Steed revisits his past
Emma begins an important project
Emma Knight Steed dropped the booklet on the passenger seat with her handbag and slid into the driver’s seat of her Lotus. She started the ignition, then looked down at the booklet and felt the happy smile that had been lingering on her lips for the last hour return full force.
Your First Pregnancy. The title was printed in white against a photograph of a mother and child. Emma briefly wondered where the father was in the image, then let her thoughts move on to her next task: thinking of the best way to tell Steed. She pulled out of her parking space and headed toward the ministry.
Her doctor thought she’d conceived sometime just after Christmas. She liked to think it had happened on their wedding night. But it was equally pleasant to think that their child had been conceived during their first days in Australia. She absolutely refused to consider the possibility that it had happened during that impulsive ten minutes in the airplane lavatory.
In any case, their child would be born an appropriate nine months after their wedding, although she was sure nobody believed that the consummation of their marriage was the first time they’d made love. In fact, she’d gone off of the pill two months before the wedding, despite her doctor’s advice that it would wreak havoc with her hormones and make everything seem more stressful. Perhaps it had, but even so the wedding had gone off remarkably well – particularly since it had taken place on Christmas Eve. She had been amazed at how many of their friends and family had attended, some traveling a great distance to be there. Many had departed the reception suggesting that they were now required to throw annual anniversary parties. Emma had not talked to Steed about it, but she rather liked the idea.
Of course, she thought as she threaded through traffic, by next Christmas their lives might be so completely different they would not be able to plan a party. Didn’t babies tend to disrupt things? As she showed her identification to the guard at the ministry garage gate she felt herself making a resolution. The baby was not going to come between her and Steed, and they were not going to give up their favorite activities because of it. She smirked at herself as she found a parking space. It most certainly would come between them and eliminate their favorite activity, in a few months, and for a little while, anyway. She picked up the booklet and flipped through it, looking for a section on sexual intercourse while pregnant. She didn’t find one.
She added another task to her to-do list – shop for more helpful books on pregnancy. She tucked the booklet under the passenger seat – it wouldn’t do to leave it sitting out where others could see it – and made her way upstairs to the ministry gymnasium.
“That was great, Emma. I can’t believe I’ve finally mastered that throw,” Sally said, tucking her towel tighter around herself.
“Sally, you have learned so much in the last few months, I’m not surprised at all,” Emma said, leaning back against the tiled wall of the sauna, her hands folded over her stomach. “I’ve got some news,” she said.
“Yes?” Sally looked over at her curiously.
“I’m not going to be able to spar with you for a while.”
“Oh Emma, I’m sorry if I’m not enough of a challenge for you.” The look of disappointment on Sally’s face made Emma feel awful.
“No, Sally, it’s not you. It’s doctor’s orders –.”
“You’re not ill are you?” Sally half turned to face her friend.
“No, not ill,” Emma felt her smile returning and saw Sally’s concerned expression turn into a look of understanding.
“Are you?” she asked, not needing to finish the question. Emma nodded, grinning now.
“How far along?” Sally blurted, then looked at Emma’s hands folded protectively over her stomach. “I mean, it doesn’t show at all.”
“Barely two months. Completely legitimate, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said with a grin.
“You must be thrilled! How did Steed take the news?”
“He doesn’t know yet – you’re the first person I’ve told.”
“Oh Emma,” Sally covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes wide with astonishment, “I’m so honored.”
“Well, to be honest, I wanted to tell someone other than Steed first – to see what it would feel like,” Emma said. “Steed’s away until tomorrow night. I’m still trying to decide the best way to tell him.”
“He knows it’s what you want, but do you think he’ll be shocked that it’s happening so soon?”
Emma shook her head, “We’ve been trying since November. We knew it could take some time after taking the pill for so long.”
“We have to have a baby shower!” Sally said. “I’m going to call Nancy this evening.”
“That’s very thoughtful, Sally, but I’d rather you wait.”
“Oh, you’re right. I’m sorry Emma, of course I’ll wait until you have a chance to announce it.”
“And I’m not going to announce it for at least a couple months,” Emma said. “I am, the doctor says, a Prima Donna – no comments please,” she grinned at Sally’s expression, “I’m an older first-time mother, so there is some risk.”
“But you’re in perfect condition, perfect health!” Sally protested.
“Nonetheless, I’m going to follow my doctor’s suggestion and not announce anything until at least four months, maybe five, depending on how much I show.”
“All right, so we’ll plan the shower after that. I can’t wait – but I will!”
“It may sound ungrateful, but I’m glad the old fox has gone back to his lair,” Robert McCall said to Tara King. They were standing side-by-side on the Pont Sully watching the Gendarme divers searching the river. The French police were searching for a gun that, according to police reports, had been tossed into the river last night after a fatal dispute at a small bar on the left bank. Tara and Robert were not involved in the matter, but they’d gone to lunch together and stopped to watch as they were walking back.
Most of the Parisians passing behind them over the bridge were as oblivious to the investigation below as they were to the shooting last night. The world looked upon Parisians as surly and mean spirited. Tara had come to admire them for their pragmatism. The war had taken its toll on this city, and its people had learned to survive. She respected that. She gave Robbie a sidelong glance, but he was staring into the sluggish water below.
“He was very helpful. None of us understands the mind of a soviet like he does,” she said.
“None of us knows how to be the center of attention like he does, either,” Robbie replied. Tara suppressed a little smile. So it’s that.
“Was he cramping your style?” she asked.
Robbie shrugged, a charming Gallic gesture that he’d perfected during his five years in France. “I value his experience, don’t get me wrong,” he said carefully, half turning to look at her. “But it would be nice if he’d realize that it might be time to move aside and make room for the next generation.”
Tara half turned too so that they were facing one another. She was very fond of Robbie, and looked forward to cases that brought them together. Sometimes she envied his posting in Nicé, on the French Riviera, and sometimes she wished he lived closer to Paris. “Are you speaking professionally, or personally?” she asked, trying not to sound arch. He looked into her eyes, his hazel gaze revealing turbulent thoughts and emotions. There was her answer. “Because he is married now – I was at the wedding. But even Emma can’t curb his flirting.”
“It doesn’t matter that he won’t act on it,” Robbie said, “after all, the girls don’t know that.”
“Don’t they?” she asked pointedly, allowing one hand to slip closer to his on the stone parapet. “Any particular girls?” she added daringly. A little smile played across his lips and her heart flip-flopped. She tried to discretely take in a long, calming breath.
“There are stories about you and he. . .” his voice trailed off as she shook her head slowly, not breaking eye contact.
“History, Robbie,” she nearly whispered.
“So, um,” he muttered, and then his fingers were touching her just under her jaw. He caressed her chin with his thumb and her lips parted slightly. She let her eyes slide shut as his lips touched hers in a tentative little kiss. She covered his other hand with hers on the parapet and their fingers twined together as their lips parted.
“So, um, how soon do you have to go back to Nicé?” she asked breathlessly. He was still stroking her jaw, still looking into her eyes.
“A couple days. I’m expecting a package in the pouch from London. I could wait for it, rather than having your lot forward it down to me,” he said.
“You could wait,” she nodded slightly.
“We could have dinner tonight,” he suggested.
“Dinner would be lovely.”
John Steed was tired of traveling. In the six or so months that he and Emma had owned the big old country house he’d only lived in it for a total of about a month. Emma had been there for months, and had taken certain decorative liberties that he had not had time to dispute. As he waved at the ministry driver who’d brought him home and opened the big, squeaky front door, he felt a surge of gladness.
“Emma,” he called out as he shut the door and set his small valise on the floor in the entry. It felt odd, calling out to her that way, but even he was willing to concede that calling her Mrs. Peel in the privacy of their own home was silly. She’s my wife. Emma is my wife. The thought still gave him a buzz of excitement.
She appeared up on the gallery coming from the direction of their bedroom. He grinned at her as she trotted down the stairs and into his waiting arms.
“I wasn’t quite sure who was here,” she said as he enveloped her. “Are you going to make a habit of that?”
He indulged in a long, hungry kiss that she returned with tingling energy. Finally he broke it off to look into her sparkling eyes. “Calling you Emma outside of our bedroom?” he asked.
“I think I should try – it’s confusing enough that you insist on being called Emma Knight.”
“Only by my employees and the business community, darling. I don’t mind if you call me Mrs. Steed.”
“Really?” he looked genuinely surprised.
“Really. I never meant that I wouldn’t want to be called Mrs. Steed, only that I didn’t want to give up being Emma Knight of Knight Industries,” she pulled out of his arms and took his hand, “come on,” she said dismissively, as if the whole subject was silly. She led him still reeling from this revelation into the big informal family room near the kitchen.
“How about a welcome home drink?” she asked.
“How about another welcome home kiss?” he replied, trying to pull her back into his arms. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about her was radiant. She was dressed comfortably and ordinarily in capri slacks and a flatteringly snug angora sweater but she seemed to be glowing. She twisted away from him with a chuckle, then gestured toward the big striped settee.
“I’ll be right back,” she assured him and headed for the kitchen.
Steed took off his suit jacket and laid it over the arm of a chair, then wandered toward the settee. There was a large wrapped box sitting on it. He smiled and sat down beside it, but did not touch it. This explained the glow – she was excited about a present.
She returned with a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and two glasses and saw him sitting beside the box. Her familiar sly smile flashed across her face as she set the wine on the cocktail table in front of the settee and went about opening it. Steed watched her, enjoying her deft, economical movements. The cork popped gently and she poured the fizzy wine into the glasses. She handed him one and then touched the rim of hers to it.
“Welcome home darling,” she said.
Steed sipped his champagne and watched as she set hers untouched on the table. She nodded at the gift between them, “that’s for you,” she said. “Open it.”
Steed set his glass beside hers and pulled on the end of the ribbon tied in a bow around the brightly colored paper. The ribbon fell away and he slipped his fingers under a flap of the wrapping paper to pull it loose. Emma smiled as his childish side took over and he tore at the paper. It fell away from the box and Steed picked it up to study the labeling. It was an eight-millimeter movie camera. Emma’s smile became an amused grin as he did his best to look pleased.
“Thank you darling,” he said, sounding truly puzzled. “You do know I have access to much more advanced ones,” he looked at her amused expression and shrugged, helpless to understand.
“Every new father has one like this, though,” she said.
“Yes I suppose so,” he said absently, looking again at the box with its list of features. Then his eyes darted up and locked with hers. She nodded, smiling, and the radiance came shining through her eyes.
He set the box on the floor, pushed the wrapping paper on top of it, and scooted closer to her. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, to engulf her amazing body and the new life it sheltered, but suddenly he was afraid he might hurt her.
“Steed?” she asked, sounding anxious, and he realized that she was waiting for him to respond, to let her know how he felt.
“Emma,” he said, reaching up to caress her cheek. “When did we – how far along are you?” his fingers slipped around behind her head and she pressed against him, wrapping her arms around his waist. He felt her chuckle against him, her head resting on his shoulder.
“Two months,” she said. “I like to think it was on our wedding night, but it could have been during the honeymoon.”
“Our Australian baby,” he murmured, pressing his lips to her forehead, then her mouth as she tilted her face to his. As they kissed he felt himself squeezing her tighter. Despite his grip he felt weak, powerless in the face of the miracle that they had achieved. “Our baby,” he repeated.
“Yes. Our baby. You, John Steed, are going to be a father.”
He suppressed a tiny flash of annoyance at her amused tone. He suspected that, given his reputation and how late in life he was coming to this, that she would not be the only one chuckling at his new situation. He would ignore them all, reveling in the unexpected joy of fatherhood. Still, he couldn’t let her get away with it entirely. “Don’t forget that you will also be a mother, my dear. And as I recall, it’s not all cuddles and nursery rhymes.”
“That, my dear, is what nannies are for,” Emma said so austerely he laughed outright. But she wasn’t joking.
“Look Steed, I want you to know that as important as this is to me, you are what matters the most in my life. My mother did not sacrifice her life for me, and I will not do it either. I already love this baby more than I can believe, but even so I love you more. We will make a place for our children in our lives, but we will not be subsumed by them.”
“Them?” Steed grinned impishly, and by doing so let her know that he agreed with her sentiment.
“Him,” she corrected herself.
“Her?” Steed suggested.
“Are you sure you want a girl?”
“I love girls.”
“You love women. Girls are another thing altogether.”
“Yes, delightful creatures. So much tidier than boys.”
“You didn’t know me as a child or you wouldn’t say that.”
“Emma, I shall be happy with either type. I think I know of the perfect pony, just foaled –.”
“Steed, it would be best to wait until the baby is old enough to walk, I think.”
“Oh really? I hadn’t thought of that,” his eyes danced with happiness as he caressed the side of her face. “Are you sure you can’t drink that champagne?”
Emma pressed her lips to his cheek, then pulled away from him and reached for their glasses. “The doctor said a little won’t hurt,” she said, handing him his and once again touching the rims together with a bell-like chime.
“To our baby,” he said.
“To us,” she replied and they both took long sips.
“Now tell me,” he said, his cool grey eyes studying hers, the corners crinkling mischievously. “What does the doctor say about doing more of what got you into this condition?”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said, amused because she’d known he would ask. “Right up until it’s just too awkward.”
“Really,” she took another sip of champagne and looked down at the glass, running her finger around the rim. Then her eyes darted to his, shining with unmistakable desire. He took her glass away again and pulled her back into his arms. He’d been in France for nearly two weeks helping Tara and her team track down a Russian who was particularly fond of planting bombs in Paris. They’d cast an ever-tightening net around him until they picked him up preparing to set a device in the Louvre. Steed had spent most of his time directing the more junior members of Tara’s team, and he’d been surprised at how much satisfaction he’d gained from the back seat of the operation. When he’d said as much to Tara she’d laughed and told him he’d been a backseat driver and she was glad of it. His experience and understanding of the Russian’s mind had allowed him to send the other agents down all the right tracks.
But all of it, including the ministry’s rather grim Paris office and Tara’s tiny fifth floor walk-up flat in the Marais, vanished from his mind under Emma’s smoldering gaze. He felt his body respond to her, his pulse quickening, his groin warming to a delicious ache. He let his mouth roam freely over her face and felt more than heard her moan as her hands kneaded his back.
“I want you,” he whispered into her ear, his tongue brushing around its rim.
“I noticed,” she sighed back, tilting her head away from his to give him full access to the sensitive skin of her throat. He kissed his way back to her mouth, exploring it with teasing little strokes of his tongue.
“Now,” he added, as if it weren’t obvious. Her hands were all over him, unbuttoning, unzipping, and fondling him to fiery arousal. He removed her sweater in a sudden, sweeping motion. She shook her hair back into place, her breasts, already looking fuller, jutting at him within her bra. He pressed his face to them, planting kisses between them as he inhaled her warm scent – lingering perfume and the dense, heady aroma that was uniquely Emma. His hands met behind her back and unhooked the bra, then drew it off. He cupped both breasts, amazed at their fullness and warmth as he passed his thumbs over solid red nipples. She groaned, her head dropping back as her body arched toward him. He pressed her down onto the divan, the friction of their bare flesh touching at last inflaming them as they kissed.
One of her hands tangled into his hair, holding his head to keep his mouth against hers. Her open-mouthed kiss went on and on. She consumed him greedily, as if he was her only sustenance. Her other hand slipped into his already open trousers, rubbing his penis with unabashed enthusiasm.
“You’re so hard,” she sighed, the feel of him so desperate for her making her own loins buzz with desire.
“It has been two weeks,” he murmured, pressing eagerly against her hand.
“Good,” she said, her playful smile accompanied by a gentle squeeze that made him gasp.
He lifted himself just enough to get his hand on her slacks. They had no fastening, so he hooked his fingers into the waistband and pulled. She lifted her hips as he drew them down, stepping to the floor to remove them completely before returning to the divan. Kneeling between her legs he bent to nuzzle the triangle of auburn curls between her thighs. He placed light kisses there, teasing her until she groaned and reached for his head to push his face into her. He took her vulva, sucking gently until she came for him in a hot rush. He inhaled deeply, her familiar, sharp scent fanning the flames in his loins. Moving up he rubbed his damp face on her still-flat belly, placing kisses up her body and between her breasts, savoring the taste of her, the texture of her skin and the rippling muscles beneath. He wanted to go on that way, to taste all of her and reacquaint himself with the wonder of her. But certain parts of him had other ideas.
She knew it, knew his carnal nature better than he did himself. She reached between them and drew his penis out of his briefs, wrapping her fingers gently around it. One of her feet was on the floor, the other leg bent up against the divan’s low back. He let her guide him, gasping at her heat and wet as she rubbed the tip of his penis in herself. She used him to tease herself to another little orgasm, crying out with selfish pleasure. Then, before she had recovered herself, he entered her with a hard thrust. She cried out again and grabbed his ass with both hands, not sparing his flesh from her powerful grip. He churned within her, withdrew, and thrust again. She shuddered against him, coming again, the fire of her loins bathing his pulsing cock. Her grip loosened and she began rubbing circles on his ass – slow, sensuous circles that forced him to move with them. As he thrust in and out she pressed against him, tilting her pelvis to draw him in deeper with each thrust until he felt the tip of his penis pressing against her deepest places. She took sharp, gasping breaths, eyes clenched shut, fingers still on his ass as all of her consciousness centered on that place inside of her where life began, and where she was about to erupt.
“Oh God,” she was moaning, “Oh John.”
He could feel it coming, knew from the way she lay still for a moment, then pressed her hips upward with a mighty heave, that she was experiencing a deep, searing orgasm. It triggered him, knowing that her innermost self was responding to him, enveloping him. He filled her with a long, pulsing climax and they rocked together with quick, sharp thrusts, on and on until he was too soft and they were both panting like marathon runners.
He pressed his lips to her collarbone, then the top of her breast, kissing her between long breaths. She rolled her head to the side, licking her lips, then looked back at him just as he raised his face to hers.
“I missed you awfully,” he said. “Paris is no fun without you.”
“I miss Paris,” she replied, sparkling eyes teasing him. “And you. Always you darling.”
“Do you suppose,” he said as he started to sit up, then realized his trousers and underwear were pulled half down. He stood up and adjusted them, “that we’ll ever reach a point where one of us will come home and we’ll just sit down to a nice ‘welcome home’ supper?”
“I’m certain we’ve done that,” she said, rising to stand facing him and adjust his open shirt on his shoulders. He loved how unconcerned she was at her nakedness. He remembered a time when she was not, and it pleased him to know how comfortable they were with one another now.
“When was that? Before we became lovers?” he asked as his hands slipped around her bare waist, nestling her against himself. She thought about it for a while.
“I’m certain that when you came back after capturing Peter we had dinner first,” she said finally, pressing herself against him to enjoy his warm, life-filled flesh.
He nodded thoughtfully, brushing his lips over her forehead. “I think you’re right,” he said.
“Of course I am darling,” she said, running her hands up his back and tilting her head back to give him her most impish grin. “Now come along upstairs and make proper love to me.”
“We have a lot to do,” Steed said as Emma refilled his coffee cup. She left her cup unrefreshed, setting the pot on the counter before she sat back down at the breakfast table.
“We do?” she asked, picking up a section of the newspaper.
“Choosing names, for one thing,” Steed said. “That will take a great deal of consideration.”
“Names,” Emma repeated, pursing her lips as she nodded slowly.
“And nappies,” Steed went on. “I’m sure we shall have to lay in quite a supply.”
“And cigars,” he smiled contentedly. “I shall have them made especially.”
“Yes, I couldn’t possibly give birth before you have the cigars made.”
Steed took a gulp of coffee and studied her.
“Do you feel quite well, Mrs. Peel?”
“So perhaps that food poisoning from the kangaroo steaks in Alice Springs was not food poisoning at all.”
Emma squinted at him, taking longer than usual to follow his derailed train of thought.
“Morning sickness,” he said.
“I do not have morning sickness.”
“Then drink your coffee.”
Emma looked into the cooling cup. Ordinarily she would be half way through a refill by now, but this morning she couldn’t stand the smell. But to prove her point she picked it up and brought it to her lips. As she inhaled the rich aroma – she bought the beans at a specialty store — her stomach gave a lurch. She put the cup down so quickly it sloshed. But she didn’t notice, she was bolting for the bathroom.
She felt Steed pull her hair back as she retched into the toilet.
“I’m sorry darling,” he said.
“You should be,” she muttered. “I never threw up until you got me pregnant.”
“Emma,” Steed adopted his most solicitous voice. But he could not think of what to say next. You wanted to have a baby. He was sure that wouldn’t be a good idea, and it wasn’t strictly true – he was more excited about the prospect of fatherhood than he’d ever expected to be. She flushed the toilet and got up, one hand pressed against her stomach, the other reaching for the faucet. She rinsed her mouth, then faced him looking contrite.
“I suppose it could be morning sickness,” she conceded.
“Tell me what to do for you.”
“I wish I knew, darling. Be patient with me.”
Sally dove behind the burning automobile and rolled to her feet, left hand bracing right wrist as she aimed her semi-automatic handgun through the flames. She fired twice.
Across the lane the nun aiming an automatic rifle at her fell over backwards.
A claxon sounded and Sally stepped away from the hot flames, wiping the back of her wrist across her forehead.
“Howard, score seventy-nine,” a voice boomed as the flames licking around the car frame went out. Sally let her hands drop to her sides as she walked to the staging area. Seventy-nine! She was sure she’d gotten closer to ninety.
The claxon sounded again as the next trainee started the course. An instructor took her gun and handed Sally a copy of her score. She scanned the results to see where she’d gone wrong.
“What!” she swung around to the instructor and waved the score sheet at him. “The guy in the drug store is supposed to be an agent?”
The instructor stopped and turned to face her, his expression puzzled.
“The guy in the mod suit with the bad teeth?” Sally went on.
“Oh. Um, yes. Powers. You shot Powers,” the instructor said, looking embarrassed.
“He can’t possibly be a known agent!” Sally raged. “I’ve never seen him before, and he looked ridiculous!”
The training course was populated by armed mannequins controlled by the course manager. Most of the mannequins were dressed as ordinary people one might meet on the street, but a few were well known agents, both allied and enemy. Any of the ordinary people and the enemy agents might attack. The trainees had to judge their actions and react instantly – shoot or ignore. But killing a known allied agent was an automatic ten-point penalty. Sally had only shot one of the innocent nuns and managed to protect the group of school children from the sniper on a roof above. She’d been hit twice, evidenced by small dye spots on her blouse. She hadn’t had any trouble recognizing Emma, Steed, and Bond, as well as a few other agents who’d assisted with her training. But she had shot the gun-wielding, ruffle shirted fop in the drug store because she’d definitely never seen him before.
“Strictly speaking, he is,” the instructor said. “He’s Austin Powers.”
Sally opened her mouth to reassert her objection, but the instructor held up a hand to silence her.
“He has been out of circulation for months. Deep cover,” he said, taking Sally’s score sheet. “So you couldn’t have met him. I’ll adjust your score.”
Sally stared open mouthed after him as he carried her score sheet into the control room.
“Good show Sal,” Purdey said, nudging her shoulder. Sally closed her mouth and looked at the other trainee.
“Did you recognize that guy?”
“No, but he wasn’t waving a gun at me when I went through. I took him for an ordinary eccentric. If he gives you back the ten points, you’ll have an eighty-nine.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Well that’s the same as Matthew. You’re tied for the top score!”
Emma could not have made a wiser request: Steed was a very patient man. As his wife’s body changed, and her moods swung, he acted as if he were courting her all over again. He brought home flowers virtually every day along with her favorite foods once the morning sickness had passed. He called her from the office to ask her out on dates, and made over her no matter how tired or grouchy she became. Her temper tantrums washed over him without harm, and he happily accepted her increasingly enthusiastic apologies. The truth was, the rounder she grew, the more attractive he found her. It was not, he knew, simple physical attraction. He was fascinated by the miracle of new life represented by her growing belly and her rounded breasts. She was ripening, and the glow of health and life about her made her more and more beautiful.
At night in bed he would cradle her in his arms, reveling in the feel of her: the muscle and sinew, now lightly padded, and the sold presence of their baby growing within her. He stroked the small bulge of her belly until she purred with pleasure, then kissed her all over and, more often than her doctor might have suspected, made slow, gentle love to her.
Only they could see the changes in her body for the next few weeks. She adjusted her wardrobe to conceal the growing bulge, looking longingly at her cat suits on their hangars when she stepped into their closet to dress. She changed very little about her routine, although they toned down their gallops across their property to more controlled canters. She spent two days a week at Knight Industries where the process of spinning off the software division into a subsidiary was nearly complete. And she called the contractor to convert two of the guest rooms and a bathroom into a nursery suite.
“So you’re back from the estate,” James said, his bright, toothy smile shining from several yards away. Sally stood up to meet him as he crunched along the gravel path in St. James’s Park. Sally liked to come to the park when she could get away from the ministry for an hour during the day. It was tidy and quiet, inhabited by local office workers having lunch. It had not taken long for James to notice her pattern, so he often looked for her there.
“Yes, and I survived,” Sally replied, returning his smile.
“I heard you did more than survive. You managed not to shoot me once.”
“And did you hear who I did hit? Do you know that agent Powers?”
James put his hands on her upper arms and leaned close to kiss her on the forehead. He would have liked to do more, but the park was well populated with workers enjoying the spring sunshine.
“I’ve met him. He’s been on a hush-hush assignment for – hum, it must be about a year now.”
“A year?” Sally was startled, and a little dismayed. Not at the lack of opportunity to meet Austin Powers, but at the notion of disappearing on a mission for that long.
“Yes,” James dropped his hands to his side and gestured for her to sit back down. She did and he joined her. “It’s quite unusual,” he went on.
“So you’ve never been on a case that long?”
“Not on a case, no,” he replied, staring across the park. Sally frowned. There was something more he wasn’t saying.
“But you’ve been – detained?” she asked carefully. He sighed, then looked at her.
“Look Sally, it happens. You get caught. You get held –.”
“You get tortured.”
His head dropped and he remained silent.
“I’m not naive, James,” she said. “We’re being trained to resist it, so it must happen. I accept that.”
“Never accept it, Sally,” his blue eyes flashed at her. “Always keep fighting.”
She nodded, a bit dazzled by the intensity of his command. Abruptly he stood up and reached for her hand.
“Let’s walk,” he said. She rose to walk with him around the perimeter of the park.
“So after I shot the mannequin of this Powers fellow I argued that it wasn’t fair – I had never met or heard of him. They adjusted my score,” she said, trying to break the tension.
“Did they really?” he replied, smiling again. “That’s nearly unheard of. Perhaps you should give this up and become a lawyer.”
“Or a politician?” she chuckled and he laughed too. Their cheerful voices caught the eyes of several picnickers as they walked. Sally’s gaze drifted to the path ahead, which lead to one of the park’s gates. Three young women were gathered around a man holding a notepad. Sally felt herself stiffen.
James felt it too and glanced at her, then at the group of people ahead. “All right?” he asked. His voice was like a release. Sally spun around, pulling him with her and holding his arm firmly.
“No, nothing. Let’s go this way,” she could tell her voice was weak, and she felt the color draining from her face.
“All right,” he peered at her curiously.
“It’s just that – there was one of those ‘man-on-the-street’ reporters back there. I hate answering their questions,” she explained.
“I see,” he said, although clearly he didn’t.
“I should start back,” she said, allowing herself to glance back over her shoulder. Oh no. Terrance, for that’s who the reporter was, was looking right at her, his expression puzzled. “In fact, I’m late!”
James allowed her to drag him out through a park gate and along the street toward Whitehall. As they entered the narrow streets and passages of the St. James’s neighborhood he put his mouth close to her ear.
“I think he’s following us,” he muttered conspiratorially. She gasped, but did not let herself look back. Stop overreacting!
“I’d like a coffee,” she said, abruptly pulling James into one of the even narrower side alleys where, half way along, a small café offered sandwiches, coffee, and soft drinks. She dragged James into the café. He stopped her just inside.
“Who is he?” he asked, his tone just serious enough that she knew he wasn’t going to settle for anything less than a complete answer.
“Terrance,” she said, her pale eyes locking with his for an instant, then dropping to his chest. He nodded curtly, then glanced over his shoulder through the café door.
Turning back, he put a hand under her chin and held it while he kissed her. It was a rough kiss, demanding and aggressive, even possessive. She gasped when he stopped, her heart racing. “I didn’t have a chance to tell you, I’m going to The Netherlands for a few days. I’ll be back the middle of next week. That will have to hold you until then.” He winked at her, “go out the back,” he added, then spun around and strode out of the café. Sally swallowed hard and leaned out the door to watch him. He had just rounded the corner when Terrance appeared there. The young man stopped and watched James striding away, then looked down the alley. Sally pulled her head back into the café, then turned around and looked for another way out.
Go out the back, James had said. Ignoring curious looks from waiters and customers, she dashed across the small dining room and through the kitchen door. The back door let out onto a dingy street lined with rubbish bins and the back doors of other shops and restaurants. Sally lingered in the shadow of the doorway for an absurdly long time, watching both ends of the street for Terrance. Finally she decided he’d given up and forced herself to head back to the ministry.
“Who was he, Sal? And what were you doing in St. James’s in the middle of the afternoon?” Terrance asked, his plaintive tone far more painful than if he’d been angry. Sally drew her knees up onto the stained couch and wrapped her arms around them in a tight hug.
They were alone in her two-bedroom flat, which was unusual since she shared it with three other girls. She’d just changed into comfortable clothes and started thinking about supper when Terrance had knocked. She’d approached the door with trepidation, knowing it must be him. As she let him in she’d been wracked by a wave of sorrow and a profound sense of weakness. He’d shut the door as she walked across the room and collapsed on the couch.
