' crazy where I can't back you up."
Only his lightning reflexes caught her as she flew at him landing a kiss at the same time. His first thought was that his life was never going to be calm and quiet with Parker, and that he wanted nothing more than to spin around and spread her out on the king size bed like a gourmet meal, and savor every course until she begged for the meal to end.
He mentally cursed Carson, Rostov, and Richfield for being an obstacle what he wanted to do to the woman in his arms.
"Ready? The quicker we get this done, the quicker we can rain havoc on 'The Keeper's' collection."
Parker's eyes lit up and her smile would have made lesser men run, but the wild side of his nature rose to meet hers as he bared his teeth in his own wolf's smile, and together they headed for their target.
After retrieving Hardison's fake blueprints, there was plenty of time to make the meeting at the airport hangar so they took a turn through Beacon Hill, making fun of the security systems, by pilfering their gourmet food stuffs.
An impromptu picnic on top of the John Hancock Tower gave them a view of the Charles River Basin and the beauty of Boston when the city was asleep.
As they gathered up the remains of their picnic, Parker tucked the memories of the evening away with her good memories, for they were few, and ingrained on her soul. With a small smile, she wondered if it was too soon to introduce Eliot to Archie.
They watched from the shadows the flight crew ready the plane. Parker made an exclamation of surprise then dismay when Eliot dropped his pants and cut his RFID chip out of his thigh. Handing her the chip he explained.
"If Richfield actually pays us instead of having Rostov kill us, drop the chip in the briefcase when you check the money. There's a bathroom by the exit, slip in there and hide the case in the ceiling, high shelf, whatever while I make it look like we left. We'll slip around and into one of the service doors."
"We're not going to get covered in that blue stuff, are we?" She wrinkled her nose at the thought.
"No, Parker, we'll go in the galley door then make our way into the cargo area."
There was no double-cross. Andre was like a five year old at Christmas when Parker handed him the map tube with the blueprints. Rostov grumbled but handed them the briefcase before following the brother and sister onto the plane.
With everyone occupied and few people around at the early hour, Eliot and Parker had no trouble slipping into the belly of the jet. They had just gotten situated when the pilot revved the idling engines and began to move.
"It's like traveling with Sophie on a shopping trip." Parker whispered as she looked at all the pieces of matching luggage in the hold.
With nothing else to pass the time, she systematically began going through all the bags. She nearly drooled when she found Antoinette's jewelry case.
"Most of this stuff is paste." She growled. "Think she keeps the good stuff at home?" Then she saw the emerald cut diamond ring that was the perfect size to go with the band Eliot gave her.
"No." Parker jumped at Eliot's growl. "You'll not wear somethin' you stole with that band. You want one like it—I'll buy it."
Parker knew what the ring in her hand was worth, and with wide eyes she looked at the retrieval specialist.
"You know how much this cost?"
"To the penny … Pocket change." He gave her a wink.
Pocket change?! Parker knew Eliot lived simple, and he never would tell them what he did with his cut of the money from the Dubenich job. She tossed the ring carelessly back in the case. She was going to have new stuff … Stuff that only ever belonged to her. She closed the case and curled inside Eliot's parka. The thought that he would spend the money he earned with his blood and body without complaint warmed her inside like Eliot's body heat warmed her outside.
They dozed curled together until the change in the sound of the engines brought Eliot to alert.
They stayed hidden until the hangar got quiet. Eliot dropped down, checked for cameras and when he saw no cameras or people, he signaled for Parker to follow. They moved into the jungle that was right outside the hangar, and turned on their ear buds and cell phones to find out if anyone knew where they were.
"Hardison." Eliot whispered.
'Eliot?" The hacker's voice sounded sleepy. "ELIOT! Is Parker with you? Man, where are you? We found the money …"
His rant was interrupted by Sophie.
"What are you doing, Eliot. You two disappearing was not part of the plan."
"If you can still pick up our signal, we must not be too far from some coast. The vegetation is tropical, probably somewhere around the Yucatan, maybe."
"We stowed away on the plane." Parker's tone was excited.
Eliot interrupted before the arguing could start.
"Jonas wasn't at the hotel or on the plane so we decided to try and find the man. Figured his boy might appreciate gettin' his daddy back." His tone brooked no argument.
"It looks like you're somewhere off the coast of Central America in the Caribbean Sea." Hardison informed them.
"Great. Then all you and Sophie need to do is steal us an airport on the American side of the Gulf of Mexico. Try Florida. There should be a lot of abandoned airfields used by drug runners."
"That's asking a lot, Eliot." Sophie snapped.
"Considering what we may be getting ourselves into by stealing The Keeper's compound ... Stealing an airfield should be a walk in the park."Eliot growled back. "We're shuttin' everything off just in case, but text us those coordinates. We'll probably be leaving in a hurry."
