"So, what do you think?" Elizabeth asked her client.
"This looks great," he said, peering at the proposal through his glasses. "Something for everyone, plus the centerpiece ideas are fresh and the entertainment should shake things up a little…"
"Not too casual, but casual enough?" She quoted back at him.
"Exactly," he smiled up at her, and she almost had to catch her breath.
Neal Caffrey was younger than Elizabeth, and a client, and a happily married man, and gay, to top it all off.
It wasn't his fault that he had a dazzling smile.
He certainly did his best to hide it, what with his glasses and oversized cardigans, but Elizabeth would bet his art history classes were probably the best-attended at NYU. He probably dressed that way to avoid getting mobbed on campus.
Anyway, it wasn't Elizabeth's style to go fostering a crush on a client, or a client's spouse for that matter, and she had a job to do.
"Well, I'll have my assistant draw up the contract and get everything set for your husband's event, Professor Caffrey."
"You're a lifesaver," Caffrey pulled out that dazzling grin again, and Elizabeth pretended not to notice. "Peter needs these parties for his job but he's way too busy to plan them, and with finals coming up I can't handle it this time."
"That's what we're here for," Elizabeth gathered up the last of the papers and held out her hand. Caffrey shook it politely. She walked him out of her office before she could convince herself he'd held the handshake just a moment longer than he should have.
"This is great, honey," Peter Burke smiled at his partner, and Caffrey grinned back.
Impeccably dressed people milled about in their luxurious apartment, having drinks and laughing over the subtle sound of the band.
"It's all thanks to the miracle worker over here," Caffrey said, gesturing at Elizabeth. "You know, the one I've been telling you about."
"Neal hasn't stopped talking about you," Burke grinned, shaking Elizabeth's hand. "He's a wiz at planning these things, but I know he only does it out of pity. You did a great job."
"She really did," Caffrey nodded. "The Germans are in the bag."
"Now, you know I don't like to count my deals before they're hatched," Burke said.
"And you know I'm never wrong about these things. Or do you want me to go schmooze them some more?"
"You're the best," Burke smiled, kissing Caffrey on the temple and sending him back off into the crowd. "Thanks again," he said, turning back to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth smiled. "I'm just glad it went over well."
"Well, we really appreciate it." He tilted his head, looking thoughtful. "We haven't met before, have we? I know that sounds a little…"
"Cheesy?" Elizabeth suggested.
He shrugged helplessly.
"It's a little cheesy," she agreed. "But that doesn't make it untrue. I plan a lot of events like this."
"I don't think it would have been at work, it's just… there's something about you." Burke shook his head. "Listen, I have to go earn that fancy coffee they stock my office with over at Novice Tech, but why don't you stick around for a little while after the party? I'll buy you a drink."
"You already paid for all the drinks," Elizabeth grinned.
"All the more reason," he threw his hands up, looking the picture of innocence as he backed away from her, off into the crowd.
"Another turn around the floor, Ms. Davis?" asked one of the waiters.
Elizabeth blinked. "Oh, yes. Yes, I think so, Teddy."
"Sure thing, Ms. Davis," the kid said, and went back to the kitchen to load up another tray.
Elizabeth wandered through the apartment as she waited for the party to wind down, still not sure what she was doing. It was a large place in a very nice neighborhood right in Manhattan, with a view that screamed money. Elizabeth had seen her share of overdone places in this zip code, but this one was tasteful, even elegant. She could tell an art history professor lived here, from the sculptures and the paintings on the wall.
She walked closer to one of them. It looked like one of Monet's weeping willows, the colors vivid, the brushstrokes bold. The paint looked thickly applied. Elizabeth peered closer.
"Do you like it?" Burke had wandered over to stand at her shoulder, gazing at the painting along with her.
"Neal painted that," Burke's voice was rich with pride. "It's one of my favorites."
"Really?" Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "I had no idea he was so talented at copying art."
"Oh, I have a very checkered past," Caffrey said, coming by to flank Burke's other side.