Terrance was still standing near the door. Sally looked into his puppy dog eyes and felt guilt and something else that surprised her: distaste. Terrance was sweet and kind — completely lacking in James’s hard edge. Terrance never kissed her like James had that afternoon: it had been a harsh, demanding kiss that had left her gasping for more as he’d strolled away from her. Terrance’s kisses were soft, filled with yearning and affection, but never demanding, never possessive. Sally wanted to be demanded. She wanted James.
She slowly unfolded her legs and sat up straight. Her mother had taught her that nobody could fault her for being honest. She suspected that Terrance wouldn’t see it that way.
“He’s a friend. And I like to go to that park when I have time at lunch.”
“From your office? In Marylebone?” Terrance took a couple steps toward the couch and stopped, looking confused.
“No. Last summer I had an opportunity for a career change. I work near the park.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I – I wanted to see how it would go. I wasn’t sure it was the right choice.”
“So you were just trying it out,” he nodded, obviously trying to understand. “But that was months ago. You’ve never said a thing about it!”
Sally was almost glad when he started to sound angry.
“I didn’t think you’d think much of it. I’m in a government training program.”
“A government tra –,” Terrance slapped his hand to his forehead and spun around, pacing back toward the door. “So you thought I’d break up with you because you’re working for the government?” he said, stopping to turn back and look at her.
Sally stood up and folded her arms across her abdomen. “Break up with me? No. But I thought you would think it was funny, or you’d tease me.”
He nodded, crossing the room to stand in front of her.
“Let’s get back to my other question,” he said softly, and she realized that he’d not fallen for her distraction.
“James is one of the senior people at my new work,” she said carefully.
“Do all of the senior people kiss you? Because that’s illegal.”
“He didn’t kiss me!”
“On the forehead – or is that not exceptionally intimate for a co-worker?”
Sally felt her eyes narrowing as anger flared. He’d been watching, he’d seen her before she saw him, and he’d watched her talking to James.
“He’s more than a co-worker,” she hissed, flipping a stray lock of hair back over her shoulder.
“Is he the one who taught you – you know? Is he your lover?”
Suddenly Sally wanted this to be over. She was tired of the deception, tired of this argument, tired of Terrance.
“Yes he is, Terrance. He’s my lover.”
His face fell. The anger he’d managed to build up dissipated into something that looked like abject misery. “But does he care for you, Sally? Does he tell you he loves you?”
Sally bit into her lower lip. She didn’t want to do this. She wanted it to be over without having to do this.
“Does he Sally? Because I do. I did,” he paused, his gaze raking her from head to toe and back again.
“He does, Terrance. He says he does,” she nearly whispered, then was shocked by the need to swallow back a sob.
Terrance’s gaze raked her again, the pain in his eyes so harsh it nearly scratched her. He spun back around and strode to the door, yanking it open and slamming so hard it bounced back open so that she could hear his pounding footsteps as he nearly ran down the corridor.
“He’s certain. The Romanians are looking for thirty-four grams. Missing for more than two months,” Robbie McCall shook his head ruefully then let his eyes meet Tara’s across the table.
“Thirty-four grams of weapons-grade uranium is on the loose and they’re just telling us now?” she replied with a grimace. He reached out and took her hand, drawing it across the soft white tablecloth.
“You know how it goes: one general accuses another of having it, they both point at a third one, a politician investigates and is bought off. Finally they all conclude that it really is missing,” he paused to chuckle along with Tara, who was smiling and nodding her head in recognition of the truth.
“So do they think it came into France?” she asked, her eyes flicking to the table as his fingers caressed the back of her hand. His touch sent little tingles right up her arm. The waitress, a gamine girl with a diamond stud in her nose, appeared beside their table with a tureen and two bowls. Robbie released Tara’s hand and they leaned back while the girl ladled rich, aromatic garlic and sorrel soup into their bowls.
“You know,” Robbie said while Tara blew gently on a steaming spoonful, “this is a traditional wedding soup in this part of France.”
“Do tell,” Tara said, tasting it. A blend of creamy garlic, tangy shallot, and sharp, sour sorrel overwhelmed her senses and she closed her eyes to savor it. When she opened them Robbie was grinning at her. “I can understand why,” she said. “It’s heavenly.”
“Isn’t it? This restaurant has the best. They won’t give the recipe to anyone.”
“So this is why you insisted we meet here,” Tara said, having another spoonful of soup.
“This restaurant and the market tomorrow morning. It’s one of the best.”
Tara had assumed that he asked her to meet him in Sarlat in the Dordogne region because of something related to the missing uranium. That he had done it for the food shook her to her toes. Can he really be that romantic?
She had been attracted to him since she’d transferred to France and met him, but only since Steed and Emma’s wedding had she allowed herself to think seriously about him. That is, after she stopped kicking herself for wasting more than a year pining for Steed. She had been anxious about helping with Steed and Emma’s wedding, but in the end it had been for the best. She suspected that Emma, who had asked her to handle logistics, had known that Steed’s former partner needed closure. Being at the wedding had provided it – she’d been able to admit at last that nobody could replace Emma in Steed’s life.
She and Robbie had been dancing around one another since Steed had left Paris a month ago. Tempting as it had been, Tara had refused to let things progress to the bedroom during Robbie’s short stay then. And since then they’d seen one another only once when a case had taken Tara to Aix-en-Provence and Robbie had driven over from Nice. He’d helped her conclude the case, then asked her to come back with him. She’d been about to throw caution to the wind and accept when agent Nelson called about an urgent situation back in Paris. So instead Robbie had brought her to the station and they’d indulged in a romantic, if cliché, departing train farewell.
Now he’d lured her to this charming town on a Friday and was treating her to a dinner of wedding soup. The man was as romantic as they came, and as she finished her soup she realized what she was feeling was more than just superficial attraction. He really was exactly what she wanted.
The gamine waitress cleared the soup and brought their entrees – rabbit for him and fish for her – along with green beans and potatoes.
“So you didn’t answer,” she said, trying to keep talking business lest they descend into moony-eyed silence. “Do they think the uranium was brought into France?
“Yes. But I’m not sure it’s still here. I need your help to find out if it is.”
“You’ll have it.”
“Good. We’ll start tomorrow, after the market.”
They had adjacent rooms in a clean little hotel just outside of the town’s old center. After dinner they walked along the old streets paved with stone giggling at the shop windows displaying a multitude of goose trinkets that celebrated the area’s key agricultural product: fois gras.
“They don’t want you to think about how the goose has to be slaughtered for its liver, do they?” she mused, looking at a pair of happy china geese cavorting on a shelf in front of a display of canned fois gras, pate, and rillets.
“It’s just not relevant,” Robbie said. “The goose is a product. Of course it’s slaughtered – it has been for hundreds of years. It’s the tourists that have brought them to this,” he waved at the shop window. “The tourists don’t eat fois gras at home, they don’t have to worry about the paradox of happy geese being slaughtered for their livers.”
“So which do you object to? Force feeding the geese to enlarge their livers, or catering to the tourists by selling this junk?” Tara paused and looked into his eyes. Robbie shoved his hands in his pockets and looked back at her quite seriously.
“I object to the changes that tourism brings to places like this,” he said. “This town has thrived for a thousand years. It doesn’t need to cater to grandmothers from Manchester and Iowa.”
Tara nodded and allowed herself a little smile – it was the answer she’d hoped for. Then she looked back into the shop window. “I like fois gras too,” she said.
His hand on her shoulder sent a spark through her body and she sucked in a breath as he turned her, gently, but firmly. She faced him, allowing one hand to come up and rest on his chest, not pushing away, but caressing. His fingers stretched toward the back of her neck as his other hand brushed her cheek.
“I think you should,” she said in answer to his unspoken question. He chuckled, a soft, inviting little sound, and lowered his lips to hers. Before she knew it her fingers were sliding through his soft hair and his hand had moved from her shoulder down her arm to wrap around her back and hold her tight.
“Tara,” he whispered, moving his lips to her ear so that his breath made the skin of her neck prickle. “That day in Aix, you were going to come back to Nice with me –.”
“Yes I was,” she said, pulling her head back enough to look at his face. He brought the hand that had slipped to the back of her neck back out to trace her jaw again.
“Nice is a long way.”
He kissed her again, his open mouth parting her lips. She gave in to the tingling desire and let her tongue trace his teeth, meeting his tongue half way. She melted against him, her body craving contact with his, her heart craving his sweet kisses.
“My room is just up the street,” he said.
“That’s a much better idea,” she replied, slipping out of his embrace and taking his hand firmly in hers. He wore a silly grin when she let her gaze slide over to him as they walked hand in hand toward their hotel.
Sally sat behind the wheel of her dingy little car staring up at the elegant façade of the Steed home. All of the windows were dark. She hadn’t thought about the time until she was coming up the Steed’s winding drive. After Terrance left her flat she had fallen back down onto the couch and let the sobs come. She did care for Terrance, and when she was in the mood for his gentility presence he was a wonderful lover. But she loved James, and no matter what her mood he always seemed to match it.
When her tears were spent she realized that she wanted him, and perversely, not being able to have him only reinforced her decision. She washed her face and drank a glass of water, and thought of the only other person she could talk to: Emma. So she’d gotten into her car and driven to the Steed house. And as she drove through the open gates she realized that it was approaching midnight. So she sat in her car looking at the house, trying to summon the energy to start the engine and go back home.
She was reaching for the ignition when the porch lights came on and the front door opened. Steed stood framed in the doorway, hands in his trouser pockets, a cardigan over his white shirt giving him a remarkably fatherly look.
“Sally?” he called out softly as if respectful of the night.
Sally opened the door and got out of her car. “Yes, it’s me. I – I wanted to talk to Emma,” she said, wishing she had stopped herself in her flat long enough to pick up the telephone.
Steed came down the front steps and walked toward her. “I’m sorry, she’s gone to bed. The squirt was wearing her out. Will I do?”
“I should just go,” Sally said, staring at the ground, her hands washing one another. “The squirt?” she raised her head to meet his amused eyes.
“The baby,” he shrugged. He calls their baby The Squirt? She thought, suddenly deeply embarrassed. I can’t discuss this with him!
“I should go,” she said, reaching for the car door.
“You should come inside,” he replied, placing a hand on her shoulder. She looked into his eyes and saw compassion and encouragement. He was a wise man, and a sensitive one, when he allowed himself to be. Maybe he was the right person to talk to.
Steed guided her through the dusky house to the kitchen and flipped on the lights. The room glowed with carefully placed fixtures – a broad white one on the ceiling and warmer ones under the cabinets to light the work counters. He advanced across the big room to the breakfast nook and flipped another switch to illuminate the cozy space, creating a stark contrast with the blackness outside the windows. Noticing the eerie darkness, he took a moment to draw down the shades on each window.
“Tea or wine?” he asked as Sally sat down at the table. She could see an open bottle, a fancy pressurized cork in it, on the counter.
“If the wine is open . . .”
“Of course. Mrs. Peel is hardly drinking any these days, and I’m too embarrassed to finish nearly a whole bottle with dinner,” he said, retrieving the bottle and two glasses. He saw Sally grinning at him and his brows rose inquiringly.
“You’ll never stop calling her that, will you?”
He pulled out the stopper with a gentle pop, then shrugged.
“I don’t think I can,” he said as he poured.
“I don’t think she wants you to.”
“I think it reminds her of when you first met, of falling in love.”
Steed failed to disguise his astonishment and Sally had to smile again. He took a sip of his wine and held it up to the light to study the color. “How remarkably sentimental,” he said, then glanced at Sally. “I mean Mrs. Peel, not the wine.”
“Yes,” she said, trying the wine too. “She is sentimental, you know. Just not overtly.”
She could tell that he did not disagree with her – he knew Emma better than anyone after all – but he was curious how Sally had come to this conclusion. She stood up and took a teapot down from a curio shelf above the windows, setting it on the table between them.
“It’s broken,” Steed said.
“You broke it.”
“I did? I don’t even remember ever using it.”
“Years ago. But she kept it. And when her husband came back she packed it away, and when she left him she unpacked it and brought it here.”
“All these years,” Steed stroked the pot, running his finger over the jagged edge of the break in the handle.
“Your relationship represented by a broken teapot.”
“Yes. Well, nobody’s perfect,” he picked up his wineglass and took another sip clearly unbothered by the analogy.
“Especially me,” Sally sighed, drinking her own wine.
Steed rose and returned the teapot to the shelf, then sat back down. “Tell me,” he said.
Sally told him about meeting James in the park, and seeing Terrance there and avoiding him. She was relieved that he nodded for her to go on when she mentioned Terrance – apparently Steed knew about him.
So she went on to describe Terrance’s visit, and how she’d suddenly realized that she despised his meekness. Despised it – that’s the word that came to her as she told Steed. She stopped, hearing herself and looked to see if Steed was shocked. He wore a sympathetic expression, but he was staring at the shaded window behind her. Her silence recaptured his attention and his light eyes met hers. She was shocked by the sadness in them. But as soon as she saw it, it was gone — concealed by his implacable façade.
“So you ended it with him,” he said. It was not a question.
“Yes,” she replied softly. She still found it hard to believe. As much as she disliked certain aspects of Terrance’s personality, she did care for him deeply. He had been a fun companion and a good friend through difficult months. She had no illusions that they could continue to be friends now.
“You will need someone to talk to, Sally. Someone to whom you can speak freely. After a while, after a few years as an agent that need may go away and you’ll be comfortable with civilian friends. But they’ll be superficial relationships. You’ll never be able to open up to them.”
“Is that why you chose Emma?”
“No. I had no choice about Emma. But it turned out to be a compelling side benefit.”
Shuffling footsteps in the corridor drew both their eyes to the doorway.
“I’m a compelling side benefit?” Emma asked, proving that her hearing was not in the least dulled by the slight bulge at her middle.
“Your security clearance is a compelling side benefit, darling,” Steed said, rising to guide her to the table. Her eyes locked with Sally’s and conveyed amusement at his doting and curiosity at her presence.
“Sally’s come by for some moral support,” Steed said as she sat down. “What can I get you?”
“Water please. Cold water,” Emma replied, looking up at Steed for a moment, then back at Sally.
“What has James done?” she asked.
Across the kitchen Steed snorted. Emma ignored him, maintaining her concerned gaze on Sally. The younger woman swallowed hard and looked at Steed. But he was busying himself with pouring chilled water from a pitcher.
“James hasn’t done anything. It’s me,” she said. “I’ve broken off with Terrance.”
“Oh Sally,” Emma rose and came around the table, bending down to wrap her arms around her friend. Sally was so surprised she couldn’t move. Emma had never been so demonstrative. Her eyes locked with Steed’s across the kitchen and he smiled at her as he brought Emma’s water.
“It’s the hormones,” he said quietly as Emma released Sally and tossed him an irritated glare.
“Am I not allowed to comfort a friend without it being attributed to my pregnancy?” she asked.
“Of course you are, darling,” Steed crooned. “Here’s your water.”
Sally felt herself grinning in spite of her misery. Only Steed can manage a pregnant Emma. Better him than me!
“You’ve been playing a dangerous game, young lady,” Emma said, returning to her seat. “James is a big boy, he can deal with it. But that young man never knew what hit him,” she took a long gulp of her water and watched Sally squirm. “And he hasn’t been making you happy – really happy – for a while now. James has, God help you both. Does he know about this?”
“No. He’s gone out of town.”
Emma looked up at Steed. He shrugged.
“He told me he was going to The Netherlands and he should be back next Wednesday,” Sally said.
“If he could be that definite it’s probably benign,” Steed said.
“Good. Until then we shall have to see that Sally is looked after,” Emma said firmly, and suddenly Sally felt immensely lucky to have such caring friends.
“Let’s run away together,” Robbie whispered into Tara’s ear as the cool morning sunlight flickered on the coverlet. They’d explored one another for hours, silently agreeing to prolong the foreplay for as long as they could. And after their first, thunderous coupling they’d continued to play, hands drifting over sensitized flesh, mouths tasting, tongues tickling, fingers exploring, until their buzzing desire had built again to a fever pitch. Tara had ridden him the second time, gradually coaxing their building need until sparks flashed behind her closed eyelids and neither of them wanted to stop the rush of divine fire that consumed them.
Tara could not remember experiencing such utter sensual fulfillment – not with Steed, and not with any other of the handful of lovers she’d had before Robbie. On her private scale, Robbie had easily earned top marks.
“Where shall we run?” she asked, and then, “what are we running from?”
“It doesn’t matter, so long as we’re together and they allow quick marriages,” he replied.
Tara’s eyes shot open wide and she found herself looking into his fond gaze. He touched a finger to her nose, then her cheek, and lightly kissed her lips.
“Let’s elope. I want you to be the most important part of my life.”
“You’re serious,” she whispered, more astonished that she was actually entertaining the suggestion than that he had made it.
“Yes, I’m serious Tara. I’m a bit spoiled – when I see something I want I’m accustomed to getting it. I want you.”
“But Robbie, do you love me? Can you possibly when we’ve had so little time together?”
“Love has nothing to do with duration, Tara. Of course I love you. I’ve loved you since I got to know you. I’ve been waiting for you to figure it out.”
“And you believe that I have, although I haven’t said so?”
He allowed himself a rueful little smile, “Well, that is a potential problem, I suppose. But I have it on good authority that you don’t, um, casually entertain male company.”
“You have it on good authority?”
“Look, your reputation is that you’re a – you don’t sleep around. But you slept with me. So even if you haven’t yet decided that you love me, you’re on the right track.”
“All right,” Tara heard herself say, “let’s elope.” She wasn’t sure whether she really meant it, or she wanted to call his bluff. She was sure that if he wasn’t bluffing, neither was she. She had, after all, decided last night that he was exactly what she wanted. It would complicate their careers — Mother would have a fit – but in end it was what she wanted, so why not have it now? And then there was the approach that Lee Stetson had taken – a secret marriage only finally revealed this past Christmas. They could go that route, if only they could work out getting posted somewhere together.
As Tara rapidly considered the scenarios, Robbie closed his eyes. For a horrible moment she thought that he had, in fact, been bluffing. Then he pressed his lips to hers in a gentle kiss. “I love you Tara. Be my wife.”
“I love you Robbie. And I will.”
“Steed residence,” Emma said into the old fashioned telephone receiver. She was at her desk in the library trying to concentrate on dense corporate legal documents. The thumping of construction upstairs echoed quietly through the house.
“Emma? It’s Amanda,” the warm, familiar voice sounded thin through thousands of miles of phone line.
“Amanda, how nice to hear from you. How is everything?”
“Great, Emma. It’s just amazing. Now that Mother and the boys know everything, Lee is living here most of the time.”
“That’s wonderful Amanda. I’m glad your marriage — and your jobs — are out in the open now. I know it bothered you to deceive your family. Are the boys still fascinated by it?”
“Actually, I think Mother is the worst. She’s taken to reading every spy novel she can find. I had no idea there were so many.”
Emma laughed, glancing at a shelf across the room that contained a large selection of such books. Steed found them amusing bedtime reading. Emma thought they were tiresome.
“And you know, Steed’s niece – your niece Sara — and Jamie have been writing to one another.”
“Really? Did that start at Christmas?”
“Yes, of course. I don’t suppose you noticed. But you’re forgiven for being preoccupied. Listen, that’s the reason I’m calling, sort of. Lee and I are getting re-married. We’re reaffirming our vows. You know my mother was very hurt that we didn’t have a ceremony the first time. Well, actually, we did, but it was just Lee and me. And the judge, of course –.”
“So when is your ceremony?” Emma interrupted her. She knew Amanda would just go on talking if she didn’t.
“In three weeks. Here in Washington. I hope you and Steed can be here. It would mean a lot to us.”
Emma pulled her organizer across the desk and flipped the pages forward. She would be four months along by then. She could fly – that did not worry her. But she would certainly be showing. Well, as good a time as any to start announcing it.
“I’ll have to check with Steed,” she said. “But I don’t see anything on my calendar that would keep me away. Tell me the details.”
Sally counted the hours until James would be back. She stayed with Steed and Emma over the weekend, helping with the seemingly endless chores associated with settling into the big old house. In one long day while Steed was away Emma had bought out a garden shop to restock the greenhouse. Now it was cluttered with plants that needed repotting, watering, feeding, and pruning. Steed made a few remarks about it being useful training for Emma before escaping to the stable pursued by a discarded plastic pot. The gardening was restful, even meditative, and Emma was kind enough not to bring up Sally’s love life as they went about it.
On Sunday evening Sally finally faced her personal reality and drove back to her grimy little flat where she was sure that news of her breakup was the hot topic. After all, Terrance was her roommate’s brother. To her relief, her flat mates were very understanding. Despite the late hour they plied her with break-up treats and did a ritual cleansing of her room, removing anything that reminded her of Terrance. To her surprise, there wasn’t much. She realized as they tossed the meager collection – a little stuffed bear from a fair, a pair of his socks, and his toothbrush – into a carrier bag that she really barely lived here. It was a bed and a closet for her, but her life was at the ministry, and at James’s penthouse. This overcrowded flat was just a waypoint for her, and when she finished her training she would have the resources to get a place of her own.
The time went more quickly while she was at the ministry. She concentrated on her studies and ate lunch with Purdey and Matthew, who did not comment if they noticed that she seemed a bit anxious. On Wednesday as she was heading to the basement firing range a deliciously familiar voice echoed along the corridor. She just saw the back of James’s head as he entered an office. Her heart leapt, and continued to pound so hard she couldn’t beat her previous high score with a pistol no matter how many rounds she fired.
When the day was finally over she begged off for the trainee’s usual round of pints and rushed home to change into a slinky dress she’d found in a second hand shop. Then she took the tube to James’s penthouse, waving her way past the doorman, who was used to seeing her there. She rang the doorbell, but there was no answer. So she slipped her recently issued lock picks out of her bag and put them to work. She was proud of how quickly the lock clicked open.
She was ensconced on the sofa, a glass of his good vodka on the side table and a book in her lap, when she heard the door opening. Her body tingled with excitement and she knew that her flushed complexion looked good against the creamy off-white dress. She forced herself to pick up her glass and take a sip.
“Would you like a drink?” James said while still out in the foyer.
Sally froze, her glass half way back to the table.
“All right,” a woman responded. Sally felt herself begin to shake. She set the glass down as gently as she could and forced herself to look toward the door. James appeared there and paused when he saw her, his expression flitting from surprised to pleased to mischievous in less than a second. It settled in a warm smile as he stepped on into the room. His companion followed him.
She was not what Sally had feared. Sally didn’t know her name; everyone called her “M,” and for the longest time Sally had thought they were referring to Mother. Eventually she’d realized that “M” and Mother were not the same, so she’d asked James. He’d told her that “M” was Mother’s peer in the much better known MI-5. He’d gone on to explain that most of the cases he handled were under the auspices of MI-5, but that he crossed the thin boundary into Mother’s lesser known section when assignments required it. So the woman with James was, essentially, his boss.
“Hello Sally,” James said, crossing the room toward her. She got to her feet, unsure what to expect. To her utter surprise he took her into his arms and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. “How about you? Can I refresh your drink?” he asked, reaching for her glass.
“Yes, please,” she managed, her wary eyes glued to his. “It’s vodka,” she added.
“Yes I know,” he replied, his eyes conveying encouragement and, beneath it, an unmistakable spark of carnal desire that snaked across the space between them. Inhaling a sharp breath she forced herself to break their stare and turn toward “M.”
James moved on to the bar, speaking over his shoulder.
“M, this is Miss Sally Howard,” he said.
“Good evening Miss Howard,” the woman said, not offering her hand. Her oatmeal suit and sensible shoes might have looked matronly on another woman, but M was completely intimidating. There was not a hit of compassion about her demeanor or expression.
“Good evening ma’am,” Sally heard herself. She sounded like she was twelve years old addressing a friend’s mother at church. Annoyed with herself, she squared her shoulders and half turned toward James.
He came back from the bar holding three glasses, extending them toward her so that she could take hers first.
“Miss Howard is my welcome home committee,” he said.
“So I assumed,” M said coolly.
“She’s in the ministry trainee program.”
“Yes I know.”
Sally sat back down on the sofa and James gestured toward a chair. M glanced at it, then sat down, and James sat beside Sally. His proximity lent her moral support. She made a mental note to repay his kindness later.
“So you’re James’s protégée,” M went on, her piercing gaze putting Sally in mind of a shark – bereft of emotion, but deadly nonetheless.
“My relationship with James is social, and predates my participation in the training program,” Sally said, relieved that her voice didn’t break.
“And I haven’t given her a single exam answer,” James added jovially, taking a sip of his drink. One of M’s brows arched critically, and Sally took the opportunity to breathe when the other woman’s gaze moved from her to James. M also took a sip of her drink as she studied James.
“You would not be doing her any favors if you did,” she said.
“Precisely,” James replied.
They all sipped their drinks for a moment, none of them willing to try to break the awkward silence. And then James stood up.
“I’ll just get that package,” he said to M, and nodded at Sally as he crossed the sitting room to his study. Sally watched him go, mortified that he’d left her alone with M, but realizing that it was the only way to speed the other woman’s departure.
“Good answer, Miss Howard,” M said, drawing Sally’s eyes back to her.
“You defend your position as a trainee well. Keep it up.”
“It’s the truth, ma’am.”
M smiled, a cool expression, but, Sally realized, not unfriendly. “Your relationship with James is not unknown at Whitehall. You will be judged on your own merits so long as you continue to defend yourself as you just have.”
She stood up as she finished, turning toward James who had come from the study with a plain brown envelope.
“Here you are, M,” he said as he handed it to her.
“Thank you 007. I’ll see myself out,” she replied, setting her glass on a table as she made her way to the foyer. James followed her to the door, too polite to allow her to show herself out, wishing her good evening as the front door shut.
He turned around and strolled back toward Sally, his hands in his trouser pockets. She stood up as he approached, unsure whether to expect a rebuff for being there or another kiss. He stopped in front of her and rocked on his heels, studying her. Then he smiled playfully as he withdrew his hands from his pockets. He took her right hand palm up and pressed something into it. She frowned as she looked at the two keys on a ring.
“Don’t ever pick my lock again,” he said pleasantly. She stared at the keys, because she was afraid to look at his face, until he hooked a finger under her chin and forced her to look up. The desire had returned to his eyes, and his smile made her want to press her mouth to his and devour him. His lips quivered with amusement as he looked at her, and when she relaxed he nodded slightly and let go of her chin, moving past her back toward the bar.
“How’s Terrance,” he asked, his back to her. She stared at his square shoulders and the back of his neck. His hair was perfectly barbered. It always was. She squeezed the keys in her fist, concentrating on the feel of their imprint in her hand.
“I wouldn’t know,” she replied as he clinked a decanter against the rim of a glass.
He’s nervous, she realized. Over me.
“I haven’t seen him since you left.”
“Coincidence?” his head tilted back as he drank the shot he’d poured.
“No. We broke up.”
James set the empty glass on the bar and stood there for a moment. And for that long moment Sally became certain that Emma had been right all along. James was going to hurt her, and it would be much worse than the pain she’d dealt Terrance.
“So do you think,” he said, finally turning to face her, “that, if we can extricate you from your trainers, you would like to come to Paris with me this weekend?”
Sally gulped. She was certain that she must look like a fish out of water. James’s grin must be from amusement at her expression.
“I’d like that very much, James,” she whispered. He closed the space between them and wrapped his arms around her, pressing one hand to the back of her head to hold it to his chest.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sure you were upset,” he said softly.
“Emma and Steed took care of me,” she replied and she felt him chuckle.
“Emma did? Did she tell you that you made the wrong choice?”
“No, in fact, she didn’t,” Sally lifted her head to look into James’s eyes. “I expected her to, but she didn’t.”
“Must be the hormones,” he said with a little shrug and Sally’s eyes widened.
“How do you know? Nobody is supposed to know!”
“I’m a spy. I’d never expose a source,” he grinned. Sally planted her hands on his chest and shoved, but he gripped her tighter, capturing her lips in a kiss that she wasn’t about to refuse. Her hands moved on up and around his neck and before she knew it he was lifting her up and carrying her toward the bedroom.
“Aren’t you even going to buy me dinner?” she asked, trying to sound coquettish, as he laid her on the bed and stretched out with her, his hands wandering over her as if trying to decide what to touch first.
“No,” he replied, placing kisses on each of her eyelids, then he smiled down at her as she opened her eyes. “Maybe later,” he added. She caressed the side of his face, pulling it back to hers.
“Okay,” she sighed as his hand settled on her breast. One of her knees drew up of its own accord and her body pressed itself against him. She couldn’t have stopped it if she’d wanted to.
“I’ve never been to Paris,” she said as he kissed her throat.
“I promise you’ll love it,” he replied.
“I have a feeling the company will have something to do with that.”
He lifted his face and looked into her eyes again, the desire in his shining in the dim bedroom.
“Yes,” he said, “I have a feeling I may see the city of lights in a new one.”
Later Sally didn’t remember undressing him, or being undressed, but somehow they’d ended up naked, their limbs intertwined. They made love slowly, touching one another, arousing, caressing, kissing, and finally joining when their skin was so hot they could barely stand the contact and their loins were so inflamed it seemed like they’d be impossible to quench. He slid into her, sucking hard on one nipple and caressing the inside of her thigh as he penetrated her slowly, deliberately. She groaned and pulled his face away from her breast, heaving her hips against him to drive him in faster. He complied, with three fast, hard thrusts that made her explode.
“Oh God,” she cried, arching her back and driving the back of her head into the pillows as her body surged in climax. Her eyes popped open when James pulled out, still solid and dripping with her essence. He grabbed her shoulders and rolled her over, pulling her hips toward him as he knelt behind her. She parted her legs to him, moaning as he penetrated her again, filling her so full she came again before he even began to move within her. He leaned over her and cupped both of her breasts, groping them hard as he stroked in and out. He went on and on, his balls crushing against her with each thrust, his hands gripping her breasts until they ached, the friction of his penis on her clitoris drawing all of her consciousness until they were one throbbing being.