They stayed in the cover of the jungle while moving around the perimeter of the compound. They had taken water and some non-perishable foodstuffs from the plane. Eliot was hoping they wouldn't be in the jungle long enough to worry about living off the land.
"Their security sucks." Parker blurted out.
"They're probably worried about people wanting to leave as opposed to breaking in, and the fences are probably electrified."
"There's a very distinct hum." He turned his head at the sound of an engine. "We should maybe see if we can hitch a ride."
Security was lax around the kitchen entrance, allowing them to slip out of the truck as easily as they had slipped in the back. Night was beginning to fall and they took advantage of every shadow. They were waiting for two guards to pass their hiding place when Eliot began to whisper in the blonde's ear.
"If we're seen I want you to hide, and when you can—cause a distraction. Let the animals loose, blow something up—I don't care, but the bigger the better so I can get away. Understand?"
Parker started to protest leaving him, but then became quiet as her tactical mind kicked into high gear. He started to move, but stopped when she tugged on his arm.
"I'm not leaving you so don't ask."
"Our first priority …"
"I don't care."
"Can you pre-flight a plane?"
"Sure." A blush crossed her cheeks.
"What? If Hardison can figure it out, I'm sure one of the brains in here can too." She said mulishly.
With a roll of his eyes, they started forward staying in blind spots until they came to a guard watching several screens of security cameras. Eliot had him quietly unconscious before the guard knew someone had him. They matched the cameras to the diagram on the desk.
Parker rummaged through the drawers and lockers while Eliot figured out how to get to the humans Richfield had collected. She muttered in appreciation at the treasures she found. The stuff was probably to blow the place up if they were ever raided so she figured she'd just make it happen a little sooner than planned.
They had all the cells open including the one holding Jonas Carson. Eliot breathed a sigh of relief when he found Jonas could fly. Parker continued to set charges as they headed back the way they'd come.
"We have to hurry. They'll be bringing our meals around soon." Jonas warned.
"Parker!" Eliot hissed. "Get 'em to the plane."
She grabbed Eliot's arm as he stopped so she could take point.
"I won't leave you so you better be right behind us." She cocked her head. "We've got four minutes before this place goes BOOM."
"I'll be there." He surprised her by grabbing her for a hard quick kiss before shoving her to the front. "Stay with Parker. I'll cover your backs."
Since it was dinner hour, their first obstacle was the guard at the main gate. With the dozen geeks they'd rescued there wasn't time for taking the long way—they'd never make it out before Parker's little surprises lit the night. The guard was bringing his gun to bear on Parker when Eliot came out of the dark like an apparition.
"RUN!" He growled as he subdued the guard.
An automatic light that came on at dark showed them where to go. Eliot was between Parker and the house gate when something hit him in the back with enough power for him to have to fight to remain conscious as the ground flew up to meet him.
Parker heard the report of the rifle. Chancing a look behind her, she saw Eliot thrown violently to the ground. Her first instinct was to go back, but she heard the door on the plane open. They had two minutes before the fireworks. Still running she turned on her phone and ear bud.
"Get this plane ready to roll!" She shouted at Jonas. "You better have a damn airport." She growled at the com.
Seeing the numbers on her phone, she threw it at Carson.
"That's where we're going—UNDER the radar."
She turned back for Eliot—only to see him hanging limply between two of Rostov's goons. Rage and grief nearly consumed her until she saw Eliot setting his feet while still playing possum.
"I believe you dropped something, Mrs. Boothe." Andre sneered as Antoinette pulled Eliot's head back by his hair.
"Thanks for returning him." She snarked.
Hearing the crunch of dead grass where they'd mowed between the house and hangar, Parker brought up her arm and hit Rostov in the chest with her tazer.
"That wasn't very nice." She glared at the brother and sister.
One minute until showtime. Andre and Antoinette each raised a pistol.
Several things happened at once. Eliot jerked free of goon on the left forcing Antoinette to let go of his hair as he shoved her into the man sending them both to the ground. Parker dropped and rolled behind the cover of Rostov's body as Andre shot in her direction. Parker peeked over the Russian's body to see the goon on the right on the ground—not moving, and Andre taking aim at Eliot. She screamed Eliot's real name in warning causing Andre to look in her direction before turning back toward Eliot.
Eliot and Parker hit the ground as the countdown in their heads reached zero. Antoinette had barely regained her feet when the concussive blast threw her and Andre roughly to the ground. With fire and debris raining down on them, Eliot got to his feet, disarmed everyone, throwing guns and clips in different directions.
The plane was pulling onto the runway as the thief and retrieval specialist got to the plane. Two of the scientist yanked the door shut behind them as Jonas started down the runway. They'd barely strapped in when the plane started its climb.
