This story copyright © 2002, 2003, 2004 Mia McCroskey
The characters from The Avengers and Scarecrow and Mrs. King are the property of those television series’ respective owners.
Emma follows her heart
Steed goes for speed
Mrs. Emma Peel swung her roadster into the last parking space – indeed, a space only large enough for a car the size of her Lotus Elan – in the yard of the Knight’s Spurs Inn. She sat for a moment in the car, then reached a decision and picked up the camera bag on the passenger seat. Avoiding the softer looking muddy areas, which were sure to ruin her French nubuck ankle boots, she picked her way across the yard to the front door. This inn was only this crowded once a year, on Bentley Rally weekend. Fortunate, as it probably takes the other fifty-one weekends to repair the damage to the yard, Emma considered, opening the heavy oak door.
The tap room was mad with rally drivers, mechanics, and car buffs all forcefully quaffing their post-race pints and recounting the day’s adventures. Emma slipped her Nikon out of the bag and turned on the flash. To her left, Sir Roald Wentworth was animatedly describing his passage through a nameless village full of chickens. She raised the camera and caught him in a flattering, jolly instant.
“My dear Lady Emma!” he chortled, blinking from the flash and taking in the way her sleekly tailored, aqua suit flattered her curves. “Shall I start the story over for you?”
“No need, Sir Roald. The picture will be worth a thousand words to our readers.”
“Yes, quite,” he frowned slightly, but chose to disregard the possible insult. After all, she was far too lovely to have intended to insult him – lovely enough that poor manners could be excused.
“Lady Emma, I have a proposition for you,” he said.
“Yes?” Emma asked cautiously.
“And that’s exactly what I hoped you would say! Yes!” He laughed, joined by his mechanic and circle of friends.
“What is your proposition?” Emma asked, seriously, but with enough of a hint of a smile to let him think that she appreciated his cleverness.
“Ahem. Yes. Well,” he found himself unaccountably nervous all of a sudden, “I wanted to suggest that you, that is, your readers, would benefit if you, just you, not your readers I mean, were to ride along with me tomorrow.”
At Emma’s raised eyebrows, he plunged on, “Of course I would give you an exclusive interview, and access to all of my, shall we say, shortcuts? Your readers would love it.”
“Oh yes, I know I would love to read a first hand account of the drive!” one of the fans chimed in. Emma smiled. She was certain that thirty minutes in Sir Wentworth’s car would be more than adequate for her to capture the sensation in writing and pictures. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.
“I would be delighted, Sir Roald,” she replied, “shall I meet you at your car in the morning?”
“Yes, yes, perfect. Unless you’d like to join me for breakfast?”
“I’m afraid not. I have an interview scheduled.”
She slipped away, overhearing one the Sir Roald’s friends say, “Come now, who could be worth interviewing when she’s riding with Sir Roald all day?”
Emma scanned the common room for the man with whom she hoped to have breakfast. She needed to make contact with him, especially since he didn’t yet know about their appointment. She’d seen him that morning just before the start, looking typically dapper in his motoring togs. He hadn’t been on the list of entrants she’d received with her press kit, typical of him to enter at the last minute. He’d come in sixth this afternoon – not a bad showing for an amateur.
“Steed!” She called, spotting him from behind seated alone at the bar. He turned slowly, as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard his name. “Steed,” she repeated, close enough now for a more intimate tone. His sudden, warm smile sent a shiver through her. How long had it been? Three years if you didn’t count that embassy party, which she did not.
That’s all he said. No more was necessary. Their eyes locked for several long seconds, and she retained the gaze as she slipped onto a miraculously empty stool beside him. It was very close, with the back of a large Scottish mechanic pressing against hers. She leaned close to Steed.
“I saw you this morning, but you were just about to start so I didn’t want to distract you,” she began.
“And distract me you would have,” he replied, giving her that familiar, warmly flirtatious look. “What are you doing here?” He picked up his pint and tipped it to her in a silent toast.
“An article. And photos,” she held up the camera.
“Really?” he spread out the word.
“And you’re really racing the Bentley?” she countered. He smiled.
“Of course. I had the weekend free, the car’s in tip-top shape. Why not?”
“Have a drink?”
She busied herself with storing her camera while Steed attracted the barman’s attention and ordered her a half of the house ale.
“Cheers,” she said, taking the smaller glass. It was strong and a little bitter, but not unpleasant. She indulged in a hearty sip, eyes once again locked with Steed’s.
“I was just thinking about retiring, ordering supper in my room,” he said. “Before this lot gets out-of-hand. Would you care to join me?”
“I’d like that. But first I have to do a little work – before this lot gets out-of-hand.” She glanced around the bar. “Thirty minutes?”
“Perfect. Room eight.”
“I’ll see you there.”
Emma worked the room, capturing snippets of conversation and snapping candid photographs. As she had expected, within thirty minutes the crowd had gone from cheerful to drunken and she couldn’t get a coherent word out of any of them. She asked a harried waitress where to find room eight.
Steed could not quite believe that Mrs. Peel – he could not bring himself to think of her as “Lady Emma” – had walked into the Knight’s Spurs. He was not sure how he felt – he thought he’d finally stopped missing her, but with the sound of her voice it had all rushed back. All at once he felt justified in avoiding her at that embassy party last year. Since then he’d taken the liberty of checking the guest lists for events in order not to meet her with her husband, Sir Peter Peel. An agent could not afford that sort of emotional turmoil.
Her departure three years ago had been so abrupt there’d been no time to question its necessity. One day he was working with her on that memory drug case, the next he was working with Tara King. Tara was bright, lovely, and a good agent. But she was no Mrs. Peel. He knew Mrs. Peel could not have continued to work with him after her husband’s unexpected return from the Amazon. But it hardly seemed fair. They had been perfect together.
After Emma had melted into the crowd he ordered the best bottle the limited pub had to offer, a bucket of ice, and glasses and took them to his room. No visit with Mrs. Peel would feel right without bubbly. He set the champagne to chilling in the bucket and changed his clothes, donning a grey cashmere turtleneck and slacks. Then he shaved, telling himself that she might want a picture of him for her article and he should look his best.
Her knock startled him. He checked his appearance in the standing mirror and went to the door.
She strode purposefully into the room leaving him to close the door, which he did.
“Steed, it is marvelous to see you,” she said, turning to face him from where she’d stopped in the middle of the room. He slowly closed the gap between them, stopping a comfortable distance in front of her.
“I was thinking much the same thing, Mrs. Peel. I,” he paused, not sure what he had been about to say – I missed you perhaps? How would she take that?
“I was wondering how you’ve been – what you’ve been doing, since your – since Sir –“
“Peter and I have been living on his family estate in the country. I sublet my flat.”
She abruptly turned away, setting her camera bag on a chair and looking at the champagne. He followed her gaze and went to open the bottle. He wasn’t certain – it had been three years and her mannerisms might have changed – but he thought something was bothering her.
“So,” she said as he peeled the foil off the bottle top, “Is this a working weekend?”
“No,” he said slowly, as if considering something, “It just so happened that this rally and the Bentley being in perfect running condition finally coincided. You may recall I have always wanted to participate. There was a last minute cancellation, so I was fortunate to get rooms along the route for most of the stops rather than miles away.”
The champagne cork made a satisfying pop and Steed hastily poured two glasses.
“Something of a dream-come-true then,” she suggested, taking a glass.
“I suppose so.” The glasses tinkled together and they sipped in appreciative silence.
“I saw your piece on the royal family’s hunting pack,” he said. He’d been surprised to see it, in fact, Mrs. Peel was more known for working at a higher intellectual level. But he’d cut it out of Horse and Hound and kept it on his desk. He was very fond of the photo of Mrs. Peel in hunting regalia mounted on a shiny bay with hair the same color as hers.
“Fluff,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her left hand. “But the editor knew I could get access to his highness and pressed me for weeks. I don’t much approve of them chasing poor creatures around the countryside, but I couldn’t very well write that angle for H&H.”
“Indeed! So it seems Sir Peter’s return has opened some new doors.”
She set her glass down and walked to the window, which looked out on the inn yard.
“Just the opposite, actually,” she said, still turned away from Steed. He could swear her voice broke as she spoke.
“Oh?” he coaxed.
She took a deep breath. “Peter disapproves of my writing. He disapproves of my doing anything other than organizing parties and volunteering here and there. He will not acknowledge that I am no longer the decorative girl he married.”
“Come, come, Mrs. Peel, I would never describe you as an ornament! Decorative, certainly, but with extensive substance.” Steed interrupted. His attempt at levity failed. She glanced over her shoulder at him, frowning.
“Nonetheless, to Peter I am a ‘trophy wife.’ At first I believed it was my responsibility to make our marriage work again, he being the returning hero. So I tried. I organized parties and paraded around on his arm and worked for his favorite charity. But that sort of life is boring and lonely. He’s hardly home, and when he is he has very little to say about things that interest me – he’s been test flying the new F-1120, but he won’t even so much as show me a diagram.”
“I know the ministry briefed him about your work for us while he was gone,” Steed said, “You can hardly be expected to change just like that. Or at all.”
“When he goes away, I take on projects that are offered – usually like Horse and Hound because anything more stimulating requires background work that I don’t have time for. You’d think he’d like me fawning over the royals, but when he found out . . .” Her shoulders sagged, her voice cracked.
Steed closed the gap between them in three long strides, taking her into his arms without a thought for propriety. She turned into his embrace and laid her head on his shoulder, her arms around his waist.
“What does he do when he finds out?” Steed asked through a tight jaw.
“We fight. Long, angry, exhausting fights. Once he slapped me,” he could tell she was smiling, “But only once. I think that’s when he realized I’m really not his ornamental wife anymore.”
“But he still insists that you should be?”
“Yes. I’m to put it behind me and ‘grow up.’”
Steed tried to conceive of anyone regarding the brilliant, sexy Emma Peel as childish. It was impossible.
“He’s gone to Spain for three weeks,” she went on, “so I agreed to cover the rally for Motor Week. He’ll be livid when he finds out, and I don’t care. I can’t go on like this.”
“My dear Mrs. Peel, you certainly can not.” Steed stroked her hair, then kissed her forehead. She raised her head, deep brown eyes glistening with tears.
“There’s more,” she said. Steed nodded encouragement. “There are other women. When he travels.”
“You’re sure?” Why would Peter Peel be interested in anyone else when Emma was already his? The man was a fool.
Emma nodded slightly, biting her lower lip. “There’s been – evidence – in the clothes he’s brought back from trips. I suppose he doesn’t imagine that I would look in his bags. He wouldn’t dream that I might conduct some basic surveillance on him.”
“Do you have any hard evidence?”
“No,” she sighed.
“Where is he now?”
“Madrid, Hotel Coronado del Sol.”
Steed tightened his hold on her, pulling her close, and kissed her forehead again. “Let me take care of it.”
He released her and went to the phone on the bedside table. He dialed a series of numbers and waited, turning to look at Mrs. Peel, who remained by the window watching him.
“Albert? Steed here. I have a job for you. A Sir Peter Peel. Yes, that’s right. He’s in Madrid, at the Coronado del Sol. The usual package, particularly female companionship. Right. Good.” He replaced the receiver and smiled encouragement at Mrs. Peel.
“I hope you know I didn’t come to you just for that,” She said, walking toward him slowly, carefully.
He nodded. “My pleasure nonetheless, although if he finds anything you can use, you should probably pay him yourself – it would not look good at a hearing if it came out that the ministry financed your investigation.”
“Have him send me an invoice.” She placed her hands on his chest. Even through his sweater her touch made his flesh tingle. Her bow shaped lips formed a tiny, familiar smile, her eyes searched his. His hands automatically slid around her waist and drew her close.
“I saw you at the Andorran Embassy dinner the year before last,” she said. “You were alone.”
“Yes, I remember you were there,” He countered, trying to ignore her implied question.
“You left rather early, I recall. I went looking for you after dinner . . .”
“Another engagement?” one eyebrow arched. It was no use. They’d been at too many all night parties together for her to assume the truth: that he’d gone home early and alone that night.
“No. I just, lost the party spirit,” he finally said, unable to simply tell her that the sight of her waltzing with her husband had made him more miserable than he’d ever thought possible.
“Indeed, and haven’t regained it since, it seems. I haven’t seen you at any of the events we used to go to . . .” her voice trailed off as she studied his expression. So that was it. She had not wanted to hope, but his sad, slightly fearful expression told it all.
“No,” he whispered, one hand sliding up her back to caress the back of her neck, fingers twining in her hair. Her hands slid up around his neck. He bent his head to hers and their lips met, softly, gently, an intimate caress that took him back in an instant to the last time he’d kissed her. She’d been saying goodbye, her husband, newly rescued from the Amazon, was waiting. There was so much between them – too much to express in the time they had. So they had expressed very little. A tension-filled, chaste kiss, and then she was gone and Tara King was there making tea and chattering on about something.
Now as she looked into his eyes she seemed to relax. He brought his right hand up to her cheek. She leaned her face into his touch.
“Oh Steed,” she sighed, turning her face to kiss his fingers. He breathed deeply, absorbing her scent, filling himself with her presence. “Will you hold me?” she begged. That was how she sounded, a beautiful woman begging for affection. The jealousy for Peter Peel that he’d struggled to bury re-emerged as rage. How dare the man drive the indomitable Emma Peel to this.
Wordlessly, because he could not speak calmly, he guided her to the bed and stretched out on top of the coverlet with her in his arms. They lay that way for a long time, and although his eyes were closed, Steed knew from the way her shoulders shook that she was weeping. He held her close and whispered quietly to her, not saying anything, but trying to say everything.
At last she started to talk about her unhappy life with Peter Peel.
The long summer twilight had faded to black beyond the window when Steed finally slid his arms out from beneath Emma, who had fallen asleep. Deeply disturbed by what she had told him, he straightened his clothes, ran a comb through his hair, and slipped quietly out of the room.
The common room was quieter now, but there were a few late diners seated at tables. Steed ordered a light supper for two to take back to his room then went to the phone box in the corner while the food was being prepared. He made two short phone calls and by the time he was through two steaming plates of food waited on a tray on the bar. Waving away the waitress, he took the tray himself back up to room eight.
* * *
“It’s so nice to get out into the countryside,” Amanda King-Stetson sighed, laying her head back against the headrest and gazing out through the passenger side window. The rental car rambled through a dusky landscape of rolling hills and occasional trees. Sheep wandered in herds over the hills, sometimes accompanied by a lone shepherd or a few dogs.
“We’ll be there in about thirty minutes. Why don’t you re-read that dossier out loud,” Lee Stetson suggested. He was starting to get drowsy and hoped she could help him keep alert. She pulled a folder from the case at her feet and began to read about Sir Roald Wentworth’s recent activities.
Fifteen minutes later she flipped back to the first page. “Do you have any hunches as to who he may be selling to this time?” she asked.
“Not specifically. His last two transactions have been to middle-eastern players, but my sources say he’s been talking to some South Americans lately.”
“That leaves a lot of possibilities.”
“No kidding. British Intelligence in London sure couldn’t narrow it down, either.”
“No. I was surprised that they had so little more to contribute.”
“Well, we’re sharing pretty much all this surveillance info already, so they know what we know and vice versa. If we’re lucky, the field agents at the rally will have more to contribute by the time we make contact.”
“Ummm. So you know this fellow, John Steed?” Amanda had switched to a different folder and was studying a photograph of an attractive man in a bowler hat.
“Oh yes. Steed is the typical English gentleman.”
“I like gentlemen.”
“Except that his bowler hat is made of steel, and his umbrella conceals an epee.”
Amanda laughed, “At last, a real spy’s spy. Does he have a phone in his shoe?”
“He’s a good agent?”
“The best,” Lee slowed the car in the narrow lane. “This is the village, so the inn must be just along here somewhere.”
“There, see the lights?” Amanda pointed to a large Tudor-style building. Lee turned into a drive that led around back, but stopped near the front door.
“Let’s go check in first, I’ll park the car later.”
Shortly they were comfortably installed in a third-floor room with a view of the village lane. Amanda unpacked her toiletries and nightgown while Lee called Billy Melrose, their supervisor in Washington.
“We’re not making contact with Steed until tomorrow evening,” he said, hanging up the phone. “He’s with the rally in a village about 90 miles from here tonight. They’ll race here tomorrow. We’ll drive out and be spectators, get a look at Sir Roald. Then we’ll meet with Steed here tomorrow evening. Steed has his people on Wentworth already.”
“Good. I can use another night’s sleep – I guess I’m getting old, this jet lag is really taking it out of me.”
“Old?” Lee wrapped his arms around her from behind as she stood in front of the dresser. “Hardly.”
She leaned into his embrace and smiled at his reflection in the mirror over the dresser.
“So you don’t want a good night’s sleep?” she asked, reaching up to caress the back of his neck.
“Absolutely not!” he bent to kiss her neck. His lips left a trail of heat as she tilted her head to the side so he could work his way up toward her earlobe.
“Ummmm,” a sigh escaped her. Lee’s left hand drifted upward from her waist to cup her breast. His thumb flicked at her nipple and she gasped. “Um, Lee,” she managed.
“Hummmm,” he murmured into her ear. She ran her fingers through the hair on the back of his head and he moved from her ear down her cheek toward the side of her mouth.
“I really need to call mother,” she said.
With a sigh he loosened his grip, “I’ll be waiting.”