He came in a blinding swirl of colors behind her closed eyelids. She was beyond orgasm by then, spent from his first thrusts and now just riding his wave with him. He squeezed her breasts hard and groaned as his loins erupted inside of her. Gasping, he stroked her shoulders, bending over her to kiss the back of her neck, pressing her down to the sheets beneath him. He enveloped her from behind, his lips set against the base of her neck, his body limp against hers.
“I love you James,” she whispered, turning her head toward him. He placed wet kisses over her shoulder and on her open mouth.
“And I love you, Sally.”
Tara held up her hand to study the simple gold band on her finger as it glinted in the moonlight. It was all still too new to be real – the sweet saleswoman in the jewelry shop, the hook-nosed magistrate, the simple vows and snapshot taken by the magistrate’s clerk. I’m married. Just like that. And it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world!
Footsteps warned her of Robbie’s return and she quickly put her glove back on as he opened the car door and got in.
“He’s not here,” he said, starting the engine as he spoke. Tara frowned and looked back over her shoulder toward the gloomy churchyard. Her neck snapped as he threw the car into gear and accelerated too fast. She rolled her eyes as she faced forward. Robbie did like being a spy. Sometimes he liked it just a little too much.
“I’m frustrated. He’s a big boy – he can take care of himself. But I needed – need — to speak with him.”
“So let’s go to him. Where does he hang out?”
Robbie glanced at her. “Won’t you allow me a few moments of pointless annoyance?” he asked.
“It doesn’t do any good,” she shrugged. “It’s much more useful to focus on a plan.”
Robbie reached for her hand and squeezed it, negotiating a sharp curve with the other one. Tara kissed his hand and put it back on the steering wheel.
“Where do you think we can find Henri?” she asked again. He slowed the car a little and sighed thoughtfully.
“I think he’s still hanging out at the bar where I first met him. We’ll try there.”
Tara lit another cigarette and shifted on the hard little café chair so that she did not have to look at the family of tourists two tables over. They were scrutinizing the menu in loud, American English. The small one was whining that he wanted a Coke, but his father had already declared the price “outrageous.”
It figures James would select this café for a meeting. It’s as pretentious as he is, and the waiters are as arrogant, she reflected, taking another sip of the milky glass of pastis she’d ordered. She wasn’t sure whether she liked the anise liquor, but since variations of it were served all over the world she made a point of being accustomed to drinking it. Her least favorite was raki, the Turkish version, although her dislike of it might have something to do with the unsavory Turkish agent she’d been with when forced to consume it the first time.
The chestnut trees in the Place des Voges were sprouting bright green leaves, and the spring sunshine filtering through them painted the lawns and paths with shimmering light. Tara spotted the couple as they stepped into the garden through the entrance in the Queen’s wing. James held his suit coat over his shoulder with one hand, the other hand at his side occasionally brushed hers, or rose to touch her upper arm. Sally wore a suit that looked like Chanel – far too expensive for the girl to have purchased on her trainee salary. He bought it for her.
Tara turned her wedding band on her finger as she watched James and Sally approach. Robbie had gone back to Nice after they’d interrogated his contact, Henri. They’d found him in the bar where Robbie had first met him, half drunk and working on the other half. They’d fed him bitter black coffee and dragged him out into the fresh air, and he’d finally apologized for missing the meeting. He’d almost had the uranium, he explained, but he’d been double crossed by the Italian sailor, who’d accepted a better offer.
Tara could tell that Robbie wanted to demand the return of the money that he’d supplied Henri to use as a down payment. She’d shaken her head at him and changed the subject, asking about the Italian. Henri had obviously spent a lot of the money already, and it hadn’t been all that much – only ten percent of the total price they’d offered. She was prepared to write it off – Steed had taught her not to dwell on expenses. Robbie, who’d been trained in a different economic climate than Steed, had budgets and expense reporting ingrained in him. So when they got back to Paris he’d grumbled about the lost cash until Tara distracted him with a long, wet kiss.
So my husband will never buy me a Chanel suit, she thought as James and Sally got close. But we’ll have money to retire on. I wonder if James will live long enough to retire?
Mentally chastising herself for such morbid — not to mention unkind — thoughts, she forced a smile when James caught her eye. They stepped through the arched opening into the shade and James held the chair opposite Tara for Sally to sit. Then he took the seat in between them so that he could look out through the arch at the chestnut trees.
“Lovely afternoon, isn’t it?” he asked. Before Tara could respond to the absurd recognition sequence – of course it was really him, and he knew she wasn’t an imposter! – her waiter appeared, anxious to build up their tab. James ordered a dry vodka martini, shaken. Sally requested a gin and tonic. The waiter cast his rat-like eyes toward Tara and she nodded slightly. Sure, give me another glass of licorice. He reached over and retrieved her half empty glass, which had turned too warm to be palatable, even for someone who liked pastis.
“Enjoying your visit?” Tara asked Sally. Studying the young woman she realized that she must also have paid a visit to a salon – her hair was gathered into an adorable French twist.
“We’ve been making a tour of the important sights,” Sally replied. “The darkest alleys, the back entrance to Notre Dame. All of the hidden entrances to the Louvre.”
“Make him take you to the catacombs. That’s an exceptionally good meeting place – and the cemetery, of course.”
“We could go see where Jim Morrison is buried,” James suggested.
“That’s the last place you want to arrange a meeting,” Tara shook her head. “Every tourist in Paris seems to be going there. The cemetery management doesn’t know what to make of it.”
“I guess the French aren’t accustomed to dealing with cult followings,” Sally smiled. She’d spent her share of nights with Terrance listening to the Doors. And as she thought about it she realized that seeing Jim Morrison’s grave with James was just about the last thing she wanted to do. “I’d rather go to the Picasso museum,” she said. “Emma has told me about it.”
James nodded agreement with her suggestion as the waiter materialized beside their table with his tray of drinks. Once they were served James took a sip of his martini and looked out across the garden.
“So what do you have for me?” he asked, and Sally realized he was speaking to Tara. She’d expected it – this wasn’t just a social visit.
“It’s gone,” Tara replied cryptically. “Robbie’s contact tried to arrange the purchase, but the seller got a better offer.”
“McCall should have gone himself,” James said coolly. Tara’s expression showed a touch of resentment, and the way she stroked her left hand with her right caught Sally’s eye.
“Henri had the contact. He was very touchy about it. It might have all fallen apart if we’d moved in,” Tara said.
“Well it fell apart anyway, didn’t it?” James sighed, apparently oblivious to Tara’s defensive tone. She picked up the glass of water that the waiter had delivered with her drink and poured half of it into the smaller glass of clear liquor. Sally watched curiously as the clear liquid turned milky, like a magic trick. Tara grasped the glass with her left hand and took a sip, the gold ring on her finger shinning dully in the cool shade.
Sally’s gaze flicked to Tara’s face and their eyes met. Tara set her glass down quickly and slipped her hand into her lap. If James noticed, he did not show it.
“What were you trying to buy?” Sally asked, her eyes still locked with Tara’s.
“Uranium,” James replied. “A frightening little bundle of weapons grade uranium that used to belong to Romania.”
“M wanted an immediate report,” James said, studying Tara for a moment as if trying to decide whether to blame her for the bungled job. She sat stiffly under his gaze, not giving an inch. James took another sip of his martini, then stood up. “I’ll go call her.”
Tara watched him go, then looked at Sally. The younger woman was watching her intently. Tara took another sip of pastis and grimaced as she set the glass down, then she flattened her hand on the table and looked at her wedding ring.
“Thank you,” she said, looking back up at Sally.
“He probably noticed it,” Sally replied with a shrug. Tara pursed her lips and sighed through her nose.
“Will you tell me who you married? Is it Robert McCall?” Sally asked.
Tara nodded, putting her hand back in her lap. “It was a reckless, impulsive thing to do,” she said, not wanting to meet Sally’s eyes.
“But you’re wearing the ring. You must not regret it.”
“Not for a moment,” Tara said, her face lighting up with the happiness that she’d been concealing. “He asked me, and I thought he must be bluffing, but he wasn’t. So we did it. Just like that. It was mad!”
Sally grinned at her, truly pleased to see Tara genuinely happy. “So he was out there after all,” she said, remembering a talk they’d had at Steed and Emma’s wedding.
“And I already knew him. I just wasn’t looking. When he finally got my attention, it was all terribly obvious.”
“I’m so happy for you.”
“Thank you Sally. And I am grateful that you didn’t say anything in front of James. I’d be very grateful if you’d keep it to yourself – until we’ve managed to discuss it with Mother.”
“Of course,” Sally nodded. “I’ll ask James to do the same, if he mentions it.”
“What about you and him?” Tara asked, wanting to change the focus of attention, and because she was curious.
Sally shrugged and glanced over her shoulder toward the café door where James had gone to find a telephone. “We’re –,” she paused, not sure what they were, “we’re having fun. I know what he is, and I know better than to expect him to change. Steed’s the exception in that regard. But he’s right for me now – I’m not ready to leap into something like you have.”
“You’re in love with him. That makes it harder.”
Sally realized that Tara was the voice of experience. She nodded, accepting her warning. “I know. I tried to avoid it – I kept up my relationship with Terrance until just recently. But Terrance could never understand me – I couldn’t tell him anything! James is safe – even if I talk in my sleep.”
Tara chuckled, glancing up as James appeared in the café doorway. “Enjoy it while you can,” she said kindly. “And feel free to call me for moral support, if you need it.”
“Gossiping?” James asked as he sat back down.
“Why would you think that?” Sally asked innocently.
“Hello Jamie, and Phillip, and Mr. and Mrs. Stetson – oh, and Grandma Dottie too!” young Sara Hill’s voice sounded slightly distorted coming out of the cassette player. Her image flickered on the wall of the Stetson’s family room in tempo with the clicking of the 8mm projector’s sprockets.
“Uncle and Aunt Emma insisted that they needed to try out their new movie camera, so I offered to help,” Sara went on, gesturing with the microphone attached to the cassette recorder that she was holding. “This is my room – see my pony club rosettes?” On screen Sara’s tour of the Hill home moved from her room to the kitchen, then out through the garden to the stable.
Steed and Emma had made time to visit the Hills the week after Amanda’s invitation. Contrary to her cool narration, Sara had been desperate to make a film for them to take to America. Emma suspected that the girl had fantasies about some American film producer seeing it and discovering her. But she was also certain that Sara wanted to send her image to Jamie King. Emma was even just a little bit sorry that their visit to States was during the school year. If it had been possible she would have suggested that they bring Sara along.
Amanda and Lee had met them that afternoon at Dulles Airport in Washington. Despite Emma’s concealing outfit, the moment they’d stepped out of the jet way Amanda had recognized her condition.
“Emma! You’re pregnant!” she’d declared, embracing her lightly.
“How can you tell?” Emma had asked, truly amazed at her friend’s powers of observation.
Amanda had held her at arm’s length and looked her up and down. “You’re glowing. And your outfit is much looser than you’d normally wear.”
Emma hadn’t appreciated this observation about her fashion style – she’d thought she was finding maternity clothes that were in keeping with her usual look, aside from the cat suits. But she’d forced herself to disregard it and enjoy seeing their friends again.
“The ceremony is in the garden,” Amanda explained as Lee drove them away from the airport. “Mother will pick you up at ten, and –.”
“We could take a taxi, rather than make Dottie come to the hotel,” Emma suggested. Lee laughed and Emma looked at Amanda inquiringly.
“It’s all part of the plan,” she explained. “Mother has been driving me nuts about the seating. So during the forty-five minutes that it will take her to collect you we’ll get the chairs set up in the back yard. By the time you all arrive it will be too late for her to try to re-arrange them.”
“You’re wicked,” Emma laughed.
“I just know my mother.”
Lee switched off the projector light as the film ended, then hit the rewind switch as Phillip reached up and switched on the nearest lamp.
“That was very nice of Sara,” Amanda said, watching her younger son Jamie. “It’s too bad we didn’t have time to visit them when we were there at Christmas.”
“Maybe we can when we go back next year,” Jamie said hopefully.
“Next year?” Lee asked innocently.
“We’re not going to England next Christmas, douffus,” Phillip said as he stood up and headed for the door.
“Can’t we Mom?” Jamie asked.
“I think your mother has a lot of things on her mind right now, young man,” Steed interjected pleasantly. “Perhaps you should table your request until after tomorrow.”
Jamie’s face assumed a thoughtful expression as he looked at Steed. “You’re right. I’m sorry for being a pest, Mom.”
“Oh honey, you’re never a pest,” Amanda said, leaning across the coffee table to tousle his hair. “How about some ice cream?” she looked around the room at the others.
“I wouldn’t mind a bit,” Steed said. “Let me help you get it.”
“Only a little for me,” Emma requested as he rose. Amanda joined him and they headed for the kitchen, followed by Jamie. Emma rubbed absently at her stomach and noticed Lee’s amused expression. He switched off the projector and removed the rewound film.
“Having trouble believing it?” Emma asked. Lee smiled as he tucked the film in its box, then he glanced at his mother-in-law. She had dozed off during the film.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “When word gets out, the entire intelligence community is going to be in shock.”
“Yes, well, that’s one reason why we haven’t announced it. If we could wait until after the birth we would.”
“You could. Amanda and I won’t say anything if you don’t want us to.”
Emma shook her head and smiled ruefully. “No, to do that I’d have to go into seclusion in the next couple weeks. I couldn’t be seen at the ministry, or at my office. I’m not willing to do that.”
Lee folded the arms of the projector and lowered the heavy protective case over the main unit. “Even to save Steed the embarrassment of the ribbing he’s going to take?” he asked.
“He’ll take it eventually, no matter what. No, I won’t let pregnancy, or motherhood, take over my life – our lives. I certainly won’t go into hiding to hatch little ones like some sort of Victorian.”
“Good for you,” Dottie said, drawing Lee and Emma’s surprised attention. She straightened in her easy chair, smiling warmly at Emma. “You have a sense of yourself. I see these young mothers today catering to their little ones as if they’re all they have in the world. It’s not good for the children, and it’s not good for their marriages – those who are married.”
“Thank you Dottie,” Emma said, a bit nonplused by support from that quarter.
Steed unlocked the door to their room and held it open for Emma.
“Tired?” he asked as he closed and locked it.
“Exhausted,” she admitted, crossing to the stand that held her suitcase. She stroked the initials stamped into the supple leather. EKS. Steed had given her a new set of luggage for her birthday – four soft, cocoa colored leather pieces, each with her initials in gold. She opened the bag and took out her nightgown.
“Do you want the bathroom first?” Steed asked from across the room where his bag was sitting on a dresser.
“You go ahead. I can hold out for a few minutes,” she said, turning to watch him pull off the knit shirt he’d worn for the casual dinner with the Stetsons. “Steed, Lee said that he and Amanda would not mention the baby to anyone, if we don’t want them to.”
Steed dropped his shirt on top of his open valise and looked across at her, his tousled hair making him look much younger than his forty-seven years.
“Do we not want them to?” he asked. “Does your doctor say there’s still a risk?”
Emma took a few steps toward him, holding her nightgown in front of her like a shield.
“No, everything is fine. I just thought you might prefer to keep it quiet, to avoid the attention.”
“Avoid attention? Me?” he laughed, meeting her by the foot of the bed. She shrugged and pulled her lower lip in between her teeth. He put his hands on her upper arms and peered curiously into her eyes.
“I really don’t show in the dress I’m planning to wear tomorrow,” she added.
“So you don’t think we should let the American agents that will be there tomorrow know that you’re pregnant?” he summarized, just to be sure.
“No, I want to know if you would prefer that they don’t know. Because if they do, then by tomorrow evening the news will be all over the ministry. And they will have another four days to gossip about it before you get back there.”
“And by then it will have run its course,” he said firmly, squeezing her arms gently. “Let them see, and let them ask, and let them gossip all they want. I shall rise above it,” he pressed a kiss to her forehead, his lips curling into a wry smile as he pulled away. “And you are above it already.”
“Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of God to witness . . .” the minister began the blessing of Lee and Amanda’s marriage. With him in the gazebo Lee and Amanda faced one another, their hands clasped tightly. The small gathering of family and friends was seated in three groups facing the openings in the white wooden structure. Phillip, Jamie, Dottie, and her sister were seated front row, center. Emma and Steed were behind them. Lee and Amanda’s co-workers and friends filled the rest of the seats, all listening attentively.
Lee had said he’d expected it to be difficult to tell their supervisor and co-workers about their marriage. To their complete surprise, neither Billy Melrose nor any of the rest of the staff, had batted an eye at the news. There had been some bureaucracy to iron out, but Billy had stood by them in their demand to continue as partners. Remarkably, he’d won, although he warned them that the arrangement would be subject to annual review, and he couldn’t guarantee that he’d retain his influence.
Emma remembered their fellow agent Francine as a tough customer, so she’d asked how she’d taken the news.
“She was wonderful,” Amanda had said. “For a moment I thought she’d been replaced, or drugged, or something.”
“Amanda!” Lee had laughed.
“She does seem to have a bit of an edge,” Emma had offered.
“Well, she was genuinely gracious about it,” Lee had said. “You’ll see tomorrow.”
Emma looked over at the blond agent watching the ceremony and had to agree with Lee’s declaration: she seemed to be pleased for her friends. Next to her Mr. Melrose was smiling warmly at Lee and Amanda, while beside him his wife dabbed a handkerchief to her eye. By the time the minister had completed the ceremony, Dottie was in tears too, and to her surprise Emma felt a prickle in the corners of her eyes. She held them wide open and took a deep breath. Crying at a wedding! It just wouldn’t do. And it wasn’t even a wedding, really. Emma felt Steed’s hand on her lower back and looked toward him. His eyes sparkled with emotion, his smile crinkling them at the corners.
“There’s something about weddings,” he murmured and she smiled back, grateful to him for distracting her, and for knowing that she was touched.
As Lee and Amanda faced their friends and family, their vows renewed for all to witness, the guests got to their feet and clapped merrily. Emma cocked an eyebrow at Steed, who looked equally discomfited.
“Americans,” Emma whispered near his ear, “always so crass.”
Steed chuckled and slid his arm on around her to hold her close as the newly joined couple came out of the gazebo to greet everyone.
The party went on into the evening, but by late afternoon Emma was feeling the effects of jet lag and pregnancy. She wandered into the family room where they had watched Sara’s movie and stretched out on the sofa, studying the room’s décor.
Upon seeing Amanda and Lee’s suburban home she’d immediately understood the other woman’s awed reaction to the house she and Steed had bought. They were from two different worlds, she and Amanda. Throughout their friendship Amanda had known this all too well. Emma had never imagined how sharp the contrast was and only now, looking at the array of childish artwork, craft projects, and school trophies that decorated the room did she realize how alien she must sometimes seem to her friend.
They had once argued heatedly over values and morality – Amanda accusing Emma of immorality, and Emma accusing Amanda of being judgmental. Now Emma was amazed that they had managed to find any common ground on which to build a friendship. That they had was more a testament to Amanda than to Emma, Emma thought.
“Feeling all right?” Amanda’s rich southern drawl filled the room.
“Just tired,” Emma said, pulling herself into a sitting position. Amanda came in, nodding her head in understanding as she crossed to her mother’s favorite easy chair and sat down.
“Four months,” she said thoughtfully. “With Philip I always felt like I couldn’t get enough sleep. Jamie was a little easier, but I was constantly in the bathroom.”
“I’ve got both. The flight was interminable – I’ve never spent so much time in an airplane lavatory.” Emma sighed suppressing a vivid memory of time spent with Steed in one not that long ago. My baby was not conceived then!
“I don’t think I had that pleasure during either of my pregnancies,” Amanda said, and Emma was confused for a moment until she realized Amanda simply meant flying, not the erotic activity she was remembering.
“Would you do it again?”
“With Lee? Yes.”
“Really? Have you discussed it?”
“Only vaguely. I think it scares the heck out of him.”
Emma smiled, looking again over the pictures on the walls and trophies on the shelves. Amanda watched her, able to guess what she was thinking.
“I can’t imagine your sitting room – even the informal one — ever looking like this,” she said, visualizing the large room of Emma’s home full of fine furniture. She was certain that some of it was very valuable.
“No. But our children will have a place in our home.”
“You said ‘children.’ You plan on doing it again?”
“Steed wants a girl, I think it’s a boy. So one of us is going to be disappointed and we’ll have to try again.”
“And how many times will you try, if you keep having the same?” Amanda asked, grinning.
“I have a horrible suspicion that Steed wants to try to out do his sister.”
“What does she have? Six?”
“Six,” Emma nodded, then heaved a deep, exhausted sigh.
“I’m sure you’ll enjoy the Greenbrier,” Amanda told Emma as she bent down to look into the car window.
“I’m really looking forward to a massage,” Emma replied.
“Try to resist the urge to wait the tables, Steed,” Amanda added, looking across Emma at Steed.
“Not to worry, Amanda,” Steed replied, shifting the rental car into gear, “I only go under stairs in the line of duty.”
Steed, Lee, and Amanda had pursued Peter Peel to the posh Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia the previous year. While Lee and Amanda had checked in as guests, Steed had taken various staff positions in order to get close to their prey. Their visit was cut short when Peter Peel escaped them, but Steed had resolved to return with Emma one day to enjoy the resort. Lee and Amanda’s ceremony had struck him as a perfect opportunity, so he’d surprised Emma with reservations for the full spa package. She’d made a show of resisting, saying that she should not be away from Knight for that long, and that a pregnant woman couldn’t really enjoy the facilities. But then Steed had shown her the letter from the spa offering services especially for women in Emma’s condition and she’d capitulated.
Emma’s thoughts turned introspective during the drive from Washington to West Virginia. The endless rounds of congratulations from the American spies had been perversely draining. They’d left Emma feeling as if she’d unintentionally upstaged Amanda and Lee on their special day, although Amanda hadn’t shown any sign of resentment.
It was a conversation she’d had with Billy Melrose’s wife – her name had already slipped Emma’s mind, which was unusual for her – that had really spurred her current train of thought. Mrs. Melrose was not an agent and never had been. She had met William Melrose and thought him a charming, intelligent man. When their relationship had progressed toward commitment, he had revealed his occupation to her and she had not been terribly surprised: it explained his more mysterious side. She’d accepted the risks as he described them and accepted his offer of marriage.
She expressed her envy of Emma, and of Amanda, for being able to share their spouses’ work. She admitted that it had come between her and her husband more than once, when his silence obviously covered some ominous reality that he could not discuss with her. Once she had left him over it, simply unable to watch him under such stress and know that when he left in the morning he might not return. But in the end she had come back and found him barely able to fend for himself around the house. She’d decided to accept her role as his domestic support, and he’d found ways to let her into his world by inviting other agents to their home for her to get to know. But she was still a civilian – an outsider — and she always would be.
Her description of herself as a civilian had reminded Emma of something Sally had said. That night when she broke up with Terrance and ended up seeking Steed’s moral support, he had told her that she could not have a deep relationship with a civilian.
“Before he said that, when I was telling him how empty I felt about Terrance, he looked like he was lost in thought – like it reminded him of something,” Sally had said.
She had hoped Emma could explain, but Emma could not. She didn’t know what Steed might have been remembering. But since then, when she’d thought about Sally’s words, she’d wondered. Mrs. Melrose’s words had sharpened her curiosity, probably to a dangerous edge.
Steed guarded his past more carefully than he did the government secrets he dealt in. What little Emma knew she had learned from him through delicate inquiries, extricating a little at a time and filling in many details from her own imagination. For a long time she had treated it like a game, but now, as his wife, with their child on the way, she was growing impatient. She believed that she knew the man she had married, but she did not know who he had been in the past. And one day that past might come back to haunt them. She felt ill prepared. She felt like Mrs. Melrose. It was not a situation that Emma Knight would tolerate. Emma Steed was going to have to take action.
“Here we are,” Steed said, interrupting her reverie as he steered the car into the driveway of the enormous inn. If he had noticed how quiet she had been for most of the drive he did not say anything. They had gotten an early start, so the immense, white building shone in bright, mid-day sunshine. Everything about it was pristine, from the white façade to the groomed hedges and lawns. Emma shaded her eyes to look up at it, then took Steed’s hand to be led inside.
A porter brought them to their room and showed Steed the amenities before accepting a tip and departing. Emma had seated herself on a loveseat beneath one of the windows looking out across the grounds. She was wrestling with how to begin, how to ask her husband about his past. And she was preparing for the rejection that she knew she would receive.
“Fancy a swim?” Steed asked, opening his suitcase with a snap. When Emma didn’t answer he paused to look at her, concerned. “Emma?”
She turned her head toward him at the sound of her first name. It still caught her off guard sometimes.
“Feeling all right?” he asked. He was holding his black swimsuit in one hand. She smiled, automatically picturing him in it and feeling the attendant reaction of her body to the mental image. As if reading her thoughts, he crossed to her still holding it and sat down with her, offering her a slightly lecherous smile.
“Why did you come back to England when you did, Steed? Years after the war was over, I mean,” she asked. She looked into his eyes as she spoke, watching for his reaction. She saw surprise, then the briefest flash of suspicion that stung her to the core, and then the mask of implacability that he wore so well fell like an iron door between them.
“I told you, I was homesick,” he said lightly. She wanted to slap him. For lying. For not trusting her, even if only for an instant. For being unwilling to share his past with her. But she stayed her hand, knowing that her own face revealed all of these thoughts and feelings without any need for physical violence. He let his gaze fall to the swimsuit in his hands. “What else can I say?” he asked, his tone almost pleading. Then he rose and headed for the bathroom.
“I don’t know,” she replied softly after the door had closed behind him. “If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking.”
An hour later she found him in the lap pool. She got the impression he had been swimming hard since he got there. She knew he could go on for a lot longer and probably would. So she slipped into the recreational pool to cool off, then settled on a lounge on the deck between the two pools where she knew he’d see her, if he cared to look.
He did. Thirty minutes later he came dripping over and stood toweling himself off, eyeing her cautiously as he tried to subtly attract her attention. She did not fall for it, although her body certainly responded to the site of him nearly naked with the sun glinting off of his damp skin. She shifted on her lounge to hold her book with her other hand, but kept reading. She knew he could see the slight curve of her lips that told him she was aware of his display and consciously ignoring it.
“There is more,” he said suddenly, shifting so that his shadow fell across her face. She slowly lowered her book and let her eyes climb from his knees up his muscular thighs, pausing for a second on his crotch, then on up his torso to his face. With the sun behind him she could not see his eyes. “But I’ve never told anyone. I’m not sure I know how.”
“Do you think it will change my opinion of you? How I feel about you?” she asked.
“I – ,” he paused, turned his head to watch a young woman dive into the recreational pool, then looked back at Emma.
She couldn’t know about his long sessions in the gym, agonizing over how to tell her about those years after the war. She thought he was simply keeping secrets out of habit. She couldn’t imagine the emotional and intellectual depths to which he’d plunged and how he’d clawed himself back, only finally reaching a place where he could be whole again shortly before he’d met her. No, after he’d met her. After he’d fallen in love with her and discovered that he could, in fact, love. In a way that had been the last stage of his return, not the journey nearly a decade earlier when he’d come back to Britain to rejoin his country’s intelligence service.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I am not proud of some of the things I did in those years, so I would not expect you to be.” He dropped his towel on an adjacent lounge, then bent to drag it closer to hers. He sat on it, not reclining, but sitting sideways so that he faced her with his elbows on his thighs and his hands clasped between his knees.
“I don’t wish to judge, John, only to know. Only to be trusted.”
He looked as if she had slapped him after all. “Why now?” he croaked, his voice thick with emotion.
Emma repressed the urge to shrug. To say she had just felt like asking now belittled the matter. It was too important to him for a casual inquiry. And she didn’t think that pregnancy was an appropriate excuse. She would not use the “I’m growing us a child, the least you can do is tell me your past” argument. She tried to think of a way to explain the train of thought that had led to her inquiry.
“Months ago you told me you were homesick so you came home. But I didn’t believe you. The answer came too quickly. There had to be more,” she began, speaking softly so as to keep it just between them. “I know that sometimes you seem to drift off, to get lost in memory. You did it with Sally a few weeks ago and she asked me about it.”
“Yes. When she told you about why she’d ended things with Terrance. She said you looked terribly sad. So she wondered if you had once ended a similar relationship. I hated having to tell her I didn’t know.”
“I’m sorry,” he nearly whispered.
“I had a talk with Billy Melrose’s wife. She told me she was envious of me and Amanda because you and Lee can share secrets with us, while her husband cannot. I wanted to tell her that you withhold far more secrets than you share, and that they aren’t the ones that the ministry cares about. I am as locked out of parts of your life as she is out of her husband’s. It hurts, darling. It’s as if you don’t trust me to know the man you have been, only the one you’ve created.”
Steed straightened, then swiveled on the lounge and laid back, his forearms resting on the armrests, his hands gripping the ends tightly.
“I can’t just open up and spill it all out, Emma,” he said through a jaw locked with tension.
“I understand,” she said as gently as she could. “So just begin with the real reason that you decided it was time to come home to Britain.”
He sucked in a long breath and forcefully loosened his grip on the lounge chair. Then he turned his head to look at her. “It’s complex. I need to think about it, think about how to begin.”
She nodded, seeing that he was sincere, knowing that he didn’t dare lie about agreeing to tell her. “Thank you darling,” she said. “I don’t think you know how much it means to me.”
“I have some papers. In a safe. It would be better to show them to you. Will you wait until we’re back home?”
“Of course I will darling. I’ll wait for as long as it takes you to be ready, but I won’t stop asking, if it takes you too long.”
He studied her for a moment, a devious smile curling the corners of his mouth then filling his entire, animated face. Her brows rose in silent inquiry.
“We could negotiate,” he suggested, “trade favors for information.”
She was relieved to see his good humor returning. “Certainly darling,” she replied with her own devious smile, which should have been warning enough for him, but just to be sure she added, “Negotiating is one of my specialties.”