Everyone was celebrating as Eliot slowly made his way to the cockpit. The left side of his back was numb, he had little use of his left hand, and he could feel shrapnel where he might have a hard time pulling it out. One consolation was he'd been wearing his vest so most of his core was protected, but he could feel blood seeping under his shirt. Thankfully his clothes were black, and he gave thanks to the universe at large that no one else was hurt.
"You got coordinates?" He asked Jonas as he settled in the co-pilot's seat.
He held up Parker's phone.
"Your partner became quite fierce when she saw you go down."
"She loves me. Did she emphasize that we need to stay under Everyone's radar?"
"Quite loudly. My ears are still ringing." He chuckled.
Skirting Cuban airspace while Eliot kept watch for other aircraft, it was a smooth flight until the wheels touched down on the broken asphalt of the deserted airstrip. Pain shot up his back as the plane bounced through cracks and potholes. He could feel the sweat stinging open wounds as he fought to control the pain.
Jonas turned to look at him as he powered down the plane.
"Are you alright, young man?"
"Not at the moment, but I will be as soon as we get to a shower and bed."
He made sure Carson left the cockpit first, giving him time to gather his strength to move. Looking out the window, he blessed Sophie for thinking ahead. Two vans waited by the airstrip. Hardison was passing out ID's from information Parker had relayed while they were in flight. When he climbed in the 'team' van, he sighed seeing his medical bag on the shelf. Now all he needed was a little privacy.
Sophie handed Parker the key to their suite so they could slip in the back without drawing attention to their scraped and battered selves. As the escapees climbed out of the van, each one was handed a duffle and key card like they were on corporate retreat. He listened through the ear bud as everyone was told to shower, eat, and rest until eight when they would all meet in the team's suite.
That gave Eliot three hours to pull himself together.
Thankful the suite had two bathrooms, he pulled a large trash bag out of his EMT bag for his clothes, most of which were probably headed for the trash anyway.
His jacket was fine. It had been in the van and he'd used it to hide most of the damage from cameras and nosy patrons. He opened the fastenings on his vest and felt pain and new bleeding as he carefully peeled the vest away from his back.
The vest had stopped the bullet that put him on the ground—barely. It was the tip that had been digging into his shoulder. A little higher it would have trimmed his hair. A little to the right would have taken his head off. The vest went in the trash, followed by his Henley, button down, and wife beater. His pants had survived, but would need to go through the wash several times. He put them in a different bag. Using the mirror to check his back, most of the wounds were superficial, but the bruises were ugly.
The hot shower made him feel nearly human. A 4x4 patch on the bullet wound, some herbal salve for the bruises he could reach, clean shirts, snarls brushed out of his wet hair and everything packed back in his bag. Going into the living area, he saw pizza, Chinese, burgers and fries spread across the table.
Sticking the ibuprofen in his mouth while he was bent down to get a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, he was mindful of his bruises as he fixed himself a plate of food. He'd just settled on the couch and was setting his plate on the coffee table when Hardison rushed through the room and bumped his bruised shoulder. He bit back a cry, but his hand went numb and the plate clattered against the wooden surface.
"Dammit, Hardison!" He growled as he flexed his left hand.
"You're hurt?" Sophie asked.
"Hurt!" Parker dropped her burger, and started to reach for his shirts.
"Man, I'm sorry …" Hardison backed away.
"Stop!" Eliot commanded. "Just stop." He looked into worried blue eyes. "My shoulder's only bruised, my vest caught the bullet."
"BULLET! Should we get one our many doctors to take a look at it?" Sophie asked worriedly.
"Not unless they've invented a way to heal deep tissue bruises. " Eliot quipped.
With that everyone settled, though Parker continued throwing him worried looks. Before Eliot could reassure her, their refugees were filing in the room. Several had already made arrangements to get home, but many were still bewildered. Jonas called Kit, and on a conference call with David offered anyone who wanted it, a job with Carson Enterprises. It would at least give them some place to go until they were able to decide what they wanted. Kit would be flying down the next day with the corporate jet, so anyone going to Boston was fixed for a ride. Plans made, everyone retired for the night.
Knowing his team mates was ready to pop a seam, Eliot slowly removed his button down shirt so they could all see he was telling the truth about being bruised. After seeing Eliot was fine, Hardison began complaining about slaving over a hot computer for two days with no sleep, and headed off to bed.
Realizing they were a bed short, Sophie started to offer hers before Eliot told her he wouldn't be lying down much for a day or two. Wishing them a good night, Sophie also retired.
"It's a king size bed. You and Sophie have shared before." Eliot cajoled Parker toward bed.
"I'm kinda used to having you for my mattress—not sure I can sleep on a regular one anymore." She leaned against his side that wasn't bruised.
As Eliot's warmth began to make her drowsy, Parker thought about the past few days. When she'd asked Sophie to describe love, the grifter had told her it was the best and the worst feeling in the world. In the morning she would have to tell Sophie she was wrong.
Love was like flying without a net.
~ Fini ~