He backed away, pulling his sweater off over his head. Amanda headed for the phone while his head was still inside the garment. As she dialed he took off his shirt and sat down beside her on the bed.
She scooted away from him as she listened to the clicks of connecting phone lines. He scooted closer and put his arms around her. She pushed him back with a hand firmly planted on his chest as she listened to the ringing of the phone. He leaned in against her hand and kissed her on the cheek, then reached out and turned her face toward his. It was a losing battle for Amanda, who was just surrendering to his demanding kiss when a voice echoed through the phone line.
Amanda pulled away from a grinning Lee and turned her face back to the phone, “hello mother!”
“Amanda dear, how good to hear your voice. How is everything going?”
Lee stood up and unbuckled his belt. Knowing what was coming, Amanda turned to stare at the telephone rather than watch her husband.
“Just great mother. I just wanted to let you know where I am. Got a pencil?”
“Right here, dear. Go ahead.”
Amanda read the inn’s phone number and address from a postcard in a folder on the bedside table, all the while studiously looking away from Lee.
“Amanda, I don’t want you to worry, but the sink in the downstairs bathroom started to leak again. I called Phil the Plumber and he’ll be here tomorrow. I put a bucket under it and told the boys not to use it.” A pair of deft hands slid around Amanda from behind and began unbuttoning her blouse.
“I’m sorry to hear that, mother. Just be sure to remind Phil that he fixed it just four months ago. He said it would last for ten years. Don’t you let him charge you for more than – oh!,” Lee had slid her blouse off her shoulders and unclasped her bra.
“Are you all right dear?” Dotty asked.
“Oh yes, mother. Just fine,” Lee’s hands slid around her ribs and pushed her bra off her breasts. “Really fine.” She sighed and leaned into him impulsively.
“Well, the boys aren’t here, but I’ll tell them you called.”
“Where are they?” she asked relaxing into Lee’s embrace as he continued to stroke her in all the right places.
“Their father took them to a Redskins game, remember?” Dotty sounded a little surprised at her daughter’s uncharacteristic forgetfulness.
“Oh, right. I guess I lost track of what day that was supposed to be,” she pushed one of Lee’s hands away from her breasts, trying to clear her head for just a moment. “Give them my love, then. I guess I should go before this bill gets too high and IFF won’t pay it.”
“Have a good night, dear,” Dottie said.
“I will mother,” Amanda sighed as Lee’s lips descended on her neck and his hands slid lower, caressing her abdomen. She replaced the telephone receiver and turned to face him, sliding her arms around his waist.
“What did she say?” Lee muttered against the soft skin of her throat.
“She told me to have a good night,” Amanda whispered.
“I’ll see to that,” he chuckled, and let his lips take hers.
* * *
Steed balanced the tray on one arm as he opened the door and stepped inside.
“Mrs. Peel?” he called, seeing the empty bed. He leaned against the door to close it and carried the tray to a small table near the window. The bathroom door opened as he was removing the plates from the tray. He glanced up at Emma, who stood in the doorway looking refreshed. He took napkins and flatware and two more pints of ale off the tray and leaned it against the wardrobe, then turned to face her.
“I’m feeling rather embarrassed after all that,” she said with a shy smile.
Steed shook his head and stepped closer, placing his hands on her upper arms. “Nonsense. You needed to talk to a friend. And I am, and will always be, your friend,” he said.
“My best friend, I think. There’s no one else I could talk to like this after three years.”
“Three long years,” he nodded and squeezed her gently. “Have some supper. Things always look less difficult on a full stomach.”
He guided her to a chair then sat across from her.
“I asked for something light. But it is a pub, after all,” he said, regarding the large servings of shepherd’s pie on their plates. Emma took her fork and started eating, discovering that she did, indeed, have an appetite. They ate in companionable silence, each lost in thought.
He has missed me, I wasn’t immediately replaced by the next partner. But is there a possible future for us? Would it be like trying to go back, or could we find a way to go forward together. And does he even want to? What is his relationship with Tara King? I’m not sure I could bear it if I find out it’s just like ours was. I believe he loved me. Does he love her? Emma felt as if her thoughts were caught in an endless loop.
Steed watched her eat with tidy movements. That was Mrs. Peel in a word: tidy. None of the typical female fuss and bother, unspeakably feminine, but rational, logical, agreeable – most of the time – a real man’s woman. Hah, what had the last few hours been if not female fuss and bother? He reprimanded himself. Cad! His inner voice replied, she’s come to you with a sensitive, intimate problem. Friendship is not fuss and bother. But is it only friendship? She approached me. Does she know what she’s doing to me?
“Well,” she said, placing her fork and knife across the top of her plate and looking up at him.
“Yes,” he replied, realizing that he’d been staring at her, holding his fork in the air. He hastily put it down and rose to get the tray. “Finished?” She nodded and he put her plate on the tray, stacking his on top followed by the flatware, napkins and glasses.
“I’ll get it,” she said, rising and preceding him to the door, which she opened so he could place the tray outside.
“Thank you,” he said, rising and stepping back inside. The faced each other awkwardly.
“It’s getting late,” she said, not looking at her watch. Impulsively, Steed took both of her hands in his and brought them up to his lips.
“You’re not thinking of going, are you?” he asked, hoping his fear of her answer was not evident in his voice.
“Do you want me to stay?” she asked matter-of -factly. No flirtation, just a simple question charged with infinite repercussions. He took a deep breath and caressed the backs of her fingers with his thumbs. Then he looked into her eyes.
“More than anything, actually,” he whispered. Her smile was the greatest reward for his bravery in admitting it. She seemed to come to life, squeezing his hands then striding purposefully away from him to the armchair that held her camera bag. She unzipped a side compartment and pulled out a length of silky fabric with one hand and a toothbrush with the other. He grinned back at her.
“Wow,” Amanda exclaimed, “Even as someone who’s not that interested in cars, I can say that’s a pretty sight!”
Lee grinned at her admission as they watched eleven vintage Bentleys speed by the viewing stand in quick succession. Although they had left the inn at 7:30 that morning it had taken them ninety minutes to get to the remote village and they had missed the first five cars to pass this checkpoint on the rally route. Lee hadn’t seen Wentworth’s number, or Steed’s, in the cars that had just gone by, and he hoped they were both in the lead pack and not somewhere behind.
“Let’s get going, see if we can overtake the leaders at the next viewing stand,” he said as the dust from the last of the eleven cars settled on the crowd nearest the road. He took Amanda’s hand as they made their way down the bleachers and through the thinning crowd to their rental car.
“I’m surprised a few cars driving through draws such a crowd,” Amanda said as they got underway. Lee drove carefully to compensate for the right hand drive on a left hand road with lots of pedestrians.
“The British have never stopped loving the fine sport of motoring as it existed when these cars were built,” he said, “It’s sort of like their obsession with fox hunting.”
“Now that’s one that’s gotten a lot less popular.”
“For some, but there are still lots of people hunting,” he said. “Anyway, these villages take the occasion of a few cars passing through to hold fairs and festivals. Too bad we don’t have time to linger, we might find be able to do some Christmas shopping.”
Lee smiled to himself. How amazing to think of something like Christmas shopping, and to have family to think of it for. Seeing his expression, Amanda took his left hand in hers and gave it a squeeze.
Using newer highways they reached the second checkpoint in 45 minutes and Lee was please to see that none of the rally cars, routed onto old country lanes, were there yet. He bought two lemonades from a fund-raising stand and they found seats in the temporary bleachers.
Lee was very pleased to see that the first car to come rumbling through the village was Wentworth’s, followed fairly closely by Steed’s. If he was in the lead, he wasn’t making any unscheduled stops, Lee surmised. Wentworth drove with the top down and wore a tweed cap over straight black hair. Beside him in the car was a brunette with a gauzy scarf over her head and a red jacket. Lee was surprised to recognize Mrs. Emma Peel riding along with his quarry. He was sure he had heard that she had “retired” when her long lost husband was rescued after years in the Amazon.
“How far is the next village?” Amanda asked after the first few cars had passed.
Lee consulted the map in the commemorative program he’d paid two pounds for. “For us, it’s just nine miles, but for them it’s 63,” he said, “they have to take this old road around the lake, while we can go almost directly.”
“So maybe we could take a look at the craft fair other there?” Amanda asked, pointing across the road at an open field full of tables and awnings. “I mean, we would get a better sense of the rally, mingling among the locals and all . . .”
“Ah huh,” Lee sighed, knowing he’d let himself in for this by bringing it up in the first place.
“Right. If we go now we can get across before the next cars – unless you really want to see them.”
“I thought you were impressed with the sight of the cars?”
“Well, I was. Once or twice. But, I mean, really, other than they’re being old, it’s like watching the traffic on the beltway.”
Lee burst into laughter. Only his Amanda!
“Let’s go!” he grabbed her hand and led her off the stands and across the road, still chuckling.
An hour and a quarter later they returned to their car with several purchases for Philip and Jamie, Dotty, and Francine. Amanda placed these in the trunk and they set out for the next village.
Lee’s estimate of 15 minutes max turned out to be grossly off, as residents of both villages had set up concession stands, games, and all manner of traffic-blocking attractions for most of the nine miles. To Lee’s frustration, they reached the next village nearly three quarters of an hour after they started, just in time to see the 14th car go by. Amanda was uncharacteristically quiet as they stood by the car – it had hardly been worth trying to get into the stands.
“I’m sorry Lee,” she finally said.
“For what?” he asked, wondering if something else had gone wrong that he’d missed.
“Well, if I hadn’t dragged you to the craft fair, we would have gotten here sooner,” she said.
“Amanda, don’t be silly. We would have gotten here in plenty of time if it weren’t for the traffic, we had no idea. Besides, we can see Wentworth and Steed are both still in it. Look at the score posting,” he pointed at a hand-chalked sign across the road from the stands. Wentworth was now in second place with Steed in fourth. “Look, there’s only one more checkpoint with a viewing stand, and it’s near the end of the course. In between they’re driving all over the countryside. Let’s get some lunch and if it gets too late we’ll just head back to the inn for today’s finish. It’s not as if seeing them during the race will allow us to do anything, we just came out to see the race.” And with Emma Peel in his car, Wentworth can’t very well meet for an exchange. Unless . . . Lee forced himself to drop that line of thought. Emma had been to Steed what Amanda was to him.
* * *
“Blasted geese!” Steed growled as yet another fowl dodged the Bentley’s wheels. Although he kept reminding himself that the birds had to take care of themselves, instinct made him swerve to avoid them, losing time. He knew Wentworth was only a short distance ahead of him, but it was an affront to his competitive nature that he had to stay behind. And then there was Emma. He had very mixed feelings about her riding with Wentworth, but there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn’t tell her he was here to watch Wentworth, not after he’d denied working. Of course it was probably futile – he had to make contact with the Americans, and Emma would probably be around to see it. He hoped she would understand that he couldn’t discuss a case.
He inhaled and released a deep breath as he braked the Bentley beyond the finish line for leg three. He was in sixth place. Glancing at the scoreboard he saw that Wentworth had finished a fast second. He couldn’t have taken any detours today.
Steed parked the car and climbed out, stretching his limbs. Since he didn’t have the luxury of a mechanic, he spent the next three quarters of an hour checking over the car’s antique systems, topping off fluids, and changing one tire that looked a little worn. While he worked other finishers came up and parked, a few drivers going to work like himself. There was the same air of sporting camaraderie that any such event generated. Steed found himself in a cheerful mood by the time he was finished.
Unfortunately, he did not have a room in the sponsoring Inn here, but rather at a modern motel out near the highway. Still, he was sure he could find a place to wash up a bit before making contact with Stetson and King in the pub down the road. He’d find his way out to his motel later, if necessary.
* * *
“Thanks you for a lovely ride today, Sir Roald,” Emma said, one hand on his sleeve to prevent him from trying to get closer. “And for the drinks. I really must go freshen up.”
They’d been in the pub for nearly two hours sipping inferior champagne as the other racers trickled in. Thirty minutes ago she’d seen Steed come in looking in need of a wash, and signaled her room number to him from across the room. He’d disappeared up the stairs. She’d listened all day to Wentworth’s self aggrandizing tales of adventure, using the ruse of taking notes so she didn’t have to listen closely. He’d repeated some of the stories during the day, and all of his pub tales were repeats. She needed a break, and a change of company.
The door to her room swung open with a creak and she stepped inside. As promised, Wentworth’s aid had driven her car here, checked her in, and delivered her bag. As the wife of a national hero she was accustomed to such service, but she was still impressed that Wentworth’s instructions had been followed so closely. Paying little attention to the room, she stepped to her small bag to find her toiletries.
She stiffened at the sound of the voice behind her, pulling in a deep breath. Thank heavens she hadn’t called out to Steed as she entered. Releasing the breath she turned to face the intruder.
Peter Peel lay stretched out on the bed, legs crossed at the ankles, hands behind his head.
“Peter,” she said crisply, refusing to add the expected, What are you doing here?
With quick, smooth movements he rose and crossed the room to stand very close to her. She met his sharp gaze with one of her own. There was no affection left between them.
“I decided you should come with me to Madrid,” he said. It was neither a question nor an invitation.
“No thank you,” she said, equally matter of factly.
He smiled thinly.
“It isn’t an invitation. Collect your things. I had Anna pack you an appropriate bag for Spain. It’s in the car. We’re flying from the local airstrip this evening.”
“Come, Emma dear, don’t be willful. It isn’t fitting. I’ve gotten bullfight tickets. Do you know how difficult it is to get seats in the shade?”
“You can’t bribe me, Peter. I have committed to cover this rally and that is what I intend to do. And I’ve been to bullfights,” with Steed, she didn’t add. And where is Steed, anyway?
Peter’s reflexes were so quick she didn’t see it coming. He’d grabbed her left arm and spun her around, forcing her to face the mirror on the bathroom door with him behind her. She winced at the discomfort his grip caused as he twisted her arm up behind her.
“Emma dear, we’re the perfect couple. I need you in Madrid this trip,” he said, studying his own reflection in the mirror.
Without hesitating, Emma lifted her right foot and ground the solid heel of her boot into his arch. As he instinctively loosened his grip she wrenched her arm free, spun around, and delivered a solid punch to his stomach. She followed that with a chop to the base of his neck, then backed away to see what he’d do.
“You’ll regret this,” he growled, glancing at her with pure malice in his eyes, then stumbling toward the door. She followed him, closing and locking the door after him, then leaning against it to catch her breath. A movement caught her eye – the drapes shifted and first one leg, then another, entered through the window.
“Steed?” she asked tentatively.
“He’s gone?” the agent asked as he straightened.
“Yes. Does this room have a balcony?” Emma pushed away from the door and walked to the window that Steed had just come through.
“No,” he said, walking toward the bedside phone.
Emma looked out, noting the narrow ledge outside.
“Albert? Right. I’ve just found that out. Yes. He’s just been here in Frome. He had a row with his wife. He mentioned flying out from a local airstrip this evening. Right. Good,” Steed hung up the phone and watched Emma pacing at the foot of the bed.
“He’s gone too far,” she said.
“I’d say so,” Steed replied.
“He’s up to something. Why did he want me in Spain?”
“Maybe just to make you go,” Steed suggested.
“Maybe. I don’t know. I just want to be free of this.”
“Well, the best thing right now is a bite to eat and some pleasant company. I’m meeting someone at the pub down the road. Why don’t you join me?”
Emma nodded absently, noticing her open bag with her toiletry bag beside it.
“I’ll just freshen up,” she said, disappearing into the washroom.
* * *
“I’m sorry to say that what they say about English food is true,” Amanda said as she surveyed the pub menu written on a chalkboard. Lee smiled and sipped his pint of bitters.
“Just order the sausage,” he said.
“Lee, do you know what they put in sausage?”
“Not here. Here it’s all happy farm animals . . .”
“It’s what parts of the happy farm animals that bothers me.”
Lee grinned at her and she couldn’t help smiling back.
“I’ll just have the lamb chops,” she said. “At least I know what part that is.”
She noticed Lee’s gaze aim toward the door then follow someone across the room.
“Is that John Steed?” she asked, looking at the man Lee was watching. Lee nodded. Amanda noticed that the man was accompanied by a tall, slender brunette. As the couple made their way through the crowded pub she couldn’t help but notice how well they moved together, like they knew one another very well.
Lee made a small wave that the man noticed. He guided his companion to their table.
“Lee Stetson, good to see you,” Steed said, shaking Lee’s outstretched hand.
“Steed,” Lee replied. “This is my partner, Mrs. Amanda King.”
“It is a pleasure, Mrs. King,” Steed shook Amanda’s hand. “Lee, you may remember Mrs. – ah, Lady Emma Peel,” Steed presented Emma.
“Yes, Lady Emma – I remember reading of your husband’s return,” Lee took Emma’s offered hand.
“Mr. Stetson,” Emma turned to Amanda, “and Mrs. King.”
Emma had allowed herself to mentally rehash the encounter with Peter Peel while walking with Steed to the pub. Steed had guided her to the table where Lee and Amanda were seated before she’d had time to think about why they were there. Steed had said he was meeting these people who were, she was certain, American agents. Which meant he was, in fact, working this weekend. He had lied to her.
Steed pulled out a chair for her and she sat down.
Lee looked curiously from Mrs. Peel to Steed, who nodded slightly. Before anyone could speak, a waitress stepped up to their table and Steed ordered pints all around.
