This story copyright © 2003 Mia McCroskey
Characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.
Steed becomes a man hunter
Emma stays afloat
Edmond Stanton was surprised at himself. For the past few years he’d thought of himself as heading for retirement. Certainly the management of Knight Industries had been steering him in that direction. And the fact was, he was getting old. He had enjoyed his years of work – of high-level deal making on Knight’s behalf – and he’d saved and invested enough to retire comfortably. He’d met and married his wife well into his career, so they’d never enjoyed a period of leisure – they hadn’t gone to school together or spent summers abroad. She never said anything, but he knew she would like the opportunity to travel before they were both too old to get around.
But then Emma Knight had regained control of Knight, bringing back her father’s honest energy and enthusiasm to what had become a discontented, fracturing organization. Within days of returning she’d found more than one exciting opportunity for Edmond to pursue. He’d felt revitalized. And then Evan Birch had barged into Emma’s office and shot her.
If Emma had been killed, Edmond would have simply walked away. His loyalty had been to Sir John Knight, and to Emma. He felt no sense of duty to the company that Knight had become. But Emma was not dead. She’d been whisked away to a mysterious medical facility that issued regular, confidential reports to Knight’s management and Emma’s mostly uncaring relatives. Unofficially, John Steed telephoned him each day, assuring him that their Emma was going to recover. Edmond sensed that Steed’s words were spoken to reassure himself, too.
Edmond had acted without thinking, calling an emergency meeting of Knight’s senior management, and contacting the remaining members of the board to ask them to meet as well. Three board members had been arrested, along with a number of Knight employees, for violation of the Secrets Act. That there had been people within Knight supplying information and materials to a South American terrorist organization did not surprise Edmond. That there were so many frightened him very much. The company had been seriously compromised; it would require a great deal of skill and luck to save and rebuild it. Only his faith in Emma’s determination and talent kept him from despairing.
His skill as a negotiator was renowned. He employed it freely to manipulate the remaining members of the management team. The board was harder to manage, but he convinced them to postpone any action until Emma was conscious enough to make her wishes known. He was determined that she would have a company to return to, if that’s what she wanted.
So instead of cutting back his hours and spending more time with June, Edmond was practically living at Knight Industries. That’s where Emma found him, a week after the shooting, when she was finally allowed to use a telephone. Edmond understood that she was in a private medical facility dedicated to the ministry that John Steed worked for. Emma had once worked for them as well, and had been acting on their behalf as recently as a month ago. He wasn’t quite sure why she had been admitted there this time, except that Steed must have arranged it. And from what he understood, the care she was receiving was top of the line.
“Edmond, it’s Emma.” Although her voice was weak, lacking its usual rich lilt, it was still music to his ears. Emma was the only child of his best friend. Fiercely independent, brilliant, and beautiful, she had filled her father’s corporate shoes for a time after he died, before striking out on her own life as the wife of a test pilot. It was difficult to believe that her personal decision more than seven years ago had directly led to where they were today.
“Emma darling,” he replied, “I’m desperately happy to hear your voice. Does this mean you’ll be back tomorrow?”
He heard her laugh degenerate into a weak cough and shuddered with regret at having made the joke.
“I’m fortunate to be allowed to make this call, Edmond,” she finally replied.
“Are we being monitored?” he asked, silently scolding himself for being silly and using up valuable time.
“Steed’s here,” Emma replied quite seriously. “And the call’s probably being recorded – everything is from here. But that’s nothing to worry about. Now tell me about Knight. None of them will let me see a newspaper.”
“That’s just as well, darling. The coverage was gruesome. No pictures – no current pictures – at least. Lord knows where they dredged up their file photos of you, though. But the whole cast was featured in one paper or another. Even your friend there – I’m sure that didn’t please him, or his associates.”
“Really? He never mentioned it. And now he’s giving me the most impatient look. No, Steed, I will not hurry up. You look as if we’re late for a party or something. As if I’m going anywhere.”