“Hey Steed, did you hear about Tara King and Robert McCall?” Agent Weems came up beside Steed as he strolled along a corridor toward his office in the ministry’s Whitehall headquarters. Steed groaned inwardly. He’d heard. And heard again. From at least six different people within the last hour.
“Yes. Quite something, isn’t it?” he gave his rote answer.
“That McCall has got his hands full, I’d say,” Weems went on. “And I suppose you might say it too, eh?” he nudged Steed with his elbow. Steed stiffened with annoyance, but kept walking. He disliked crude male banter about women, and he was truly offended by references to his relationships with them. It was one of the reasons that he and Emma had so carefully promoted their “just good friends” image for so long. But it had been impossible to get Tara to exercise such discretion, so the fact that their partnership had developed into intimacy was well known around the ministry. And the world was changing; he knew it even if he resisted it. There were fewer and fewer gentlemen, and more and more agents were adopting the looser standards of the general public.
He disengaged from Weems with a courteous nod as he turned into his office and shut the door. He took a deep breath as he looked around the richly appointed room. At least this remained a bastion of gentlemanly reserve. He had the right to veto any conversation here, and Tara King’s abrupt marriage was definitely off his list. It seemed like the entire intelligence community was buzzing about it since she and McCall had come to speak to Mother about it while he and Emma were away. No one was more surprised than he was. But his surprise was that they were talking about Tara, and not about him. Did nobody care that he was going to be a father?
Apparently the news of Emma’s pregnancy had reached Whitehall the very evening of Lee and Amanda’s ceremony, carried via telephone between American and British agents, just as Emma had predicted. There had been a buzz, Steed’s sources told him. But two days later Tara and Robert McCall had appeared on the scene sporting wedding bands and all attention had turned to them.
Steed poured himself a scotch and slumped into his desk chair, peering with ill humor at the pile of files on his desk. The least they could have done was teased him a bit about becoming a father. It would have been uncomfortable, but he would have endured it. As it was he felt as if nobody thought anything of it. He felt like a has-been.
Sally sat at the kitchen table struggling to conjugate irregular French verbs. The eraser on her pencil was chewed to a ragged nub. The ice in her glass of tea had melted and the condensation from the glass had pooled on the table. Irritated that she couldn’t remember the twenty-first verb on her list she shoved her book forward, dragging it through the wet spot.
“Blast,” she grumbled, getting up to fetch the kitchen roll.
“I don’t think that’s a French word.” James’s voice filled the kitchen. Sally’s head jerked up, the roll in one hand, a torn off piece of it in the other. He was leaning against the doorframe, his arms crossed, a bottle of wine tucked under one of them. Behind him her roommate Ruthie was giving her a wide-eyed look.
“James,” Sally said lamely.
“In the flesh.” His voice resonated again, this time making her toes tingle as her mind responded to the word flesh with a delightfully vivid memory. She snapped herself out of it, dabbing at the wet table with the paper towel. “Your roommate Ruthie let me in.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked, knowing that her dismay at his seeing where she lived came through in her voice.
“I heard that you’re cramming for a French exam. I thought this might help,” he held up the bottle for her to see. French wine. Of course.
“Unless it’s a magic potion that empowers the drinker with the ability to speak and write fluently, I think it’s more likely to hinder,” she said. But she couldn’t help smiling at him. His eyes were sparkling so brightly, and he seemed to be paying no attention to the shabby flat that embarrassed her so much.
He stepped into the kitchen and set the bottle on the table, then put his powerful hands on her upper arms and lowered his face to hers.
“Ruthie is watching, make it good,” he whispered before he kissed her. Half appalled, half amused at his exhibitionism, her arms slipped around his waist outside of his leather bomber jacket. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, drawing the kiss out until she pulled away to breathe. He grinned mischievously at her. “Why have you never invited me here?” he asked.
“Because I don’t want you to see it,” she said flatly. No point in dancing around the issue. Her flat was a dump and his penthouse was a palace.
He released his hold on her a little and turned his head from side to side to look around. His eyes flicked over the kitchen’s features – the dead ivy on the window sill, the supply of mixers on top of the refrigerator, the stack of newspapers near the back door that was about to topple over. It was grim.
“I’ve lived in worse,” he said, his gaze returning to her.
“Not really,” she said, nearly whispering so Ruthie, who was hovering in the sitting room, couldn’t hear. “Only under cover.”
He pursed his lips and shook his head ever so slightly. “No, really. You needn’t be embarrassed.”
“It’s not just that. I have no privacy here. We all know one another’s business. Except I have to keep our business secret.”
“And our pleasure?”
“I’d prefer to keep that private,” she grinned because he’d bent his head to nuzzle her neck. She brought her arms back around him to push him gently away. “Really James,” she added.
“But you do need help with your French. That’s why I’m here,” he said, showing no sign of annoyance at her rebuff. She was instantly relieved that he’d had the courtesy not to ask about how private her relationship with Terrance had been. She quickly moved the conversation along.
“So long as it’s not like your Russian lessons. Or if it is, we’ll have to go to your place,” she replied, half of her wishing he’d take her up on it, the other half wishing he’d really help her.
He pulled out a chair and sat down, pulling her book and notes to himself. “Let’s get to work.”
“He’s dreamy, Sally. Where have you been hiding him?” Ruthie asked two hours later when James had gone. Sally’s head was so stuffed with French she could hardly find room for more mundane thoughts.
“Work,” she said.
“Your boss?” one of Ruthie’s eyebrows rose and her voice conveyed concern.
“No, more of a senior co-worker.”
“Can I come work with you?”
Sally smirked as she poured herself a fresh glass of iced tea. “Do you speak French?” she asked.
“Yes, enough to get by.”
Sally spun around to stare at her roommate. “You do? Why didn’t you tell me? You could have helped me!”
Ruthie’s grin was down right salacious. “I think you preferred your other tutor,” she said. “I certainly would have.”
Sally took a gulp of her tea and watched her amused roommate walk away chuckling. At least her other two flatmates hadn’t turned up during James’s visit, although she was sure that they would know all about him within twenty-four hours. Or at least they’ll think they know, Sally smiled to herself, suddenly pleased to be living a secret life.
“I was in East Berlin,” Steed said, his voice even but slightly weak, as if he was forcing the sound through a tight throat. He was sitting in the big stuffed leather chair that Emma had found in an antique shop and planted like an inviting tree stump near the hearth in the informal sitting room. She was reclining on the black and white divan with a small round bolster behind her lower back. Steed took a sip of the single malt scotch he’d poured himself, swallowed, and went on.
“Tony Libretti was a fellow freelancer living there then. I think we both hated it, but there was so much work we had to stay. So many dirty little jobs to be done,” he fell silent again and Emma waited, exercising more patience than she could normally muster. “Tony sent me a message to meet him at the tunnel,” he glanced up at her and noted her puzzled expression. “That’s what we called it. I don’t remember the real name. It was a nightclub in an old beer hall, under some bombed out government office building. Always teeming with desperate people. Everyone looking for something – alcohol, sex, drugs, love,” he shook his head slowly and took another sip of scotch. “But the only alcohol you could get was bad vodka and worse beer. There were plenty of drugs, if you were that desperate. And plenty of sex.”
He snorted and shook his head again. “I suppose someone might have found it there,” he said. “I, however, found only Trudy. She was a dancer, with legs up to – with good legs.”
Emma watched his face carefully, expecting to see the reminiscent smile he so often wore when he mentioned women that he’d been fond of. But his expression remained carefully controlled, as tight as his voice. “You slept with her,” Emma provided, so that he wouldn’t have to say it.
“Frequently,” he agreed neutrally, avoiding her eyes. “When I got there that night she came to my table for a drink. Then Tony showed up and she took off – she knew what we were, and she didn’t want to be anywhere near a meeting.”
“Did everyone know? Was it that open then, in that part of Berlin?”
“Not that open,” he shook his head. “I masqueraded as a writer, living there to experience the place, and I think many people believed that – or wanted to believe it. But in the tunnel there were no covers, other than the darkness and the smoke and the noise.
“So Tony got there – late — and Trudy took off. Then Tony told me that he had bungled his last job and he thought someone was after him. I wasn’t thrilled. Bailing other fellows out was a lot more dangerous than the real work we were doing, and I had helped Tony more than once already. But he wasn’t there for that, he said. He’d just gotten a contract that was huge, and he wanted to bring me in on it – as a payback for the times I’d helped him out.”
“So he wanted to put you in further danger to pay you back for protecting him in the past?”
“He was thinking about the end, not the means. The contract was for twenty thousand pounds.”
Emma’s eyes widened. It was a huge sum, especially fifteen years ago. “What did you have to do?” she asked. Steed put up a hand, palm facing her. She waited.
“I was starting to tell him ‘no thanks,’ I didn’t need the money, and I didn’t want the risk, whatever it was, when he was shot. He fell over into his vodka. The shot had come from above, a silenced gun. I saw someone running away along a catwalk up there near the ceiling. Tony’s face was a mess – the bullet entered the back of his head and came out the front, and you know how head wounds bleed. I tried to avoid the blood while I checked his pockets for the contract, although I didn’t think he’d be carrying it,” he paused, seeing Emma’s puzzled expression. “The British would send us encrypted contracts specifying the target and the payment arrangements. They’d provide the encryption key separately, through a drop or a courier. Part of the contract was always to return the document and key when payment was made.”
“Do you still do that?” Emma asked, knowing it was a risky question.
“No. Nothing in writing any more.”
“Go on,” Emma nodded.
“I took Tony’s keys and went to his room. It was smaller and more depressing than mine. I knew he kept things behind a lose tile in the toilet that he shared with two other tenants. I locked myself in the bathroom and tapped on tiles for nearly an hour. One of the other tenants knocked at some point so I made myself retch into the toilet, loudly. He went away. I finally found the lose tile. I took his safe back to his room.”
“He had a safe behind a tile?” Emma tried to imagine a very diminutive safe, or a very large tile.
“Not that kind of safe. We all had ways of hiding things – hollow rocks and bricks, secret compartments. His was a copy of the Bible with the middle of the pages cut out. The contract was there along with some cash in various currencies – about two thousand pounds worth, I think.
“So sitting there in my dead friend’s filthy room I read the contract. It was legitimate. The original, the key, and the decrypted version were all there. It was signed by someone I knew of within British Intelligence. And I could not believe who the target was.”
“Who was it?”
Steed took another sip of scotch and seemed to think for a moment, then shook his head slowly, “No, let me finish. Then you can decide how much more you want to know,” he said. “The target was someone who I thought that we – even then I thought of myself as an agent of Britain, even though I was not – that we would want in power in Eastern Germany. He was rational and level headed, someone who would negotiate in good faith – far preferable to some of his contemporaries who were also vying for authority. The man who ordered the hit had been behind the lines during the war. He’d spent a lot of time there, in fact. I wondered, sitting there in Tony’s room, just what he’d done there, and what the target might know about him.”
“You thought the contract was personal, the Englishman was protecting himself?”
“Yes. So I went home and drank the rest of the bad vodka I had there,” he sipped his scotch appreciatively and Emma smiled. “And when I came around some time the next day I read the contract again. And then I packaged it up and found one of our regular runners, a boy who did deliveries from his father’s dairy. He would get my package to the west via a rural route we had in place and it would be posted.”
“To me. A post office box that was checked every week or so by someone.”
Steed smiled at her tenacity and she smiled back, unrelenting.
“My aunts’ butler.”
“Forbes?” Emma gasped, picturing the tottering old man in ill-fitting butler’s garb.
Steed grinned mischievously. “Judged that book by it’s cover, had you?” he asked. “Sergeant Forbes was a good man during the war, and a better one after it.”
Emma shook her head ruefully, silently reminding herself never to take anyone at face value.
“Forbes collected a lot of mail from me over years and kept it tucked away safe until I collected it.”
“I hope you rewarded him for his service.”
“Handsomely,” Steed assured her, and she was certain that he had, and still was.
“Do you still have that post office box?” she asked impulsively. He suppressed a proud grin, as if he’d expected her to come to the correct conclusion.
She nodded, took a long gulp of soda water, which was bland but refreshing, and waited for him to go on.
He stared at his own glass for a few minutes as if trying to remember where he’d left off. She was about to prompt him when he raised the glass to his lips.
“After I got rid of the contract, I took Tony’s money to Anna,” he said, almost a whisper. Emma waited, apprehension creeping up her spine. The way he’d said the name made it sound too much like “Emma.”
Abruptly he cleared his throat, straightened in his chair, and went on. “She was a seamstress, the daughter of a grocer. Good, working people left destitute by the war. He refused to trade in the black market, so his shelves were always nearly empty. She was a miracle worker with a needle and thread. Before the war she sewed for the aristocracy. But in those days she kept herself fed mending uniforms for pennies.”
“Was that her only income?” Emma asked, realizing that she sounded jealous although she didn’t really feel that way. She felt excluded, like she was finally able to peer through a dirty window at the actions of strangers. Steed watched her for a moment, his expression had returned to the controlled placidity that it had had when he began, but at her comment there was an unmistakable shadow of pain in his eyes.
“She was not a whore,” he said, and Emma found herself wrapping her arms around herself, feeling cruel and suddenly very lonely.
“You loved her.”
“No,” he whispered it. “Only you.”
“Only –?” Emma stopped before she could question his devotion. She had never really believed it when he said she was the only woman he’d ever loved. But this time she did. “She loved you.”
“She loved the writer who risked living in such a dangerous place just for the experience. She admired a man who would endure hardship to broaden himself.” Steed’s voice was bitter, although his mask of control remained intact. “She had no idea what I really was, what I really did.”
“So you couldn’t lover her.”
“I couldn’t lover her because I couldn’t love anyone, or anything, especially not myself,” he snapped. “She was caring, giving, and painfully submissive. I went to her that day and took her to bed and she did everything I demanded of her and never made demands of her own. And a few weeks ago when Sally described how Terrance made her feel, how he never pressed her, how she always had to lead, I thought of Anna. Sweet, kind, Anna, and how I came to despise her for loving me.
“I left her the money – it was more than she’d earn in a year. And then I started watching the target of the contract.”
“You were going to do it?” Emma was shocked. She tried to imagine what Steed had been feeling and thinking then. Behind the iron curtain, living amid poverty and misery, his friend shot sitting beside him for making a mistake, one lover a jaded dancer, the other a loving woman who he hated himself for despising. Had he felt desperate? Had he needed the money provided for in the contract? No, he sent the contract to himself, he couldn’t have produced it to receive payment. “No, you weren’t. What were you going to do? Warn him?”
Steed nodded as if he’d followed her thoughts to their conclusion.
“I watched his home and office for three days, then broke into his home and waited for him in his study. He almost shot me when I revealed myself. But he was slower than I was and I disarmed him. Then we talked. I told him about the contract and asked him why the Englishman would have made it. My German friend became very talkative – I should have known what was coming. He told me what he knew about the Englishman, about the things he’d done while he was behind the lines during the war. The time he’d spent at the concentration camps – wined and dined as a guest of the Gestapo, observing their scientists’ foul experiments. Things nobody alive knew about him, other than this man who had been there too.”
“Oh lord,” Emma felt a chill at the thought of witnessing the German concentration camps. The world still did not really know what had happened there. She was certain that she did not really know, although Steed had told her what he could, what he dared, of the horrors visited upon those unlucky enough to be practicing the wrong faith in the wrong place.
“Now there were two of us who knew the Englishman’s secrets. And the German wanted to take advantage of it. He offered to double the contract if I’d eliminate the Brit.” Steed stopped and finished off his scotch, then stood up and went to the cabinet where they kept the liquor. Emma swirled the bubbling water in her glass around and thought about the position Steed had been in.
“What did you do?” she asked as he poured himself more scotch. He closed the cabinet and came around the divan, and she pulled her feet up to make room for him at the end. He sat down and reached for her feet, pulling them into his lap. She felt as if the worst must be over, as if he’d returned to her from his brutal past.
“I was repulsed. I had thought he was a good man – he’d shown every sign of working with the west toward a peaceful coexistence. But he was as ambitious and unethical as all the rest. I left, and he called out the guards. I went over the wall that night with them on my tail, dodging the bullets from the towers – mostly. Our boys dragged me through to our side and put me in hospital.”
“Which scar is it?”
“Left calf, the lower one. I’m not sure if they aimed to maim so they could bring me back to torture me, or I was just too fast for them and they missed my head and body.” He stroked her feet absently for a moment, then went on. “They kept me for a few weeks. They knew who I was, what I’d been doing over there. Toward the end of my stay a skulking fellow turned up by my bed, muttering offers from the Service. He turned my stomach. I was literally ill right there in front of him, so he went away. But he came back the next day and I was too tired, too scarred, and too depressed to flat out refuse. I told him I’d think about it, so he went away again, but he left me an address to visit, when I had decided.
“They released me when I could walk again, and I went to the Loire. I stayed with Gerard and his family for two months.”
Emma knew Gerard: he was a French farmer who’d been a part of the resistance during the war, which is when Steed had met him. He’d saved Steed’s life then, and he’d helped Emma the year before last when Steed had been kidnapped.
“We spoke a lot about honor and loyalty, and about meaning in one’s life. Gerard knew what I did not yet understand: that I had to come home and find the man I’d never grown into. I’d gone from Eton to Sandhurst to the service, playing spy and playing with my life. I’d been lucky, and well trained, and when the war ended I hadn’t wanted to stop playing. But without the discipline of the military, or even the Secret Service, espionage degenerates into piracy and gangsterism. I was little more than a gun for hire, and far less than the man that my family and my teachers expected me to be.”
Emma took her feet from his lap and sat up, swiveling around to put her head where her feet had been. He brushed her hair back from her forehead with one hand and rested the other across her middle, between the swell of her bosom and the bulge of her belly.
“What about yourself?” Emma asked gently, “What did you expect of yourself?”
“I think I figured that out when I walked away from Anna, and that night in the German’s study. I expected myself to be honorable. I hated myself for using and deceiving Anna, and I was disgusted by the German’s attempt to manipulate me. The agent who came to recruit me in the hospital repulsed me because I was sick of it all and half delirious with pain. But during the two months in the country, soaking up Gerard’s good wine, riding his horses, flirting with his daughters – no, they were little girls, it was just playful flirting,” he forestalled her inevitable comment. “I gradually came to understand that I had two options: do nothing – retire to the house with my aunts and live off of my savings and inheritance; or accept the agents’ offer, join Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and continue to be what I’d been trained to be, but for the good of my homeland.”
“I’m very glad you chose not to retire,” she said.
“There was another factor in my decision,” he said, then watched her eyes sparkle with sudden realization.
“The contract,” she said, turning her head toward the stained envelope on the table in front of the divan.
“The contract,” he agreed. “I wanted to get close to him. To watch him. As far as I know, nobody knows I have it. And only the German knows what I know about him. And now you, in a general sense.”
“And is he still –?” she started, turning her head back to look up at Steed.
“See for yourself, if you want.”
Emma looked back at the envelope, considering his offer. If the man who had issued the contract was still around, then Steed possessed knowledge that, with proof, could destroy him. It was quite an insurance policy. Just knowing about it could be terribly dangerous. “Be careful what you ask for,” she muttered, sitting up to reach for the envelope. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Steed smile knowingly. She had to look. He’d known she would, but he’d had to be sure she understood what she was doing.
It was all there – the encrypted contract, the quaint-seeming decryption key inside of a matchbook from a West Berlin nightclub, and the decrypted message, scrawled out in longhand on both sides of a sheet of thin, grey paper. Emma read it, occasionally using the key to decrypt a word or two of the original, mostly for the exercise of it. She wasn’t surprised at the identity of the target. He had risen through the ranks in Eastern Germany and was now in a position of power rather close to the Kremlin. Two signatures were scrawled at the bottom of the original document – the contract’s author and a counter signature. Emma studied the author’s name. She recognized him as someone very senior in the intelligence community, senior to Mother and the rest, an advisor to the prime minister and a man whose name had recently been raised as a possible candidate for that office. Emma shivered at the knowledge about him that Steed had had all these years, and that she now shared.
Then she glanced at the other signature and her heart stopped. She swallowed hard, gulped in a breath, and felt her heart beat once more as she stared at the familiar swoops and jagged lines. It was an illegible scribble, except to her. Carefully, because her hands were shaking, she slipped the papers back into the envelope and set it on the table. Then she sat back, staring at it.
“Emma?” Steed leaned forward to look at her face.
“The counter signer,” she whispered.
“Yes, I could never make out that signature. Probably some clerk.”
“It’s Edmond Stanton’s signature.”
“I’ll miss you,” Tara pulled Robbie to her one more time to plant a kiss on his lips, then released him so that he could step on board the train. She walked along the car, watching him through the windows until he found his seat. He stowed his bag on the rack and sat down, opening the window as much as he could so he could press his hand to hers.
“It’s not fair,” he said. “I’m not going to give up on this. Mother will have to reassign one of us.”
“Be careful, Robbie. If we push too hard Mother might just push back.”
“He’ll have to give in, Tara. We’re married!”
“Yes, Robbie. But –,” she gave up as the train started to roll. Robbie gave her fingers a last squeeze and let go.
“Love you,” he called out through the narrow opening.
“Love you too,” she replied, not bothering to shout.
Their meeting with Mother had been a complete disaster. The controlling old jerk had barely allowed them to explain the situation before rolling out from behind his desk and coming around it, practically smashing into her knees. There were no guest chairs in his office that day, although the walls were lined with filing cabinets that she did not remember seeing before.
So she and Robbie had stood while Mother berated them for expecting special treatment just because they’d acted rashly. He refused to disrupt the fabric of his intelligence network, as he called it, by shuffling agents all over France.
Tara had bit her lip, as much to fight back tears as to keep herself from asking whether he was being so mean because he hadn’t been invited to the wedding. She couldn’t help but draw comparisons between his treatment of her and Robbie and the near royalty status afforded Steed and Emma. Emma wasn’t even an agent, but she had free run of the ministry. And now, according to the rumors spinning through the building, she was pregnant. So they were in for months of reports on the expectant mother followed by years of stories of the darling Steed offspring. Tara was never so happy to return to France, even if she and Robbie couldn’t be together.
“Edmond would have been working with my father at Knight by then, out of the military,” Emma said.
“But perhaps not out of intelligence,” Steed said thoughtfully.
“Did you know? Is he one of your agents?” she asked, a threatening edge in her voice.
“No. I did not know. And I am not running him. If he is still working for us.”
“I can tolerate knowing that some of my staff are agents,” she said quietly: now she was concentrating on remaining calm. “But not my right hand. I have trusted Edmond all my life.”
“But you trust me with your life,” Steed said sharply. “I promise you that I do not know whether Edmond Stanton is still a part of the intelligence community. He’s a prime candidate, though – travels a great deal, meets with highly placed people all over the world…” he trailed off thoughtfully.
“Could Edmond possibly have continued working for him all these years?” Emma asked, jerking her chin at the envelope on the table, her alarm dissipating into her usual rational thought patterns. Steed hated to admit the truth, but he had to be honest.
“Yes. It’s possible.”
“Can you find out?”
“I’ll do my best. And if we find out he is, what will you do?”
“I don’t know. Confront him, perhaps.”
“Do me a favor?”
“Make sure I’m there when you do, and wait until after the baby is born.”
Emma half turned toward Steed seated beside her on the divan. It was hard to believe that his revelation about his past had brought them right up to their present together, but it had. Edmond Stanton, John Knight’s partner and friend, Emma’s employee, had been directly involved in the pivotal moment of Steed’s early career. He had been a party to the events that had brought Steed back into British Intelligence and the world where they had met. Emma’s mouth curled into a wry little smile that Steed had to reach out and touch. He traced her lips with one finger, then slipped his hand along the side of her face. She leaned into it, then turned her face to kiss his palm.
“Edmond tried more than once over the last year to convince me not to marry you,” she said.
“Just looking out for your best interests? Or protecting his own?” Steed wondered, stroking her cheek with his thumb. She shrugged and scooted closer to him, putting her arms around his waist to savor his warm, solid body.
“I don’t know, but he never had a chance of succeeding,” she sighed as Steed engulfed her in his arms, stroking her hair with one hand and her back with the other. “What he doesn’t seem to understand is that I can’t live without you,” she said, her lips brushing his throat as she spoke.
He reached under her chin to tip her head back so that he could look into her eyes. His shone with their usual passion for her. All trace of wary control was gone. Indeed, he felt freer than he had in fifteen years. Emma knew the worst of his many dark secrets, knew something of what he had been and done, and she still chose him. She still loved him.
“You’re everything to me now,” he said. “Do you finally believe me?”
“I always believed you, John.”
His little smile told her that he knew better, that she had harbored her doubts as long as he had harbored his secrets. In a way this had been an exchange — the negotiation she had promised. Just not with the terms he’d anticipated.
“I want you to make love to me,” she said. “And you must do as I tell you.”
Her mischievous smile made her intent quite clear. She would, on occasion, be submissive. But not for long, and not without taking her turn at dominance.
“Anything you want,” he murmured, taking her lips in his in a demanding, open-mouthed kiss. It heated her quickly, burning a fizzing trail down her nerves to her loins. She held him tighter, pressing herself against him, pressing their baby between them.
“Come to bed,” she sighed, pulling out of his grasp to get to her feet. He took her hand and followed her up the back stairs and along the upstairs corridor. They passed the rooms that were being transformed into the nursery suite, and on around the corner to their own bedroom where a single lamp illuminated a quarter of the bed.
She released his hand and pulled back the coverlet. When she turned around he had removed his sweater and had his hands on this belt. She stopped to watch him unbuckle it, and he watched her watching. Her gaze inflamed him, his body reacting as he opened his fly. Her smile turned wanton as he dropped his trousers and reached inside his briefs to bring out his swollen cock.
“Take all your clothes off,” she instructed him, sitting on the bed to watch. He bent to unlace his shoes, then slowly removed his trousers and briefs, letting them land in a pile behind him. She studied him, naked and aroused, for a moment, leaning back on her elbows, her belly a mound above her legs. She was wearing a short, lose dress that had ridden up to the top of her thighs as she reclined. He stepped over to her and trailed his fingers up her bare leg.
“I don’t think you’ve aged since the first time I saw you naked,” she said, as much to distract herself from the lines of fire his fingers were making on her leg as to pay him a compliment.
“Aged?” he said, his voice a rumbling purr as he climbed onto the bed on all fours, straddling her, his muscled belly brushing against hers, “no, but I’ve certainly matured.”
His mouth sucked hers, lapping at her face, licking and sucking so that she groaned and raised one knee between his legs. He shifted his weight to one hand and snaked the other one down past her belly to caress her thigh. She was wearing big white cotton panties – the least sensual garment she could imagine, but the only thing that would fit now. Steed was oblivious to their prosaic nature as he pressed his fingers against her, stroking her lightly at first, and then harder so that her labia parted. She moaned with pleasure as he poked his thumb against her clitoris through the panties. Then he ran his hand up her bulging belly to find the waistband and draw her panties down. He pulled them all the way off, then pulled up the hem of her dress and pressed his face to the presence between them.
“Hello little one,” he said, kissing her belly, “in a few minutes you will have to make room for daddy in there.”
Emma raised her head and looked at him, “Steed,” she scolded, “he’s a bit young to be learning about sex.”
“She knows all about it. All women do,” he replied with a wicked grin, continuing to draw her dress up to reveal her substantial bra. She rolled with him onto her side, nestling her belly between them and slipping her knee up to rest on his thigh. He pulled her dress up and she freed her arm from it, then reached around his head to pull his face to hers for a long, succulent kiss. While returning her kiss he worked at the clasp on her bra, then slipped his hand beneath it to cup her full breast. Completely distracted, she lay back, her legs still tangled with his. He removed her bra and bent his face to her breasts. His mouth, so hot when he kissed her face, felt cool on her sensitive nipples. She sighed, her fingers running through his hair, as he suckled her gently.
“One of these days you’ll get milk,” she said. “Won’t you be surprised.”
He released her nipple, kissing it lightly, then looked into her eyes. “I can’t wait,” he said.
“You do know that it’s for the baby?” she teased.
“I shall share,” he agreed, returning his mouth to hers.
They explored one another as they always did, as if this were their first encounter, as if every inch of their bodies was new and amazing. They kissed and licked, caressed, and tickled as the fire in their loins demanded more and more of their attention. At last Steed rolled her onto her side in front of him and reached between her legs.
“Lean back against me,” he instructed her as he shifted to angle his pelvis toward hers from behind. He opened her with his fingers and entered her with a single thrust that made her moan happily. He wiggled in a little deeper and she repeated her expression of pleasure.
“Deeper,” she sighed and he thrust again, slipping his hand around the front to tease her there.
“I’m afraid that’s it, in this position,” he said, moving out and back in again.
“It’s not good enough,” she replied firmly, looking over her shoulder at him. “I did not select a well-endowed husband not to take advantage of it.”
He laughed, slipping out of her still solid and slick, and pulled her back over, guiding her to climb on top of him instead. “I did not think, all those years ago, that you had measured me before you decided to sleep with me,” he said.
“No, but I might have decided not to repeat the experience, had things turned out to be otherwise.”
She centered herself over his erection and slowly lowered herself down, her strong legs controlling the speed of his penetration. He watched his penis disappear into her, his hands on her thighs, his mind on the throbbing place within him that was near to achieving release. He moved his hands to the sides of her belly and felt contours – their baby already had its own form within her. Soon it would be a separate life, completely dependent on them, but with a mind and heart of its own. The notion excited and terrified him.
Emma moaned again, drawing his attention entirely to her as her extra weight bore down on him, driving him deep up inside of her. He bucked beneath her, suddenly desperate for movement, and she rode him. She rose and fell on him, twisting her hips and gasping at each apex of his thrusts, athletic even with her extra bulk.