“I thought women weren’t supposed to drink pints,” Amanda observed when the waitress had moved on.
“Where did you hear that?” Lee asked, smiling indulgently at Amanda.
“In a Rough Guide – they’re very reliable for social tips,” Amanda replied.
“Yes they are,” Emma said, “my friend Alex has written sections for several of them. They’re very up-to-date.”
“So what about the pints?”
“That’s mostly in the cities,” Emma explained. “If a woman alone orders a full pint in a London pub, she’s thought to be ‘rough.’”
“Somewhere between an absolute lady and a loose woman,” Steed said.
“She’s liable to attract unwelcome attention from the other patrons,” Emma said, giving Steed a little frown. “But if she orders a half pint, she’s understood to just be, well, thirsty.”
“That’s pretty silly,” Amanda said.
“Completely,” Emma agreed and the two women shared a smile.
“So why did you order us pints, Mr. Steed?” Amanda asked.
“You ladies are clearly accompanied. None of the other patrons would dare behave inappropriately,” he said.
Emma eyed the room appraisingly, then turned back to Steed, “No, I don’t believe any of the other patrons will,” she said.
Across the table, Amanda could swear that sparks arced between them. She impulsively sought Lee’s leg under the table. Feeling her touch he glanced inquiringly at her. She smiled at him, and looked back across the table.
“So,” Emma said, still looking at Steed, but then turning her gaze on Lee, “are you and Amanda here on business?”
Amanda was certain that Steed looked ever so slightly uncomfortable, although it was hard to tell.
“Yes,” Lee said smoothly, “we’re here scouting locations. For a documentary film.”
Emma pursed her lips and looked to Amanda, who tried to look impassive. Lee had not given Emma the answer she wanted.
“I have worked with Lee several times in the past,” Steed said, nodding at Lee, who looked concerned. He turned to Emma, “They are here on a case, Mrs. Peel. We are combining our resources. Regarding a matter of national security.”
“Whose nation?” Emma asked coolly.
“Both,” Steed replied. “It’s all right, Lee. Mrs. King, Mrs. Peel worked with me for several years, a few years ago.”
Amanda nodded. She’d seen the descriptions of Steed’s various partners in his file. Emma Peel was not his current partner, but she had been. That, plus Steed’s assurance, was good enough to let her hear their conversation this evening. But even though the nature of their meeting was now in the open, Amanda sensed that Mrs. Peel was not satisfied.
“So where do we stand?” Lee asked Steed.
“I’ve had men on him ‘round-the-clock,” Steed said. “He has not made contact with anyone.”
“Who are we watching?” Emma asked.
“Actually,” Steed shifted on his chair and nodded toward the pub bar, “he’s just come in.”
Each of them tried to glance at the bar without being obvious. Emma’s glance was shortest: she turned quickly back to Steed, eyes flashing.
“What has he done?” she asked.
“You know I can’t tell you the details, Mrs. Peel.”
“Then perhaps I should go,” Emma scooted her chair back. Steed put his hand on her wrist, stopping her. She looked at him expectantly. Across the table, Lee frowned at the pair, then glanced at Amanda, who shook her head a little, indicating that he should be patient.
“Please stay,” Steed said. “You may be able to help, if you’re willing.”
Emma continued to stare at Steed, eyes skewering him with a look that Amanda was glad wasn’t turned on her. The blend of anger and disappointment belied a very complicated relationship between them.
“I’ll arrange clearances with the ministry in the morning,” Steed added. Emma seemed to relax a little. She scooted her chair back to the table, but avoided looking at Steed.
“Mrs. Peel is here writing an article about the rally for a magazine. She has complete access to the participants, including Sir Roald,” Steed explained to Lee and Amanda.
“You were riding with him today!” Amanda said suddenly. Lee watched Mrs. Peel’s reaction closely. She showed no sign of concern that her activities had been noticed.
“Yes,” Emma said carefully, “he was hoping for extra exposure in my article.”
“And did he drive the entire time?” Lee asked.
“Yes. He made no unscheduled stops. He made contact with no one.”
“And the rally lasts two more days?” Amanda asked.
“Yes. Although the last day is short,” Emma replied.
“He’ll have to move soon, then,” Lee said, watching Wentworth’s back as the man talked with his mechanic.
“Have your folks or London come up with anything more about his possible customer?” Steed asked.
Lee shook his head, “Not a thing. We think it’s someone new. Someone we don’t know about.”
Emma bit her tongue. She was desperate to ask what Sir Roald was selling, but she would not give Steed another opportunity to refuse.
“The mechanic’s leaving,” Amanda, who’d been keeping an eye on the bar, said suddenly. The others glanced at the bar and saw the mechanic moving toward a back corridor. Without a word, Lee rose and walked casually toward the same corridor.
“We believe Sir Roald himself will have to make the contact,” Steed said, watching Lee go.
“But the mechanic could be setting something up,” Amanda replied. “Wentworth could have been instructing him.”
“Do you have someone watching the mechanic?” Emma asked icily.
“Yes, Mrs. Peel,” Steed replied. “Our men should be on the front and back doors of this pub, since Sir Roald came in.”
“But have you had the mechanic tailed during the day?”
Steed nodded. “We’ve been on all of Sir Roald’s party. We tailed Sir Roald’s aid driving your car here and putting your luggage in your room today.”
“Point taken, Steed,” Emma replied curtly. Amanda wasn’t sure if he’d been trying to embarrass Mrs. Peel, but if he was it hadn’t worked. If anything she was just angrier.
Something beeped in Steed’s pocket. He took out a small two-way radio.
“Steed here,” he spoke quietly into the device.
“This is Polk,” a thin voice came out of the speaker. The others could just hear it. “A car just came from around back, moving fast.”
Amanda and Emma exchanged a worried look and Amanda started to rise.
“Wait here. I’ll go,” Steed said, rising, umbrella in hand, before she could.
The women watched Steed disappear down the corridor just as the waitress set four pints on their table.
Emma stared at the large glasses, then looked up at Amanda, her expression changing to a wry smile.
“Looks like we’re drinking pints alone,” she said. Amanda’s head snapped around from where she’d watched Steed disappear. She looked at the glasses, then at Emma.
“Between us we can probably avoid any unwanted attention,” she said conspiratorially.
“I’m quite certain that we can,” Emma replied, raising her glass and taking a sip.
Lee pushed past two women waiting outside the WC and turned a corner in the dim hallway, suspecting the back door was just ahead. The blow to the back of his neck came out of nowhere. He felt himself sprawling forward, then felt nothing else.
A few moments later Steed found the rear door of the pub standing open. Umbrella held at the ready, he stepped out and to the side, scanning the area. There was one car in the shadows under some trees about twenty yards away, an interior light illuminating it from within. Frowning, Steed crossed the small yard to it and found the driver’s door open and the car empty. He slammed the door angrily and turned back toward the pub.
“I saw your name in Mr. Steed’s dossier,” Amanda said, deciding an honest approach might be the easiest way to reach Mrs. Peel.
“I should think you would have found Tara King’s name more prominently featured,” Mrs. Peel replied. Amanda nodded.
“She’s his current partner. Why isn’t she here?”
Emma frowned. She had not asked Steed about his partner, mostly because she didn’t really want to know. But it was a good question.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, finding that some of her anger was diffused as she considered this puzzle.
“So you’re really here to write an article? And meeting Steed is a coincidence?”
“I’m really here to write. But I knew Steed would be here,” Mrs. Peel admitted. Amanda smiled.
“It must have been hard to give up this work when your husband returned.”
Mrs. Peel nodded. “Much harder than I expected. Are you divorced, Mrs. King?”
“Yes. My ex-husband is an attorney working in the diplomatic corps. His work, while we were married, took him to distant places for long periods of time. We both realized that he wasn’t really being a husband or a father,” Amanda glanced down at the table, remembered the pints there, and picked hers up.
“Mrs. Peel, Mrs. King, I have to go,” Steed was suddenly there, slipping into his chair, but looking ready to spring away. “You two stay on Sir Roald.”
“Where’s Lee?” Amanda asked, looking very concerned.
“He’s gone, and so are my man and Sir Roald’s mechanic,” Steed said cagily.
“Gone? Or been taken?” Amanda asked, glancing back at the bar where Wentworth still stood talking with other patrons.
“Probably the latter. My man’s car is still out back. The door was open. There’s no sign of him, or of Lee. I’m taking Polk from out front to go after them. You’ve got to stay on Sir Roald, I don’t have anyone else to call in.”
“We’ll watch him,” Mrs. Peel replied. Steed looked at her, eyes narrowing. She nodded reassuringly, “Go on. Shouldn’t you hurry?”
He nodded. Amanda would swear he started to lean toward Mrs. Peel, then pulled back, rose, and strode away. Mrs. Peel sat half turned in her chair for several seconds watching him go, then turned slowly to the table and took a long sip of beer. Finally she glanced up at Amanda.
“He’ll find Lee. He’s particularly good at getting people out of jams,” she said.
“Well, if he doesn’t, I will,” Amanda said firmly. Emma raised her eyebrows in surprise at the other woman. “Lee knows I’ll come after him.”
“It’s good to be able to count on someone,” Mrs. Peel said, almost wistfully.
Amanda took another sip of her beer and thought through what had just happened. Lee might have followed the mechanic, and if he had he would find a way to let her know. Presumably Steed’s man out back had a radio, so if they’d gone together, they’d call in. But would they have left on foot if the mechanic left in a car? Not when they had a car. The car that Polk reported might have been unrelated, but the more Amanda thought about it, the less likely she thought that was.
Emma studied Amanda King while keeping an eye on Wentworth and sipping her pint. Amanda appeared to be a smart, professional agent, which contradicted the background she’d just described as a wife and mother. Emma was at a disadvantage: she had not had the luxury of reading the ministry files on Stetson and King. She remembered Lee Stetson. He had turned up toward the end of a case she’d helped Steed with not long before Peter’s return. Steed had described him as a top American agent. Emma had found him charming, but distant. She had thought his experience in the field had made him somewhat cynical about people. But in their short conversation this evening she hadn’t sensed that. Of course, she was quite preoccupied, so she wouldn’t trust her judgment.
Amanda shifted on her chair, “Wentworth looks pretty occupied. I think I should go to the restroom now, just in case,” she said.
“Good idea. You go then I’ll go. I’ll come bang on the door if he moves.”
Wentworth remained at the bar while each of them used the facilities. Amanda had taken a moment while in the corridor to check out the back door, noting the British agent’s car still parked under the trees. She’d hoped she might find a sign from Lee, but there was no hastily dropped token or message scratched on the wall.
Her anxiety grew as she contemplated the situation. She was fidgeting with a cardboard coaster, one eye on Wentworth, by the time Emma returned to the table.
“This could go on for hours,” Emma said as she slid into her seat, “perhaps we should order some supper.”
Amanda nodded, realizing that she was hungry.
Emma beckoned to the waitress, who came and took their orders for fish and chips. Emma made a vague excuse about their companions being called away by business when the waitress asked if the gentlemen were going to order.
“So you have children?” Emma asked when the waitress had gone. She could see that Amanda was becoming anxious. Most people were easily distracted by talking about themselves. She was a little surprised at how effective this was with Mrs. King.
Amanda rambled on about her sons, her mother, and their suburban Arlington life, Emma prompting with simple questions, until the food arrived. At the bar, Wentworth was engaged in telling stories that Emma recognized just from his gestures. She was grateful to be listening to Amanda instead. The life Amanda described was completely alien to Emma. She started to detect similarities between the boy’s sports teams and her own childhood pony club, but her own adult life was nothing like Amanda’s. Although Amanda had clearly been through some difficult times, she could rely on the support of a network of family and friends. Emma was feeling very alone: she was estranged from her husband, and her best friend had just lied to her in a way that revealed he did not trust her. Most of her friends were really just acquaintances, a hazard of her social class. Nobody really talked to one another about anything personal.
Their food arrived and they paid for it so as not to have to worry about it later. They were finishing it along with the pints abandoned by Lee and Steed when they noticed that Sir Wentworth seemed to be saying goodnight to his companions at the bar.
“My car is parked at the inn if we need it,” Emma said as they watched Wentworth head for the door. They let him get out the door before following. Outside they saw him ahead of them on the road walking toward the inn. The hour was late enough that the village road was otherwise empty. It was a cool, clear night, and the moon had recently risen. Its dim white light cast sharp shadows. The inn yard was not walled, so they could see Wentworth get into a black sedan as they approached. They remained in the shadow of the neighboring house until he had started the engine and pulled out of the yard then they ran to Emma’s Lotus, which had been left by Sir Roald’s aid with the top down.
Amanda was concerned that they would lose Wentworth, but Emma’s driving quickly proved her wrong. They soon caught sight of the black sedan ahead of them on the narrow country road. Emma stayed well back, only speeding up when their quarry turned. He led them along several wider country roads, and then turned onto a very narrow lane between fields of tall crops. Emma switched off the Lotus’s headlights before turning into the lane. As they crept along in the gloomy shadow of the high crops, they saw the sedan come to a stop far ahead. Emma stopped too, and they watched as another car came from the other direction and stopped facing Wentworth’s sedan.
Wentworth and the driver of the other car both got out and met near the front of Wentworth’s car. It looked like they both carried satchels, although from so far back it was hard to be sure.
“We need to get closer,” Amanda said.
“I can’t let Sir Roald see me,” Emma replied.
“Right,” Amanda said, thinking fast. “Let me drive.”
Slowly so as not to attract attention, Emma climbed up out of her seat while Amanda climbed over the stick shift into the driver’s seat. Emma slid down into the passenger seat.
“Now look sick. Hide your face – curl up,” Amanda ordered, struggling out of her jacket. Emma did her best imitation of someone with a hangover, reclining the seat and curling up on it. Amanda spread her jacket over the other woman, concealing her relatively well. “Let’s just hope he didn’t notice us together in the pub,” Amanda said.
“Probably not, or he would have come over,” Emma’s muffled voice replied.
Amanda eased the Lotus into gear, reminding herself that it was no different from Lee’s Corvette, just opposite hand controls. She was surprised that it worked. She shifted into second gear with her left hand, managing not to grind the gears.
“Let’s hope he just thinks were silly women,” Emma muttered, “driving with the top down when one of us doesn’t feel well.”
Amanda smiled, thinking that that was quite likely. Then she switched on the headlights and accelerated. The men soon noticed the Lotus coming toward them. Amanda squeezed the small car along side the larger sedans in the narrow lane, nearly scraping the passenger side mirror against the stalks of grain. Face pressed against the far door, Emma moaned pointedly, but Amanda ignored her.
“Oh thank goodness,” Amanda said, stopping the Lotus along side the two men, who were forced to stand with the backs of their legs pressed against the side of Wentworth’s car. “I hope you can help me, because she’s just too sick to navigate and I think I’ve gotten completely turned around. I told her we should bring the map, but oh no, ‘we’ll be fine,’ she insisted. And now look what happened. It’s this English food. I just know it . . .”
“Excuse me,” Sir Roald interrupted.
“Yes!” Amanda said, “I’m sorry. Can you help us?”
“You’re on private property,” Wentworth replied coldly, then scowled, “What sort of idiot turns onto a dirt road when they’re lost? I recognize this car. Is that Lady Emma Peel?”
“Lady Peel?” Amanda scrambled, intentionally misusing Emma’s title, “Yes, it is her car. She lent it to us for the evening.”
“You know her?” Wentworth asked.
“Indirectly,” Amanda drawled, speaking slowly to give herself time, “my cousin is a friend of her mother-in-law. We borrowed it to go to dinner in a village around here somewhere, but I don’t know where, and I need to get Debbie here back to our room. I’ve just been driving around and around and all these lanes look the same –”
But Wentworth had stopped paying attention to her. The other man had edged out from between the Lotus and the sedan and was getting back into his car.
“Wait!” Wentworth called to him, but they could see him shaking his head through the windshield as he started his car and backed away. “Silly cow!” Wentworth hissed at Amanda. “Get this car out of my way.”
“Well! I’ll be reporting this to my travel agent, you can be sure!” Amanda harumpfed, throwing the Lotus into gear with a loud grinding of the transmission. She roared forward narrowly missing Sir Roald’s toes with the Lotus’s back tire. Emma uncurled, grinning.
“And what, might I ask, is your travel agent expected to do?” she asked.
Amanda stared straight ahead, concentrating on steering the car over the dirt road at relatively high speed. “It got us out of there, didn’t it?” she said.
Emma laughed as she adjusted her seat to sit up. “I think I’d better tell my mother-in-law about your cousin,” she said, not entirely joking. “Slow down, we’re coming to the road.”
Amanda complied, “Which way?” she asked as she realized the dirt lane ended in a T intersection.
“He went to the right,” Emma said. Amanda swung the sports car around to the right on the paved road.
“What about Wentworth?” she asked, accelerating to catch up with the distant taillights of the other car.
“We interrupted his meeting. He’ll have to reschedule it if he can. Let’s hope his contact leads us somewhere interesting.”
He did. Amanda kept back far enough to avoid attracting attention, handling the lotus well. Thirty minutes later the car ahead turned into a gated drive between walls that ran along the road. Amanda slowed down as they approached the car, until it moved forward again, disappearing through the gate. Amanda drove on past the gate, which was closed by the time she got to it. Once past it she pulled over on the side of the road opposite the wall. They could see the upper floor and roof of a very large house some distance from the road.