“Let me update you, Emma, before your fellow wrestles the telephone from you,” Edmond suggested.
“Please,” she said, clearly doing her best to be concise.
He went on to review what the management team and the board had been doing, making it clear to her that she needed to make a public statement soon. Two large conglomerates were already circling with takeover written all over their corporate faces.
“The last thing we can afford is for anyone to think that Knight is in play,” he concluded, knowing he was preaching to the converted.
“I’ll call in the spin doctors and work on a statement,” Emma said, ignoring the way Steed’s head popped up from his newspaper when she said call. “Meanwhile, I want you and Angus to keep negotiating with Reggie Styles on that computer storage media project. And get Alex Harper’s plan for the computer subsidiary into the lawyers’ hands, if it isn’t already.”
“I’ll get right on it, Emma. I’m so relieved – you almost sound like your old, demanding self.”
“Thank you Edmond. I’ve got a long way to go, I’m afraid. But it helps to know you’re there.”
“Spin doctors?” Steed asked when she’d ended the call.
“It’s a marketing term,” she replied, picking up her personal phone book to look for a number. “The situation at Knight is spinning out of control –.”
“And you need a spin doctor to get things back on course,” he finished for her, smiling at the unfamiliar jargon.
“It’s weak, I know. But that’s what marketing is, isn’t it? Smoke and mirrors, a fresh coat of paint over the rust and dents. Or in this case, over the hole in my chest.” She found the number she was seeking and started to dial. Steed walked over to the bed and depressed the receiver buttons on the phone, aborting the call. He looked very unhappy and very concerned.
“Emma, your recovery is not smoke and mirrors. When you leave this hospital you will be healed, not just bandaged.”
She glared at him, for a moment unable to release her business persona and behave like the proper invalid that he expected. Then she closed her eyes, pursing her lips and taking a deep breath.
“Please, Steed, let me take care of Knight. I only meant that I have to issue a statement, and I need the advice of some experts about what to say. Edmond says Knight’s being talked about as a takeover target. I have to convince the world that I’m still in charge without actually being there.”
Steed bent to her and placed a kiss on her forehead, releasing the telephone at the same time.
“I’m sorry, darling,” he said softly. “Please let me take care of you. And forgive me for being too cautious. You know it’s my nature.”
She smiled up at him, “I know. And I love you for it.”
The security guard looked on impassively as Matthew Stein threw his personal property into an old file box.
“Three minutes, Mr. Stein,” the guard reminded him, glancing at his wristwatch. All around the office Stein’s former co-workers stared at their desks with downcast eyes, or exchanged glances with one another. A few stared openly at him. A telephone shattered the eerie silence and was answered before the first ring ended, the speaker using hushed tones that must have baffled whoever was calling.
Stein dropped the desk clock that had been a gift from a client into the box and jammed on the lid. Without a word he picked it up and headed for the lifts, the guard following him. His supervisor glanced out his open office door as they passed, but Stein didn’t give him the pleasure of a final glance.
Five years he’d slaved away here, doing what Evan Birch asked of him. Now Birch was washed up and he, Matthew Stein, had been hung out to dry. Someone was going to pay. Maybe not Birch – he’d have nothing left by the time he paid his lawyers, even if they did get him off. And maybe not Barnwell, the asshole who’d fired him for his management of the Knight portfolio. Mismanagement, Barnwell had called it. Stein had been on the verge of saying it was all Birch’s fault – he was doing what Birch wanted – when he realized that that would most certainly lock him out of a job with any other firm, anywhere. Nobody would hire a man who’d sell out. Someone might hire a man who’d made some mistakes.
But in any case, someone was going to pay for this mess. He could think of a few more possibilities. As the lift descended he inventoried them: Sir Peter Peel, the criminal mastermind who’d gotten away; Miss Emma Knight, now that would be a particularly sweet revenge of a non-financial sort; Stafford, or Dixon, the other two Knight board members – they must have squirreled something away during their years robbing Knight. By the time he had been escorted across the lobby and out the doors into the streets of the City, he had started contemplating a plan.