It inflamed him, the extra weight, the ripeness of her body. Sex with her now was like eating the ripest summer fruit, fresh and dewy from the tree. Everything about her was more sensitive and responsive, as if her body was calling out to his, keeping him attracted while it went about its business of creating new life. Whether it was biology or passion, or some perversity of his nature, he did not care. He wanted her as much as ever, perhaps more. As she swayed and threw her head back, signaling the approach of a burning climax he reached up to fondle her nipples.
“Oh yes,” she gasped, leaning forward ever so slightly to press her breasts into his hands. He pressed his hips upward as a column of fire surged through him and into her. They came in waves, moaning and gasping, grinding against the throbbing of their loins as their orgasms went on and on. Finally they were both spent. Emma rested for a moment, straddling his hips, her hands on his chest. He put his hands on her belly, again feeling the form within. Eyes closed, she smiled at his caress.
“Do you think she enjoyed my visit?” he asked.
“I think all the hormones and other goodies that it releases in my system are good for him,” she said. He reached up to her forearms and guided her off of him, supporting her until she had straightened her legs and stretched out beside him in his arms.
“Always the scientist,” he muttered into her ear. “What about the pure pleasure of it – do you think she senses it?”
“I’m sure he does,” she agreed, after a fashion. “If I’m happy, he’s happy.”
“She’s happy,” he corrected her with a caress of her belly.
He’d met Anna on a cool spring day when he’d gone into her father’s nearly empty grocery looking for tobacco. It was a long shot, but he’d been particularly desperate for a smoke. He’d revealed a wad of American dollars and asked the old man behind the counter if he had any tobacco “in back,” a commonly understood code for black market goods. He’d been surprised when the shopkeeper had turned from cordial to unfriendly at his request. But he’d pocketed his money and turned toward the door.
Anna stepped out from between the aisles of empty shelves, partially interposing herself between him and the exit, her clear blue eyes shining in a cherubic face that made Steed think of apple strudel.
“I could mend your trousers for you, sir,” she offered. Steed let himself frown slightly as he looked at her. Was that a proposition?
“No thanks. I can sew,” he replied curtly. Which was true. He had planned to repair the burst seam of his pant leg when he got back to his room.
“Oh,” she sighed, stepping away from him, eyes dropping to her clasped hands. He noticed her then – he always noticed women – she was compact and curvy, her face childlike on a well developed small body. He could imagine wrapping himself around that body – but then, he could imagine bedding most women. They were all appealing, each in their own way. But today he was distracted, thinking about a job he had just been hired for, planning it out as he wandered the streets studying his target.
It was simple on the surface – recover a roll of film from among the personal property of an American agent being held at the local police station. The job was quite specific – get the film and never mind about the agent. And it was urgent. The agent, and his property, would be turned over to military intelligence first thing in the morning, maybe sooner.
He had intended to handle it exactly as specified. But then he was inside the police station, jabbing his elbow into the face of the officer on duty and wrapping his arm, corded with steely muscles, around a second policeman’s throat until he blacked out. And the American agent had risen from the cot inside his cell to watch. Steed glanced up at the movement as he made for the duty officer’s desk. A negro.
“Lower right,” the black agent said and without responding Steed pulled that drawer open to find a paper sack. Half expecting the policeman’s dinner, he opened it and found a billfold, a pen, a pocketknife, a pistol, and a roll of film. He took out the film and dropped the bag back into the drawer. Then he looked again at the American agent.
“Why did they send a negro here?” he asked. The man shrugged and Steed was impressed that he managed to look nonchalant under the circumstances.
“Somebody didn’t like me much,” he said, his white teeth flashing as he grinned.
“I’ll say. You’ll never get out, once the military has you.” It was an understatement. The Nazis may have been defeated, but there were plenty of men in the occupying Russian army who were capable of the same prejudices. The negro would be tortured, perhaps experimented on, and eventually killed. And if the Americans were willing to let him fall into their hands, then they certainly wouldn’t be negotiating a trade.
Steed yanked the drawer back open and took out the bag. Then he picked up the keys that were lying on the desk and went to the cell.
“I’m taking the film,” he said as he unlocked the cell. “That’s what I’m getting paid for. You’ll have to find a way to explain to your people.”
“Who hired you?” the American asked, pressing the unlocked door open and taking the bag with his belongings in it.
“Your people,” Steed replied. The black man nodded.
“Smyth,” he muttered. “One day he’ll regret the way he throws lives away.”
“Just don’t make me regret not following orders. Get the hell out of here,” Steed replied, disinterested in the man’s problems and already feeling a tinge of doubt about freeing him. “And I had nothing to do with your escape. Got it?”
The black man stopped near the door and studied Steed for a moment. He was not very tall, and built like a bull. He was fit, but Steed suspected that he’d run to fat before long, and if he survived he’d be manning a desk.
“Free as a bird.”
“Nobody’s that free, friend. Thanks.”
And he was gone just like that. Steed followed a step behind him but when he entered the front vestibule the man had already vanished. There was no sign of him out on the street either. Steed reconsidered his earlier assessment – maybe they had known what they were doing when they sent him.
Steed had avoided that neighborhood for several weeks, until the police assignments had changed and he knew he was unlikely to be recognized. But he was addicted to the products of a particular konditerei just up the street from the grocer who avoided the black market. Exactly a month after she’d offered to mend his trousers, he ran into Anna in the bakery. When Steed walked in she was leaning over the counter chatting in hushed tones with the girl who sold the pastries. At the sound of the little bell attached to the door the two women separated and turned toward him.
“Gutten morgan,” he greeted them, taking a second look at Anna as he recognized her. The girl behind the counter moved toward the fluffy pastries with the sprinkling of valuable sugar on top that she remembered him favoring. Anna stood still near the cash register. Steed felt drawn to her, rudely ignoring the girl waiting to serve him.
“I have a shirt that needs mending,” he said. “Perhaps you could look at it?”
He’d thought of her every day since she’d offered her services, her apple-red cheeks and bright blue eyes popping into his thoughts as he tried to focus on other things. He’d thought about her so much, in fact, that he felt as if he knew her already.
“Do you have it with you?” she asked.
“No. It’s in my room. Can I meet you somewhere?”
“My father’s grocery – do you know it?”
“Your father,” he nodded, feeling foolish for not having made the connection. “Yes. I will bring it there tomorrow morning. Is that all right?”
“And may I buy you a pastry?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t.”
Anna looked at her friend behind the counter, but she just smiled wanly. Steed nodded as if making the decision for her, then requested two of his favorite and produced a handful of coins in payment.
“What’s your name?” he asked as the girl behind the counter passed them their pastries on two sheets of brown paper.
“Anna. And you?”
He carried both pastries to one of the tiny tables near the front window of the shop and pulled out a chair for her. She smiled, showing appreciation for his manners, and sat down. They talked for an hour, nibbling their pastries and then consuming a second round that Steed purchased. He embellished his usual thin cover as they talked, describing his favorite books and plays, knowing that she wouldn’t know them. She steered him toward Goethe and he held his own, grateful at last to the teacher at Eton who’d forced him to read in German, and wondering if old Anderson could possibly have foreseen how he’d put the knowledge to use.
It had taken an unprecedented three months to get her into bed. And when he’d finally gotten her there he’d had to teach her everything. That she was a virgin neither impressed nor disturbed him. It just meant a messy beginning and a longer journey to mutual fulfillment. And if he’d thought he would enjoy the role of mentor to a young woman, he found out otherwise. She did exactly as he told her. She never challenged him, never denied him, never surprised him. He grew bored, and he took it out on her, demanding more of her, things that she seemed to dislike, but did not refuse to do. When his mood was black, he didn’t even try to pleasure her, but only sought his own release through her. And then he hated himself for using her, and hated her for allowing it.
It never occurred to him to wonder why she did it. She gave him a reason: she loved him. And in the heat of physical desire he’d said the same to her. She was the last woman he’d said it to, for many, many years.
Steed finished currying Commander, his big black stallion. He’d gone for a long, solitary ride during which he’d allowed his memories to flow freely. It was the first time in years that he’d thought about that first encounter with Billy Melrose. He wasn’t even sure that the American remembered it. They had met again after Steed had joined the ministry and Melrose had recovered from whatever error had put him outside of his boss’s good graces. But neither of them had ever mentioned the police station in East Berlin.
As for Anna, Steed had no idea what had become of her. He’d never tried to find her or contact her. For all he knew she was still living in East Berlin watching for a book by John Steed, although if he’d really been a western writer his book would have been unavailable to her there. And even now he had little desire to know her fate. She was a phantom to him, a character in the dream that was his earlier life. Everything before he returned to England seemed like a dream, with only the money he’d earned, and a few documents like the contract he’d shown Emma, as tangible evidence of that time.
He never wanted to go back.
Eighteen. Emma executed a kick turn and started back toward the other end of the pool. She had turned to lap swimming for exercise because it was much more comfortable than walking, and running was out. Steed had made her promise not to swim alone in their own pool, which was still too cold anyway since they had not turned on the heater. She understood his concern, so instead she came to the ministry where a lifeguard could watch over her and her precious passenger.
By the time they had returned from America it was impossible for her to conceal her condition any longer. When she appeared at the senior staff meeting at Knight Industries the next day her official announcement was almost unnecessary – they’d all congratulated her before she could speak. The knowing look in Alex Harper’s eyes told her all she needed to know about how things were at the ministry – there was probably already a pool on the delivery date.
Nineteen. She pushed off the wall and glided a few yards before surfacing to stroke again. When she’d finally gotten to the ministry a few days later to use the pool and drag Steed away for lunch, she’d been surprised to hear that the bigger buzz was Tara’s surprise wedding. Steed had told her about it the first evening after they got back and she’d been shocked. But then their own business – his revelations about his past and the disturbing discovery of Edmond’s involvement in it – had pushed Tara’s news right out of her head for the next week or so. But it had not, she knew, been pushed out of Steed’s. He was definitely moping, and some judiciously placed calls had helped her to determine that it had nothing to do with the history she’d pressed him to reveal. He had expected her pregnancy to make him the center of attention, and Tara had snuck in and upstaged him. Emma was relieved – she wanted to thank Tara for her timing – but she hated seeing Steed so bothered. That morning, watching his subdued gait as he headed for the Bentley, she had resolved to do something about it.
Twenty. So a couple hours later she had arrived at the ministry wearing an a-frame maternity blouse that made her condition unmistakable. She’d paraded herself through the busier halls, accepting congratulations from acquaintances and friends. Then she’d passed through the large gymnasium where the trainees were stretching prior to a self-defense class. Sally had smiled and waved so she’d gone over to say hello. Then she’d gone through to the locker room and changed for her swim.
She hoped that by the time she met up with Steed for lunch someone would have said something to him about how big his wife was.
Twenty-one. As she flipped through her turn she smiled ruefully into the water. The things I do for his ego.
“The body was there, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, a macabre phrase that was so warmly familiar she had to smile as she bent to read the plaque mounted outside of the museum diorama.
“Neanderthal man,” she read in a monotone. “Nothing about Neanderthal woman, you’ll note.” Steed smirked at her although she was still reading and didn’t see, then he turned at the sound of approaching footsteps.
His face lit up with a wide grin as he caught sight of the tall blonde woman wearing a white lab coat coming their way.
“Mrs. Gale!” he exclaimed, stepping forward to meet her. He took her hand and brought it to his lips, his eyes sparkling as he looked into her cool gaze. Cool, he noted, but not unfriendly.
“Hello Steed,” she replied with a smile. Her voice was a tiny bit gravely and he thought that she must still smoke regularly. Beside him, Emma straightened and turned around, one hand on the top of her belly, the other brushing her hair away from her face.
“Mrs. Gale, what a delightful surprise,” Steed went on, “We weren’t told we’d be meeting you.”
“No. Dr. Russell, a member of my staff, was going to help you. But he was detained in a meeting so I agreed to fill in.”
Steed got the distinct impression that Cathy would have remained completely anonymous in this affair if her subordinate had been available. Why would she want to avoid me? He wondered. Then he remembered his manners.
“This is my partner –.”
“Emma Knight,” Emma interrupted, extending her hand. Mrs. Gale shook it, her guarded glance quickly studying the other woman. Emma smiled sweetly, noting Steed’s quick, sidelong glance at her introduction. He knew what she was up to, and she knew he’d play along.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Knight?” Mrs. Gale’s unfinished sentence ended in a question, but Emma deflected it by turning back toward the diorama.
“This display seems quite damaged. There must have been quite a fight. And yet, according to the preliminary report the security guard didn’t hear anything?”
Mrs. Gale looked to Steed, who smiled amiably and half turned to look into the diorama while also keeping an eye on both women.
“No. The security staff says there were no guards in this area when it happened,” she explained with strained patience. She knew that was in the report, and she knew that Steed’s partner was trying to poke holes in the museum’s official version of events. It’s what she would have done.
“And the dead man was also a member of your staff?”
“Dr. Jameson. Yes.”
“But how long have you been back here, Mrs. Gale?” Steed asked as if he were unable to focus on the case until he caught up with his old friend. “Last I heard you were in the States.”
“I only returned to London about a month ago, Steed. I did spend some time in the States, and South America. And then I returned to Africa,” Mrs. Gale paused, watching Steed nod understandingly. It surprised her a little that he remembered enough of her history to know how significant that was, but he appeared to.
“That must have been difficult,” he said.
“But necessary. For me to achieve a sense of finality,” she glanced at Emma, who looked politely interested. “My husband was killed in Africa.”
“And you felt that you needed to return to Africa in order to put that part of your life behind you.”
“Yes. I see you understand.”
Emma nodded, and something in her eyes told Cathy Gale that she really did understand.
“The museum asked me to come back and head up the archaeology department. It was a generous offer, including a teaching grant, and frankly I was homesick. So I came. Dr. Jameson had only been with the museum for a few weeks when I got here.”
“Do you think there’s a chance he wanted the position you were offered?” Emma asked, and even Steed flinched at the implication. Cathy Gale would not murder a rival. And in any case it would more likely be the other way around!
But Mrs. Gale just shook her head, her expression neutral. “No, he’s a specialist in early man. Not really qualified to oversee the whole department. Besides, he was desperate to get back out into the field.”
“What was stopping him?” Steed asked.
“No backers with deep pockets ready to send him on another quest for buried treasure?” Steed asked flippantly.
“No backers ready to send him out in search of fossilized human bones, Steed,” Mrs. Gale retorted a bit sharply. The same old Steed, she thought, then looked curiously at Emma Knight. To her surprise, the woman was giving Steed an annoyed look, and as she followed Emma’s gaze she saw Steed look genuinely contrite. Good Lord, she’s tamed him!
“The ministry has his files,” Steed said, glancing again into the diorama.
“I’d like to review them,” Emma replied. “This wasn’t a random killing.”
“And archeologists are not typically targets of assassinations,” Mrs. Gale added.
“To the office, then, my dear,” Steed said, offering Emma his arm. “Mrs. Gale, we shall be in touch again, very soon I suspect.”
“Yes, I’m sure you will Steed,” she replied. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” she added to Emma, self-consciously omitting her name.
“Indeed,” Emma said.
Mrs. Gale watched them walk toward the entrance to the large hall, Steed striding as jauntily as ever, Emma’s gate more cautious, as if her center-of-balance were not quite right. Mrs. Gale’s curiosity was buzzing, but her good manners preventing her from following and asking the questions that were on the tip of her tongue. Instead she turned back toward her office, which was just off of the exhibit hall behind a door marked “private.”
Steed and Emma stopped near the museum’s front door. Emma released his arm and they both turned toward Mrs. Gale, who was walking quickly toward them.
“There’s a call for you. In my office. I told them I thought I could catch you.”
“Thank you Mrs. Gale.”
They all returned to the large exhibit hall of displays of early man and Mrs. Gale unlocked her office. Steed walked in and picked up the telephone receiver, which was lying on her desk.
Cathy and Emma stood near the door, giving Steed a polite amount of space in case the call required privacy.
“When is your baby due?” Cathy asked, glancing again at Emma’s protuberant belly.
“Late September,” Emma replied with a shrug. “It’s going to be a long, hot summer for me.”
“Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?”
“Oh, I believe it’s a boy. But my husband says he wants a girl,” Emma’s gaze drifted to Steed, who stood in profile with the telephone receiver to his ear. He was speaking quietly and calmly. “He seems to believe he can handle two women in his life,” she shook her head with a rueful smile. Cathy studied Emma’s face, then looked at Steed.
“Steed’s your husband, isn’t he?” she asked impulsively.
“Touché,” Emma replied, inclining her head in confirmation. “I hope you can forgive my little deception.”
Cathy covered her mouth with one hand to conceal her mirth, but it was no good. Her eyes sparkled as she laughed, and Emma had to smile, then chuckle herself. Steed glanced at them, looking slightly alarmed, then was distracted by the caller.
“Forgive me,” Cathy finally said. “I just can’t imagine how you turned John Steed into husband material. And an expectant father to boot!”
Emma shrugged and smiled fondly at Steed. “He’s not easy,” she conceded. “But on the whole I think he’s worth the trouble.”
“On the whole, he’s a good, generous man,” Cathy agreed. “But his ego!”
“Yes, well, sometimes one must meet force with force, if you know what I mean,” Emma replied.
Cathy stared at her for a moment, teetering between dumbfounded and impressed. “I should really like to get to know you, Mrs. – Miss? Just what is your name?”
Emma laughed. “I haven’t changed my name, for business reasons. It’s Emma Knight. But I’m growing accustomed to being called Mrs. Steed. You, however, should call me Emma. Please.”
“Cathy,” Mrs. Gale replied, and Emma nodded.
Steed replaced the telephone receiver and stepped over to them looking slightly apprehensive.
“Dr. Booth has completed her initial examination and she’s ready to go over her report with us,” he said as he looked from Emma to Cathy and back.
“You have to love a man who takes you on regular visits to the morgue,” Emma said to Cathy, who smiled. Then Emma took Steed’s arm and guided him out of Cathy Gale’s office.
“Do you think Mother will give in and reassign Tara or Robert McCall?” Sally asked James over her teacup. James lowered the morning paper to look across the dining room table at her.
“I hadn’t realized you were following their situation that closely.”
“It’s for selfish reasons,” she replied, sipping her tea.
“Oh?” one eyebrow arched inquisitively.
“I have been hoping – Tara mentioned back at Christmas that she’d seen my file – so I’ve been hoping to be posted to Paris. But if she gets reassigned –,” Sally shrugged guiltily, but James only smiled.
“I wonder if Tara’s really thought through what it would mean to be posted with McCall,” he said thoughtfully.
“What would it mean?”
“He has seniority. She’s been handling the Paris office well enough, from what I hear, but if she’s assigned with him, she’ll report to him. She’ll lose what she’s worked for.”
“And she wouldn’t get to choose trainees,” Sally said.
“No, probably not. Although I’m sure she’d have a lot of influence. And the South of France is quite lovely, if it worked out that way.”
Sally took another sip of tea and picked up her toast. “But it isn’t London,” she said.
James studied her for a moment, then said, “no, it’s not London.”
“Would you visit?” She finally blurted, her bright eyes locking with his, then darting back down to look at her plate. She pressed her finger against a crumb and put it to her lips.
“Well, yes. Or Paris.”
James didn’t answer for so long she finally had to look up at his face. He wore a silly grin. “I might try to get myself assigned there too,” he said.
“You wouldn’t want me?”
“No! I mean, I –,” she stopped because he had burst out laughing. She scowled at him.
“I understand,” he said, reaching across the table to wrap her hand in his. “You need to make a name for yourself, but you want me to come around to entertain you now and then.”
“You make me sound so selfish.”
“Just ambitious. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Cathy Gale turned the page of the magazine on the cafeteria table in front of her and studied a full-page photograph of Emma Knight standing in the garden of a large estate.
“She’s a real looker. Who is she?” Dr. William Russell looked over her shoulder at the magazine.
“Emma Knight, Chief Executive Officer of Knight Industries,” Cathy replied, turning the page back to the beginning of the article so he could see the headline.
“Right,” he nodded, “I remember now. She staged a coup, regained the big office at her father’s company. That was about a year ago, at least. And then she was shot.”
“There’s nothing about it in there?”
“No. But this is from more than a year ago. It’s about her takeover, but before she succeeded.”
“Well, she got back in and then one of the members of the board of directors shot her. The company had some rough times after that, but she pulled it through. My broker put me into it when the shares were low last summer and it’s done very well for me.”
Cathy smiled up at Bill, then looked back down at the beautiful, determined woman in the photograph. Pregnancy had softened Emma Knight, but the intelligence, strength, and humor in the photograph had all been present in the woman Cathy had met. How, she wondered, did Steed recruit her? And what sort of power did she have over him, to entice him into marriage? Cathy definitely wanted to get to know Emma Knight.
“Severe head trauma,” Dr. Mildred Booth said as she drew back the sheet covering the body of Dr. Edwin Jameson. Head trauma seemed like an understatement. The left side of his face was smashed in.
“Any other injuries?” Steed asked.
“That isn’t enough?” Emma asked pointedly. Steed arched one brow at her, then looked to Dr. Booth.
“Broken right arm, bruises on the chest and abdomen. Two cracked ribs. He put up quite a fight,” she said.
“A blunt object. The team is going back to examine the diorama where he was found. Sorry I can’t be more specific yet.”
“Don’t worry, Dr. Booth. I’m sure it will turn up,” Steed looked down at Jameson with a little shake of his head. “Come on, Mrs. Peel, let’s see what his files tell us.”
“Well, well,” Emma said, lowering the file she’d been studying to look at Steed, who was sitting at the other end of the couch. They had brought Dr. Jameson’s files back to the mews apartment to study them in comfort. Emma had to admit, however, that she was finding the sofa less and less comfortable.
“Find something?” he asked without looking up.
“It seems that Dr. Jameson published a paper claiming to have found the missing link, based on several fragments of a skull he found two seasons ago.”
“The missing –.”
“Yes, the creature between apes and men, evolutionarily speaking.”
“And he found the remains of such a creature?”
“He claimed to have found them. The archeological community disagreed and he was professionally demoralized.”
“So he could not get funding for another dig.”
“No. He accepted the position at the museum, packed up his fossils, and came home.”
“So his ‘missing link’ fossils are among his things at the museum,” Steed said thoughtfully.
“You think someone is after them?”
“I don’t know. A rival who believed Jameson’s claim? Steal the fossil in question and try to press the missing link argument on his own?”
“It would be difficult – the archaeological community checks the source of these things. He’d have to construct a fictional dig location, all the details, the research. It would be very costly, and a huge risk since Dr. Jameson’s claim about these bones was already discredited.”
Steed was nodding agreement as she spoke. “You’re right. That makes no sense as a motive. So we shall have to keep looking.”
“How does a discredited archaeologist feel?” Emma mused, looking at a photograph of the dead man in tropical kit at a dig site.
“Resentful?” Steed suggested.
“Open to suggestion. He needs funds. Maybe he thinks there are more bones to be found that will support his claim. But without funding to continue digging he’ll never be able to find them.”
“So you think funding is the key. He did something to get funding and someone didn’t like it.”
“I think funding is part of it. I’m not sure about the rest yet.”
Steed rose, stretching his back, then bending down to pick up the glasses they’d been sipping lemonade from. “Well, how about if you continue to put your mind to it while I see what we’ve got here that will work for dinner?”
“All right, but you won’t find much. I made an omelet from the last eggs and cheese when I was here last week.”
Steed glanced at the clock. “Then I’d better get out to the shops. I’m almost afraid to ask, but would you like anything special?”
Emma smiled, knowing that he’d been put off by some of her recent cravings. “I’m in the mood for fish, but I have no particular desires.”
He bent down, placing his face very near hers. “None at all?” he asked, sounding disappointed.
“Other than you, darling. But you know that I always desire you,” she said with mocking seductiveness, her lips quivering with humor as she gazed into his eyes. He kissed her and stood up.
“I shan’t be long,” he said, heading for the kitchen with the glasses.
The ring-ring of the bedside phone drew Emma out of sleep just as Steed was reaching for it.
“Steed here,” he said groggily. Emma pulled herself up in the bed, watching him listen to the caller.
“I’ll be there as soon as possible,” he said after a few minutes. “Right.” He replaced the receiver and rolled back toward Emma. “There’s been a break-in at the museum.”
Emma started to pull off the covers and Steed put his hand on hers. “Don’t get up. I’ll go,” he said.
“Are you breaking up our partnership?” she asked.
“Of course not. But it’s the middle of the night. You need your rest.”
“I shall be the one to say whether I need to rest or not,” she pushed his hand away and got out of bed. He watched her stalk into the bathroom, then shook his head and got up himself.
“These are the fossils from Dr. Jameson’s last dig,” Mrs. Gale said as they looked at the shambles in the museum laboratory. Crates filled with packing material and fossilized bones had been smashed open, their contents scattered over the long worktables and the floor. “They were delivered right after I started here. He had only just started to work with them.”
“And are the bones that he claimed were the ‘missing link’ here?” Emma asked.
Cathy looked startled then shook her head.
“They shouldn’t be,” she said. “They would not have been among the artifacts from his last dig – he discovered them the previous season. They’re in storage, I suppose.”
“So there’s nothing controversial about these?” Steed asked.
“Not that I know of. Dr. Jameson was rather closed-mouthed about his last dig. I can’t blame him, I suppose. I take it you read about his misfortune?”
“Yes,” Emma said. “How had it affected him?”
Mrs. Gale cast Emma a displeased look. “I realize you’re a successful business woman, Mrs. Steed, but I’m sure you can imagine how professional rejection would feel,” she said, her tone and her use of Emma’s unfamiliar married name drawing Steed’s attention away from the fragments of a crate he’d been examining.
“I am not the subject of this investigation, Mrs. Gale. What I want to know is how Dr. Jameson was behaving. Was he depressed? Angry? Resentful?”
Emma was not going to back down. All of Steed’s instincts told him to separate his wife from his former partner as quickly as possible. But Mrs. Gale had sunk her teeth into the engagement too.
“He was professional. He did his job,” she nearly growled. Then she paused, picking up a fragment of a skull from the worktable. “I think he was biding his time,” she went on more thoughtfully. “As if he was confident that the bad publicity would pass and he’d be able to get back out into the field eventually.”
“Or as if he knew funding would come,” Steed suggested before Emma could say anything. He saw her glance at him in irritation, but he kept his attention focused on Mrs. Gale.
“But how would he know that?” she asked, setting the skull down as she looked up at him.
“He’d done something to arrange it,” Steed suggested gently.
“And someone didn’t like what he did?” Mrs. Gale asked, glancing around at the mess.
“There’s probably more to it,” Emma said, stepping away from them as if to distance herself from their previous, heated exchange. Steed felt a wave of relief, and pride in Emma’s ability to regain control, even with their baby distracting her. “Perhaps he went back on his word, or he didn’t succeed at whatever he was supposed to do.”
“Do you have a real theory, or are you just speculating?” Mrs. Gale asked, staring at Emma’s back.
“Now Mrs. Gale, you know all theories begin with speculation,” Steed said soothingly. She arched a single, sculpted blond brow at him, then looked back at Emma.
“In your line of work, yes. But not for a scientist.”
Emma had turned around. She leaned on the worktable, nodding at Mrs. Gale.
“Nonetheless, this situation is right up Steed’s alley,” she said with a smile. “And when I’m in his alley, I’ve learned to follow my gut.”
Steed couldn’t stop the laugh that erupted from him at his wife’s expense, and when Mrs. Gale also laughed Emma looked from one to the other, then down at her stomach, and joined them.
“I’m sorry, darling,” Steed said, stepping over to her to press a kiss on her temple. He glanced at Mrs. Gale, who was covering her mouth with one hand to conceal her lingering grin.
Emma sighed, also smiling in spite of herself. “Oh well,” she said, “I suppose, at least for the next few months, I shall have to watch my words more carefully.”
“Please accept my apology too,” Mrs. Gale said. “And I take your point in any case. If I think of anything about the way Dr. Jameson was behaving I’ll get in touch.”
“Thank you Mrs. Gale,” Steed said, his hand firmly pressed to the small of Emma’s back. “We’ll see ourselves out.”
Cathy took a bite of the ham sandwich she’d made for herself, then brushed crumbs off of the papers in the open file on the table in front of her. As she chewed a frown creased her brow. She swallowed, took a sip of iced tea, and re-read the column of data she’d just scanned.
Setting down her sandwich, she reached for the telephone.
“Steed here,” his pleasant voice sent a warm wave of reassurance through her. How remarkable that he can still have that effect on me.
“Steed, it’s Cathy Gale. I’ve been reviewing the lab results on some of the fossils Dr. Jameson brought back from his last dig – the ones that were in the vandalized crates,” she said. Nothing had been found missing from the lab where the crated fossils had been smashed and searched, so it could not be considered a robbery.
“And you’ve found something interesting?” Steed asked.
“Very. It’s –.”
“Not over the phone, my dear. I’ll be there in thirty minutes,” Steed interrupted her. She glared at the telephone receiver for a moment, then hung it up and looked again at the carbon dating test results.
Steed smiled warmly at Cathy Gale as he strode into the museum. She had finished her lunch and gone out to meet him so that he wouldn’t bully his way past the guards and reception desk as she’d seen him do so many times in the past. He was reaching into his breast pocket as she met him, and she wondered if he had actually been considering paying the museum admission fee.
“Come back to the lab,” she said, nodding at the guard and the reception staff as she escorted Steed past. Once they were out of earshot she went on, “you really needn’t have come, Steed,” she said. “I could have told you over the telephone.”
He shook his head as they walked, “eavesdropping technology has become very sophisticated, and the line to my flat isn’t secure.”
“Why ever not?” she asked, startled. “I should think you would rate the best.”
Steed glanced at her face to be sure she wasn’t teasing him, but she seemed quite serious.
“Bureaucracy and budgets, my dear. It isn’t my primary residence, so some functionary thought it didn’t need the secure line. It’s in the process of being reinstated.”
“But you gave me that number,” Cathy was confused – and terribly curious about Steed’s primary residence.