“Wow,” Amanda said, “that’s some house.”
“Yes,” Emma agreed, although it was actually similar to her childhood home so she was not as impressed as Amanda. “And I’m sure Steed can find out who owns it. Let’s get back.”
“Did you bring a map?” Amanda asked pointedly. Emma smiled.
“Just go up to the next crossroads and turn right,” she said.
“May I ask you a personal question?” Emma asked after Amanda had made the turn.
“Sure,” Amanda said, glancing quickly at Emma, then back at the road ahead.
“Did you find it difficult, divorcing? Were you able to discuss it with your husband? Or was it his idea?”
Amanda was surprised. She’d sensed a great deal of emotional upset in the other woman, but she hadn’t expected such a direct, searching question. It did fill in some of the blanks for Amanda. Lady Emma was unhappily married, and had sought out her friend Steed for advice – maybe for assistance. But he had angered her somehow. In short, she needed a friend. It was not in Amanda’s nature to deny such an appeal.
“It was my idea,” she replied. “Joe was almost never home. I was raising our two sons on my own. At first I made excuses for him – that his work was important, that he would come home after this assignment and we’d be a family. But gradually I just got angry with him. And then he didn’t come home for Christmas and I lost it. I filed for divorce.”
“And he came back?”
“He came back to sign the papers.”
“That was it?”
Amanda shook her head as she stopped the car at an intersection.
“Which way now?”
Amanda accelerated and turned. “Officially, yes. But ending a marriage is never simple. It wasn’t that I had stopped loving Joe, but we had misjudged. Our lives were going different directions when we married, we just didn’t realize it for several years.”
Emma nodded thoughtfully, then sighed and looked out at the dark fields on either side of the road. Amanda glanced over at her, wondering what had happened in her marriage. Other than her husband disappearing for several years, then returning a hero. And what had Emma done during those years alone? Amanda felt herself nodding with understanding. She had become an agent. Working with John Steed. Amanda smiled a private little smile.
“What?” Emma asked. She had turned her head just in time to see it.
“Hummm? Oh, I was just thinking.”
“About your ex-husband?” Emma sounded a little dubious.
“No. About Lee.”
“Please don’t worry. Steed’s very good –“
“I can’t help worrying. You see, Lee is – Lee and I are –“
“Yes, I thought so.”
Amanda glanced at Emma again, noting a sly smile.
“Lee recruited me to the agency,” Amanda said. “About four years ago. I had never thought of this sort of work, but it turned out I have some talents that complement Lee’s. Our supervisor kept putting us together on cases. Gradually we both realized there was more to our relationship than the work.” Amanda stole a quick glance at Emma, who was watching her attentively. “You know what I mean?”
Emma swiveled her head to look straight ahead. When she spoke, her voice was unnaturally even. “Steed and I have always had a complicated relationship. He’s a complete gentleman, and I am married, even though my husband had been lost for several months before Steed and I met. But, as you said, as we worked together we could not ignore the attraction. If anything it became dangerously distracting.”
“So you gave in to it.”
“And two years later my husband returned.”
“Your husband who you no longer loved?”
“Who I no longer knew.”
Amanda slowed the Lotus as the road passed between several buildings that she supposed constituted somebody’s village.
“Turn right just after the last building.”
“So you want to leave your husband for John Steed?” Amanda asked.
Emma shook her head, “No, I want to leave my husband because our marriage is over. And he’s abusive and cheating on me. I suppose I did also hope to rekindle something with Steed,” she lied.
Amanda made the turn Emma had indicated. “Steed isn’t interested?” she asked.
Emma shook her head, “I don’t know. He’s never been one to make a commitment, and I think that’s what I need right now.”
“You seemed to be pretty angry with him this evening.”
Emma sighed and looked at Amanda, then smiled ruefully. “I don’t suppose you had to be a very good agent to figure that out,” she said.
“No,” Amanda smiled too.
“I am angry. He lied to me – told me this was not a working weekend. There was no reason for it – unless he doesn’t trust me.”
“You understand his work,” Amanda reminded her.
“And I would have understood that he could not say any more if he had just told me he was here on a case.”
Amanda shook her head, “You know it’s an instinctive response,” she said.
Emma sighed, acknowledging that Amanda was right. “See the village?” she asked, indicating shadowy buildings up ahead on the road. Amanda nodded.
Steed jumped in to the passenger seat of Polk’s Austin and they took off in the same direction as the car that had left from behind the pub. Polk sped along the country road at a reckless speed until they spotted taillights far ahead. The car led them along several roads, finally turning in on a private drive through a thick forest. Polk killed the headlights and followed slowly on the winding drive, staying at least one turn behind the other car until a large house surrounded by large, manicured lawns came into view. The driver of the other car parked along side an outbuilding. Steed and Polk slipped out of the Austin and crept on foot toward it, keeping in the sharp shadows cast by the bright moonlight.
As they moved they watched the driver of the other car summon another man out of the building. The two men pulled first one, then another limp body out of the back of the car and carried them awkwardly inside. Shortly they both came out, one getting in the car and driving away around the house, the other taking up a post on a bench near the door. The barrel of a shotgun resting across his knees glimmered in the moonlight.
“I’ll get rid of him, then you bring the car close and we’ll get Smythe and Stetson in it,” Steed instructed Polk in a whisper.
“I’ve got a better idea,” a voice said from behind them. Steed spun around, umbrella extended waist high to catch the speaker in the gut, noticing the revolver in the man’s hand as he swung. Polk went low, and as he turned he found himself facing the legs of another assailant. He rolled forward, bowling the man over.
Steed’s opponent stumbled backward, gun flying though the air and into the bushes. But he recovered in time to block Steed’s next blow and deliver a clean punch to Steed’s jaw. Steed rolled with it, then came back with the handle of his umbrella high, slamming it against the side of the other man’s head.
Polk somersaulted and scrambled up, turning to face his man, who had rolled onto his back and aimed his gun at Polk, both arms extended to grip the weapon. Polk stopped, raising his arms away from his sides in a gesture of surrender. He wasn’t sure whether Steed was aware of his predicament or not, but it didn’t much matter. Steed grabbed his opponent’s right wrist and flung him toward Polk’s attacker. He stumbled over the recumbent man, knocking the gun out of his hands and landing in the brush on the other side of him. The man already on the ground scrambled to his feet, blocking a blow from Polk, and took off toward the house. Polk started to go after him, but Steed grabbed his shoulder. The other man took advantage of the distraction to get up and run as well.
“Hang on,” Steed said between pants, “they’re probably going for help. We need to know more before we go in.”
“But Smythe’s in there!”
“And if they wanted him dead they’d have already killed him,” Steed said. “Let’s go find out what Sir Roald’s up to, and who owns this property.”
“Mr. Steed,” Amanda’s voice carried through the doorway of the inn’s downstairs parlor to the entry hall. Steed closed the front door and turned into the small, lushly decorated room. Mrs. King and Mrs. Peel were seated on a sofa, snifters of brandy on the table in front of it.
“Good evening, ladies,” Steed said, crossing the room to an armchair adjacent to the sofa. “All quiet here, then?”
“Did you find Lee?” Amanda asked.
Steed raised his eyebrows at her abruptness, but wrote it off to worry. “Yes. He and Smythe are being held on an estate. We tried to get them out, but the place was most annoyingly guarded.”
“They’re alive?” Emma asked. Steed wasn’t certain, but he thought she was less angry now than she’d been earlier that evening. He considered her question for a moment. He and Polk had assumed that the limp bodies of Stetson and Smythe were just unconscious. If they were dead, why guard them?
“Yes. Unconscious, but apparently worth guarding, so I’d guess they’re alive.”
“So how do we get them out?” Amanda asked.
“I’ve called in a team to watch the house and reconnoiter, Steed said. “We need to know what we’re facing before barging in. Also, I have research finding out who owns the estate. There must be a connection to Sir Roald.” Steed had had Polk drive him to the motel near the highway and take care of these calls. Then they’d driven back by the house for another look. There was no name on the front gate – not even an address. Steed had decided to leave the investigation to the team he’d called for. They’d have a report for him by the morning.
“Is this house about fifteen miles east of here?” Emma asked.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“To answer your first question,” Emma replied, glancing at Amanda, “All has not been quiet here. Sir Roald went for a little drive.”
“To a country estate?”
“No,” she said smugly, “to a meeting in the fields.”
“He met? Damn!”
Steed picked up the brandy snifter nearest Emma and took a sip. She smiled indulgently.
“He did not. We interrupted him. Mrs. King here is a most effective distracter,” she said.
“Well, I just –“ Amanda shrugged.
“No really, you were very good,” Emma went on. “We interrupted them and Sir Roald’s contact took off. So we followed him. He went to the country estate. In through the front gate.”
“But Sir Roald didn’t have time for an exchange?”
“No. They both had satchels, but they had not traded them.”
“And how did you explain your presence, Mrs. Peel?” Steed eyed her curiously.
“I didn’t have to. Mrs. King hid me in plain sight.”
Steed’s eyebrows went up inquiringly, but he let it pass. “Do you know where Sir Roald is now?”
“Here, in the inn. He was over in the dining room until just a few minutes ago. He’s just gone upstairs.”
Steed took another sip of Emma’s brandy.
“I need to make some calls. May I use your phone?” he asked, setting her glass down.
“Of course,” she replied.
Steed dialed an unlisted ministry number from the phone in Emma’s room. A cool, female voice related reports from several of Steed’s field operatives, but the team on the house had not reported in yet. Emma settled in an armchair while Amanda paced through Steed’s one-sided conversation. At last he hung up and turned to them.
“You weren’t with Sir roald the whole time after the race, Mrs. Peel?” he asked.
“I was – he insisted that we drink champagne downstairs. It wasn’t very good,” she grimaced. He frowned in sympathy, sensing a little of their old camaraderie returning.
“But he didn’t stay the whole time,” he clarified.
She frowned, thinking about it. “No. He excused himself – I thought to use the toilet. Now that I think about it, he was gone for rather a long time. I chalked it up to the long drive.”
“He met someone behind the garage. Gave them an envelope.”
Mrs. Peel nodded, “I suppose he had time to go out to the garage and back,” she said, returning Steed’s intense stare.
Amanda felt increasingly uncomfortable. From what Mrs. Peel had told her, there was a great deal of communication going on in those stares.
“I think I should go get some rest,” she said. “You’ll wake me the moment there’s any information, Mr. Steed?”
Steed turned away from Mrs. Peel, his expression softening as he looked at Amanda. “Of course, Mrs. King. I think we all could use some rest. Good night.”
“Good night Emma,” Amanda said, smiling at her new friend. Mrs. Peel turned her stare from Steed to Amanda and smiled.
“Good night Amanda,” she said. Amanda beat a hasty retreat to her empty room.
As the door closed Steed turned back to Emma. She sat regally in the armchair, legs demurely crossed, hands folded in her lap.
“I thought you weren’t working this weekend,” she said coolly.
“I have regretted that small lie all day,” he replied. “Technically, you’re a civilian. It is ministry policy.”
She shrugged it off. “Who did Sir Roald meet behind the garage?”
His calculating stare returned. “Sir Peter Peel,” he said, standing directly in front of her and looking down.
She did not look shocked at this revelation, which disturbed him. “And did you know my husband was involved all along?” she asked, raising her chin to look up at him defiantly.
“No. Not until last night when you told me about his recent travels. They coincide with certain meetings we’ve been aware of among some of the suspects in this case, including Sir Roald.”
“And do you think I’m involved?” she asked, the ice in her voice stinging. He hesitated just a little bit too long. In a single graceful movement she rose and slapped him, then slipped past him and walked to the small bar across the room.
“I deserved that,” he said, a hand on his reddened cheek. She clinked crystal on crystal as she poured herself a shot of whiskey.
“Yes, you did,” she said, not looking at him. Events of the last two days flash through his mind – her opening up to him, Peter Peel’s appearance and her aggressive response, her pursuit, with Amanda, of Wentworth and interrupting the exchange. He believed her. He knew in his heart that she would not lie to him.
She turned, drink in hand held high, near her mouth, her other arm wrapped around her chest below her bust. She looked vulnerable and defensive. He wanted to go to her and hold her, but he didn’t dare. Then she surprised him
“Peter tried to involve me,” she said.
“What?” he breathed.
“I didn’t know about Sir Roald, or the meeting here – it’s a coincidence that I’m here. But I knew he was up to something. It’s why he travels without me so much – because I refuse to get involved. The other women hurt, but the real reason I want out of my marriage is because I believe he’s a criminal.” She had started shaking. Her lower lip pulled in on one side in an expression so familiar it made Steed’s heart break
“Emma,” he did cross the room to her now, taking the glass out of her hand and setting it on the bar, then wrapping his arms around her.
“I was afraid to mention it to you. You could easily suspect me,” she said, allowing herself to sink into his embrace. The comfort she felt in his arms was overpowering. But the fact that he did not deny what she’d said – did not assure her that he didn’t suspect her – was equally powerful.
“Come lie down,” he said softly, slipping his arms from around her to guide her to the bed.
They lay down and Steed continued to hold her, stroking her hair absently as he pondered the situation. After a short while she rolled away from him. At first he thought she’d shifted in order to sleep, but he gradually realized that she was crying. He stared at the ceiling, wondering if her association with a known criminal would make it impossible for him to be involved with her. And hanging onto a shadow of doubt about her – she’s smart enough to deceive me. Does she love me more than her husband?
Emma let the tears seep from her closed eyes, breathing softly through her mouth as her nose dripped onto the pillow sham. I’ve played all my cards, she thought, and I may have lost both of the men in my life in one night.
Lee realized he was conscious when he recognized the pain in his head. He shifted his legs, and the sound of crunching gravel echoed softly, as if in a big, empty room. He opened his eyes to darkness. As if vision aided his other senses, he now noticed that he was chilly. He was lying on the gravel-strewn floor of a large room – maybe an empty garage, although if there were doors or windows they were shut tight. He sat up slowly, pressing a hand to the back of his head. He didn’t feel any moisture, or stickiness, but there was a big lump.
Gradually his eyes adjusted to the dim room. He realized that there were three windows set high in the walls. Moonlight filtered in, revealing the details of the room. Another man lay face down a few feet away. Lee crawled to him and felt for a pulse. He found it, along with a deep gash on the man’s temple. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his own head, he rolled the man over.
He did not recognize the man. Slowly, Lee eased back into a sitting position. He’d been dreaming about a pub. Amanda had been there, and the British agents – no, agent. Mrs. Peel isn’t an agent. Or is she? But it hadn’t been a dream. He and Amanda had met their contact in the pub. It was real. Lee closed his eyes and allowed the dream to replay in his mind. He’d gone down the hall following the mechanic, and woke up here. Must be a concussion, he thought. My brain’s scrambled.
The other man groaned and started to raise a hand to the gash in his temple. As he moved his arm he yelped in pain and grabbed his arm with the other hand. His eyes opened as he cradled his arm close to his stomach.
“Where are we?” he hissed through clenched teeth. Lee rose to his knees and looked at the arm he was cradling. There was no blood on his shirt, but he could have a broken bone.
“It looks like a garage,” Lee replied. “You’re Steed’s man?”
“Smythe. Ellis Smythe. You’re Scarecrow?”
“Yeah,” Lee nodded, taking another look around the dim garage for something that might help secure Smythe’s arm.
“You’re pretty well known at the ministry,” Smythe said, using his good arm to push himself into a sitting position. “One of the ten best and all that.”
“Do you think your arm is broken?” Lee asked.
“Yes, it feels that way.”
Lee climbed to his feet and made a circuit of the room. He realized that his head was clearing. Events leading up to the blow on his head were becoming clearer.
“What happened to you?” he asked from across the room.
“Back at the inn? I was watching the back door. Wentworth’s mechanic came out and looked around, then went back in. Then he came out carrying your shoulders. Another man had your legs. I got out of my car and went for them, but the other man dropped your legs and came at me. He was strong and vicious. He got the better of me.”
“So how did we get here?” Lee wondered, bending to pick up a length of branch – bark and all — from the floor. His head swam.
“Wherever here is.” Smythe added.
Lee did his best to make Smythe comfortable, then positioned himself on the floor against the wall behind the door, in case someone opened it. Light was starting to grey the windows when he finally heard voices outside. He climbed stiffly to his feet, listening carefully. They were speaking Portuguese, discussing their captives. Although he didn’t speak the language, he was able to understand enough to grasp that someone was angry about a botched exchange. He suspected, knowing her, that Amanda had something to do with it. The speaker told the other man, probably a guard, that the prisoners were to be kept longer until someone – Lee could not tell who — decided what to do.
Crunching footsteps faded away, then the door opened. Lee waited until the man holding the tray had stepped inside, then stepped forward and struck him on the back of the neck with joined fists. The tray went flying as the man collapsed forward.
“Hold it!” an accented voice spoke from behind Lee. He straightened and turned around. A second guard had entered holding a gun. Lee smirked at his own foolishness for assuming there had only been two and one walked away. The armed man stepped closer to Lee. Out of the darkness on the other side of the door Smythe launched himself at the man. They went down in a pile of arms and legs, a moan probably coming from Smythe as they rolled.