Charles Barnwell slid the Knight Industries file out from under a pile of work on his desk and opened it again. It was unbelievable. Stein had practically drained Knight’s investment accounts. With each transfer of funds among the various investments, there had been transfers to numbered accounts at banks in various countries like Switzerland and the Caymans. Stein had manipulated the superficial paperwork expertly. Authorizations and signatures were on file. The funds that were gone were untraceable, at least by this firm – authorities with more sway over international banking might be able to do something. But that didn’t help Barnwell.
His only relief, temporary though it may be, was the knowledge that Miss Emma Knight would not be returning to her office for at least a few more weeks. He had that time to craft his explanation and prepare for her reaction. By all accounts, he’d be lucky to get out of Knight headquarters alive, although with her recent injury she might not be able to do as much damage as usual. With great reluctance, he asked his secretary to contact Miss Knight’s office and arrange a meeting for when she returned.
Emma was shocked at how drained she was by the drive to Steed’s sister’s home. She opened her eyes when she felt the Bentley come to a gentle stop and looked around at the unfamiliar house and yard. Her previous, and first, visit had been at Christmas. Now spring was beginning to exert its influence and everything looked different.
“All right?” Steed asked, studying her worriedly from just beyond her door. He’d gotten out and come around to her side. She gave him a reassuring smile.
“Yes. Tired is all.”
“I can imagine – no, I don’t have to. I’m personally familiar with the condition. Come on, let’s get you in and wrapped around a warm cup of tea.”
She basked in his gentle kindness as she had been doing for the last few weeks. He knew exactly how she felt at each stage of the healing process, and exactly what to do to help. It was hard to believe his having been gravely hurt himself so many times was actually beneficial to her. He gave her his arm to negotiate the front walk. Fortunately, it was mid-afternoon and the children were still off at school. Steed had rushed her that morning to time it this way, so she would not be bombarded by curious inquiries before she could rest.
The door was flung open by his sister before he could knock. Caroline reached out and took Emma’s other arm, gently wrestling her from Steed and directing her into the front parlor.
“You’re here at last! I’ve been baking and roasting and fretting about you for hours – can you smell it?” she guided Emma to the sofa. “The baking and roasting, I mean, not my fretting, although Lord knows you could probably smell that too!”
Emma broke down in giggles, allowing the other woman to maneuver her legs up onto the sofa, then tuck a ragged, crocheted afghan around her. Steed, who had abandoned her to his sister, reappeared in the foyer with their bags. He cleared his throat, drawing Caroline’s attention.
“The usual room, John. I know you’ll want to take care of her,” she said. Steed nodded and disappeared toward the stairs.
“Now, I put the kettle on when I saw the car, so you’ll have some tea shortly. I expect you’d just like a bit of a rest, yes? I thought so.”
Emma nodded, smiling. Caroline didn’t seem to expect her to say anything and she was just as happy to close her eyes and sink into the cushions. But she didn’t see the woman’s concerned expression, which flashed across her face before being quickly concealed. Emma let herself drift, relieved to be out of the car at last. Before she knew it Steed had returned with a tray full of tea and freshly baked biscuits. He sat in the armchair by the sofa and made up her cup, then his own.
“This’ll buck you right up,” he said cheerfully. Emma did not miss the concern in his voice.
“You’re worried,” she said, taking the cup and saucer.
“I can’t help it. I know you’re fine – it was a long drive and you’ve got a lot of strength to regain. But it’s troubling to see you so weak. I’m not used to it.”
“You’re not the only one!” she grinned. The tea was already having a revitalizing effect. He grinned back and sipped from his own cup.
“Wait until you see ‘our’ room,” he said. “Caro’s shifted the beds together.”