“I’m frequently there, particularly when a case is very active, and I have the answerphone there for non-sensitive messages.”
“So where do you live?” she blurted, directing him to turn down a side corridor of bird exhibits.
“We bought a country house, about an hour outside of town. Mrs. P – Emma found it and fell in love with the hedge maze in the garden. So we had to have it,” he shrugged as if it were his life’s duty to satisfy his wife’s whimsy. Cathy stopped dead in the corridor and stared at him. He stopped too, half turning to face her. A huge, stuffed California Condor hanging in the exhibit behind her seemed to be peering over her shoulder at him.
“You amaze me, Steed,” she said. “I never thought it was possible.”
“For me to amaze you?” he asked, sounding hurt, “why, I thought I’d managed it once or twice before.”
“You are capable of loving someone else more than yourself,” she went on, ignoring him. His face darkened as she spoke and she realized that she’d crossed one of his many lines. “Forgive me,” she added. “That was inappropriate. What I should have said was, it is wonderful to see you so happy. You are, aren’t you?” But even as she spoke she heard her other implied question. And she saw that Steed heard it too. If you’re not happy, will you give me a chance to help?
“I am, Mrs. Gale. Perhaps, when we’ve solved our little mystery here, we can have a long talk,” he said quietly, imploring her with his eyes to leave the subject for now.
“I’d like that Steed,” she replied, grateful that he had not allowed his annoyance to explode – that was a change for the better. He nodded, and they moved on.
“It’s very puzzling,” she said, pointing to the thick lab report on Jameson’s fossils. Steed looked at the pages of data, then turned his gaze back toward Cathy, an appealing look in his eyes.
“Would you be so kind as to translate, my dear?” he asked.
“Certainly Steed.” Moving next to him she turned the report so that she could read it too. “Each fossil is assigned an identification number,” she indicated the first column. “And they’re organized by a broader scheme – in this case, by location in the dig. Here’s the next set of fossils from an adjacent location,” she turned a few pages to show Steed where a new section of data began, headed by an equally mysterious location code.
“Go on,” he said, understanding the concept even if not the details.
“Several tests were run on the fossils, and the results are shown in these columns,” she indicated most of the rest of the neat rows of numbers.
“Would Dr. Jameson have selected what tests to run?” Steed asked.
“Yes,” Cathy glanced up at him, looking thoughtful.
“And are these typical tests to run?” Steed went on.
Cathy had always admired his ability to see around distractions. But in this case she wasn’t sure there was anything to see. “They are. None of them are unusual, and there’s nothing missing that would be standard,” she replied.
Steed nodded curtly. “So it’s the results themselves?”
“Yes. According to these results, the fossils from three areas of the dig are not fossils at all.”
“What are they then? Counterfeit fossils?”
Cathy chuckled and turned to the lab table behind them. Steed followed her. She picked up a fragment of jaw with a single tooth in it. “This is not counterfeit,” she said. “It’s clearly fossilized bone. But according to the dating tests, it’s not old. In fact, the test was unable to determine its age at all.”
“How can that be?”
“It’s as if the molecular structure of the artifact has been skewed,” she replied.
“Not to sound redundant, Mrs. Gale, but –.”
“How can that be?” she interrupted with a smile. He nodded.
“Something has had an effect on these artifacts. I can’t say what, not without more tests. Perhaps exposure to something, like a magnetic field, or intense radiation…”
“And do the affected artifacts have anything else in common, besides being from the same areas of the dig?”
“You mean, were the areas they’re from adjacent?”
“Yes. But perhaps the more interesting common element is that they were all packed in the same crate.”
Steed’s eyebrows arched and then he smiled at her. “Very good, Mrs. Gale. So you haven’t lost the investigative spirit,” he said.
“Investigation is the heart of all science, Steed,” she placed the fossilized jaw back into the box she’d taken it from. “I’ve ordered more tests on all of the affected fossils to try to determine what might have caused the first tests to fail.”
“Excellent, Mrs. Gale. How quickly can they be done?”
“With your endorsement, tomorrow.”
“Show me where to sign.”
“You said you spent some time in South America,” Steed said. They were strolling through the museum toward the entrance. Steed wanted to prevent the conversation from returning to his personal life, and the best way to do that was to ask about hers.
“Yes, in the Amazon. It’s a fascinating place.”
Steed struggled for a response. His thoughts about the Amazonian jungle were all tangled up with his feelings toward Peter Peel. I should have known that’s where she’d have gone, he scolded himself for inquiring about South America. But once the topic was broached he could not easily let it drop.
“When were you there?” he asked, curious to know whether Mrs. Gale had been there when Peter Peel emerged back into civilization more than four years ago.
“Um, let’s see,” she said thoughtfully, “I left England in sixty-four and spent two years in the states. So I was in the Amazon in sixty-seven and part of sixty-eight. Yes, she was.
“I joined two different expeditions that collected samples of previously unknown species and documented primitive tribes,” she went on with growing enthusiasm. “It was hard living, but not so different from Africa. It was frustrating, though when we came out of the jungle the second time with loads of samples and field notes, we were completely upstaged by that pilot, Peter Peel. I’m sure you heard about him.”
“Yes,” Steed said, struggling to maintain his neutral expression.
“He came striding out of the jungle with several years worth of invaluable field notes and perfect botanical samples. He advanced rainforest research ten-fold with what he had collected and observed.”
“So I’d heard,” Steed said crisply, allowing his gaze to be drawn to a group of youngsters gathered around a display. Mrs. Gale followed his gaze and smiled indulgently.
“Looking forward to that?” she asked. He jerked his eyes back to hers and found her smiling at him, a hint of teasing in her expression. “Children,” she said, nodding toward them.
“I am,” he said as they took a few more steps toward the children. They were asking questions now, raising their hands and being recognized by their teacher. She seemed to be having a hard time responding to their queries, however. Cathy craned her neck over the heads of the children to see what they were asking about.
“It’s a Geiger counter,” she told Steed, although he had also identified the display. They were close enough now to hear the teacher’s words, and the clicking of the device.
“I’m not sure why it’s fluctuating so much, Jill. Perhaps it’s out of order. Come along, let’s see what’s next. I’ll speak to the museum staff about it later.”
The children moved away from the display.
“Fluctuating?” Cathy muttered, stepping closer to the device. Steed joined her. The device had a display of lights that illuminated in conjunction with the clicking. As they watched, all of the lights glowed and the device clicked so quickly it almost emitted a steady tone. Then just as quickly the sound faded to a click or two a second and most of the lights went out. Cathy frowned, and her eyes widened as the lights glowed and the clicking increased again a few seconds later.
“A pulsing radiation source?” Steed wondered aloud.
“That’s what this would indicate,” Cathy agreed, but she did not sound convinced.
“And you said exposure to radiation might have caused the fossils to be un-testable,” Steed went on.
“It might,” Cathy agreed. “But how can Dr. Jameson’s fossils and this,” she pointed at the Geiger counter, “be connected?”
Steed flashed her his most enigmatic smile and Cathy’s pulse quickened. For an instant she felt like the Geiger counter reacting to Steed’s constant emotional and intellectual gyrations. Just as she’d feared would happen when she heard he would be investigating Dr. Jameson’s murder, it excited her to be pulled back into his world of mysterious conspiracies.
“I haven’t a clue,” he said. “But the coincidence is too strange to ignore. I’d like to have our people come check it out.”
“All right. I’ll notify the staff,” she replied.
“Thank you Mrs. Gale,” Steed glanced at his wristwatch. “I’m afraid I should run now. I’ll be in touch.”
Cathy Gale had made the connection between Peter Peel and Emma Knight Steed when she’d delved into her associate, Dr. Miller’s, eclectic collection of periodicals. The article about Miss Knight retaking her father’s business was just one of many that she’d found. Returning to the pile of borrowed magazines that she still had in her office she found the oldest, which contained a profile of Mrs. Emma Peel, grieving widow of the lost test pilot.
She’d been unaware of his disappearance – it had occurred while she was in the states where the loss of an English test pilot wasn’t newsworthy. That she had been present three years later at the same research station in the Amazonian jungle where Peel turned up did not seem to have surprised Steed. Did he think it was coincidence? She wondered, or did he already know I was there? Even more puzzling was Steed’s lack of reaction to her mention of Peel.
“Everything is falling into place, Emma,” Edmond Stanton said cheerfully as he paced the length of her office, pausing to peer out the window, then swinging back toward her desk. Emma watched him from her chair – the third in a series of luxury executive chairs that Mrs. Emerson had arranged for her to try. She was thinking that she liked number two better, but she realized that she really needed to make the choice when she was not pregnant. Otherwise she would have to purchase separate chairs for the various stages of childbearing. She felt herself smile at that idea just as Edmond skewered her with his excited gaze.
“Yes, you should be smiling. Tomorrow the Ministry of Defense will sign the contract, and next week the Americans will place their order so that their equipment will be compatible. And Knight Industries – that’s you, my dear — will be assured of approximately seventy million pounds over the next five years. The board will vote a lovely little bonus for you and your little bonus.” Stanton glanced at her belly.
Emma looked down at the contract on her desk to hide the look of anxiety that had replaced her smile. She had been brooding on Edmond’s signature on another contract for weeks now. But she had promised Steed that she would not confront her chief negotiator, not before Steed had a chance to find out whether Edmond’s connections to the intelligence community still existed, and not before she delivered their baby. Steed feared for her safety, and that of their child. Which meant he thought there was a chance that Edmond was still a spy.
And what if he is? She wondered for the millionth time. So is Steed. So am I, after a fashion. But it wasn’t so much that her father’s old friend might be a spy, it was that he had kept it from her all this time, even knowing of her own involvement in the business. She could not help but be suspicious of his loyalties.
Edmond was leaning over her desk, both hands planted on it. Emma looked up, her smile back.
“Little Johnny will be very grateful for his education fund, Edmond,” she said glibly.
Steed flipped through the pile of top-secret files on his desk and stopped on the one he was looking for. The otherwise routine report had caught his eye only because Tara King was involved. It seemed to him that her husband – Tara’s husband! – had bungled his assignment, but because he’d brought Tara along she’d had to sign off on the report too.
He opened the file and took out the thin report. Thirty-four grams of weapons-grade uranium sold by an Italian to someone other than McCall and King. And now a crate of fossils at the natural history museum was mysteriously irradiated, and the Geiger counter was picking up a concentration of radiation high enough to be generated by thirty-four grams, even shielded in lead.
Steed rose and went to the bookshelf to retrieve a big, leather-bound atlas. He laid it on his desk and paged through it.
The uranium had traveled from Romania to France, where McCall had missed out on capturing it. Dr. Jameson’s archaeological site had been in North Africa – Morocco. Not that far a leap, Steed thought, tracing a line south from France across the Mediterranean. The larger leap was believing that Dr. Jameson had packed the stuff in with his fossils and shipped it to the museum. But it seemed that he had, so where was it now? In the museum, it seemed, although the strange, pulsing radiation signature was a problem. And who had tried to retrieve it, shattering the crates of fossils?
Steed wanted to recover the uranium, of course. But he wanted even more to know who had arranged for Dr. Jameson to transport it and why. Whoever had killed the archaeologist had wanted the stuff. Had Dr. Jameson tried to withhold the uranium in order to extract more money? Or had the killer not been Dr. Jameson’s original customer, but rather someone trying to rob him before his transaction was completed?
I need Emma’s help, Steed thought, heading for his office door.
Upon learning two days ago of the dangerously high radiation reading at the museum, Emma had announced that she would not risk giving birth to a mutant, so she would not return there until the Geiger counter readings were within the normal range. She urged Steed to avoid the place too, hinting that the radiation could have a devastating effect on their family planning.
But Steed knew that Emma still wanted to help with the case. And he knew exactly where she was just then.
“Hit,” Emma said curtly, making a note of it on her score pad, then nodding for the fencers to continue. Before her, the two white clothed combatants resumed their stances and continued their match. Emma had concluded the trainees’ basic instruction well before her pregnancy became an impediment. The students had been practicing since then. She’d been delighted when Hemming, the ministry’s head of physical training, asked her back to judge their final competition.
“Hit,” she repeated as the same fencer touched his opponent with the tip of his foil. That ended the match. Sally, the loser, stripped off her mask and sighed, glancing glumly at Emma. She hadn’t done badly, but her opponent, Matthew, was taller, stronger, and faster. Emma didn’t meet Sally’s gaze – the other trainees might take any acknowledgement of their friendship as cause for favoritism. On the other hand, Sally might take her non-stellar score as over-compensation in the other direction. Oh well, I know I’m being fair, Emma thought as she signaled for the next pair. Sally had not been eliminated yet – she had one more chance.
As the next match got underway the door to the gymnasium opened and a familiar figure came in. Steed rounded the fencers, watching them as he walked, then pulled an empty folding chair – one of many occupied by the trainees and a few spectators – up just behind and to the right of Emma. Sitting down, he leaned close to her, looking over her shoulder at the score pad in her hand.
“Hit,” she said, her eyes riveted on the fencers although she was very aware of her husband’s proximity.
“I need your divinely efficient brain,” he whispered, his face just behind her shoulder, his eyes focused on her temple.
“Is that all?” she whispered back, still watching the fencers.
“For my immediate puzzle, yes. Later on –.”
“Hit,” Emma said, her lips curling into a smile at the timeliness of the fencer’s successful attack. Steed sat back in his chair and crossed his legs, watching the combatants for a few minutes. As the match continued, he leaned forward again.
“The one on the left is sluggish,” he whispered.
“Yes,” Emma whispered back, eyes narrowing as the fencer on the right almost scored a third hit.
“But the one on the right does not have good balance.”
“You aren’t writing it down.”
“I already had. Thank you.”
Steed smiled at Emma’s slightly annoyed tone and leaned back.
“Hit,” she said, immediately recording the match results on her pad as the fencers returned to their seats. The next pair took their places.
Emma raised her hand, delaying their start. She half turned to look at Steed. “Are you planning on watching the rest?” she asked pointedly. He grinned impishly and she narrowed her eyes at him.
“Will you come to my office when they’re through?” he asked.
“If you want me to.”
“Oh I want you, Mrs. Peel,” he said loud enough for the waiting fencers and those sitting nearby to hear him.
“Then I’ll be there,” she replied coolly, unflustered by his innuendo. With a satisfied smile, he rose and returned his chair to its place. Then he shot a conspiratorial smile at Sally and strode out of the gym. When he was half way across the floor Emma cleared her throat, regaining the attention of the fencers, who were watching Steed depart. They snapped back into position and began their match at her signal.
“Did you enjoy that?” Emma asked an hour later, stepping into his office and closing the door. Steed stood up and came around his desk to her.
“Was I bothering you?” he asked as he slipped his arms around her, bending over her belly to press his mouth to hers. She raised her hands to his face, slipping them into his hair on either side. Her lips parted under his and they indulged in a lascivious kiss that quickened her pulse. She inhaled a long, satisfied breath and peered into his twinkling eyes.
“Did you ask me here for that?” she asked.
He noted her omission of the word “just” in her question. There was no belittling that kiss. He decided to repeat it. She did not resist, and when his lips wandered down her neck she let her head fall back and heaved a throaty sigh.
“Will you come home tonight?” she asked. He’d spent the previous two nights at the apartment in town while she had been in the country.
“I’d be a fool not to,” he replied, bringing his lips back to hers for another kiss, this one less intense, more playful.
“How’s the Squirt?” he finally asked, stroking the sides of her belly.
“Squirmy,” she sighed.
“She probably missed me last night.”
Emma chose not to contradict his choice of gender, instead slipping her hands around his neck and laying her head on his shoulder. He held her for a while longer, stroking her back, his lips pressed to her forehead, enjoying the feel of her warm, soft body pressed against his. At last she loosened her hold a bit and looked up into his eyes. He brushed a finger over her high cheekbone, smiling at her so lovingly she felt as if they must both be glowing with emotion.
“I need to go over the case with you. The pieces aren’t fitting together.”
“Maybe we don’t have them all.”
“I’m sure we don’t have them all. Let’s figure out where the holes are.”
Steed reviewed the details, omitting his talk with Cathy about her time in the Amazon. He presented his theory about the uranium, enjoying the way Emma’s hair glimmered as she bent over the open atlas. She flipped it back over her shoulder and caught him looking at her instead of the map.
“You’d better come home tonight,” she repeated with a wry smile.
“Or you could sit here on my lap,” he suggested, sitting down in his desk chair and looking up at her hopefully. She snorted with laughter and his expression turned disappointed.
“I am not in the mood for desktop sex today, Steed. Nor a desk chair fling,” she raised a hand, palm outward, to forestall his inevitable counter proposal.
“Oh well,” he sighed, pulling the chair up to the desk to sort through the files there. Emma moved around it to pace.
“Have your people reached any conclusions about the strange Geiger counter readings?” Emma wandered toward his office door as she spoke.
“No. They say the pulsing does not match any known radiation signature.”
“So it couldn’t be the missing uranium,” she said, walking back toward the desk.
Steed shrugged, frustrated at being baffled.
“And Dr. Jameson’s killer could have been his customer, if he did ship the uranium here. Or it could have been a third party,” she went on, swinging back around toward the door. Steed nodded, his eyes narrowing as he watched her pace.
“Do you have someone in Morocco who can look into his dig there?” she stopped at the door and turned toward him. “He must have hired local diggers.”
Steed bolted from his chair and came around to her; grabbing her shoulders in his hands he planted a kiss on her lips.
“Mrs. Peel, you’re brilliant,” he said.
“Thank you darling, but why?”
“You’re moving. It’s moving!” he declared, grabbing his bowler and umbrella off the hooks on the wall behind the door.
Emma stood with one brow arched as he yanked open the door and strode out.
The museum guards didn’t bother to try to stop Steed when they saw him come plunging through the front doors. It was close to closing time and several school groups were gathered in the lobby area preparing to exit. Steed strode past them and on into the museum galleries. He trotted upstairs and into a large hall in the center of the building that was topped by a dome several stories above. He hadn’t been here in years, but he remembered being fascinated by it as a child. A giant pendulum hanging from the center of the dome swung slowly back and forth, following a looping path etched on the floor of the hall. A low wall kept visitors out of the range of the pendulum, which ended with a large, metal ball as high as Steed was tall.
The Foucault pendulum demonstrated the rotation of the earth. At the end of each swing, the ball knocked down one of a circle of standing pins placed inside the perimeter of the wall. And as it swung, the uranium that Dr. Jameson must have put on it somewhere caused the Geiger counter just one flight down to register radiation in a fluctuating pattern. That had been the confusing part – the pattern of radiation bursts registered by the Geiger counter was not even, but rather the highs and lows had grown more extreme, then less extreme, over time. That was because the pendulum not only swung, but also rotated.
Steed watched the massive, slow moving ball swing toward him and away from him several times. Its surface was polished brass. Anything attached to it would be obvious. The bottom of the ball nearly brushed the floor at the midpoint of its arc, so nothing could be attached there. That left the top, which Steed could only see when the pendulum swung away from him. The cable that held the ball was attached via a bulky connection that he could not make out. Without another thought, Steed planted his foot on the low wall and started to climb up.
“Steed!” Cathy Gale’s voice echoed sharply in the huge space. He stopped, watching the ball swing toward him. He realized just in time that his face was hanging out over the wall and pulled back before being struck, stepping back onto the floor. Cathy’s heels clacked on the polished marble as she approached.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.
“The uranium is on the pendulum,” Steed replied. “That’s why the Geiger counter is fluctuating.”
“So you were going to leap up onto the bob and remove it yourself?” she asked, her scornful tone so reminiscent of their old days together Steed took a half a step back from her. “Do you know what that much radiation can do to you, that close up? It’s bad enough being this close to it. Call one of your special teams in. We’ll stop the pendulum. You have a family to consider now – or had you forgotten them?”
Steed felt his anger rise. Of course he hadn’t forgotten Emma. He never forgot her. But Mrs. Gale was correct in that he had not gone so far as to consider the repercussions of his impulsive action. Seething at himself, and at her for shedding such a bright light on his dangerously impulsive nature, he glanced at the pendulum, then ran a hand through his hair.
“Take me to a phone,” he growled. For a brief instant he thought she might demand that he say please, but she just nodded curtly and spun on her heel.
Steed stopped in the kitchen doorway to watch Emma bending over the open oven. She slid a pan in and straightened as she closed it. As Steed crossed the room to her he realized that the air was infused with the lovely aromas of shellfish and white wine. Emma turned as he reached her and he pulled her as close to himself as he could for a kiss.
“It smells fabulous in here,” he said.
“I’m making bouillabaisse for you.”
“And for you?”
“For me too.”
“And what’s in yours?”
“Just shellfish and broth, and some cod.”
“No clotted cream?”
She shook her head.
“Really Steed, it’s a standard recipe. No gross cravings.”
He leaned forward and rubbed his nose with hers, then kissed the tip. “Thank goodness. Although I think the garlic ice cream was the worst.”
“It was good. I’d have it again.”
“Uh huh,” he covered her mouth with his, sucking lightly at her lower lip for a moment, then leaving a warm trail of kisses along her jaw to her ear.
“It will be ready in a few minutes,” she murmured, almost regretfully.
“I can be ready sooner,” he muttered into her ear, one hand drifting up to cup her breast. She chuckled and gently disengaged from him, crossing to the refrigerator.
“I want more time than that,” she said. Besides, we have a starter. She opened the refrigerator and took out a tray layered with crushed ice and a dozen oysters on the half shell.
Steed’s eyes widened and he licked his lips appreciatively.
“Not,” Emma added, heading for the dining room with her tray, “that you need them.”
Emma reclined in the big, shell shaped bathtub. After dinner Steed had asked her to let him pamper her and she’d readily agreed. While she undressed he’d drawn a bath, illuminating the bathroom with candles that filled it with musky warmth. She closed her eyes and used the small Turkish bathing bowl that they kept by the tub to pour warm water over her belly.
The door opened and closed and Steed came to the tub carrying and ice bucket with a bottle in it and two champagne glasses. He sat down on the edge of the tub and filled the glasses with golden, bubbling liquid. He handed her a glass, then touched the rim of his to it.
“To evenings in,” he said.
“To being a dull, old married couple,” she replied with a grin. They both sipped the champagne, Emma enjoying the cool, tickling bubbles as they fizzed down her throat. She closed her eyes again, resting her head on the inflated pillow at the edge of the tub. As she took another sip she heard Steed set his glass on the floor and stand. Her eyes popped open as the water was disturbed. Steed had removed his dressing gown and was climbing into the tub with her.
“You don’t mind?” he asked her, sliding his legs up beside her so that they faced one another. The tub was easily large enough for two – a change that they would have made if it hadn’t already been installed when they bought the house.
“I insist,” she replied, putting her glass in her right hand so that she could slip her left under the water to stroke his calf. He took a long sip of champagne then set the glass down on the floor and used both hands to lift one of her feet onto his chest. He massaged it methodically, pressing his strong thumbs into her instep and pulling gently on each toe so that she moaned happily. He bent his face over it and pressed kisses into her arch, then onto each toe. Finally he took her other foot and gave it the same careful attention, gradually arousing her desire as he sucked on each toe. She idly stroked his feet, but felt no compulsion to return his attentions. He’d said he wanted to pamper her and she aimed to let him.
He placed her feet back under the water and rose up onto his knees, the water level dropping as he lifted out of it. She kept her eyes closed, trusting him in whatever his next move might be. She heard the ice rattle and waited for the sound of pouring champagne, but it didn’t come.
“Oh!” her eyes opened wide at the burning sensation on her nipple. She looked down to where her breasts were just exposed above the water. Steed was caressing her aureole with an ice cube: the dark flesh was already rough with gooseflesh, the nipple had hardened and darkened. As she watched, Steed bent down and took it between his lips, which cooled the fire for a moment until he rubbed his tongue over it. Emma’s whole body shivered at the sensation and she breathed in a long breath that came back out as a heavy sigh.
The ice rattled again and Steed traced burning trails over her throat and chest, then around her other nipple. With his free hand he stroked the taut flesh of her belly, his fingers gradually approaching her thighs beneath the water. She wanted him to touch her there more than anything, but he only teased her, brushing his fingers around the edge of the fringe of hair.
She knew that if they weren’t in the tub she would be soaking, her juices flowed in a series of sharp bursts as he gently sucked her other nipple.
“Please,” she sighed as a little wave began to build. Steed sucked harder until sharp little pains focused her attention back on her breast. She sucked in a long breath, willing him to stop but not wanting him to. And then he did, releasing her nipple with a gentle pop and moving his mouth to hers for an aggressive kiss.
He’d offered to pamper her, but there was no doubt where he was going to lead her. She wanted to go as much as she ever had, to feel his sold penis within her, to wrap herself around him and consume his essence as he drove into her in hot, penetrating thrusts. She let her imagination go and her hands followed, stroking his wet flank, twisting in his damp, curly hair, sliding over muscle and bone so familiar, so dear, that she could never get enough of him.
“We need more room,” he murmured against her mouth, and she realized he’d been forced to maintain an awkward pose in order not to press her under the water. He stood up and took her hand, easily pulling her to her feet. He took a towel from the rack on the wall and wrapped it around her, then put a bracing arm around her shoulders as she stepped out of the water. She headed for the bedroom, but he paused to pick up their glasses and the ice bucket.
Reclining on the bed he poured them more wine and watched her over the rim of his glass as they sipped.
“It only gets better,” he said thoughtfully. “I never thought that was possible.”
“No,” he smiled, wondering if she really had misunderstood. “You and me. Even now, nearly a decade into our affair, I live each day in anticipation of touching you.”
“Steed, I don’t think you should call it an affair –.”
“Do you deny that it started as one?”
“No. I think that’s a fair characterization.”
“So allow me my little fantasy.”
“So that’s it,” she shot him a mischievous smile. “Johnny wants to be bad.”
“Please don’t call me –.”
“Johnny wants to keep breaking the rules,” she set her glass on the night table and got up on her hands and knees, straddling him where he lay, forcing him onto his back. His rigid penis pressed against her, fueling her own desire and, from the clouded look in his eyes, completely distracting him.
“I prefer to think of us as above petty social custom,” he said.
“You mean when we were having long, hot sex nearly every night, not knowing that my husband wasn’t really dead?” she lowered her face to his, licking him as she spoke.
“Yes then. That’s my little fantasy. All the long, hot sex,” he sighed back, his hands slipping through her hair then on down her body to clutch her hips. She sat up on him, smiling indulgently as he guided his erection into her. She obligingly sank down on it, shaking her hair back off of her shoulders and groaning aloud as his thick, slick presence filled her. “No one will talk, because no one knows that we’re more than good friends,” he went on.
Emma placed her hands on her belly and rotated her pelvis against him. “I think the secret is out,” she said.
“Indulge me,” he replied, his light eyes shining up at her in the softly lit room. She rocked on him, using his obliging flesh to fulfill herself and pausing as a little orgasm shuddered through her. When she opened her eyes he was lying below her with one arm above his head, the picture of relaxation.
“Bored?” she asked.
“Take your time,” he replied with a grin.
“I want something different,” she said, thinking through the possibilities, which were limited by her protruding belly. They both enjoyed experimenting, so they’d found their way into a startling range of positions – some amusing, some frighteningly stimulating. It was quite an inventory to draw upon.
“I know just the thing,” Steed said, sitting up easily so that she rocked back. His penis slipped out of her as he parted his legs beneath her. She looked quizzically up at him. With a pleased smile he deftly rearranged their legs so that they were scissored together, then he took her right hand with his left and used his right hand to guide himself back into her.
“Oh yes,” she nearly moaned as he entered her. As was always the case in this position, he seemed to keep coming forever. His hot, pulsing member touched her deepest places, sending flashes of erotic pleasure through her body to explode behind her closed eyes. “Oh John,” she lay back, slowly wiggling her hips until the flashes returned.
He pressed her on toward climax with tiny thrusts that burned like fire against her clitoris. Then he slowed down, panting lightly, caressing her palm with his thumb.
“Let’s make it last,” he said, his voice full of contained tension.
“As long as you want, darling,” she replied, although she knew that she could not ride the edge of orgasm as long as they used to in this position. Maybe after the baby was born, but not now. He thrust again, slowly at first, but as her pulse quickened so did his movements. And as she squeezed his fingers and opened her mouth to cry out he did the same, releasing his essence to mingle with hers, dropping back against the sheets as, for just a moment, he was lost in their joining. And in that instant they were three – himself and his beloved Emma, and a third tiny presence that was the miracle of their union.
Steed lay quietly for a moment, regaining his breath, wondering if he really had sensed their growing fetus in that moment of climax, or if he was just too wrapped up in impending fatherhood to think clearly. Of course you weren’t thinking clearly, you were having an orgasm, he smiled at his own whimsy.
Emma raised herself on her elbow to look at Steed.
“You felt it too, didn’t you?” she asked. Steed raised just his head, the rest of his body still too limp to move. “The baby. When we both came.”
“Emma,” he forced himself up, rearranged himself on the bed so that he could pull her into his arms.
“I have always felt it – felt you – when we both come. For a moment we’re both – exposed. We’re mingled. Even back when we never spoke of it, when we both came, I knew your love for me. Why did you think I wanted so much sex?”
Steed repressed a smile, stroking her shoulder with one hand and her arm, which was stretched across his chest, with the other. “I rather thought it was because you enjoyed it,” he said, still trying to accept what she’d said. “You didn’t lose interest after I told you I love you.”
“As you said, it just keeps getting better.”
“I did feel it,” he said.
She half raised her head from his shoulder to look into his eyes. “I’ve always felt the ‘mingling’ as you called it. And just now, there was someone else there.”
She lowered her head back to his shoulder. “Then he’s shared in our love. Only good can come of it,” she said, an edge of sleepiness in her voice. Steed pressed a kiss to the top of her head and decided to refrain from reminding her that the baby was most certainly a girl.