Lee had lost track of the gun, but he had to take the risk. He waded into the fray, grabbing for an arm that he was pretty sure was the guard’s and hauling him off of Smythe. He had gotten it right, and the guard had lost the gun. Lee swung him around by the arm, bowling him into the other guard, who had started to get up on his hands and knees.
“Okay, I’ll cover them,” Smythe said from near the ground. Lee glanced back and saw him holding the gun on the two guards. Lee smiled and bent to the guard on top. He unbuckled and pulled off the man’s belt, then rolled him over and used it to bind the man’s hands. After binding the other man the same way he turned back to Smythe.
“I thought you were asleep,” he said. “Thanks.
“Don’t mention it,” Smythe awkwardly stuck the handgun in his own belt and went to examine the spilled contents of the tray.
Lee edged over to the door and peeked outside. The pale light of the English dawn frosted the lawn and the big house. There were no lights visible in any of the windows.
“Here,” Smythe came up beside him and pressed a glass bottle into his hand. Lee opened the bottle of water and gulped it down. Seeing he had finished it, Smythe took the bottle back and pressed something else into Lee’s hand – a gun. “The guy with the tray had it in his pocket,” he explained. Lee stared at the small handgun for a moment and shook his head.
“They must have hit me a lot harder than I thought,” he said.
“Come on, let’s get this case closed.”
Lee nodded, pocketing the gun, and lead the way out the door and toward the house at a crouched trot.
Steed awakened to the sound of running water and warm sun in his eyes. Emma was in the shower, the bathroom door closed. He sat up and swung his legs to the floor. He checked his watch – seven a.m. There was time to make a plan for the day. He picked up the telephone receiver and placed an order for coffee and croissants for three, then called Mrs. King. She answered on the first ring, agreeing to meet him in Mrs. Peel’s room in ten minutes. Steed tried to give the impression that he’d just arrived. He wasn’t sure who he was trying to fool.
Next he called the ministry for the report from the team he’d sent to the house. They had identified four guards around the estate, which was owned by a reclusive Brazilian who was not currently in residence. The outbuilding was guarded all night, but there had not been any lights on in the main house. Finally Steed checked in by radio with Polk, who was back out front. Wentworth must still be in the inn, Polk had not seen him leave.
While Steed was talking the water turned off. Mrs. Peel opened the bathroom door, letting clouds of steam out into the cooler room. She was wrapped in a hotel towel, her hair bundled up in a second one. She approached Steed, who smiled warmly and reached out to her. But she slipped around him, moving on over to the window.
“You checked in?” she asked, glancing over her bare shoulder at him. He nodded, standing with his arms at his sides, unsure what to do. “What did they learn about the house?”
“It belongs to a Brazilian with no criminal record. There are guards, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s inside the main house. Stetson and Smythe have not been moved. And Sir Roald is still here,” he summarized. Then he stopped up behind her, close enough to smell the warm, fresh scent of her skin.
“Mrs. Peel. Emma. Something is wrong. Please tell me what to do.”
She shook her head and the towel wobbled. She reached up to steady it, turning to face him. Her large, brown eyes looked into his, revealing pain and passion.
“Allow me to prove that you can trust me,” she said. “I would prefer to keep things on a professional level for the time being.”
“Our usual professional level?” he asked, a smile crinkling his eyes.
“No, a normal, professional level,” she replied.
He sighed sadly. As he turned toward the bathroom he paused.
“Breakfast and Mrs. King are on their way. I implied to her that I only just arrived.”
“Then it will be difficult for you to explain why you’re using my shower,” Mrs. Peel replied.
Defeated, Steed picked up the clothes he’d removed late in the night and retreated with them into the bathroom.
“Steed,” Mrs. Peel called out, unwrapping her hair. He opened the door and peered out. She tossed the damp towel at him. “You’ll need this,” she said.
Mrs. Peel had just finished dressing when breakfast arrived, followed shortly by Amanda.
“Good morning,” Mrs. Peel said, gesturing her into the room. “How did you sleep?”
Amanda shook her head, “not well. But Lee always lectures me about being rested before an important mission, so I did try.”
Mrs. Peel nodded, guiding her guest to a seat at the small table where the waiter had placed the breakfast tray. “Coffee?” she asked, seating herself in the other chair.
The bathroom door opened and Steed emerged fully dressed and well groomed. It was not at all obvious that he was wearing the same shirt as the day before under his suit coat.
“Good morning, Mrs. King,” he said cheerfully, then noticed that there was no chair for him at the small table. He took the cup and saucer that Mrs. Peel had poured for him and was holding out, glanced around, and finally went and sat on the corner of the bed. Emma had a decidedly satisfied expression on her face as she poured her own coffee and leaned back comfortably with it.
“I was thinking,” Mrs. King said, glancing from Steed to Mrs. Peel. “The meeting behind the garage may have been so that Wentworth could show them what he has to offer.”
“A sample,” Mrs. Peel said thoughtfully.
“Right. And his contact liked what he saw, so they arranged the second meeting.”
“I agree, Mrs. King,” Steed said. We have identified the man he met,” he glanced at Mrs. Peel, “We’re checking up on him now.”
“He’s not a known criminal?” Amanda asked.
“No. But we have some information on him,” Steed replied.
Steed, Mrs. Peel, and Mrs. King formulated a plan for the day as they finished their coffee. Amanda would drive the Lotus with Emma, who would be taking pictures. The journalist cover would allow them to follow Wentworth, but also to zoom ahead or stop, and check in with Steed’s other teams. Steed would drive his car, staying close to Wentworth as well. He did not think Wentworth was aware of his true role here, so he wanted to retain his cover. Amanda had argued that someone should go to the house in case Lee and Smythe needed help. Steed had reminded her that he had a team on the house that would move in should there be any sign from Lee. She’d forced herself to accept his word.
“There goes Sir Roald,” Emma said as several cars zoomed past, “And Steed.”
They were parked on a side road about four miles outside the village. Amanda accelerated the Lotus and turned onto the road to follow the racers. As a journalist, Mrs. Peel had permission to drive on the racecourse so long as she did not interfere with any of the racers.
“If he’s true to form today, he’ll stay with the lead pack,” Emma said.
“Good, that will make it easy for us – after all, you should be photographing the leaders, right?”
Lee edged up to first one window and then another around the ground floor of the house. Each one was dark, and Lee was feeling uncomfortably exposed in the gathering light. Smythe had taken a position amid shrubs near one corner of the house. Lee glanced over at him and they exchanged a nod – still all clear. Lee ducked under the window he’d just checked and slipped along to the next one, pausing beside it. He heard voices inside.
He crouched below the window and slowly poked his head up so he could just see inside.
“Two men loading money into a bag,” Lee whispered to Smythe.
“Right, for an exchange.”
“Once it’s made, we’ll just be loose ends.”
“We’re loose ends, all right,” Lee nodded. “Let’s get inside and see if we can find out what they’re buying.”
“Slow down, Amanda, watch Sir Roald,” Emma lowered her camera and nodded ahead at the lead cars. She had been photographing the fifth place car and driver, so they had fallen a little behind the leaders.
Wentworth had dropped behind the first three cars and as the women watched he turned abruptly onto a side road.
Amanda hit the accelerator and the Lotus leapt forward.
Steed downshifted on a long sweeping turn, guiding his old car around it near the center of the road. He was taking it on faith that there was no oncoming traffic as he couldn’t see very far ahead. Just in time he saw the long, dark sedan that sat blocking most of the road as he came out of the turn. He slammed on his breaks. The old Bentley squealed and pulled to the right, but it stopped before reaching the other car.
Although he suspected more than just inept driving, Steed pressed on his horn anyway. The other car reversed, turned a little, went forward, then back again. In this way it slowly executed a turn in the narrow lane. Steed lost valuable minutes waiting for the other car – which was not one of the racers – to finish its turn and finally roll forward in the same direction that he was going. It stayed in the middle of the narrow, two-lane road much as Steed had been doing. Only it blocked his progress as it moved at a stately pace ahead of him. Steed could see nothing through the vehicle’s dark windows, and laying on his horn seemed to have no impact on the other driver’s nerves.
The two cars progressed at an achingly slow rate for three miles, until two more racers came up behind Steed and honked their annoyance. Only then did the sedan accelerate. Steed did likewise, although the Bentley was not up to the pace that the other car soon achieved. Steed lead the other two racers for another mile, watching the sedan put more distance between them. Then the sedan turned left off of the racecourse. Steed groaned, glanced in his rear view mirror, and, as he got to the same turn, swung his wheel to follow.
Lee made quick work of the locked kitchen door and shortly he and Smythe were creeping along an elegantly decorated hallway through the center of the house. They dodged into opposite doorways as voices grew louder. A door further on had opened, and two men came out.
One carried a black valise, the other a semiautomatic weapon slung across his chest. They walked side by side along the corridor toward where Lee and Smythe were insufficiently concealed. They were speaking Portuguese too rapidly for Lee to follow. He braced himself to handle the armed man, wondering if Smythe were up to restraining the other. But the two men turned abruptly at a side corridor that the agents had not noticed. Their footsteps and voices faded and finally were silenced as a door closed.
Lee stepped back out into the corridor, gesturing for Smythe to follow, and walked on, dodging quickly past the side hall to reach the room the men had come from.
It was a study, with bookcases on two walls and a large desk in the middle of the room. Amid the usual desk accoutrements was a large manila envelope. Lee strode to the desk and picked it up. Smythe walked in more slowly, leaning on the desk to watch Lee open the envelope and examine the contents.
“Is it?” he asked. Lee glanced up, surprised at the weakness of the other man’s voice.
“Yes,” he replied, sliding the paper back into the envelope. “Encryption codes. Just a sample. They must be going to buy the rest.”
“Let’s hope there are no side roads,” Amanda said as she spun the wheel and the Lotus neatly handled the corner. Emma had switched to her telephoto lens and used it to search the road ahead.
“There you are,” she muttered, bracing the big lens with one hand.
“You see him? Because all I see is road, and the shadows of the trees,” Amanda said. “It’s all very pretty, of course, but . . .”
“His car is about to come into a patch of sunlight – there! See?”
“Yes. I think I can get closer without him noticing,” Amanda sped up, the Lotus happy to deliver more speed.
Far ahead Wentworth drove up a sunny hill, then disappeared over the top.
“Now would be the time to catch up,” Emma said.
“I agree.” The little car zoomed toward the hill, ascending it only half a minute behind Wentworth. Amanda slowed as they approached the top. “He could have stopped,” she explained as they slowly crested the hill. The road descended the hill on the other side, then turned to the right and back into the trees. From their vantage point they could see that it turned again, to the left, about a quarter mile further on. Emma scooted up and sat on the car door, scanning the road with her big lens.
“He’s there,” she said suddenly, “he’s pulled over just around that second turn. Let’s go,” she slid back down into the car.
Amanda put the car in gear and let it roll down the hill and around the first turn.
“Keep it quiet,” Emma instructed as they approached the second turn. “Here, pull over here,” she indicated the shoulder of the road near the second turn. Amanda rolled the car to a stop and shut off the engine. She was reaching for the door handle when Emma reached over and grabbed her wrist. “No car doors,” she whispered.
“Oh, right!” Amanda replied, then imitated Emma and hoisted herself up and over the door.
They crept into the trees to the left, Emma fumbling with her camera as she picked her way through the underbrush. Amanda swung wider than Emma. Spotting two cars parked facing one another on the road beyond the turn, she crept further through the trees so that she would come out behind the second car.
When Emma reached a spot close enough to see the two men standing between the cars, she started photographing them. She had changed to her wide-angle lens, which could take in both vehicles and the men as they spoke, and then exchange large valises. Emma continued to creep closer.
Amanda positioned herself behind the second car and quickly moved out of the trees to the car’s bumper. She could see Emma in the trees taking photographs. They’re going to see you! She thought as Emma took another step toward the men. And she was right. The man nearest Amanda, not Wentworth, noticed Emma and froze, staring at her.
Good girl! Amanda thought, realizing that Emma had provided her cover. She slipped forward and climbed into the still running car through the open driver’s door.
“Lady Emma!” Wentworth exclaimed, having noticed his associate’s reaction.
“Hello, Sir Roald,” Emma said, lowering her camera, “you’re off course.”
“Yes, well, this is not a good time for an interview.”
“Emma,” the other man said in a voice full of malice.
“Peter,” she replied, equally unpleasantly.
Sir Roald looked stricken. He stared for a moment at the other man, then dodged into his car with his valise.
“Oh no you don’t!” Amanda muttered, releasing the parking break on Peter Peel’s car and forcing it into gear.
As Sir Roald’s car started forward, turning out onto the road as it went, Peter Peel’s car charged forward, Amanda at the wheel, matching Wentworth’s turn and cutting in front of him. Wentworth slammed on his breaks, the front end of his car smashing into the front of the driver’s side of Peel’s.
Something solid banged against Amanda’s thigh, and she glanced down to see a handgun on the car seat. She snatched it up and jumped out of the car.
Emma closed the gap between herself and her husband in three leaping strides and drove the flat of her right hand into his face. Before he could recover she switched her camera to her right hand and swung her left to chop at the side of his neck. He grabbed at her arm, disrupting her balance, and using his weight to bear her to the ground. She lost her grip on the camera as they fell, flinging it into the dead leaves at the roadside. She watched it land, then turned back in time to see her husband’s fist. She rolled to the right, his blow glancing off her left shoulder as she went. She used her momentum to gain her feet as Peter rose to a stand.
“You bitch,” he growled, stepping forward and swinging with his left foot. Emma grabbed his leg as it came at her, leaning back to pull him down with her. He fell hard on his tailbone and Emma struggled onto her hands and knees to pin him down. She pinned his right hand beneath her knee, but he wrenched his left arm free and clapped his hand around her throat. She clawed at his grip with her own free hand, trying to pry his fingers away to no avail. She was amazed at his strength.
“You have no idea what you’ve gotten involved in,” he hissed. “you and that buffoon Steed – don’t think I don’t know about him! What’s the matter darling? Having trouble breathing?”
Emma wheezed through the tiny airway that his grip left to her. She could feel herself beginning to black out.
“Let her go!” Amanda’s voice sounded distant and thin. Emma watched her husband’s face turn away from hers, then turn back, a bleak expression replacing rage. He released her throat and she pulled away from him. She sucked in a ragged breath, noting that Peter did not move, then turned to look toward Amanda’s voice.
The other woman was approaching, gun in one hand aimed at Peter. In the other hand she dangled a shiny pair of handcuffs. She grinned at Emma.
“Okay?” Amanda asked, concern clear in her voice despite her smile and apparent composure.
“I’ll recover,” Emma replied, her voice rough. “Thank you.”
She climbed to her feet and took the handcuffs. “Sit up, Peter,” she said, grabbing at Peter’s shoulder and hauling him to a sitting position. She stepped behind him and pulled his arms around, cuffing them tightly.
Amanda waited until Peter was secured, then lowered the gun, but remained watchful. Emma cast a puzzled glance at Sir Roald. He was also handcuffed – to the door handle of his car.
Lee and Smythe froze in corridor and turned slowly to see who had shouted. The man with the gun stood in the middle of the corridor. Lee raised his hands in surrender, glancing at Smythe. The other agent raised his good hand, the other still being bound across his chest.
“Yeah, get ‘em up. Face that wall,” the guard closed the distance between them. Lee and Smythe faced the wall as instructed and heard the familiar jingle of handcuffs. Lee glanced at Smythe again. The other man winked. Both agents threw their elbows backward making contact with the man’s gut. He emitted a loud “ooff” and doubled over. Lee followed through with a two-fisted punch that spun the man around and across the hall. Smythe followed up with a solid kick to his rear end.
“That’s enough!” another voice yelled, surprising Lee and causing Smythe to lose his balance. Another guard held a semi-automatic weapon trained on them. The first guard took the opportunity to regain his breath, then he grabbed Lee by the shoulder and heaved him across the hall and against the wall.
“Let’s try that again,” he said, bending to pick up the handcuffs that he’d dropped. Something whizzed by over his head and struck the other guard in the face with a loud twang. The other guard staggered back with a cry of pain. Lee shoved off of the wall with all his strength and bowled into the guard behind him, bringing him to the floor. A punch to the man’s lower jaw stilled him.
Only then did Lee look for the source of the flying object.
Steed strode toward them along the corridor, black suit immaculate, umbrella hooked over his arm, and head quite bare.
“Sorry I couldn’t be here sooner,” he said, stepping over the unconscious guard and nodding at Smythe who had stayed down, cradling his injured arm. Steed continued up the corridor to the other fallen guard and bent to pick up his bowler. He paused to poke at the guard with the tip of his umbrella, nodded satisfactorily, and placed his hat on his head. As he turned back, two more men appeared at the other end of the corridor.
“Picket, call for medics – Smythe here is injured. Lee?”
“I’ll be all right,” Lee said.
“Right then, let’s get back to the race. Picket and Davis will take care of things here.”
“This is fun!” Amanda said as she steered Sir Roald’s big Bentley along the village street toward the day’s finish. Car fans and villagers along the side of the road waved and cheered. Some pointed at the damaged headlights and front fenders, but most were unaware that anything was amiss. Emma waved and smiled back. In the rear seat, two men looked grim and did not raise their hands.
“I’m sure someone from Steed’s team is watching for this car. They’ll make contact,” Emma said.