Their room, the one Steed always used when he visited, and that they’d shared at Christmas, really belonged to the Hill’s two younger sons. The boys were camping out on their older brother’s floor. It had two twin beds that were normally located on opposite sides of the room. At Christmas they’d stayed that way. In fact Steed and Emma had refrained from any romantic activity, beyond a bit of cuddling and kissing, during their stay.
“I think she’s done it so that I don’t have to get up if you need me in the night,” he added, eyes twinkling over the top of his cup.
“I wonder how she defines ‘need,’” Emma sighed, winking back at him. She knew something about her condition that Steed did not. At her checkup yesterday the doctor had given her permission to be intimate again – so long as she refrained from anything too strenuous. Her heart was strong and had not been injured. Her lung and cracked ribs were healing well. Although the ministry doctor had no idea just how active her sex life with Steed could be, his instructions had been clear. And wonderfully welcome. For the first three weeks she’d had no interest. Steed’s kisses were welcome tokens of his love and concern, but they had no power to awaken her baser desires. But in the last week that had changed. She’d begun to watch his body again, to imagine the feel of it against hers, inside of hers.
He caught her mischievous little smile and nodded.
“It would be about that time,” he said softly, reaching out to play with a lock of her hair. She frowned at him, puzzled. “You’re healed enough to start thinking about – well, me, I hope,” he went on.
Of course. He’s been through this. He knows.
“The doctor approved it – gently,” she said. He grinned. “And more walking. I want to go riding – slowly!” she added when his expression turned negative.
“I won’t put you on a horse. You don’t have the strength to control him if he gets spooked,” Steed said firmly. Emma scowled at him, allowing herself to pout. He watched her for a moment, recognizing that she was concealing her innate stubbornness. She’d go saddle her own horse when the mood struck her. That wouldn’t do. “We’ll ride double,” he suggested.
“I hate sitting behind a saddle. It’s horribly uncomfortable.”
“We’ll ride bareback.”
“Yes. Tomorrow, or the next day – when you’re ready.”
“I love you, you know.”
“Yes I know.”
The children were remarkably restrained when they came in from school. They greeted their favorite uncle fondly, and Steed produced a series of little gifts that Emma hadn’t known he’d brought. To her delight, they also greeted her fondly, if carefully. They’d been told that she had been badly hurt in an accident. Caroline appeared and shoed them off to do their homework and chores, leaving Steed and Emma to continue studying the chess board that he’d set up on the table.
When Harry, Caroline’s husband, came in he joined them for a bit and Emma immediately subjected him to questioning about business. He managed futures for the copper mining company that he’d worked for all his life. Emma knew that he was particularly gifted, with a remarkable understanding of the complex futures market. She’d been thinking about how to leverage it on behalf of Knight Industries since she’d met him at Christmas.
Sensing what she was up to, Steed pried his brother-in-law away before Emma could delve too deeply. He’d warned her to leave Harry alone. Caroline would never forgive him if Emma enticed Harry to take a job in London. But Steed knew how to distract his brother-in-law. He deftly introduced Harry’s other passion – restoring old cars – and within moments he was following the big redhead out to the garage, casting Emma a smug look over his shoulder. Her benign smile was more frightening than annoyance would have been.
Feeling very rested, Emma folded up the afghan and made her way into the kitchen where Caroline and her oldest daughter Sara were finishing supper preparations.
“Steed has dragged Harry out to the garage,” she said as she pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and sat down.
“Sure it wasn’t the other way around?” Caroline asked cheerfully.
“Quite. Steed seems to think I’m trying to induce Harry to come work for Knight Industries. He thinks you’d be very upset about it.”
“Are you?” Caroline asked, pausing to look directly at Emma. Her gaze was so much like Steed’s it was startling.
Caroline’s brows shot up, also just like Steed’s. Emma couldn’t help grinning.
“He wouldn’t have to come to London,” she added.
“He’s happy with the mining company,” Caroline said, but Emma could see she could be swayed.
“It’s limiting. Knight is involved with several business segments where his talents could be very beneficial. He’d have more opportunities, and I think we could reach a compensation agreement that would be quite favorable.”