"Positively scandalous," Burke nodded. "Did everyone take off?"
"One of these days you will learn to run your own parties," Caffrey sighed. "And dress yourself."
"Is that likely?" Elizabeth asked.
"Neal's gotten me this far," Burke grinned.
"A man can dream," Caffrey said firmly. "So, Ms. Davis, can I offer you a nightcap?"
"Sure," she said. "But call me Elizabeth."
"In that case, I'm Neal. And this is Peter."
"So tell me about this checkered past," Elizabeth asked, intrigued. She was curled up on the sleek white sectional couch, heels kicked off and feet tucked under. Peter and Neal flanked her, jackets off and ties loosened. Neal's hair had grown rumpled, but it only seemed to add to his appeal. Peter looked as put-together as always, but there was a laughing curve to his lips and a glint to his eye that belied his unruffled exterior.
"Do you really want to know?" Neal topped off her Champagne.
She lifted the glass in silent thanks and took a sip. Any polite professional distance she might have had was long, long gone, so she might as well indulge her curiosity. "Yes, I do."
"He used to be a con artist," Peter grinned.
Neal shrugged. "I had certain skills that were well suited to the job."
"He was very good," Peter confided, topping off Elizabeth's glass yet again. "Had me going for a while."
"He conned you?"
"Tried to con me."
"Peter's the only one who ever caught me," Neal smiled. "I was forced to do something legal with my life."
"Hey, I'm not just a corporate suit," Peter said. "I've got street smarts."
"The FBI wanted to recruit me back in college, you know."
"You already caught him," Elizabeth laughed. "I don't think you need to work so hard at impressing him anymore."
"Neal is a very difficult man to impress," Peter said. "It's a cross I bear."
"Now that just isn't true," Neal said, head resting on the back of the couch, eyes half-closed. He looked sideways at Elizabeth, gaze lingering.
She organized more parties for Peter and Neal, and ending the evening curled up on the couch with them and a bottle of wine became something of a habit.
After her divorce, Elizabeth had been pretty guarded about relationships, but there was something about Neal that was both disarming and dangerous at the same time, and every time she looked at Peter, it was like she was recognizing him from somewhere.
After-party drinks turned into drinks out, which turned into dinners, gallery exhibitions and concerts. One or both of them would even meet up with her to walk her dog, and Satchmo would light up when he saw them coming.
They were like a piece she hadn't even realized was missing in her life, fitting in seamlessly.
The three of them were wandering through Central Park on their lunch breaks when Elizabeth stopped, staring at the play of light through leaves on both their faces, the vivid greens and yellows and browns of nature all around them.
"Are we dating?" she asked, her gaze shifting back and forth between the two men.
Peter blinked. "Aren't we?"
Neal just smiled, that dazzling grin that almost made her want to put on her sunglasses.
Elizabeth sat down on the nearest bench. The world seemed to tilt on its axis, just a little bit, and she wondered what she would tell her mother the next time she told her to bring someone home for the holidays, what her assistant would say, the exact mixture of glee and jealousy that would appear on her best friend's face when she heard. "Don't you think you might have mentioned that?"
The bench shifted slightly as Peter and Neal sat down at either side of her.
"We were actually thinking of instilling a 'show, don't tell' policy," Neal had on his respectable professor guise; glasses and a grey oversized cardigan that made him look like a little boy trying on his grandfather's clothes, but the look on his face was open and unguarded for once.
Peter shifted, and when Elizabeth turned he was looking at her unabashedly, solid and steady and brilliant and good, sitting on a park bench in his power suit and tie.
The world shifted back into place.
"Then I guess you'd better show me," Elizabeth said, and they smiled.
Neal: In some alternate universe, you'd be wearing power ties, doing power lunches, flying corporate jets.
Peter: Doubt we'd have ever met.
Neal: Maybe. Under different circumstances.
Peter: Well, that's true. You might have robbed the company.