“I’ll bet that’s them,” Amanda replied, nodding at two men in suits standing near the finish line. They both looked somewhat startled to see the women in front and Wentworth in back. Amanda crossed the finish line and turned into the rally parking area on the village green.
The two men followed.
Emma swung her door open and got out, turning to look her husband in the eye.
“Well, Peter, here’s where we’ll part company. I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised to receive divorce papers from my solicitor.”
Peter Peel glared at her in silence.
“Lady Emma,” one of Steed’s men approached her, “I’m Alan Foster, I work with . . .”
“Steed,” Emma finished for him. Retrieving her camera bag from the car seat she pulled out a roll of film. “You’ll want this – it shows these men making an exchange. The items in question are in the boot.”
Foster took the film as his associate, hearing Emma, opened the Bentley’s boot.
Amanda stood near the driver’s side door scanning the parked cars. There were nine on the green, but she did not see Steed’s.
“Mr. Foster,” she spoke across the car, “Has Mr. Steed finished yet?”
“No ma’am,” Foster replied, looking a little puzzled.
“This is Amanda King – she’s an American agent,” Emma explained.
“Oh of course,” Foster said, his face lightening into a pleasant smile. “We were briefed about you. In fact, we didn’t know you’d be back, Lady Emma.”
“Ah well, you know how those briefings can have gaps,” Emma said casually. “What about Steed?”
“He’s had a little detour. The team on the estate reported in a while ago.”
“Oh?” Amanda sounded concerned.
“He should be arriving soon. They’ve recovered Smythe and the American – Stetson is it?”
Amanda sighed in relief and Emma smiled knowingly.
“See, I told you Steed was good,” she said. “Come on, let’s see if we can see them finish – if you don’t need us, Foster.”
“No, no – go ahead,” Foster opened the back door of the Bentley and reached for Sir Roald.
“There they are!” Mrs. Peel waved at the next car approaching the finish. It would be number 14, hardly a front-runner. Most of the villagers and fans had drifted away. Amanda and Mrs. Peel had found room right by the finish line.
They both waved, and Mrs. Peel raised her reloaded camera to snap away as Steed drove his car across the finish line. Both Lee and Steed noticed them and waved as they went by. The women trotted after the car into the parking area.
“Lee!” Amanda pulled open his door before he could. He smiled and climbed out of the car and into her arms.
“Amanda,” he sighed, holding her tightly for a moment, then releasing her before making a scene.
“Are you all right?” Amanda asked, examining his face for signs of injury or pain.
“A bump on the head, a few bruises, nothing unusual,” he replied. “And you?”
“Well, Emma and I caught Wentworth and his contact,” Amanda glanced toward Mrs. Peel, who seemed engrossed in conversation with Steed. “His contact was Peter Peel – Emma’s husband.”
“Hummm. Interesting. How did she take it?”
Amanda smiled, “she seemed happy to arrest him.”
“Well Steed,” Mrs. Peel leaned against the rear door of the Bentley and watched him get out.
“Hello, Mrs. Peel. Has Sir Roald finished then?”
“Oh yes,” she replied with a sly little smile, “Quite finished.”
“Too bad you can’t finish the rally tomorrow, Steed,” Lee said. The two men were standing between Steed’s Bentley and Lee and Amanda’s rental car on the village green. After Wentworth and Peter Peel were apprehended, Steed had put into motion a well-coordinated effort to collect various vehicles and reunite them with their owners. Mrs. Peel’s Lotus and Peter Peel’s sedan had been brought in from the road, and a third agent had brought the rental car from last night’s stop. Steed had shook his head in sorrow over the damage to Wentworth’s car, and Lee had smiled, observing that Amanda had a way of causing damage to fine automobiles.
“Nevertheless, that’s a fine partner you have there, Lee. She’s smart and level headed. And attractive. I’d hang on to her,” Steed had said.
“I know it,” Lee had grinned almost foolishly. “And the same can be said of your partner.”
Steed had paused for a moment, looking almost puzzled, then smiled broadly, “Mrs. Peel. Yes. I intend to keep her, if I can. This time.”
Lee had checked that his and Amanda’s luggage was all accounted for in the rental car, and now he and Steed were waiting for their partners so that they could return to London and a debriefing at the ministry. To pass the time Lee began a mental inventory of the gifts that Amanda had purchased on this trip. It was like counting sheep.
“Here comes Mrs. King,” Steed interrupted Lee’s reverie. Amanda was crossing the road from the pub where they’d had a quick lunch. When she was half way to them Mrs. Peel emerged from the pub too.
“Well,” Steed said when both women had joined them, “Back to London then?”
“Mr. Steed, I’m sure you’ll be very busy when we get back, so I wanted to thank you for going after Lee. . .”
“Amanda,” Lee tried to interrupt.
“No, really, Lee. I appreciate it,” Amanda took Steed’s hand to shake it, but he bowed slightly and kissed the back of her hand.
“My dear Mrs. King, it was my pleasure,” he said. Mrs. Peel cleared her throat, one eyebrow cocked higher than the other, making Amanda chuckle.
“Shall we be getting on, then? If you’re quite through?” Mrs. Peel asked.
“Yes,” Steed turned to her with such an intimate smile that she had to return it. He winked, and she felt herself drawn to him, although he did not touch her. The anger that had held her aloof from him evaporated. She wanted to sink into his twinkling grey eyes.
“We’ll see you at the ministry, then,” Lee said, breaking the tension between Steed and Emma.
“Yes,” Emma said, glancing at Lee, then back at Steed, “See you there.”
Emma tried hard not to lose patience with the agent who was assigned the task of debriefing her. The woman, Miss Tingley, was primly dressed and carefully groomed. Her manner reflected her appearance – entirely professional. Emma had been shown into the small, windowless room by a young agent who seemed rather nervous to be around her. That had made her smile. The only indication that she was not a suspect was his offer of tea, which she’d declined. It was late afternoon and she was more in the mood for a brandy. With any luck this would not go on too long and she could join Steed and the Americans for supper as Lee had suggested. Miss Tingley had entered the room equipped with a sheath of papers, including Emma’s dictated report – which she’d spent her first hour at the ministry on – and a folder that Emma recognized as her ministry file. The agent had introduced herself, sat down at the bare table across from Emma, and proceeded to read Emma’s four-page report. Then she’d turned to the file, paging through the records of Emma’s past work with Steed. Struggling to be patient, Emma reminded herself that it could have been worse, they could have asked Tara King to do this.
“Well, Lady Emma, you have a most impressive history with the ministry,” Miss Tingley finally said as she removed her reading glasses. It struck Emma that the woman might be quite pretty if she dressed less severely.
“Thank you,” Emma said enigmatically.
“I’ll just need to review your report with you. As you might imagine, questions will be raised concerning your connection to the suspect . . .”
“Yes, I can imagine.”
The “review” continued for two hours. Miss Tingley’s good manners thinly veiled a tenacious determination to find holes in Emma’s story. Emma forced herself to breathe deeply and remain calm as she was questioned again and again about her reason for being at the rally. Nearly exasperated, she produced her editor’s phone number and urged Miss Tingley to confirm her story assignment with him. Miss Tingley took the number and unapologetically placed it in her file.
Emma gritted her teeth as Miss Tingley’s questions brushed on her relationship with Steed. She was certain that her curt responses betrayed that she was hiding deep feelings. But Miss Tingley either missed her tone or recognized it and chose to let it go.
More than two hours had passed when the door opened. Steed stepped in wearing his most charming smile.
“How is it going Miss Tingley?” he asked brightly. The other agent looked up at him and Emma recognized the softening that Steed’s charm often elicited. When they’d worked together she’d trained herself not to get jealous, but she must have lost the skill. She felt herself bristling as the other woman smiled warmly at Steed.
“Very well, Mr. Steed.”
“Good, then you won’t be much longer?” Steed made a small show of checking his wristwatch.
“Well, no, I suppose not. We’ve been over Lady Emma’s statement . . .”
“Fine, then. We have an appointment and I would hate to keep them waiting,” Steed said, reaching down to lift at Emma’s elbow. She eagerly rose to her feet. Miss Tingley looked up from across the table, a little surprised. “Why don’t you review what you have there, and Lady Emma will make herself available to you tomorrow if you have any more questions,” Steed added.
“I suppose that would be all right . . .”
“Oh it is,” Steed assured her, “I’ve already cleared it with Mother.”
“Oh. Well then. Good evening, Lady Emma, Mr. Steed,” Miss Tingley rose and nodded at them. Steed quickly steered Emma out of the room.
“Did you really?” Emma asked as they walked along the corridor.
“Clear it with Mother?”
“Of course. In fact, he’s our appointment.”
“Oh! I thought it was Lee and Amanda.”
A group of agents further down the hall were discussing something one of them held in a folder. Movement down the hall caught Tara King’s eye and she glanced up to see Steed and Emma Peel enter Mother’s office. Here eyes narrowed and her mouth twisted into a scowl.
“All right there, Tara?” agent Nichols asked. She took a quick breath and managed a forced smile.
“Yes, just a bit of indigestion,” she said.
Steed guided Emma into an elegantly furnished office. A male secretary sat at a desk guarding an inner door.
“Good evening Watkins,” Steed said.
“Mr. Steed, Lady Emma. Mother is waiting,” Watkins said. Steed guided Emma around the desk and opened the inner door.
Mother sat at the far end of a conference table that could seat at least twelve. Lee, Amanda, and some of the other agents who’d been involved in the case were seated at the end near him.
“Lady Emma!” he exclaimed, sounding genuinely pleased to see her. He rolled his wheelchair back from the table and out to the side toward her. She took his extended hand.
“Hello, Mother,” she said.
“It is good to see you, my dear. I’m sorry it must be under such circumstances. But perhaps we can work together to make things better.”
“I’d like that very much,” Emma replied, wondering just how well briefed Mother was, then snickering silently at herself. He’d have been told everything, of course – at least everything they knew about Peter.
“Good, good. Please join us. We’ll keep this short – I understand Miss Tingley has been very thorough,” Mother rolled back to his place and Emma noticed smiles on a couple of the agent’s faces.
She was still better than Tara would have been, Emma reminded herself as she sat in the chair Steed pulled out for her.
Mother congratulated both his team and the Americans on their success, then they discussed the next stage: tracking the owner of the estate, extracting information from Sir Peter and Sir Roald, identifying who the ultimate customer for the codes really was. Emma felt gratified to know that she was trusted to hear it all. At last Mother dismissed them, calling Steed for a last word as the others filed out.
“Watkins has the papers. Have her sign them on the way out,” he said. Steed nodded and joined the others in the outer office. Watkins did indeed have a small stack of papers centered on his desk blotter.
“Lady Emma, we’ve prepared your security clearance,” he said. Emma glanced down at him, then up at Steed as he emerged from Mother’s office. Steed shrugged and smiled. “If you’ll just sign here,” Watkins extended a pen and placed his finger next to a line on the top sheet.
Emma picked up the papers, tugging them ever so slightly out from under Watkins’ grasp. Ministry or not, she never signed anything without reading it. The others stood around for the few moments it took her to skim the document. It was indeed a confidentiality agreement and clearances for the same Top Secret level she’d enjoyed while working with Steed. Seeing no unusual clauses, she set the papers down and signed and dated them.
“I’ll see that these are processed first thing in the morning,” Watkins said, clearly not in the least affected by her actions.
“That’s done then,” Steed said, offering his arm to Emma. “Shall we all find a late supper?”
“Yes, that would be great,” Amanda said, reaching for Lee’s hand.
“That was lovely,” Amanda said as the four agents strolled away from the restaurant Steed had guided them to for supper. “I have to take back my criticism of English food.”
“Amanda!” Lee chastised.
“Oh, it’s quite alright,” Emma said, “When I want a good meal I go to Paris.”
They all laughed. As they strolled Emma fell in beside Amanda a few paces behind Steed and Lee.
“I have to say, and I hope I’m not being a busy body – sometimes my mother butts in too much so I know what is feels like – but it seems like you’ve made up with Mr. Steed,” Amanda said.
Emma couldn’t help but smile at her rambling. She was struck by how disarming it was. “Actually,” she said, “I’m looking forward to making up with him later.” She winked at Amanda, who, to her amazement, blushed.
“I didn’t mean to suggest –,” Amanda started.
“Of course you didn’t,” Emma laughed.
“Amanda, here’s a taxi,” Lee interrupted, waving at a big black sedan that was slowing down by the curb. “We should get back. We’ve got some more paperwork to deal with tomorrow before our flight.”
“Of course,” Steed said, opening the taxi door so Amanda could get in. “Good evening. I’m sure we’ll be speaking tomorrow.”
“Good evening,” Amanda said, catching Emma’s eye as she slid across the taxi seat. Lee got in after her and Steed shut the taxi door. Then he turned to Emma.
“Well, Lady Emma, it’s rather late to be driving out to your estate,” he said. Emma wasn’t certain, but she thought he sounded a bit uncertain.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” she replied, stepping closer to him and peering into his eyes. He cleared his throat.
“You should stay in the city,” he said softly.
Emma stretched, enjoying the luxury of Steed’s soft, 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and down-filled pillows. She rolled on her side and slid her arm across Steed’s chest. As she’d suspected, he wasn’t asleep. He turned his head to look at her.
When they come in to his flat the night before he’d offered her a drink and she’d accepted. She’d been rather enjoying his uncertainty, although she did not see how he could be uncertain of her intentions by then. They’d sipped at their brandy and discussed the day’s events. He’d filled her in on his debriefing and laughed at her description of Miss Tingley. She did not mention being grateful that it was not Tara King who debriefed her.
Eventually she’d put her glass on the table and taken his to place it beside hers.
“Steed,” she’d said, leaning close, but not touching him.
“Yes Mrs. Peel.”
“Were you planning to kiss me this evening?”
“I was planning too, yes.”
He’d suited action to words, gathering her into an embrace and exploring her face and neck with his lips.
Eventually they’d found their way up the spiral staircase and into his bed as they had so often in the past.
“Good morning,” he said softly, that delightful little smile curling the edges of his lips.
She brought a finger up to trace the curl of his mouth. He kissed her fingertip and she savored the wave of warmth that shuddered through her body. He rolled onto his side and slid his arm around her to pull her close.
She traced his jaw with her fingers, then caressed his ear and slid her hand into his curly hair. He feathered kisses on her nose and cheeks, working his way toward her lips, which parted at his touch. She drew her leg up to encircle his, feeling his hardness between them. The warmth within her spread and she pressed against him, craving the feel of his flesh against hers.
The sound of a door opening and closing froze them. Steed pulled away from her leaving a whoosh of cool air in his place.
“Steed?” a voice called from downstairs. Steed seized a bathrobe from a hook on the back of the bathroom door and threw it around himself as he headed for the landing. Emma receded into the bed, pulling the soft sheets up to cover herself.
“Morning Steed. You aren’t dressed yet? We’ve a meeting in less than an hour,” Tara said as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
“I must have missed the alarm,” he replied. “I’ll be ready in a jiffy.”
“I’ll make you some tea,” she said to his retreating back as he spiraled back up.
In the bedroom, Emma was poised to throw the covers over herself.
“It’s all right. I’m just going to shower. She won’t come up. You can wait until we go,” he said, stepping into the bathroom.
Emma sat up and stretched, then reached for Steed’s discarded shirt and slipped it on. She examined herself in the dresser mirror as she buttoned it, mind wandering back over the past few days. Footsteps on the stairs roused her. She darted into Steed’s walk-in closet and slipped in among his suits. Tara entered the room and bent to pick up Emma’s skirt with her left hand.
“Nice dresser,” she said, glancing at the tag. “You may as well come out, I found your bag downstairs,” she added, bringing her right hand out from behind her, Emma’s small Longchamp handbag hanging from her index finger. “I haven’t looked inside, but I suppose I could.” Her gaze traveled around the room, looking for hiding places. She stopped at the dressing room door, where Emma was leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed beneath her breasts, enigmatic smile on her face.
“So. It’s you,” Tara breathed.
“If you go downstairs now I won’t say anything to Steed.”
Tara had to admit the other woman could be threatening. She steeled herself. “Why should I? I’m his partner, I’ve a right to look out for his best interests.”
Emma sighed as if burdened with a slightly slow pupil, “because there’s nothing that inflates a man’s ego more than two women fighting over him.”
She looked up at Steed standing behind Tara in the bathroom doorway.
“Especially when they’re two beautiful women,” he added with a chuckle.
Tara jumped, spinning around, “Steed, I – ,”
“Not now, Tara,” Steed stepped past her to intercept Emma, who had crossed the room toward her clothes. Steed grabbed her upper arm, holding her close. “Please wait,” he said quietly. Turning just his head toward Tara he said, “could you excuse us please, Tara?”
The young agent gasped and stormed out of the room. Steed turned back to Emma, releasing her.
“She’s a good agent, a bright girl. But she is a girl. I prefer a woman. A brilliant, sexy woman.” Steed said, searching Emma’s eyes for some indication of her mood. Tara’s retreating steps clattered on the metal stairs.
Emma’s eyes narrowed as she studied Steed. The front door slammed, jarring the entire flat. Emma smiled, “Well the girl is very angry at you.”
“And the woman?”
“Is wondering why the girl is so very angry.”
“Mrs. Peel, . . .” Steed looked uncomfortable, then took a more determined approach, “A gentleman never tells.”
Emma reached up and placed her index finger on his lips, “so long a the gentleman understands the lady’s requirements.”