“Sara,” Caro said, turning to her thirteen-year-old daughter, “I want you to pay careful attention to Emma, because she’s a very smart, very determined woman from whom you could learn a great deal. Do you see what she’s doing here?”
Emma also looked at Sara.
“Does she mean her company would pay dad more than the mining company?” Sara asked, looking from her mother to Emma with a shy smile. Emma nodded ever so slightly and Sara’s smile widened proudly.
“Oh yes, that’s a given, girl. She knows she has to do that,” Caroline gave Emma a stern look. “What I mean is, she’s here convincing me. Because she knows your papa will discuss it with me. No matter how attractive the offer, he won’t take it if I don’t approve.”
“Really Mum?” Sara asked. “Doesn’t Dad say he’s the head of the household and all?”
“I think it’s a partnership, Sara,” Emma said before Caroline could answer. “And your mother is right. But I wouldn’t want to convince your father to work for Knight Industries if your mother doesn’t approve. For one thing, Steed would never forgive me.”
“That’s true enough!” Caroline chuckled.
“But what do you think, Mum? Don’t you always say the mining company doesn’t deserve Dad?”
Now Caroline had to laugh outright at Emma’s triumphant expression. Sara suddenly realized what she’d revealed and she laughed too. “Oops,” she said, putting a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry Mum!”
“Never mind,” Caroline said, waving a hand dismissively. “I think Emma could see where I stood anyway. Let’s just see if she’s able to convince your papa.”
Supper was a raucous affair, but Emma felt energized by the children’s chatter and the delicious meal. She insisted on helping clear the table, urging Steed with a knowing glance to go on back out to the garage with Harry. Caroline vetoed her offer to help the children with the washing up, instead serving them both coffee at the kitchen table. Caroline placed herself where she could supervise the children in their wet, soapy efforts.
“Speaking of partnerships,” she said, although they had not been, “Shouldn’t you be planning a wedding?”
Emma had known this was coming. Caroline had been the first person to guess at their engagement just a few hours after Steed had proposed, and as Steed’s older sister she asserted a much-deserved right to look out for him.
“I’m not – it’s too soon to announce it,” Emma said, stopping herself from saying she wasn’t ready. Caroline didn’t look satisfied. “I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by everything. I think I need to be healthy to manage it, along with everything else.” She did not want to blurt out her concerns about Knight. As far as the world knew, the wrongdoers within the company had been discovered and removed. And the talk of takeovers had been squelched by carefully constructed statements of Emma’s speedy recovery and plans for the future. Only Emma and those immediately surrounding her knew how dangerously fragile Knight was just now.
“At Christmas I told you not to wait too long,” Caroline said. Emma nodded – she remembered the advice, knew that it was still good. “I didn’t want him to lose you – he’s capable of getting impatient and doing stupid things, although you’d never think it. He needs you. But now I think maybe I was wrong. I think my brother knows what’s good for him. He’ll wait for you to be ready. But it will get harder, the longer it takes.”
Caroline shrugged, “If you let things come between you – business, for example – he’ll resent it. You’ll have to get past that to make a marriage work.”
Emma suppressed an inward shiver at the accuracy of Caroline’s observation. But was it fair? Was she letting Knight come between them, or was she simply tying up loose ends? It really was too soon to announce their engagement. The press – and not just the business press – would have a field day with it. She’d spent enough time on the society pages since her mother died to develop a sense of these things. They had thoroughly dissected the end of her marriage to Peter when he was arrested. The announcement of marriage to Steed would have them knocking on his door, and ultimately the ministry’s. Now that was a chilling thought. If nothing else, they had to give Mother fair warning.
“I see what you mean,” Emma said. “I think he understands. Certainly right now he does – I really can’t put the effort into the kind of wedding I want to have until I’ve settled things at Knight.”