Cathy Gale leaned back in her chair and scratched the back of her left hand with her right. She caught herself doing it and raised her hands up in front of her face. The back of the left was reddened, but that was from the compulsive scratching she’d been doing since Steed had confirmed the presence of uranium in the museum. His ministry team had come and removed it from the top of the pendulum bob, isolating it in a seemingly enormous lead casket. Since then the Geiger counter had been still, but she still couldn’t stop scratching.
For the hundredth time in the last week she reminded herself that John Steed had had nothing to do with the arrival of deadly uranium in the museum – he hadn’t endangered her or anyone else, this time. Still, if she’d been able to, she would have remained anonymous in this affair. She’d had several reasons to avoid Steed before he actually arrived at the museum the first time. After she met his new partner her reasons had increased, but it was already too late. She was curious to know how much Steed knew about her presence in the Amazon when Peter Peel reappeared there. But she could not ask. She had sworn never to speak of it.
She had also sworn, privately, to never act on the thoughts she’d been having about Steed since her return to London. He was out there, she’d known it. And far too often fond memories of her time working with him surfaced to distract her. Seeing him with Emma she’d felt a flash of jealousy, but then his sarcastic edge had surfaced and she’d remembered how callous he could be. She did not envy Emma putting up with that, no matter how well she seemed to manage him. And she really did want to get to know Mrs. Steed.
“Burning the midnight oil?”
Cathy looked up at her office door and into the light brown eyes of Dr. Bill Russell.
“Fretting,” she acknowledged with a rueful smile.
“About the trouble with Dr. Jameson?”
Cathy nodded. Nobody knew about the uranium, of course, and Steed and his cronies had suppressed the details of the murder and subsequent break-in.
“Are they optimistic about finding the murderer?” Bill asked. Even without any details, he was aware that the situation had placed Cathy under stress, and he felt guilty since he had been supposed to deal with it from the start.
“John Steed is always optimistic,” Cathy said. “But I’m not sure they have any real leads.”
“Can I distract you with supper – I think there’s at least one restaurant still open in the neighborhood.”
Cathy felt herself smiling cheerfully at him. They had been on a couple of fun, informal dates. She wanted very much to have another one.
“I’d like nothing better, Bill. But I may not be very good company – I’m rather tired, in addition to the fretting.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Bill grinned, folding his arms as he leaned against her office doorframe. “I think you might be rather alluring when you’re sleepy.”
There was no mistaking his meaning and Cathy felt a surprising rush of pleasure.
“Robbie!” Tara flung open the door to her flat to admit her weary husband who was breathing heavily from having trudged up five flights. He dropped his small bag on the floor half way inside the door and wrapped his arms around his wife.
He loved the way she felt — all warm and alive – especially when she welcomed him with an enthusiastic, luscious kiss.
“Darling,” he sighed when they stopped to breathe.
“Come in, come in,” she bent down and dragged his bag out of the way so that she could shut the door, then led him by the hand over to the velvet covered divan in the sitting room. The windows were opened wide to admit the light breeze and golden late evening light. Inside Tara had lit only one small lamp, preferring to conceal the dinginess of her flat with artful shadow. It certainly enhanced the mood.
She’d brought up a supply of cheese and bread, cold chicken and wine that ought to last the weekend. She’d be perfectly content not to set foot outside, except perhaps onto the tiny balcony, for the duration.
Robbie settled down on the divan and pulled her to him, pressing more kisses on her face while his hands roamed freely over her body.
“You feel so good,” he said, pulling aside the collar of her knit blouse to kiss her there.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, hoping he wasn’t – at least not yet.
“Only for you,” he replied in such a salacious tone she had to giggle. He drew back and grinned at her. “What? Have you no sense of romance?”
“I love you, Robbie,” she said, placing both hands on the sides of his face and pulling him back to her.
“But darling, I’ve come all the way to Paris – I want to go out and see some of it.”
“You’ve seen it before,” Tara replied, knowing she sounded petty.
“Not with you. I want to make new memories with you.”
Tara sighed heavily, overwhelmed by his sweet charm. The most amazing thing, she thought as she got out of bed, was that he was sincere. So many men would have said something like that because they really wanted to go out to eat, or just wanted some fresh air. But Robbie meant it. She knew it from the bottom of her heart.
Contrary to Tara’s plan, they stayed out all night wandering the streets around Monmarte, then across town to the base of the Eiffel Tower where they peered straight up through the latticework of iron at dim stars far above. Near dawn they stopped for an espresso at a café where a little dog sat staring at them from behind a potted plant.
“I think he likes you,” Robbie said, nodding at the forlorn looking little creature.
“I think he’s begging,” Tara replied, not looking. She had already noted that the animal wore no collar.
“Here boy,” Robbie lowered his hand near the ground and wiggled his fingers.
“Oh, look,” Robbie cooed as the little dog took a few tentative steps toward his hand. “Come on little guy.”
The dog reached a decision and darted over to Robbie, sniffing his hand, then sitting on its haunches and offering a single, delicate paw to him. Robbie laughed and shook hands.
“Look at that, darling, he’s introduced himself,” he said.
“What’s his name then?” Tara asked, smiling at the dog in spite of herself.
“Hey fella’,” Robbie said, scratching behind the dog’s ear, “What is your name?”
The dog did not reply, but it did press its small head against is hand, urging him to keep scratching.
“It probably has fleas,” Tara said dubiously.
“Noooo,” Robbie insisted, “he’s a clean little guy, aren’t you?”
“Then he’s somebody’s pet,” Tara pointed out.
“What have you got against him?” Robbie asked, finally reaching down to grasp the dog with both hands and lift it up into his lap. The dog did not object, and settled on his lap as if it belonged there.
Tara looked at it – it was slender and delicate looking, with a short white coat with patches of brown. It looked back at Tara, its light brown eyes regarding her with the same sort of assessing look. She shook her head and smiled.
“You’re taking him back to Nice – at least you have some space for him to run.”
“He doesn’t need much room to run,” Robbie said. “Look at his short little legs!”
Tara laughed and finally reached out to pet the dog’s head.
“We’d better ask the waiter if he belongs to someone in the café.”
“Are you saying we can keep him?” Robbie asked, his eyes widened in mock appeal. Tara shook her head at him and waved at the waiter, who was leaning on the bar with a cigarette in one hand and an espresso cup in the other. He set both down and came over to their table, his face turning rather grim when he saw the dog.
“Has it been bothering you?” he asked, his voice full of scorn.
“The dog? No. In fact, my husband has grown rather attached to him. Does he belong to anyone?”
“No. His mistress passed away two days ago. She used to sit here for hours every day, so he comes here looking.”
“But who’s been feeding him?” Tara asked.
The waiter glanced toward the kitchen door and shrugged. Tara understood. He couldn’t say, or someone would get into trouble. Maybe him, or maybe the cook.
“I want to adopt him,” Robbie said. The waiter eyed him suspiciously.
“He’s telling the truth,” Tara added, widening her big blue eyes at the waiter. “We’re not dog nappers or anything. My husband has taking a liking to the poor creature.”
“What’s his name?” Robbie asked, stroking the dog’s head.
“I believe his mistress called him Pierre, Madame,” the waiter said with a sniff.
“Pierre. That’s nice,” As Robbie said the dog’s name it perked its ears and looked at him. “That’s right, Pierre,” he repeated. “He knows his name.”
The waiter arched one eyebrow, “I know my name and yet I do not make vulgar gestures with my ears when I hear it,” he said.
“Are you sure?” Robbie asked, “What’s your name?”
The waiter cleared his throat and looked at Tara. “Pierre,” he said, then spun on his heel, dropping their tab on the table as he turned.
Tara couldn’t stop herself from bursting out laughing.
“Do you think little Pierre’s mistress had a thing for big Pierre?” Robbie speculated as he picked up the slip of paper and reached for his wallet.
“I do,” Tara nodded, looking at the dog in her husband’s lap. “And I think we have to rescue little Pierre from a life of misery in big Pierre’s shadow.”
“Come in,” Cathy called at the sound of a knock on her office door. It was at the unlocked door that let into the laboratory corridor, not the one that let out into the museum’s public spaces, so she assumed it was one of her colleagues. At the sound of another thump she looked up from the proposal she was reading. Just then the door burst open, a uniformed museum guard nearly falling through, followed by a man in a dark suit. The second man swung his fist back and aimed a powerful punch at the guard – obviously not the first since the guard seemed a little dazed.
Cathy scooted out her chair and stepped from it onto her desk, leaving her shoes on the floor. She crouched and leapt. The stranger only saw her in time to turn his upper body toward her as she landed on him. Her martial arts skills were as sharp as ever due to regular practice sessions. The dazed guard looked on in awe as she subdued his attacker with a series of punches and kicks. She resembled a wild cat, although he would never say such a thing to her. But later in the locker room, the other fellows might enjoy hearing about the ferocious Dr. Gale.
Stepping back from the semi conscious man, Cathy brushed her hair out of her eyes and smoothed her skirt. She offered her hand to the guard, who was still sprawled on the floor. Embarrassed, he got up without her assistance.
“What happened?” she asked.
“You knocked him out, Dr. Gale,” the guard said.
“Before that,” she nearly growled.
“Oh. I caught him snooping around out in the corridor. When I told him to stop where he was, he came at me. We were right outside your door when he hit me.”
Cathy looked the bulky guard up and down and wondered why someone of his stature and size hadn’t been able to overcome the smaller man who was just stirring on the floor at her feet.
“How did he hit you?” she asked.
Cathy closed her eyes for a second to reinforce her patience. “Did he punch you, or use some special fighting technique?”
“Oh. I guess I’d say he punched me, Doctor. But he was good – sharp, fast jabs. I was never much of a boxer.”
Cathy nodded, noting that there were already signs of bruising on the guard’s face.
“You’d better tie him up,” she suggested. “Shall I call the police?”
“Yes, ma’am. That is, I’ll ask the captain to call. I’ll just get him out of your way.”
To Cathy’s surprise, the guard produced handcuffs from a pocket and bent to place them on the man’s wrists.
“Just where was he when you first saw him?” Cathy asked. The guard straightened his back, still kneeling, and looked thoughtful.
“Next office down,” he said after a moment. “He was crouching in front of the door. I asked him what he was doing and he came toward me so we met outside your door.”
“So he was at Dr. Jameson’s office,” Cathy said.
“Yes ma’am, I suppose he was.”
Cathy stepped back behind her desk and picked up the telephone receiver, watching the guard drag the man to his feet as she dialed Steed’s number.
“Why were you breaking in to that particular office?” Steed had his hip hitched on the edge of the table in the interrogation room, his arms folded across his chest. When he’d entered he’d carefully removed his suit coat and made a show of rolling up his sleeves. His height and calm demeanor enhanced the menace in these actions, he knew. The burglar had sat slouched in a utilitarian metal chair, his eyes following steed’s movements. Now he stared firmly at the table edge.
“Sit up.” Steed commanded sharply. The man started, raising his eyes to Steed’s, then using his hands, which were loosely cuffed to the chair, to push himself up. Steed stood up and paced away, looking at the report in his hand although he had already memorized it. “Doctor Catherine Gale subdued you, it says here,” he said, chuckling, “were you embarrassed, being beat up by a woman?”
“Nasty cow jumped me,” the man grumbled. Steed snorted, supressing his offence at the man’s words. He swung back around to face him.
“What did you want in that office?”
“Whatever I could find,” the man replied. “Where’s my lawyer? I’m not talking until I have one.”
“You misunderstand, Mr. –,” Steed paused to look again at the report, “Ridge. I am not the police. You are not under arrest.”
The man sneered at Steed and rattled the handcuffs against the chair.
“Ah,” Steed nodded, emanating sympathy. Then he slapped the file onto the table and stepped over to lean close to Ridge. “I’m far worse than the police, and you are much worse than arrested – you may never leave this building.
“One more time: what did you want in that office?”
“Something that belongs to me,” Ridge hissed.
“Good,” Steed backed off a couple feet. “Let’s discuss why something you say is yours might be in a murdered archaeologist’s office.”
And discuss it they did. For another hour Steed badgered the man, asking the same questions over and over in slightly different ways until Ridge’s story slowly changed and he revealed his involvement with Dr. Jameson and the uranium.
“Ridge isn’t the murderer,” Steed told Cathy. They were looking again through Dr. Jameson’s files, which had been returned to the museum.
“Mostly. He arranged with Jameson to transport the uranium for a substantial fee. Jameson had been putting him off – told him he couldn’t open the crates yet, they were still in the museum’s receiving department. Then Ridge heard of Jameson’s murder, so he came to try to find his merchandise.”
“That’s what it is to him. He didn’t’ find it in the crates, as we know. So he came back to search Dr. Jameson’s office.”
“Did he really imagine he could riffle through Dr. Jameson’s office without being caught?”
“Apparently. He’s not exactly a – a Ph.D.”
Cathy shot him a grim smile.
“Now this is interesting,” Cathy said, looking at a single sheet of paper she’d taken from a file.
“It’s a copy of a letter from Dr. Jameson to the head of antiquities in Egypt – that’s where he located the fossils he claimed were the missing link.”
“It’s dated two days before he was murdered. He’s inquiring about permission to dig there again next season.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Mrs. Gale, but wouldn’t that require funding?” Steed asked.
“Yes. Quite a lot of funding. But this letter makes it sound like he was confident of having it.” She handed the letter to Steed.
“Looks like I should have given Mrs. Peel more time with these files,” he said absently after scanning the letter. Cathy frowned as she took it back. I can’t let it go.
“Mrs. Peel?” she asked, meeting Steed’s eyes. He smiled in a self deprecating way.
“Emma,” he said. “I can’t get out of the habit of calling her by the name I first knew her by. You mentioned her ex-husband the other day – the pilot, Peter Peel.”
“Yes,” Cathy said carefully. “I had made the connection, actually.”
“Between Emma and Peter Peel?” Steed looked genuinely surprised for a moment, then his expression turned to something much more disturbing before reverting to his familiar amiable mask.
“Come now, Steed, you know I’m a habitual researcher,” she said as casually as she could.
Steed nodded as if lost in thought for a moment. Then he smiled warmly. “Then could you turn your research habit on that letter, Mrs. Gale? Find out if it was sent to Egypt and if anyone there has taken any action? Were they going to approve his request?”
Cathy stared at Steed for a moment, trying to decide whether to point out to him that she was no longer associated with the ministry. He flashed her a flirtatious little smile before heading toward the door, and she held her tongue.
“I’m going back for round two with our Mr. Ridge,” he said as he opened the door. I expect that he’s ready to tell me who he was shipping the uranium for.”
“So you think whoever killed Dr. Jameson was also trying to get the uranium?” Emma asked. She was putting the third load of baby clothes in the washer, having read that they should be laundered before they were put on the baby. She figured getting a head start on this sort of chore couldn’t hurt, especially since they’d been bombarded with presents from all sides since her condition had been made public.
“Right. But I’ve no idea who,” Steed replied. He was in his office, a place he felt that he was spending altogether too much time of late. At least when the secure line was reinstated he could make the apartment his London base of operations.
“Did you have someone talk to his contacts in Morocco? Find out who he hired to dig?” Emma measured out soap powder and poured it into the machine.
“Yes. Douglas. He didn’t have much trouble finding the fellow Jameson used to help hire his crew. He mentioned someone coming around a few times toward the end of the season. The description sounded like Ridge.”
“Well, that ties him to Jameson in Morocco. That’s something. Now I suppose you can hope that the murderer will return to the scene of the crime and try to find the uranium.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Leave it to the police. It’s a murder – that’s what they’re good at,” Emma pushed buttons and the machine started.
“What is that?” Steed asked as the sound carried through the phone line.
“Washer. I’m moving away from it.”
“That’s better. I have to go spend some more time with Mr. Ridge. He’s being very tight lipped about his customer.” Steed’s tone conveyed his distaste for questioning his prisoner.
“Perhaps you can offer him something in exchange for the information?”
“Spoken like a true business woman. Didn’t you say your board was meeting to approve salary increases and bonuses today?”
“I might have mentioned it.”
“Are we getting a tidy little bonus?”
“You’re supporting me in my old age, remember?”
“You’re not old enough yet.
Steed laughed, “Well, you could tuck it away for the future,” he said.
“I thought to tuck it away for our baby’s future – if you don’t object,” she said.
“She’ll earn scholarships, you’ll see.”
“Nonetheless, there will be expenses,” Emma said firmly. “My bonus, when I get it, will be a generous nest-egg for his trust fund.”
“Ah, forgive me. I hadn’t realized we were having a trust fund baby.”
“But of course we are, darling. You know you wouldn’t have it any other way. So am I to take it that you are trying to distract me from asking if you’re coming home tonight?”
“You could infer that.”
“I’ll miss you. We miss you already.”
“Don’t do that.”
“Guilt is terribly unfair.”
“I didn’t mean it that way darling. I understand. Just remember that I’ll be thinking of you.”
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Emma Knight.”
“Yes, most likely. But I shan’t let it go to my head. Good night darling.”
“Good night Emma.”
“You really shop here?” Purdey asked as Sally opened the door of the council charity shop.
“All the time,” Sally replied, stepping inside. Purdey followed her, eying a mannequin with a broken finger standing in the window. It was dressed in a mismatched cotton skirt and sweater with a tan cloth coat over them, a worn handbag dangling from the crook of one arm, and a cloche hat with a feather on its head.
“This is a joke, right?” she asked, following Sally between rows of hanging garments.
“Look,” Sally replied, plunging her hands among the used clothes and pulling out a pale pink button down shirt. “It’s twenty-five p – it would cost three pounds new.”
“I suppose so, if you would want to buy it,” Purdey replied.
“Come on, get in the spirit of it. This is where I got that suit you said looked like it came from a designer boutique.”
“It had done, I checked the label,” Purdey shrugged and turned to the racks. “Hey,” she exclaimed a moment later as she tugged out a skirt in a psychedelic paisley print. Sally glanced at it and laughed. “It’s great,” Purdey insisted.
“For an under cover disguise?” Sally asked innocently.
Purdey shot her a disgusted look and moved on down the racks. They met up again at the other end, where Sally studied a display of shoes.
“Oh no, you don’t buy used shoes, do you?” Purdey asked. She was weighed down by an armload of exotic garments.
“Sometimes,” Sally said. “Work shoes mostly – they’re so expensive new.”
“Well I think these are great,” Purdey held up one of a pair of boots covered in bright yellow fake fur.
“Um, sure,” Sally said, not wanting to insult her friend’s taste. Purdey burst out laughing.
“Oh Sal, they’re hideous – what possessed someone to create them in the first place, let alone buy them.”
“Well, you know, maybe they were for a costume,” Sally tried, picking up a pair of espadrilles that weren’t too worn. She dropped them on the floor and slipped her right foot out of her shoe and into the right espadrille.
“You just try them on!” Purdey hissed, shocked.
“Who knows who last wore them!”
“Oh come on, who ever caught a disease from someone else’s shoes?”
“It’s sick,” Purdey said, turning away toward another rack of clothes. Sally wigged her foot in the espadrille and smiled. It fit.
Shoes and pink shirt in hand, Sally wandered toward a table piled with toys. She and her mother had often found inexpensive playthings for her younger siblings at the thrift shop.
“Hey look,” she said, dumping her shoes and shirt on the table in order to pick up an infant swing. The canvas seat was attached to long springs with clamps on the ends that could be mounted at the top of a door. It appeared to be in working order. “This would be a great gift for Emma.”
Purdey walked over and looked at the tangle of springs that Sally was pulling out from under other toys. Fortunately, the springs were sturdy and hadn’t kinked. But Purdey wrinkled her nose.
“You can’t give that to Mrs. Steed.”
“Why ever not? My little brother loved his.”
“But it’s perfectly fine.”
“You can’t give a used baby toy to the wife of our most important agent!” Purdey’s voice dropped to a secretive hiss.
“But I can’t afford a new one,” Sally countered. “Emma is a very practical person. What if I got my mum to loan her my baby brother’s? Would that be wrong too?”
Sally sighed, dropping the springs. Maybe Purdey was right. It was easy to forget just how extensive Emma and Steed’s means were – maybe they would be offended by a thrift shop gift. Disappointed, she picked up her own purchases and headed for the cash registers, Purdey following with her own pile. As she set the garments on the counter Sally saw an edge of yellow fur poking out.
“Hey,” she said, reaching over to pull out the boot.
“Well, like you said, they could be good for a costume,” Purdey replied, seizing the boot and shoving it back under the sweater with a glance around the shop.
Sally looked longingly over at the toy table again, but stayed at the counter so the clerk could ring up her purchases.
“At the museum!” Steed nearly growled. Ridge adopted a helpless expression.
“He insisted,” he replied.
Steed exhaled through his nose and stood up to pace around his desk. He’d convinced Ridge to contact his buyer to arrange the exchange of uranium for money. Ridge had been granted use of the telephone in Steed’s office, from which he’d made the arrangements with Steed listening to him. Steed had to admit that Ridge had never mentioned the museum, so the buyer must have specified it. But why?
“Where in the museum?” Steed asked.
“Inside near the entry. He gave me directions,” Ridge handed notes he’d made to Steed.
“Clever fellow,” Steed said as he read the instructions. The meeting was to be near the Geiger counter. “Does he know how you arranged to transport the uranium to London?”
“No,” Ridge snapped, then he frowned. “Maybe. I may have mentioned something.”
Steed’s eyes narrowed as he regarded Ridge, but the other man sat still and looked just as nervous about his predicament as ever. “Might you have mentioned Dr. Jameson by name?” Steed asked.
“No. Definitely not. But I may have said something about having to work things out at the museum, when he was nagging me for the stuff.”
Steed marveled at how Ridge had managed to stay alive in the smuggling business if he was that indiscrete. But it was a lucky break for the investigation – now he had a link between the buyer and the museum. It was just possible that the buyer had tried to take matters into his own hands, bypassing Ridge.
“All right. Tell me the details. I need to get this arranged.”
“He told me to go alone!”
“Of course he did. And so you shall.”
“Good afternoon Mrs. Gale,” Steed leaned into her office from the laboratory corridor. Cathy closed the file drawer she was standing in front of and smiled at Steed.
“What’s up Steed? A breakthrough?”
“Of massive proportions,” he replied, setting the tip of his umbrella on the floor to lean on the handle. “I’m here to enlist you.”
“Really?” She did her best to sound positively unwilling. Dinner with Bill had been lovely the other night, and she was more determined than ever to avoid any disruptions of her life by Steed and his business.
“Really! Don’t you want to watch the villain caught?”
“Are you sure you mean ‘watch’? Or are you enlisting me to ‘help’?”
Steed sighed and stepped closer to her, his enticing smile setting off more alarms than were already sounding in her head.
“I’m asking you to be present for the final act, my dear,” he purred. Her eyes narrowed at him. She wanted to remind him that he was a married man. But he winked and her resolve melted.
“All right. Tell me the plan.”
“What if he slips through your net?” Cathy asked, knowing that she was goading him. They were sitting on a bench far down the corridor from the Geiger counter display. Ridge was standing near the display, a large carrier bag dangling from his hand. The Geiger counter was clattering away.
“We have three teams outside ready to take up the chase, in addition to us.”
“You mean, ‘in addition to you,’” Cathy corrected him.
“Yes, of course my dear,” Steed smiled amiably and Cathy knew that he fully intended to drag her along after the buyer once the exchange was made. It was just like Steed, and in fact one of the things she admired about him: he wouldn’t just arrest the buyer. He wanted to follow him, see where he’d lead, and capture anyone else involved with the plot. Cathy had to admit she was curious. After all, her associate had lost his life because of his involvement in this.
Steed had told her while they were getting into position that he suspected the buyer might be the murderer – that Ridge had let slip the location of the uranium. By allowing the exchange to happen they would collect the buyer’s fingerprints for comparison to those found in the display where Jameson was murdered.
“Something’s happening,” Steed muttered, sticking his nose into the museum floor plan brochure he had in his hand. He pointed at it and looked at Cathy, which afforded him a view down the corridor. Cathy had to look where Steed was pointing, so he described what he saw down the hall. “A man is approaching Ridge. Wait a moment, he can’t be –,” Steed’s expression was so puzzled Cathy had to turn her head to look.
Ridge was extending the carrier bag toward a hefty-looking man in a badly cut black suit. He in turn held out a briefcase. As the exchange was made, Cathy saw what had surprised Steed: The buyer wore a clerical collar.
“The church is buying uranium?” she asked.
“Stranger things have happened,” Steed replied, standing up and offering her his hand. She rose and they strolled along the corridor toward Ridge and the cleric. Ridge had awkwardly unlatched the briefcase and glanced inside. Now he was nodding at the cleric, who had not bothered to look in the carrier bag.
“He’s far too trusting,” Steed whispered as he and Cathy got closer to the men. The cleric turned on his heel and headed for the museum entrance. Ridge remained standing by the wildly clicking Geiger counter. As Steed and Cathy accelerated their pace to keep up with the cleric, two museum guards moved in on either side of Ridge. Cathy paused to look at Ridge, and then at the Geiger counter. Then she grinned and hurried after Steed.
Outside the museum entrance a woman in jeans and a sweatshirt brushed past Steed. “The taxi just pulling away,” she said. Steed steered Cathy toward an unmarked car waiting at the curb. He opened the rear door and she got in, then he got in the front next to the driver.
“I hate to say it, but ‘follow that cab,’” Steed said. The driver complied without comment.
Cathy was glad Steed had arranged for a professional ministry driver and car. She had no doubt that Steed’s impulsive nature made him a frightening driver in this sort of situation. They followed the taxi up Exhibition Road to Kensington Road and went right, heading toward central London.
“Do you think he’s really a priest?” Cathy asked, centering herself in the back so that she could look forward between Steed and the driver.
“Anything is possible, Mrs. Gale. But I shudder to think that the church is involved in the black market purchase of uranium.”
“Perhaps they fancy becoming a new world power,” she speculated, hanging on to the seat back as the driver negotiated a sharp left turn. Steed reached for a microphone mounted under the dashboard and requested that the other teams report. One had gone ahead in case they needed to pick up pursuit. The other two were behind Steed and Cathy’s car.
The taxi led them east and north past Buckingham Palace and Whitehall and into the increasingly busy streets nearer the City of London. The ministry driver competently followed, keeping one or two cars back, but never allowing the taxi to get through a traffic light without him. Finally, as traffic was getting so dense it was hardly moving, they saw the taxi pull to the side of the street. The driver opened the door and his passenger got out with the carrier bag.
“Pull over, let us out,” Steed ordered their driver, who was already working his way closer to the curb.
“He went to the left, Cathy said as Steed joined her on the sidewalk. They dodged through the crowds of workers making their way home, trying to make progress without being rude. They soon had the cleric in sight about half a block ahead of them, so they moved more carefully through the pedestrians, trying not to cause any noticeable upset.
“I think I know where he’s headed,” Cathy said a few minutes later after they’d made a few turns.
“Oh?” Steed looked around as if to orient himself, although Cathy couldn’t believe he didn’t know exactly where they were.
“The cathedral is around the next corner and over a block,” she explained.
Steed swung his head to stare at her for a moment, then increased his pace to close some of the distance between them and the cleric.
“I was joking earlier,” Cathy said.
“Your humor may have been prophetic, Mrs. Gale,” Steed replied.
Moments later they watched the cleric enter St. Paul’s through the grand West entrance and trotted up the steps after him.
“I’m sorry sir, madam, but the cathedral is closing for visits,” a woman who appeared to be dressed in her Sunday best placed herself in front of Steed and Cathy. Beyond her they could see the cleric striding along the main aisle toward the high altar.
“We’re here for evensong,” Cathy replied. Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of Steed’s brows rise.
“Yes, where would you recommend sitting?” he added.
“Oh,” the woman replied, slightly flustered. But before she could form an answer Steed and Cathy had pushed past her in pursuit of the cleric.
He was in the main aisle between the two sides of the quire, high wooden seats facing each other on either side. Steed stopped Cathy and pulled her with him to the left into the passage behind the high quire benches. They hurried along the passage, reaching the open area before the altar just ahead of the cleric. Again Steed stopped Cathy, this time just inside the passage. As the cleric reached the open area before the altar, a man in clerical robes came striding quickly from the right, intercepting him.
“You have been asked, and warned, and now I must insist Father Christopher.”
“You have no right. This is a house of worship.”
“I do have the right, Father. The Dean was quite clear.”
“I only answer to the lord!”
“In his house, we answer to his representative, Father Christopher. Please, let’s not make this unpleasant.”
“No. You wouldn’t want that,” their suspect laughed bitterly.
“Look,” Cathy whispered, “he doesn’t have the bag.”
Steed had also just noticed that their quarry was empty handed. “He must have put it in the quire.”
“What do we do?” Cathy asked.
Steed frowned, then started as their suspect took a step back from the other priest. For a moment they thought he might be leaving, but then he pulled back his right arm and swung his fist. The other priest threw his arms up over his head and dodged away so the blow only glanced off of him.
“That’s it,” Steed said, closing the distance to the two priests in a few strides. Cathy followed him. Their suspect spun around at the sound of their footsteps and had just enough time to swing a punch at Steed. Steed took it in stride and swung back, and before the priest could recover Cathy moved in with two more solid punches. The priest was spun around off balance, so Steed gave him a shove that sent him sprawling. Cathy stepped up to straddle him, crouching to pull his arms behind his back and pin him with a knee on his buttocks.
She looked inquisitively up at Steed, who smiled warmly at her.
“Couldn’t resist, could you Mrs. Gale?”
“Are you with the police?” the other priest asked as Steed straightened his tie and turned toward him.
“Not exactly, but we do represent the authorities,” he replied vaguely. “I am John Steed, and this is Dr. Catherine Gale.”
“Father.” Cathy nodded at him from her position over the other man.
“All right, Mrs. Gale, you can let him up,” Steed said. “Go to the door and call in our driver. I would like to speak to Father Nystrom.”