He took her hand. “My Lady?” He kissed the back of her fingers, then turned her hand over to kiss her palm.
A slow smile touched her lips and eyes and she allowed herself to be pulled into an embrace. Steed lowered his lips toward hers as a loud whistle erupted downstairs.
“She left the kettle on,” Emma said, pulling away from him. “You dress, I’ll take care of it.”
Sighing, Steed released her and turned to the dressing room to find a suit.
Emma stood in the kitchen sipping tea from a mug when Steed came downstairs. He poured himself a cup and stood beside her.
“I do, you know.” He said, not looking at her.
“Understand your requirements.”
She sipped more tea, seeming to contemplate her mug. Steed looked at her nervously.
“Good,” she finally said, lifting her head to look back at him. “You may have a bit of a mess at the ministry by the time you get there.”
“Yes, I imagine so. Bloody foolish of her if she makes a scene there. She’s about to be promoted but that sort of behavior might give Mother second thoughts.”
“And would this promotion mean she’d no longer be your partner?”
“She’d be reassigned to a foreign posting for a while.”
Emma smiled into her cup. “Then you’d better smooth things out.”
“Yes, I see.” He said, putting his cup in the sink. “I’ll be off then. Will I see you later?”
“No, I need to go home, to begin packing some things, sorting things out. I’ll call you later.”
He headed toward the front door and she followed, watching him pick up his brolly and hat. He reached for the doorknob, then turned and leaned close.
“I love you,” he whispered near her ear, kissed her lips chastely and quickly left. She stood perfectly still staring at the door for a moment, then a satisfied smile filled her face and she turned to go back upstairs.
Amanda wasn’t sure why it surprised her that the ministry agents had a bullpen work area similar to the agency’s. She and Lee had been allocated a table normally used for meetings to work at before leaving for the rally. The morning after their dinner with Steed and Mrs. Peel they took it back over to review the suspects’ written statements. They had just gotten started when a young woman, brunette, with a compact, buxom build accentuated by a textured big hound’s-tooth print suit and knee-high boots, strode purposefully through the doors and directly up the hall toward Mother’s office. Curious, Amanda watched as the discretely attired guard outside Mother’s door spoke to the woman. She looked annoyed, but turned away, striding back into the bullpen. She spotted Lee and Amanda and walked toward them.
“You’re the American agents, aren’t you?” she asked. “I’m Tara. Tara King.”
“Yes,” Lee replied, rising and extending his hand. “I’m Lee Stetson and this is Amanda,” he paused and flashed his grin at the women, “Amanda King.”
“No relation I’m sure,” Amanda added, shaking Tara’s hand.
“No, I’m sure,” Tara said. Amanda wasn’t sure if her icy tone was intended or just coincidental. “You were in the field on the Wentworth case, weren’t you?” Tara asked, all business.
“Yes we were,” Lee replied.
“Then you should know that I believe some improprieties have compromised the investigation. I am going to file a formal report. They will probably want your testimony.”
“What sort of impropriety, Miss King?” Amanda asked, baffled. Lee cleared his throat uncomfortably.
“Steed’s behavior is very suspect,” she replied curtly. “He’s idolized around here. It’s time to shed some light on the real John Steed.”
“Oh dear,” Amanda said to cover her surprise.
“Yes. I just thought you should know,” Tara nodded curtly and turned on her heel, heading back toward Mother’s office.
“And who, do you suppose, has been doing the idolizing?” Amanda said quietly when the other woman was out of earshot. Lee chuckled.
“Somehow I think that Miss King is no match for Lady Emma,” he said.
“No, but Mr. Steed will have to handle this – he can’t function with a jealous partner.”
“I think we’re about to see,” Lee said, nodding toward the door. Steed was just closing it. He paused to hang his hat and umbrella on a rack then strode into the room, scanning it as he walked. He caught sight of Lee and Amanda and angled toward them.
“Good morning,” he said, “Have you by any chance seen an angry young woman . . .”
“She went that way,” Amanda and Lee said in unison, pointing down the hall. “Good luck,” Lee added. Steed didn’t stop to respond.
“Steed!” the guard outside Mother’s office door intercepted him. “Mother is in his gymnasium. He would like to see you. Immediately.”
Steed nodded and went on down the corridor to a red door. He entered unannounced.
“Mother?” he said, stepping inside. The room was largely empty except for several ladders and a network of pipes and handholds hanging from the ceiling. Mother’s wheelchair stood empty next to one of the ladders. Mother himself was standing awkwardly next to one of the other ladders supporting himself by leaning on it. One of Mother’s assistants stood discretely against the far wall.
“Steed. Good. Come in.”
Steed stepped further into the room, approaching his superior. Mother allowed very few agents to see him in his gymnasium, but Steed had always been in the inner circle.
“How’s the workout going?” Steed asked, following his personal commitment to always be cordial, even under stress.
“Blasted exhausting,” Mother groaned. “But my doctor is the only person I take orders from.” He heaved himself away from the ladder, grasping the handholds. He pulled himself along, swinging his useless legs from the hips to work his way to the next ladder. Steed followed at a polite distance.
“Now, Steed, Tara King has been making some very disruptive assertions around here this morning.”
“Yes sir. I –.”
“She’s jeopardizing her promotion behaving this way – although she doesn’t know it. I suspect the whole matter is of a personal nature.”
“Yes sir. It is. I’ll take care of it.”
“Good. See that I hear nothing more of it.”
Knowing he was dismissed Steed bowed out of the room as quickly as he could. He glanced up and down the hall and spotted Tara talking to the guard outside Mother’s office door. The guard was telling her once again that Mother was still in a meeting. Summoning his courage, Steed strode up to them.
“Miss King, a word with you please,” he said, prepared to drag her away from the guard, who was growing impatient.
“We have nothing to discuss, Steed,” Tara hissed. Steed grabbed her arm, taking a chance that she would not physically resist right there outside Mother’s door.
“It’s an order, Tara,” Steed growled, practically dragging her along the hall to another door. To his relief, the small regulations library was empty.
“You can try to silence me, Steed, but you won’t succeed. That woman is a suspect. You have compromised the case.”
“No, Tara, she is not as suspect. And you are compromising your career.”
Tara’s face colored. She shook her arm to remove his grip and glared at him.
“I have just spoken to Mother — ,”
“How could you have, he’s been in a meeting!”
“Nonetheless, I have. You are up for a promotion – I recommended you. But if you continue to storm about like a jealous child casting ill-informed accusations, you will be drummed out of the corps.”
Steed waited. Tara frowned at him, then her anger turned to surprise. Then it abruptly turned back into anger.
“Jealous child! How dare you!”
“Tara,” Steed adopted his most soothing tone, “I have enjoyed working with you, but it’s time to move on. If you stay on the straight and narrow, you’ll have a brilliant career.”
“So that’s it? Just cast me away?”
“I’d hardly say that, my dear,” Steed raised a hand to count his fingers, “you’ll receive a salary increase, a higher security clearance, a posting in Paris, ministry car,” he stopped and watched her expression brighten. He felt an inward flicker of satisfaction – he always knew how to deal with women. Most women, anyway. Maybe that was what made Mrs. Peel so alluring. The realization made him smile. Tara, having no idea of his thoughts, smiled back.
The Lotus’s tires crunched on the gravel drive as Emma slowed it to a stop in front of the Peel estate. She sat for a moment looking at the big, old house. She was quite fond of it – fonder, she suspected, than her husband whose family had owned it for generations. Even so, she had no desire to live here. Whatever became of Peter, she would see to it that the estate returned to his parents’ control.
But first she needed to move her own things out. With a sigh she opened the car do and got out. She had planned to return from the rally today, so Hughes, the butler, Anna, the maid, and Evie, the cook, should be here. She trotted up the steps and opened the big front door, which she was not surprised to find unlocked.
As she closed it, a figure holding a hunting rifle stepped out of the parlor. She froze, her eyes slowly adjusting to the dim interior light.
“Oh, my lady!” Hughes said, lowering the gun. “Please forgive me! I did not know to expect you.”
“Evidently. But just who were you expecting, Hughes?” Emma asked.
“Sir Peter’s solicitor called and said Sir Peter had been – apprehended. He asked me to guard the estate. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
“I see. Why don’t we go sit down and have a little talk.”
Emma led him into the parlor and gestured toward the sofa while she sat in one of the wingback chairs. There was a copy of Peter’s book about his adventures lost in the Amazon on the table between them. Emma picked it up and looked at the back cover.
“This is fiction, you know,” she said, glancing up and Hughes. He looked puzzled. “Sir Peter was not lost in the Amazon. He was working with a Marxist regime there.”
“I’m sorry, Madam. I have always made it a policy to avoid involvement with my employer’s politics,” Hughes replied. Emma wanted to laugh. English butlers were of a type, that was for sure.
“And you are a very good butler, Hughes. Unfortunately, you have had poor luck with employers. Sir Peter has been arrested for espionage.”
Emma leaned forward to place the book back on the table. When she straightened, she found herself facing a pistol.
“I am sorry Madam. Sir Peter did try to convince you to see things his way. I’m afraid you’re a liability now.”
Amanda was beginning to think she was being too thorough reading through Sir Peel’s deposition after so many Ministry personnel had been through it with a fine tooth comb. Good habits die hard, she told herself and turned the page. A name jumped out at her in the first line, and she realized she’d seen skimmed over it on the previous page, too.
“Who’s Hughes?” she asked, then glanced up to see if anyone was listening. Lee was just returning to their table with a cup of coffee.
“Who’s who?” he asked, taking his seat across from her.
“Look,” Amanda held out Peel’s deposition, finger pointing at the name. As he took it, she picked up the list of suspects and accomplices. Lee read the passages that had caught her eye. Peter Peel mentioned instructing someone named Hughes to put cash from a safe into a valise. It was clear from Peel’s language that Hughes knew what the money was for – to illegally purchase information.
“There’s nobody named Hughes – first or last – on the list of suspects. He was not at the rally, or the estate where you were held,” Amanda said, finishing her review of the list.
“Could be an alias. A nickname.”
“Hughes? Who has that as a nickname?” Amanda snorted. “And where’s this safe?”
“Didn’t the Ministry send a team to collect Sir Peter’s papers this morning?”
Lee nodded, then rose and strode across the room toward Steed, who was speaking with two other agents.
“Excuse me, Steed,” he said as he approached. The other agents discretely stepped aside and Lee held out Sir Peter’s deposition to Steed.
“Was the team that went to the Peel estate prepared for a hostile reception?” he asked as Steed took the document.
“No, of course not. Mrs. Peel is prepared to hand over her husband’s papers,” Steed replied, his voice becoming a question as he spoke.
“Do you know who Hughes is?” Lee asked, pointing to the reference in the deposition. Steed skimmed the passage and frowned. His face tensed and he turned toward a nearby desk.
The young woman quickly tore the paper printout off an adding machine she’d been using and crumpled it up. “Yes, Steed?”
“I want a sharpshooter team ready to go in,” he paused to check his watch, “five minutes. You too.”
He didn’t bother to watch her implement his order. He reached for the nearest phone, picked up the handset, then stopped and looked annoyed. “What is the telephone number at the Peel estate?” he asked nobody in particular. Lee took the deposition from him, flipped to the first page, and pointed to the number that was included with other information about Sir Peter.
“Thank you,” Steed said, dialing the number. He stood staring at the deposition with the phone to his ear for several seconds, then began to shake his head. Finally he hung up the phone. “No answer.” He quickly dialed another number. This time he waited a much shorter period before hanging up. “She must have left,” he said, not saying where he’d called to try to reach Mrs. Peel.
“Tara!” he turned back toward her desk just as she hung up her telephone and started to rise.
“The team will be ready in four minutes,” she reported.
“Fine. Let’s go. Lee? Mrs. King?”
Amanda grabbed her bag and followed as Lee beckoned to her.
Emma twisted her wrists against the lamp cord Hughes had tied them with, all the while trying to hide her movements from him. He had bound her hands while they were in the parlor, then walked her to Peter’s office and ripped the cord off another lamp to tie her to a chair. She wasn’t sure what bothered her more – his treatment of her or of the lamps, which were made from antique Chinese ginger jars.
Hughes had removed all the papers from Peter’s desk and packed them into two cardboard boxes. Now he was opening the safe concealed behind a modest Monet over the fireplace. Emma smirked. She didn’t know the combination, but apparently Hughes did. The sound of the knocker on the front door echoed through the house.
“What?” Hughes jerked back from the safe and spun around. The knocker sounded again.
“Someone’s at the door,” Emma said helpfully. “That would be your job.”
Hughes glared at her as he darted across the room, picked up the shotgun, and left the room..
Agent Tibbet struck the doorknocker one more time and glanced back over his shoulder at Weems and Plath, who were idly examining the sports car parked on the drive. Beside him Scott peered along the front of the house whistling tunelessly.
The door opened about half way, held by a slightly disheveled butler.
“May I help you?” he asked.
“Yes. Is Lady Emma in?” Tibbet asked.
Hughes looked out beyond Tibbet at the car and the agents in the drive. Without responding he slammed the door. Scott immediately drew his gun, but before Tibbet could react the door swung open and a shotgun aimed through it and fired. Tibbet was hurled back off the front porch, landing near the front of the Lotus.
“Gerald!” Weems dashed to the fallen agent’s side. On the porch Scott flung himself to the side of the door as it slammed shut again.
Hughes threw the deadbolt on the front door and charged across the entry hall. The silk Oriental rug rucked up under his feet as he skidded around the corner and down the hall toward Sir Peter’s office. Breathless, he set the rifle against the wall beside the door and slammed it shut. Emma watched, eyes widening, as he put his back to a huge highboy and slowly pushed it in front of the door. Next he went to the windows and yanked the drapes shut over them, darkening the room. He stepped back and eyed the floor to ceiling bookcases on either side of the windows. Emma cringed.
“I want to know how four of our agents who took Sir Peter’s testimony and reviewed it did not question who Hughes is and put him on the suspect list,” Steed said through a clenched jaw as he drove Tara, Lee, and Amanda out of London. The sharpshooter team followed in a black sedan.
“Do you think it’s because he’s the butler?” Amanda asked. “I mean, you just take it for granted that a Sir, I mean a knight, has a butler.”
Steed grimaced, and Lee shook his head in a silent scold. Amanda shrugged at him. “Well, we don’t have butlers, so I noticed it.”
“British agents do not, generally, have butlers either, Mrs. King,” Steed said.
Weems pulled off his coat and pressed it against the wound in Tibbet’s chest. “Call for an ambulance,” he shouted to Plath, who was already opening the door to the car they’d come in and reaching for the car phone.
Up on the porch Scott reached out to the door handle, keeping his back pressed against the solid stone of the house. He turned the big knob and pressed the door inward. It did didn’t budge. He drew his sidearm and centered himself in front of the door, aiming and firing into the lock. The bullet shattered the old brass fixture. He pushed the door open and rolled into the entrance in a crouch, sidearm aimed into the entry. It was empty. He stood up and looked back at his companions.
“How is he?” he asked Weems. The other agent shook his head, still pressing his now ruined coat against his associate’s chest. Plath hung up the car phone.
“Our people will get the local ambulance here shortly,” he reported.
“Weems, stay with him,” Scott said, “Plath, come with me.”
The two agents worked their way through the ground floor of the house, opening doors and covering each other, until they came to the door at the end of the right wing. It wouldn’t open, although it was not locked.
“Right, that’s it then,” Scott said. “He’s barricaded it.”
“We need to know what’s in there,” Plath said. “He could have an arsenal.”
“Or a hostage.”
Steed braked the Bentley in the gravely drive behind the first team’s car, careful not to block the ambulance that was parked next to it. The sharpshooter team stopped behind the Bentley. Steeed bounded out of the car and approached Weems, who was hovering near the medics as they tended to Tibbet. Tara followed him, while Lee and Amanda moved more slowly, taking time to survey the house and grounds.
The large, stone house presented a balanced façade of four windows on each side of the large front entrance across the ground floor. The second floor had smaller windows directly above those on the first floor. The ministry agents’ attention was focused on the last two windows on the right. The drive entered through an ungated opening in the surrounding wall and curved through sparsely treed grounds. It passed the front of the house, then curved around the left end of the building toward what must be a garage set behind and to the side of the house.
As Lee and Amanda approached, the medics loaded Tibbet on a stretcher into the ambulance.
“What happened?” Lee asked Steed. The other agent watched the ambulance doors closed, then turned to look at the house.
“Hughes answered the door with a shotgun,” he said. “Our men went in and found the door to that room,” he pointed to the last windows on the right, “barricaded. He’s in there.”
In answer Steed nodded at the little Lotus.
“Emma’s car,” Amanda said.
“Yes,” Steed stared at the car for a long moment, clearly lost in thought.
“How’s your man?” Lee asked to distract him.
“Hanging on,” Steed replied, “They were not encouraging – nasty chest wound.”
“Damn,” Lee muttered, the team should have been alerted to the danger.
“Who are they?” Amanda asked, nodding at two women who were standing on the lawn separate from the agents. They were staring at the corner of the house looking frightened.
“Staff,” Steed said. “They arrived a few minutes ago. Apparently Hughes had told them they could have the morning off, although Mrs. Peel had told them she’d be back and needing them.”
“He must have planned to be gone before they got here,” Lee said.