Caroline nodded, then smiled slyly. “And what kind of wedding it that?” she asked. Emma realized the woman would get her way. She wanted to discuss a wedding and if it had to be somewhat hypothetical, so be it. But Emma hadn’t been the sort of girl who’d planned out her wedding when she was twelve. Even if she had, she would have put that plan into action the first time around. Nonetheless, she did have some ideas about the day that she and Steed would celebrate their commitment to one another.
“I want it in a big country church,” she said, thinking about a visit she and Steed had made to Salisbury Cathedral just before he proposed. There had been something magical about the ancient space. She wanted to recapture that mysticism on her wedding day, although she realized it was a near impossibility. “I’m not wearing white, of course. But perhaps something close. But not dreadfully ornate.”
“No. I should think you’d want sleek and elegant,” Caroline said.
“I don’t want the wedding to be huge, although I fear it will be difficult to keep the guest list under control. Do you think,” she paused, glancing at the children by the sink, “that Sara would like to participate?”
“I think that’s a silly question, my dear,” Caroline smiled. “It would make her year – whatever year it turns out to be!”
Emma laughed, then thought some more. She was surprised at herself for enjoying this exercise, and suspected that Caroline had known she would. “I want the reception to be in our house.”
“The one we’re going to have to get,” she said with a shrug. “The one that’s old and rambling, with stables and gardens, and run-down caretakers poking around ineffectively fixing things. We’ll have to spend a fortune on it just to make it comfortable, and another fortune to make it look right for the kind of parties we’ll have to host.”
“That’s a couple fortunes, on top of the purchase price,” Caroline pointed out, realizing that fortunes were something that Emma was accustomed to dealing in. “And where is this decrepit structure?”
“I don’t know. Not too far from London. I couldn’t pry Steed out of his mews flat, so we’ll keep it. But I don’t want him to have an excuse for not coming home at night.”
Caroline studied her for a moment and Emma grew uncomfortable under her scrutiny.
“You think I’m cold and calculating,” she said very matter-of-factly. Caroline shook her head.
“I think you’re a brilliant strategist. And you know exactly how to manage my brother. Here I thought he was lucky to have found you, but now I see he’s in as much danger as he is good fortune.”
“That might be true, Caro, if she weren’t devoted to me,” Steed said from the dining room doorway. Startled, both women turned to smile at him. He sat down beside Emma half facing her and put his arm across the back of her chair. “What’s she managing me about?” he asked, smiling into Emma’s eyes.
“Oh, your future living arrangements, your wedding,” Caroline said lightly.
“Oh yes, when is that, exactly, darling?” he asked, still looking at Emma. Caroline cocked one eyebrow, catching Emma’s eye with an “I told you so” look.
“Not much longer, Steed. I promise,” Emma replied. “I need to be well.”
He nodded and both women could see that he truly understood. But they both also knew that she would get well, and he would ask again, and Emma would need to see her way through the distractions.
Emma spent the next two days absorbing energy from the children and strength from Steed. The fresh country air seemed to clear her injured lung and increasingly longer walks each morning and afternoon began to tone her muscles. Steed had been relentless in his exercising of her legs while she was bedridden. When she complained he just glared at her, having lectured her about how important it was the first time he did it. She knew he was right, even though, at least at first, it hurt like hell.
But she was the first to admit that his persistence paid off as she found herself striding along a country lane, vitality returning to her whole body like sunshine flowing through her veins. She thanked him with a series of little hugs and kisses, delivered whenever they paused to watch some animal going about its business, or to peer into the water of a flowing stream, or to enjoy a spot of shade. Emma gradually realized that the stops were becoming more and more frequent until, out behind the barn, she slipped into his arms, but held her face away from his.
“You’re far too eager to stop and rest, Steed,” she said, “I’m the one who’s supposed get tired first.”
“You’ve caught me out,” he sighed, smiling happily into her eyes. She looked out across the little paddock attached to the barn. The Hill’s two horses were standing nose to tail under a big oak tree.