Cathy got to her feet and reached down to grab Father Christopher’s upper arm. She helped him up and held on to him for a moment, trying to judge his mood.
“He’ll be good, won’t you?” Steed said, his tone so forceful even she felt compelled to do anything he said. Father Christopher nodded curtly, his face still showing anger along with defeat. Cathy released him and turned to walk quickly back down the aisle. Steed watched after her, openly admiring her until Father Nystrom cleared his throat. Steed turned his attention back to Father Christopher.
“Where did you leave the bag?” he asked.
Father Christopher’s eyes darted to the quire seats but he remained silent.
“Yes, in the quire, that much is obvious. So we shall simply have to have Mrs. Gale look for it when she comes back,” Steed sighed as if disappointed. He turned toward the other priest.
“Since Father Christopher is remaining silent, perhaps you can explain what you were arguing about, Father Nystrom.”
“Father Christopher is not welcome in the Cathedral, Mr. Steed. He is well aware of this, and yet he continues to come here.”
“A priest not welcome in a church?”
“Father Christopher has received a new posting, but he refuses to take it. The dean has ordered him out of the Cathedral in the hopes that he will acquiesce to the wishes of the diocese.”
“So he used to be a member of the clerical staff here?”
“And he was dismissed?”
“I did not say –.”
“Come now, father, why else would he have been given the boot – forgive me, assigned somewhere else? And is his new church less prestigious?”
“It isn’t a church, per se, Mr. Steed.”
“No? A school? A hospital?”
“Mr. Steed, can you explain your presence here? I appreciate your assistance, but I must inquire as to your intentions toward the Cathedral, and Father Christopher.”
“My intention, Father Nystrom, is to see Father Christopher taken into custody.”
“For what offense?”
Steed looked at his suspect, but the other priest was staring at the inlayed floor.
“Trafficking in stolen property and murder.”
Father Nystrom gasped and stared at Father Christopher. “Lord help you, Father,” he said gently. Father Christopher raised his eyes to look at the other priest’s face, but still did not speak. The tap-tapping of Mrs. Gale’s shoes on the marble floor heralded her return followed by their driver.
“Take him, Chan,” Steed said, gesturing at Father Christopher. The driver took Father Christopher by the arm and moved him back along the aisle. He went quietly, but with a backward look over his shoulder at Father Nystrom. That priest made the sign of the cross and bowed his head for a moment.
“Mrs. Gale,” Steed said when Father Nystrom seemed to be through, “would you be so kind as to look for the bag in the quire?”
Cathy nodded and headed for the seats.
“Why was Father Christopher dismissed from the Cathedral?” Steed asked Father Nystrom.
“It was a private church matter, Mr. Steed. We would prefer that it not be publicized.”
“As I said, Father, we’re charging Father Christopher with theft and murder. I should hope those outweigh any crimes the church may hold him accountable for. I have no interest in exposing them, but knowing them would be of use in concluding my investigation.”
“I see,” Father Nystrom nodded thoughtfully, his eyes following Cathy’s movements as she looked behind the lowest row of quire seats. Suddenly she leaned far over a seat, her skirt riding high in back as she reached down and picked up the carrier bag. Steed followed the priest’s gaze and fought to restrain a smirk. Father Nystrom was, after all, an Anglican priest. He was allowed to marry, and therefore presumably allowed to admire women.
Cathy returned to them with the bag. Steed took it and set it on the floor, then crouched to reach inside and pull out a heavy looking metal cask. It had four latches around the rim holding the thick lid in place.
“What is that?” Father Nystrom asked.
“Father, I should really like to know why Father Christopher was angry enough with the Cathedral to want to bring highly radioactive uranium here.”
“That’s uranium?” the priest took a step away as Steed unlatched the lid on the container. Cathy looked skeptical when Steed looked up at her. He grinned and removed the lid, then reached inside and took out a rectangular yellow object. He stood up and took a bite out of the shortbread.
“Ummm, delicious,” he said, ignoring Cathy’s smirk and Father Nystrom’s shocked expression. “My auntie Jessica bakes them from an old family recipe. Try one.”
“I don’t understand,” Father Nystrom finally managed to say. Cathy bent down and took out a piece of shortbread.
“They are good, Steed,” she said.
“Father Christopher arranged to purchase weapons-grade uranium. We captured his contact and followed him here when he made the purchase,” Steed summarized for Father Nystrom. “Naturally we wouldn’t let the real uranium back out of our control.”
“But why? Why would he bring uranium here?”
“Why would he be that angry, Father Nystrom?”
The priest stared at Steed, who fished a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped crumbs off of his mouth.
“It was discovered a few months ago that Father Christopher was embezzling funds form the Cathedral maintenance fund. The Dean had him assigned to a rehabilitation facility that the church maintains in the Cotswolds. We do not wish the financial situation to be made public – such losses tend to discourage parishioners from tithing.”
“You send bad priests to the Cotswolds?” Steed asked, incredulous.
“It is not a resort facility, Mr. Steed.”
“Nonetheless, I’m sure it’s far more pleasant than what Father Christopher will face now. I imagine he will deeply regret not following orders.”
“Indeed,” Father Nystrom said.
“We’ll just have to talk with him about whether he intended to build a bomb, or simply to hide the uranium here to do its damage to the staff and worshipers.”
“St. Paul’s owes you a debt of gratitude, Mr. Steed, Mrs. Gale,” Father Nystrom said. “You will be mentioned in our prayers.”
“Than you Father Nystrom. I know that I for one need all the prayers I can get,” Steed replied. “Mrs. Gale? Shall we leave the father to conduct evensong?” He bent down and fastened the lid on the container, then put it back in the bag and picked it up.
Cathy walked with him back down the aisle past a few worshipers who were beginning to gather for the service.
“You counted on him not noticing that the Geiger counter was still ticking as he walked away with the bag,” Cathy observed as they stepped out of the cathedral.
“Yes. It seemed like a small risk compared to actually handing over the uranium.”
“Did Ridge know?”
“No. He thought he had the real thing.”
“And will you be lenient with him since he helped? After all, he isn’t the murderer.”
“Indeed. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s a very good smuggler, or I’d let him go and groom him as a contact.”
“Mrs. Gale, sometimes we have to set a thief to catch a thief.”
“I think a garden party will be lovely,” Emma’s friend Nancy said. Nancy, Sally, and Emma were sitting at a poolside table sipping iced tea. Spring was rapidly becoming summer, and the Steed’s poolside garden had become an idyllic retreat.
“But I’d like to use the greenhouse,” Sally put in, looking at the doorway in the glass structure. “Could we clear the potting tables and use them for the buffet? It’s convenient to the kitchen.”
“I like that,” Nancy said.
“There are a lot of plants in there,” Emma said skeptically.
“Yes, they’re beautiful. And I could ask my father to come relocate the delicate ones,” Sally offered.
“Would you? I would love to have him look at the roses near the stable. I’m certain that my gardener doesn’t know what to do with them.”
“So the guests will go in to get their food, then we can have seating out here. Do we need to order a marquee, in case of rain?” Nancy summarized their expanding plan.
“No, we can just use the dining room instead,” Emma said.
Sally frowned and looked at the notes she was holding in her lap. “I’m not sure it’s big enough,” she said.
“How many guests are you inviting?” Emma asked.
“Well,” Sally sighed, not wanting to admit that Emma’s baby shower had expanded to fifty guests.
“Oh don’t worry about it,” Nancy said with a dismissive flip of her hand.
“Hello? Anyone home?” a male voice called out from the gate at the back of the garden. Emma and Nancy swiveled in their chairs, but Sally jumped up and ran to the gate. As she reached it James opened the latch and came in. He wrapped his arms around her and they exchanged a happy hug. James was holding a slender bouquet of flowers that he brought to the table and presented to Emma.
“You look radiant,” he said, leaning over to place a kiss on her cheek.
“Thank you James,” she replied, holding the flowers to her face to sniff them. James turned to Nancy and shook her hand, then pulled Sally back against his side in a possessive hug.
“Am I too early?” he asked, studying the notes, glasses, and empty plates on the table.
“No, not really,” Sally said.
“We were discussing seating,” Emma said. “It seems that the co-hostesses have constructed a rather large guest list.”
“We didn’t say that,” Nancy said.
“You didn’t have to,” Emma replied.
“Perhaps I should help you ladies make your escape,” James suggested.
“Oh no, please sit for a few minutes,” Emma said, gesturing at the fourth chair at the table.
“I’ll get you some tea, or would you like a drink?” Sally asked.
“Tea please – nice and cool.” James moved around to the vacant chair while Sally headed for the kitchen door.
“What I want to know,” James said, “is what does Steed get out of all of this?”
“A son,” Emma replied curtly. James laughed, inclining his head in acknowledgement of the truth of her statement.
“Bye Nancy, I’ll phone you next week,” Sally called as the older woman walked away from James’s car. Sally settled back into the passenger seat and looked over at him.
“You two should sell your services as shower planners,” he said as he steered the car back out into traffic.
“No way! It’s a lot more work than ministry training. And I just know that no matter what we do, Steed’s sister Caroline will turn up at the last minute wanting to get involved.”
“I think Caroline is very nice,” James said, “Although I’ve only met her twice.”
“She is very nice, and she appears to be very easy going, but when you come right to it, she’s a Steed, and she’s not comfortable if she isn’t in charge.”
“They must have had an interesting home as children,” James said with a smile.
“Ummm,” Sally agreed, watching the passing streets. “Where are we going?” she asked suddenly.
“I thought dinner, and then a brief meeting, and then home,” James replied cagily.
“Dinner, good,” she replied, turned her head toward him and allowing her eyes to narrow as she went on, “what’s the meeting?”
“A contact called. Wants a meet.”
“Are you making me your partner?”
James glanced at her and grinned, “I work alone. But you should consider it field training.”
“All right. And after that, you said home. Mine? Or yours?”
“A gentleman allows the lady to chose.”
“Emma!” Steed stepped into the entry and hung up his umbrella and bowler.
“Here,” Emma’s voice echoed through the house. Steed guessed that it came from the left wing – probably the family sitting room or the kitchen – so he went that way. He was filled with the usual excitement from concluding a troubling case, and he was looking forward to spending his usual few days of relaxation with Emma.
She met him in the sitting room doorway, placing her hands on his shoulders and leaning forward for a kiss.
“You look happy,” she observed, studying him for a moment.
“The case is closed, the villains captured,” Steed said. “Mrs. Gale subdued the evil priest with no trouble at all.”
“Mrs. Gale?” Emma’s hands dropped from his shoulders as she rocked away from him. Somehow, though, he didn’t notice.
“Yes, she was marvelous – the same old Cathy Gale.”
“I see. Well that’s good,” Emma’s voice sounded choked. She turned away from him, heading toward the kitchen. Realizing too late how he’d sounded, Steed frowned and followed her.
He stopped in the kitchen doorway. She had already reached the counter near the sink and picked up a large chef’s knife. As he watched she brought its razor sharp edge down on the center of an onion. The knife hit the butcher block with a resounding thump. Steed took a few steps into the kitchen, eying the stiff set of her shoulders. Her deft fingers rotated and held the onion as her right hand manipulated the knife so fast the blade was a blur. Then Steed heard a loud sniff.
“Emma, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean –.”
“No, no, it’s quite all right. You are just being honest. You know that’s what I want,” she sniffed again and he knew it couldn’t be because of the onion.
“Honesty, yes, but I didn’t mean to –.”
“I’m sure you appreciate having her back as your partner. I mean, after all, I’m useless. I can hardly move, I’m always in the toilet, I can’t focus on anything for more than five minutes at a time. I’m no good to you. It’s good that you’ve got Mrs. Gale.”
Steed was so shocked her words were like a dreadful hammering, far worse than being physically beaten, much harder to accept than logical criticism. He felt his anger rise as quickly as hers had. How dare she accuse him of seeking another partner? After all they had been through, after all they had accomplished together. How could she for a moment think that he didn’t value her above everything else in his life?
Emma kept on chopping, dicing the onion into smaller and smaller pieces, her tears mingling with the onion juice on the butcher block. Furious, and yet knowing deep within himself that Emma was not herself, that she was under tremendous stress from the new life within her, Steed backed away. He wanted to lash out at her, to shout at her for doubting him. But instead he made himself turn and walk out of the kitchen. He kept walking, back past the entry and down the long corridor of the other wing, finally stopping in the library.
He collapsed into a high-backed wing chair and stared out the French doors at the grounds, at the hedge maze that she loved so much. And he realized that despite his anger and frustration with her, he loved her as much as ever. He was a patient man, and he could calm his rage and wait for her to do the same.
Emma allowed herself to slow down, and then stop chopping, laying the knife on the butcher block beside the pulverized onion. She leaned both hands on the counter and hung her head, sobbing. She wanted Steed to come to her, to wrap his arms around her and tell her it was all right, but he didn’t. Why doesn’t he comfort me? Can he be that unfeeling? She turned, prepared to vent this new rage, and saw that he was gone. Her right hand rose to her mouth as she felt another sob welling up.
“Oh John,” she wailed, his absence jarring her at least part way back to her senses.
She wiped her hands on a dishcloth and went after him, drying her face with the cloth too. Which way? Upstairs? No, a sanctuary – someplace quiet, away from his mad wife.
Her first thought was the stable, but she knew Steed well enough to know that he would not vent his anger with her on the horses. She walked on through the house to the big, dark library door. It was shut.
She paused outside of it, hand on the latch, and then raised her other hand to knock.
She knocked again.
The door swung open and Steed stood there, his amazing face flashing surprise, anger, hurt, and contrition all at once.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He stepped away from the door, so she stepped into the room. The cool weight and dry smell of the books calmed her.
“I couldn’t help it,” she put a hand on her belly and closed her eyes for a moment, concentrating on forming the right words. “I just feel so powerless, and burdened, and huge. And Cathy seems so right for you, I can’t believe that you aren’t attracted to her.”
Steed watched her for a moment, allowing his gaze to take in her form: to linger on the roundness of her breasts, her belly, and her hips, her delicately muscled calves, and her glowing auburn hair. He almost could not comprehend how she could think herself unattractive to him. She radiated beauty both in her form and in the meaning behind it – she was bringing life to their world, creating a miracle from their combined essences. He was in awe of her.
“I’m a man. I do find her attractive,” he said.
Emma’s head shot up, her gaze so sharp it almost hurt. He went on quickly. “But it’s irrelevant. She is not my wife. She is not the mother of my child. She was never willing to tolerate me enough to love me. She is none of the things to me that you are, Emma. You are everything to me, even when you’re stark raving mad.”
Emma felt a dam burst within herself. Relief crowded out the anger and remorse, and humor replaced that. She laughed out loud, and Steed smiled carefully.
“But there is something you must do,” he said. Emma calmed her laughter and nodded.
“Tell me,” she said.
“You once asked me why she ended our partnership and I told you to ask her. Now I’m telling you again. Call Mrs. Gale and talk with her about why she left me. Ask her about all my faults. She will help you understand who I was then, and how I changed after she left, before you met me.”
“All right. I will,” Emma took a tentative step closer to him and he held out his hand to take one of hers. It was a small contact, but it went a long way toward repair the rift between them.
“Were you actually making dinner in the kitchen?” he asked, a hint of playfulness in his voice.
“No, I just felt the need to chop something,” she replied.
“I wonder if we should make up.”
“It wasn’t really much of a fight, Steed.”
“I promise you that making up will be as good as if we’d been throwing things at one another for hours.”
“My word of honor,” he pulled her into his arms.
She pressed her mouth to his ear and whispered, “prove it.”
Steed chuckled as he let his hands range up and down her back. Then he disengaged from her and took her hand, leading her out of the library and toward the stairs. They left a trail of clothes along the halls all the way from the library to their bedroom. Steed’s tie ended up on the bottom newel post, while Emma’s bra landed at the top of the stairs. His shirt fell near it, and his trousers with his shoes and socks tangled in them were left in a lump outside the door to the nursery.
They collapsed on their big bed, hands, mouths, and legs everywhere, making contact in every way they could. Steed sucked at Emma’s breasts, marveling at their new size and weight and roundness. Emma slid her fingers up and down his hardened shaft, always amazed at how the feel of it made her throb deep inside. They held one another, side-by-side, indulging in the sort of long kisses that had been their only intimacy for the first months of their relationship. How they’d burned for one another then, and how sweet the reward had been when she’d finally led him into her bedroom. They had been lovers ever sense, longing for one another even when they were separated by the return of her first husband.
Emma raised herself on one arm, kissing her way down Steed’s scarred chest and over the rigid muscles of his belly. Lightly caressing his full balls she slowly drew her tongue from his shaft’s base to its tip. His musky, salty scent overpowered her senses, drawing her to consume him. She put her mouth around the tip of his penis and he groaned sharply. She caressed it with her tongue and he squirmed beneath her.
“Suck me,” he pleaded, not a command but a pleading request, “Please, it feels so good.”
She complied, knowing that he would repay the favor, would pleasure her however she wished, would invent new ways to drive her to sensual overload. Still caressing his balls, she took him into her mouth, allowing his great, powerful organ to fill her throat. She opened up to him, suppressing the urge to gag in order to take all of him into her. He bucked beneath her as she sucked hard, her lips a tight ring around the base of his penis. He moaned wordlessly, his upper body writhing on the bed, his hips held firmly between her elbows. She slid her lips up and down on him and he thrust against her. He gave throat to the growing sensation of mindless pleasure, groaning as his orgasm pumped his cum down her willing throat. She sucked him even harder, drawing every drop of his essence from him until his groan transitioned into a cry of near pain. Only then did she release his limp member. She placed light kisses in the curly hair at the base of his spent shaft. Lifting her head she looked toward his face. He lay with his eyes shut, one arm across his forehead. She crawled up his body and stretched out beside him and his other arm wrapped around her beneath her neck. She kissed his cheek and he turned his face to hers, his hooded eyes revealing only a sliver of his dusky gaze. For the moment he was spent, incapable of speech.
“Don’t you dare fall asleep,” Emma whispered with a little smile. He snorted, sounding more like a horse than a man, and she giggled at the notion. And then she contemplated it some more. “Because I want you to mount me,” she went on. His eyes opened a little. “I want your thighs pressed against mine. I want your stomach to drive against my ass. I want your big cock to fill me so that it’s the only thing I can think about. Will you do that Steed? Take me like the stud that you are? Ride me over the edge?”
As if to comply with her request for powerful, animal sex, he moaned wordlessly and rolled on his side to face her. He pulled her mouth to his with a hand cupping the back of her head and forced her lips apart, driving his tongue into her mouth to probe and suck. She reciprocated, taking great toothless bites of him, sucking his lips and his tongue and exploring his whole face with wet kisses.
Very soon she felt his hardened penis pressing against her belly and she reached for it, stroking it lightly to encourage greater growth. Steed hissed in a long breath, then rose up on all fours and hovered over her, nipping at her breasts and thrusting his shaft against her hands. She stroked his whole body, running her hands over his hard nipples and down his stomach to once again hold his cock and lightly caress his balls. He stroked her belly, feeling the bulges and depressions of their baby’s form within her. Then his fingers moved downward, slipping between her lips to stroke her labia as his mouth returned to hers.
“You’re so wet,” he murmured, slipping his fingers deeper within her.
“Make me wetter,” she sighed. He fingered her, pressing two, and then three into her, using his thumb to tease her clitoris to shuddering arousal.
“Come for me,” he whispered into her ear. “Come now.”
She let herself go at his words and savored the surge of heat that pulsed through her as her loins contracted around his fingers. He pushed against her orgasm, splaying his fingers, forcing her open so that her warm fluids gushed around his hand.
“Again,” he whispered, driving his hand in deeper.
“Mount me,” she commanded, shifting her hips so that his hand slipped out, then rolling over. He rose onto his knees as she came up before him, her pale, round ass pressing against his stomach. He stroked it and sucked in a thick breath as his penis nestled against the backs of her thighs. She spread them, and before he knew it she was reaching between her legs to find him and guide him inside.
At the feel of her hot, wet portal his body took over, driving into her in a single, endless thrust.
“Oh yes,” she cried, “that’s it. Do it again.”
He complied, withdrawing part way and thrusting in again so that his groin slammed against her ass. She smothered a wordless cry in the pillows and he thrust again, the friction of her tight passage spurring him to move faster. He was her stud, her steed, mounting her, dominating her. His thrusts grew faster and harder until she was crying out in a continuous, satisfied moan and his groin burned so hot he lost track of everything but their joining. She shuddered, her juices slick around him, her contractions triggering his own orgasm. And even that went on and on, his thrusts slowing, but not stopping until he was so soft he could no longer enter her. He knelt frozen behind her, his hands on her hips. She pulled away from him, turning onto her side as she lay down, and then reaching up to take his hand and guide him down beside her.
“My Steed,” she murmured against his throat.
“My love,” he replied, arms wrapped around her possessively.
Steed eased down on the sofa in the mews apartment and took a sip of the sherry he’d just poured himself. In an hour or so he’d pick up Emma at Knight and they’d drive home together. Their delicious three day interlude had been spent mostly in the bedroom, but also floating in the pool and lying in the sun stark naked. The morning after their fight and making up, Steed had come downstairs to find Emma stretched out beside the pool in nothing but her lovely skin and a lot of sun lotion.
“I realized,” she said as he stepped outside with his coffee, “that very soon we will have nannies and children, and we won’t have this house to ourselves again for quite a few years. So I want to make use of the privacy while we can.”
“Are you saying that the nanny will object to our leaving a trail of discarded clothes through the house?” he asked.
“One could always blame it on a faulty laundry basket, I suppose,” she suggested. “In any case, you need to make a pile of clothes here. The garden is strictly nudist this morning.”
Steed took another sip of coffee, then set his mug on the garden table and stood up. It was a warm morning. The pool beckoned. He dropped his dressing gown, which was all he was wearing, and dove in.
They’d made love in the pool, the buoyancy of the water adding an interesting dimension to the experience. And Steed reveled in the pleasure of having married a woman who would declare the garden clothing free.
He had continued to enjoy the memory through the day today. He’d spent it crisscrossing the city checking up on several other agents working cases he was monitoring. When that was done he had shoved a few files into his case and come to the apartment to hide from his peers.
He eased the first one out of the case, which was open on the floor beside the sofa. Every employee at Knight Industries had undergone rigorous background checks in the last year, starting at the top. Edmond was as close to the top as you could get, short of Emma Knight herself. Steed opened his file, already knowing that it had received a green flag from the research team. In fact, he hadn’t even bothered to look at it before this, both because he trusted the ministry’s research, and because he felt a natural aversion to Edmond Stanton. The man didn’t like him, so he felt inclined to reciprocate. But now he felt even more inclined to try to find out all he could about his wife’s right hand at Knight.
Forty minutes later he was little more informed and extremely apprehensive. Edmond Stanton’s background checkers had unearthed a most secret MI5 personnel file. The researchers had not been granted access to the file, but they had received approval from MI5 – meaning that whatever was in the file, Edmond Stanton was regarded as reliable and loyal and not a threat to national security. That did not mean he was also an active agent. But just reading about it raised the hairs on the back of Steed’s neck.
“Who’s watching the watchers at Knight?” he muttered, finishing his sherry.
After a moment’s thought, he slipped the file back into his case and closed it. He had promised Emma that he would try to find out if Edmond was an active agent. He still did not know, and he had other resources to try. So he was not duty bound to share this with her. Not yet.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Gale.”
Cathy looked up from her magazine and was immediately glad it was National Geographic and not one of the articles about Emma.
“That coffee looks terrible. Let me take you out to one of the nice cafes just down the street.”
“Well, you are taking a coffee break,” Steed flashed her his charming smile. She looked at her coffee, which had gone cold, the cream forming an unappetizing slick on the surface.
“Good point. All right.”
She rose and they walked together out of the museum and down the street in to the neighborhood south of the museum. They selected a small café that served steaming espresso and cappuccino and took a secluded table near the front window.
“So is Father Christopher safely locked away?” she asked when they had their coffees and a plate of biscotti.
“He’s an interesting case,” Steed nodded. “It seems that he planned to leave the uranium hidden in the church so that it would sicken the people who were there the most.
“And their doctors would probably never think to look for radiation sickness,” Cathy added with a slow shake of her head. “But how could an out-of-work priest afford the uranium? There was a lot of money in that briefcase.”
“It seems that Father Christopher was dismissed from the Cathedral because he embezzled church funds. The church did not want the situation publicized, so they did not press charges. Nor did they recover the funds.”
“Now that’s sweet revenge,” Cathy couldn’t help but chuckle. “And it was Father Christopher who broke into the museum and murdered Dr. Jameson?”
“Yes. Ridge had mentioned Jameson to him, so he decided to try to get the uranium on his own. He’s confessed to the murder, claims it was an accident.”
“Could it have been?”
“Not according to Dr. Booth.”
Cathy sighed and took a sip of her cappuccino. “It’s just the same is it used to be, this business of yours.”
Steed sipped his espresso, watching her for a moment. “It is. But I am not. Or had you noticed?”
Cathy studied him curiously, then nodded. “Yes. I had noticed. You have smoothed out a few of the rough edges. The wardrobe is better, and better cared for. You actually use the manners I always knew you had.”
Steed smiled. “And have you changed your opinion of me?”
“What does it matter, Steed? You’re happily married, you have moved on to a new phase of your life. My opinion of you is irrelevant.”
Steed shook his head rapidly, his expression earnest.
“It does matter. Because after you left, I spent a long, long time thinking about all the things about me that you disliked. I missed you. I missed your intelligence and your wit. I missed the way you never let me get away with anything. I knew you were gone, but I wanted to meet someone else like you – someone who would challenge me the way you did. But I knew that if I did, I would drive her away just as I had you if I didn’t reform my habits.”
“Steed, I’m astounded,” Cathy said. “I had no idea I’d had such a powerful influence over you. If only you’d taken my words to heart while I was still around!”
“You might have stayed?”
She smiled, but shook her head. “I don’t think so. You – or your habits – were not the reason I left. I was tired of your world. The crime, the pain and suffering, the unethical people were all weighing on me. I needed to get away from it.”
Steed nodded his understanding. “It does take a certain type of personality to live with it,” he agreed. “I suppose the things about me that allow me to tolerate it also made me behave in the ways you so disliked. But I worked very hard at those behaviors, and when I met Emma, I worked even harder.”
“Yes, I suspect Emma had a lot more to do with your reformation than me,” Cathy said.
“But she never would have given me a second chance if I hadn’t learned from you.”
“And you needed a second chance?”
“And a third and fourth,” he nodded with a self-conscious smile.
“Maybe you didn’t reform as much as you think,” she laughed and he had to join her. “Seriously Steed, I have noticed the differences in you. And, to be honest, for a very brief moment, I wished I hadn’t left. But you and I were not meant to be. Now, I have a meeting to get to. Thank you for the coffee.”
Steed rose with her and smiled impishly as she leaned close to kiss him on the cheek.
“Let’s not lose touch, okay?”
“Mrs. Gale? It’s Emma – Emma Steed,” Emma shut her eyes and forced herself to take a deep breath.
“Hello Emma. How nice to hear from you – please call me Cathy.”
Emma smiled with relief. “Cathy, I wonder if you could spare some time to speak with me. A lunch perhaps?”
“That would be delightful,” Cathy replied, although the suggestion actually made her immediately anxious. Much as she wanted to get to know Emma Steed, this somehow sounded more like an inquisition. But she allowed herself to commit to lunch the following day at a restaurant near the museum. Cathy immediately cancelled her 2:00 appointment, just in case.
“Cathy!” Emma waved from the table where she was already seated. Cathy couldn’t blame her for not wanting to get up. She seemed to have grown by inches in the two weeks since she had last seen her. Cathy sat down across from her.
“How are you?” she asked, hoping that the point of her inquiry was obvious.
“Bloated, hungry, tired most of the time,” Emma reeled off her symptoms like a catechism. “But I’m still convinced it’s all worth it.”
Cathy chuckled, “Perhaps I’ll ask you again in a couple years.”
Emma nodded and smiled. “Thank you for coming. I hope I didn’t seem mysterious on the phone.”
“Not at all. I have been hoping for an opportunity to get to know you better – if that’s what you had in mind?”
“After a fashion,” Emma replied, picking at the napkin on the table in front of her. “This is really at Steed’s insistence, although I think it’s a good idea.”
“Yes. I had asked him, long ago, why you and he were never – involved. He refused to answer. It came up again recently, and he strongly urged me to speak to you. Frankly, I think he’s ashamed of his behavior when you and he worked together, and I’d like to know why.”
Cathy sat in silence for a moment. This was unexpected, although, she realized, it shouldn’t be. Emma had done what she never would – allowed herself to love him, and marry him. Now she was trying to understand him. And Steed, well, of course he couldn’t allow himself to tell his wife about the rough edges he had smoothed over just before meeting her.
“His shame is misplaced,” Cathy finally said. “but he has changed a great deal since then, and I know he does not want you to think less of him.”
“Then he’s a silly old egotist,” Emma shook her head ruefully. Cathy’s eyes widened and Emma shrugged, “always so concerned that his image be as spotless as his suits. He really is worse that way than I am.”
“I think this runs deeper than his clothing,” Cathy said tentatively.
“So tell me,” Emma replied. “Tell me the things about my husband that he won’t tell me himself.”
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable –.”
“Please Cathy. I failed to learn everything I should about my first husband, and it ended very badly. I am confident that Steed will not betray me like Peter did, but still I am making it my business to crack him.”
“You make him sound like an enemy agent.”
“Once a spy,” Emma shrugged and smiled, allowing herself to look appealingly at the other woman.
“He was rough – he seemed to like to hit suspects. He was manipulative – I think that’s what bothered me the most,” Cathy began. As she described Steed’s faults she watched Emma’s expression go from surprise, to recognition, to amusement. And then they were exchanging stories, comparing notes, and laughing at the antics of the man that they both loved, in one way or another.