“Yes, but Mrs. Peel delayed him.”
One of the agents from the original team beckoned to Steed. He’d laid a sheet of paper on the hood of the team’s car. The others crowded around it to see the rough sketch of the ground floor of the house.
“He’s in this room. The only entrance is here,” Scott described the situation. “He’s blocked the door with something – probably furniture – so our only way in is the windows. The curtains are drawn, so we don’t know if he’s moved furniture in front of them, or where he’s holding Lady Emma – if he is.”
Amanda, unable to get a clear view, drifted away from the group. The two women caught her eye again and she walked toward them.
“Hello,” she said as she approached. They both looked at her with suspicion in their eyes. “I’m Amanda King, I’m an American agent. This is all rather frightening, isn’t it?”
“Is the lady in the house?” the older of the two women asked.
“We think she is, yes,” Amanda said calmly. The younger woman’s eyes darted from Amanda to the group of agents by the car, to the house, and back to Amanda.
“I understand you work for the Peels,” Amanda said.
“Yes. I’m Evie, the cook. This is the maid, Anna,” the older woman said, nudging Anna with her elbow as she said her name.
“How do you do,” Anna added, awkwardly holding out her hand. Amanda shook it.
“Anna, didn’t Sir Peter have you pack a bag for Emma – Lady Emma – the other day?” Amanda asked, remembering it from Emma’s statement.
The maid nodded, puzzled.
“So you must be surprised that she’s here today – I mean, if her husband said she was going to – where were they going?”
“Spain, Sir Peter said. I tried to pack her favorite warm-weather things. But Sir doesn’t approve of some of her favorites, you know. I think she’s very fashionable, but he has his own opinions.”
Amanda smiled at this flood of information. She agreed with Anna — Emma was a very sharp dresser.
“To be honest, ma’am, it’s a bit confusing,” Evie said. “The lady told us when she left that she’d be back last evening, so we could have a long weekend off. But over the weekend Sir Peter comes home and has Anna pack that bag, saying they’re both off to Spain. And she didn’t have the nerve to tell him that she wasn’t working – that Lady Emma had given her the weekend off and she was only home because her sister cancelled their dinner. So she packs the bag and he goes off. Then Hughes tells us we can have this morning off as well so we went on into the village. And now this.”
Amanda nodded sympathetically. “Did either of you see Lady Emma this morning?”
“No ma’am. But her car is there,” Anna pointed at the Lotus as if revealing new evidence.
“Yes, so you think she’s in the house?”
“Well, the men say they went through the house and didn’t find her,” Evie pointed out impatiently.
“But Hughes has her in Sir Peter’s study!” Anna put in, her tone argumentative. Amanda realized she had hit on a sore spot between the women.
“So that’s the room on the right?” Amanda asked, “Sir Peter’s study?”
“Yes ma’am,” Anna replied, glancing at Evie as if expecting a challenge.
“Now I know that some men are touchy about their space – you know?” Amanda paused and the two women nodded, Evie smiling. “Is Sir Peter? I mean, did Lady Emma go into his study at all? Were either of you allowed in it? Or Hughes?”
“I stay in the kitchen, mostly,” Evie said with a shrug.
“Lady Emma comes and goes as she pleases.” Anna said, “I keep Sir’s study tidy is all – dusting and such. I don’t touch none of his things.”
“Do they spend time in there together?” Amanda asked. Anna chuckled, then blushed. “What is it?” Amanda asked.
“I shouldn’t be sayin’, ma’am,” Anna said, ducking her head.
“It’s all right – I won’t tell anyone,” Amanda adopted her conspiratorial tone. She hoped the women had forgotten that she had introduced herself as an agent.
“Well, you know, Sir Peter and the Lady, they have their share of tiffs,” Anna said, glancing nervously at Evie, who did look annoyed.
“All couples do,” Amanda suggested.
“Well, yes and no, if you know what I mean,” Anna said. “Sir Peter, he’s mean sometimes. To the Lady.”
“Does he yell at her?”
“Oh yes, ma’am.”
“No ma’am, at least not that I ever saw. But I tried not to see, you know.”
“You didn’t want to be a witness?”
“Not so much that, ma’am, as I knew Lady Emma wouldn’t want to fight in front of the staff.”
“I see, so you didn’t want to embarrass your employer?”
“Yes ma’am. I mean, I feel bad for Lady Emma – giving up her life in the city because her man came back after so many years. It was in all the papers,” Anna glanced at Evie for confirmation. The cook nodded. “And here he’s just as mean to her as – well, I don’t know. And it’s not like she needs him. Her own family’s got plenty.”
Amanda nodded. She hadn’t thought about Emma’s background, but it didn’t surprise her to learn that she came from wealth.
“So I try to do what I can for her – to make it easier. If I hear them fighting I make myself scarce. In fact, one time when I was straightening up in the study I heard ‘em coming up the hall. There was no place for me to go, there being just the one door. ‘There’s nothin’ for it,’ I says to myself, and I ducked into the secret stair. At first I was afraid to go on up and get away, but they just kept fighting there in the study and I still had the bedrooms to do. So I climbed up and out. They never knew.”
“Anna, are you saying that there’s another way into that room?”
“Why yes ma’am. It’s not a proper entrance or nothin’, just a tiny little stair to the upstairs hall.”
“Will you come over here and show me where it is on the drawing?”
Amanda led Anna over to the car where Steed, Scott, Lee, and Tara were still discussing a plan of action. The sharpshooters had spread out looking for vantage points.
“Excuse me,” Amanda said. Lee and Steed parted so that Amanda could escort Anna to the drawing. “So Anna, can you show us where the secret stair is?” Amanda asked, catching Lee’s eye as she spoke. The maid picked up a black marker that was sitting on the drawing.
“Secret stair?” Steed repeated.
“Well, there’s the fireplace here,” Anna said, drawing a line along the inside wall of the study. “And the stair goes up beside it. So the door is here,” She placed an X to the right of the fireplace.
“And just where does this stair go?” Steed asked.
“To the upstairs hall.”
“My dear, you may well have saved your employer,” Steed said, taking Anna’s hands in his and raising them to his lips. She giggled.
“Thank you sir. I’m glad to help.”
“Now Anna,” Amanda drew the maid’s attention back from Steed’s charming smile, “you call it the secret stair. So how will we find the entrance in the upstairs hall?”
“It’s not too hard to find, ma’am. It’s just beyond the little table with the candles. You can see the seams in the chair rail – that’s the handle. You just twist that part of the rail to open the door.”
“And what about from the inside?” Lee asked.
“There’s a regular knob on the inside – it’s hardly a secret if you’re already in there, is it?”
“No, I guess not,” Lee’s eyes met Steed’s and the British agent nodded.
“Thank you Anna,” Lee said, smiling at the maid, but unable to match Steed’s gallant gesture.
Emma kicked boredly at a book that had landed by her foot when the bookcase fell. She’s been shocked that Hughes was able to topple the massive shelving unit – she thought it was anchored to the wall. He had narrowly missed being trapped under it when it fell over spilling a ton of books all over the furniture and floor. Both the bookcase and the chairs it landed on were substantial, so, amazingly, nothing broke. Unfortunately for Hughes, the bookcase was so massive, he was unable to stand it back up or move it in front of the windows, which had been his plan.
So instead the curtains remained drawn, hiding the glass through which the agents outside could break. It made Emma mentally compare Hughes to an ostrich. She leaned against her bonds to read the title of the book by her foot. Something about Marxism. How appropriate.
Hughes had lit the kindling laid in the fireplace and started feeding the papers from the safe into the flames.
“They’ll never let you out of here alive, you know,” Emma said, boredom forcing her to take action. Hughes straightened and spun around, almost as if he’d forgotten she was there.
“If they kill me, I’ll kill you!” he growled. Emma pursed her lips. Hughes was not going to be reasonable.
“If you stop burning those papers and turn yourself in, we can all go on living,” she said as reasonably as she could.
“Hah,” Hughes replied, grabbing another bunch of papers from the desk and turning back to the fire.
“Mister Hughes!” an amplified voice filtered through the curtained windows. Hughes spun away from the fire again.
“Come out now, Mr. Hughes!” the voice added. Hughes dropped the papers and scrambled toward the windows, picking his way over the scattered books and around the fallen bookcase.
“Mr. Hughes, surrender now or we will be forced to act!”
Hughes crouched low by the drapes and pushed them aside to reveal a tiny sliver of window, still protected by the shear under curtain. A single shot from outside was followed by the smash of shattering glass. The drape just above Hughes’s head puffed inward. Hughes lunged away from the window.
As he did, a panel beside the fireplace swung open and Steed emerged, crouching low as he crossed behind Peter Peel’s big desk. Tara followed, darting the other way. Lee came last, dropping to the floor, gun drawn.
Hughes slipped on books as he rose and aimed his pistol at Steed. In a sweeping motion Lee rose, aimed, and fired, catching Hughes in the right shoulder. The butler dropped the pistol and Steed rushed him. Tara made her way across the room to the chair that Emma was tied to. She stopped in front of it, eyes meeting the other woman’s. Emma raised one eyebrow as Tara stared at her.
“Are you going to untie me?” Emma asked at last. Tara sighed, her mouth turning into a small frown. Then she stepped around behind the chair and found the knot in the lamp cord. By the time she’d gotten it undone Steed had bound Hughes’s wrists behind him and was helping Lee to move the highboy away from the door.
Freed from the chair, Emma stood up. Sore muscles ached to be stretched. Her wrists were still tied behind her, but Tara hadn’t noticed. The moment the first cord was off she’d gone over to help steady the highboy. Emma stood in front of the desk and watched the three agents. As soon as the door was unblocked Tara opened it. More agents poured into the ruins of the study. Steed paused to brush off his jacket, then looked around and spotted Emma standing with her hands behind her back. He walked over to her, a questioning expression on his face. She smiled back.
“Mrs. Peel, are you all right?” he asked.
“Pardon me if my reaction is somewhat restrained,” she replied, half turning so he could see her predicament.
“Ah! Allow me!” Steed made quick work of the knotted electrical cord, and took the opportunity to caress her wrists once they were free.
“So,” she said, sliding her hands into his for a quick squeeze, then letting go, “you found the secret passage.”
“Mrs. King did,” Steed replied. “While the rest of us were looking at floorplans, she talked to your staff.”
Emma grinned, “Of course she did,” she said.
“We’re booked on the 8:20 flight,” Lee said as he hung up the phone on the desk in Peter Peel’s study. “We’ll need to get to Heathrow by six.”
“We’ll be leaving soon to get these papers back to the ministry,” Tara said from her position beside a box on the floor. They had called for a special team to salvage any documents they could from the fireplace after Steed threw the water from a flower vase into it to put out the fire. Tara was sorting and packing the undamaged papers that Hughes had dropped on the floor.
“Thank you, Tara. Is there anything we can do here?” Amanda asked. Aside from her outburst that morning, Tara seemed to be a competent, efficient agent. But Amanda couldn’t help feeling some animosity toward the young woman on Emma’s behalf. Tara rose and smoothed her skirt, then looked around the study.
“We can’t do much here,” she said eyeing the drifts of books and the pile of expensive furniture. “Our team will want it as is. You could carry these boxes out to Steed’s car, though.” She indicated the two boxes of papers that Hughes had packed and not burnt.
“Okay. We’ll be out by the car, then,” Amanda said as she picked up one of the boxes. Lee picked up the other one and followed her out of the study.
“I’m afraid we’ll need to take Sir Peter’s papers back to the ministry immediately,” Steed said, sitting down on the edge of the bed beside Emma and squeezing her hand. She squeezed back. “You can come back with us.”
“I can’t,” she said quickly, looking into his eyes. “I still have to pack here, and I have to see to the study – when your team is done. And I have my article to write . . .”
“You’re sure you’ll be all right here?”
“It’s my house –.”
“It’s his house. Mrs. Peel – Emma – you came to me. Let me help.”
A little smile curled the corners of Emma’s lips as she raised her hand to stroke Steed’s jaw. He leaned into the caress, eyes locked with hers.
“You are helping, Steed,” she whispered. “I need to take care of my loose ends before I move on.” Her fingers pulled his face close to hers and she placed a gentle kiss on his lips. “I’ll call you this evening.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” he replied, then rose and started toward the door.
“Steed?” Emma rose and took a step after him. He stopped and turned. She stepped close to him, placing her hands on his lapels. She breathed in his scent, recognizing the sophisticated cologne he favored. His arms encircled her almost automatically and he held her in a comfortable, comforting embrace. She looked into his eyes, seeing affection in them that she never remembered seeing in Peter’s. She wanted him to stay and hold her. But to ask him would be to test their relationship, and she did not want to do that. She couldn’t bear it if he said no. Much better to test herself, to carry on through the day on her own. She pressed close to him, her mouth finding his, enjoying an almost aggressive kiss that he willingly participated in. At last she pulled back, breathing in his scent again, eyes meeting his.
“I’ll have to thank you properly later,” she said.
“I’ll certainly look forward to that,” he replied, eyes dancing merrily, “but you should really thank Lee and Mrs. King before they leave.”
“Yes you’re right. I do want to say good bye to them.” She reluctantly pulled free of his embrace and they turned to leave the room.
At the bottom of the stairs Steed turned toward the study where the ministry’s forensics team was already at work while Emma went on across the foyer and out onto the porch. Lee and Amanda were standing by the boot of the Bentley talking to Scott. Emma was about to join them when she noticed Evie and Anna standing near the other ministry car. They saw her – she could tell because Evie pressed her hands to her cheeks as if to contain great emotion and Anna waved shyly. Emma trotted down the steps and across the gravel toward them.
“Anna, Evie, I’m so glad you’re all right,” she said warmly as she approached.
“Oh Lady,” Evie said, nearly sobbing, “we were so worried about you.”
“All’s well now, Evie,” Emma said reassuringly. “But I owe you my thanks for telling the agents about the secret stairs.”
“You’re not angry then, Lady?” Anna asked, “I mean, I just mentioned it in passing and the lady,” she nodded toward Amanda, “started asking all about it. I know it’s a secret and all . . .”
“No Anna, I’m not mad. They were able to get into the study and rescue me because you told them.”
“Oh thank you ma’am,” Anna sighed. Emma was amazed to realize the woman had actually been afraid she’d be angry.
“I’m afraid things are going to change here – Sir Peter has been engaged in some illegal activities and he very likely won’t be coming home any time soon. But please don’t worry – we’ll see that you and the rest of the staff are taken care of,” Emma was sincere in her promise – she didn’t want to live at the estate, but her inlaws would have a use for it, and if they did not need the staff Emma would provide them with suitable severance and recommendations. “Evie, why don’t you make us some lunch – these agents will be leaving soon and we can sit down and sort out what needs to be done here.”
“Yes ma’am,” Evie said, dropping an awkward little curtsey. Emma smiled indulgently as Evie took Anna’s arm and the two women walked toward the house. Emma turned toward the Bentley. Amanda was watching her. Emma walked over to her.
“I’m sorry for staring,” Amanda said, realizing that she had been, “you know how Americans are around royalty.”
Emma burst out laughing, then stopped herself when she saw that Amanda looked quite embarrassed. She reached out and took her American friend’s hand.
“Oh Amanda, I’m hardly royal!” she said. “Peter was knighted when he returned, so I’m ‘Lady Emma.’ You know knighthoods aren’t inherited, don’t you?”
“No, I didn’t. I thought knights were distantly related to the royal family,” Amanda shook her head, “I guess I should read more of my mother’s historical novels.”
“Some are, I’m sure,” Emma tried to reassure her, but she was still chuckling at the notion of being a royal, “But Amanda, I wanted to thank you for your detective work this morning. Steed told me that you noticed the references to Hughes in Peter’s statement, and you talked to Anna to find out about the secret stair.”
Amanda nodded graciously, “just doing my job – being thorough.”
“Nonetheless, I’m grateful. I’m sorry you have to leave so soon. When will you visit again?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know when we’ll have another joint case –,”Amanda stammered.
Emma shook her head, “Not a business trip. Come and visit. We’ll explore London. Bring Lee if you like – we can make Steed entertain him.”
“So you expect to be spending more time with Mr. Steed?” Amanda asked, glancing toward the house where, coincidentally, Tara and Steed had just emerged onto the porch. Emma followed her gaze.
“Tara is getting promoted to a foreign posting,” she said pointedly, then grinned at Amanda. “I plan to spend lots of time with Steed.”
“I’m happy for you,” Amanda said, reaching out to take Lee’s hand as a way to get his attention. He finished what he was saying to Scott and looked at Amanda.
“Lee, it was a pleasure working with you,” Emma said.
“Likewise,” Lee replied. “Good luck with all this,” he added, glancing toward the house.
Steed and Tara reached the group, Steed stepping close to Emma. “We have everything,” he said. “We’d best get going so Lee and Amanda can get to Heathrow.”
Scott stepped away from the Bentley, “Lady Emma,” he said, nodding to her as he went to the other ministry car where Plath was standing having a cigarette. Weems had gone with the ambulance and Tibbet. Tara also nodded, curtly, toward Emma as she opened the front passenger door of the Bentley. Lee and Amanda moved to either side to get in the back seat. Steed took Emma’s hands and smiled at her.
“I’ll speak to you this evening,” he said, then released her and went to the driver’s door. Emma stepped away from the cars and waved them away, then turned and walked into the house, closing the big door behind her.