“Let’s go riding,” she said impulsively. “Just for an hour or so. I’ll bet Peaches could use the exercise.”
Steed followed her gaze and wrinkled his nose. “Not Peaches. She’s such a plodder. Bradley.”
“Steed, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you insult a horse before,” Emma said as she followed him into the tack room.
“Well she is,” he said, picking up a worn halter and lead rope. “She’s fine for the little ones. At least Bradley’s willing to take a fence now and then. Although not today,” he cast her a meaningful glance.
Emma sat on a bench and watched Steed slowly approach the horse, which allowed him to slip the halter on without complaint. The children exercised the horses nearly every day, but Emma suspected they got bored lounging around in their paddock. Steed was such a good horseman they sensed it and were happy to work with him. He led Bradley, the gelding that Sara and her older brother Ted shared, to the barn door and tied him to a rail there. He talked quietly to the animal as he deftly exchanged the halter for a bridle, coaxing Bradley to open his mouth and take the bit. He arranged the reins and swung up onto the horse’s bare back as if his legs were springs.
“Use the mounting block,” he instructed Emma, walking Bradley into position beside an old tree stump near the barn door. Emma climbed up onto it, the extra height putting her in a better position for Steed to swing her up in front of him without putting any stress on her arms or chest. She settled against him, sighing happily at the comfort of his strong chest against her back and his arms around her waist, holding the reins in front of her. She could have taken them and guided Bradley, but it was very pleasant to leave everything to Steed.
They walked along the lane, then turned off to follow the stream where local deer had trod a narrow path. Bradley was sure-footed and willing, and Steed’s use of legs and reins to direct him was almost imperceptible. They covered more ground more quickly than they had on foot and were soon wandering between the freshly planted fields of a neighboring farm.
“There’s something to be said for western style bridles,” Steed muttered into her ear.
“What?” Emma asked half turning her head. His face was right there, their lips nearly touching.
“They leave one hand free,” he replied, kissing her.
“Steed, have you ever made love on a horse?” she asked. She felt him chuckle.
“No. And we’re not going to try it now – I think that’s a bit more strenuous than your doctor has in mind.”
“Some other time, then?” she asked. She watched his eyes darken with desire and she guessed that he was imagining just how it would be done. “Some place very private – like our own property, perhaps?”
“You have remarkable ways of convincing me to invest in real estate.”
They worked their way back to the lane a couple miles from the house. It was straight, flat, and deserted.
“Let’s canter. Just a little. Bradley’s gait is very smooth,” Emma begged, knowing that she was strong enough and desperate for the little rush it would deliver. To her surprise, Steed signaled her command to the horse, who immediately stretched out his legs to a run.
Steed locked his elbows around Emma and allowed himself to enjoy the rocking motion and the feel of her back against his chest. He knew where she was taking them. They’d been down this road before, her leading, him following like a delirious puppy. He’d happily remain her lap dog for the rest of his life, the rewards were so incredible. This time they might end up making silent love in their room, his sister somewhere downstairs, the door secured with the ridiculous latch that Caro considered a lock. Or perhaps Emma had someplace closer in mind – the barn was far enough from the house to provide privacy. A little straw in the hair was worth that.
He was becoming deliciously aroused before they felt the first drops of rain. By the time they reached the barn it had gone from sporadic to constant, and it was getting heavier. Steed guided Bradley right in through the barn doors and stopped him in the aisle outside of his stall. He gently lowered Emma to the ground, then swung off himself and went to Bradley’s head.
“Thanks old boy,” he said fondly, easing the bridle off of the horse’s face and replacing it with a halter. “I’ll just rub him down,” Steed added to Emma. She sat down on a bale of hay, drawing her legs up to watch. Steed used a currycomb and then a brush to smooth out the imprint of their legs on Bradley’s back, then brushed the horse all over. Watching, Emma grew increasingly envious of Bradley.
“You’re making me jealous,” she finally said, standing and picking up a folded blanket. Steed paused to look at her.
“Shall I do you next?” he asked, holding up the brush with a teasing smile. She arched one brow.
“Yes,” she said, “Without the brush.” She headed for the ladder to the hayloft.
“In you go then, old boy,” Steed said immediately, sending Bradley into his stall and closing the door. Looking around, he found another blanket and headed for the ladder himself.
Emma had spread her blanket on the thick straw in the loft and sat looking out the loading window at the rain. Steed dropped his blanket and started to join her.
“Stop! Shoes off,” she ordered, pointing at the dirty hiking boots he’d worn for their walk. Her own were sitting in the straw near the top of the ladder. He followed her orders, then stretched out on the blanket, unfolding the one he’d brought and pulling it over himself.
“Lie down with me,” he begged. She didn’t have to be invited twice. She stretched out beside him and let him cover her with the blanket.
“I remember another hayloft,” she said, her lips almost touching his, her breath a warm caress on his face. He smiled, sharing the memory.
“It was raining that day, too.”
“I’d been missing you so much,” she sighed, running her hand over the side of his face, then on down his chest. “The stable was the closest I could be to you. And you knew I’d be there.”
“It’s where I’d have been, were I you,” he shrugged. Then he kissed her, lightly at first, but it intensified very quickly as the arousal he’d enjoyed while they were riding asserted itself. He began to caress her, using his hands to curry her as he had the horse, touching her shoulders and back, her sides, and reaching down to her hips and ass. She kissed him back, more and more urgently as his touches caused her to squirm with need. He let his hands drift to her front, slowly, gradually, finding their way to her breasts.
He’d seen the scar over the last few weeks, watched it transform from angry red to fresh, healthy pink. But he hadn’t touched it, was concerned, in fact, that she might not want him to. The scars on his body were so plentiful he rarely gave them a thought – partially because that led to thinking about the events that had made them. But when he thought back to the first one, so many years ago, it seemed to him that he’d been sensitive about it.
So he went carefully as he touched her left breast, beneath which the scar huddled. She’d been very lucky that the bullet hit her where it did, luckier still that the ministry clinic had a plastic surgeon on hand, and luckiest of all that Steed had been there to protect her interests, although he joked that they were really his own. He’d insisted that they save her breast, reconstructing what damage had been done by the surgery that saved her life. He’d known that the trauma of the wound would be hard enough for her to get over. The loss of her breast would have been too much, even for his strong Emma.
It was well healed now, although she was still unable to wear a bra. Instead she wore a lacy camisole under her blouse. Steed knew that, he’d seen it in the morning. But now it seemed like the sexiest garment he’d ever encountered. He unbuttoned her blouse, allowing his hands to brush over her nipples as he worked, smiling at her reaction – which was a series of sharp gasps followed by delicious moans. He felt his erection pressing against his trousers and willed her to reach for it. He had not felt her hands on him in a month and it seemed like an eternity. Amazingly — or perhaps not, they were so attuned to one another — she reached down to stroke him.
And then she freed him, carefully unbuttoning and unzipping his trousers and coaxing his genitals out over the top of his briefs. Her fingers left hot traces where she touched him. Unable to stop himself, he rolled onto his back and pulled down his trousers and underwear, pushing them off into the straw. As he lay back Emma was there, her hands exploring his thighs, cupping his balls, then caressing his solid erection. He reached for her, sliding his hands up inside the camisole and around her back, then slowly, carefully around to the front to cup her breasts.
“Take it off and look at me,” she whispered, one hand still on his penis, the other on the blanket supporting herself above him. Understanding, he raised the camisole and her unbuttoned blouse, forcing her to release him and sit up as he lifted them over her head. He could hardly see the scar in the dim loft. As she sat beside him he reached up and ran the back of his index finger along the underside of her breast, not touching the scar. She shivered and his eyes darted to her face. Her eyes were closed, her expression a familiar one of arousal and desire. He drew a circle around her nipple and watched her mouth open slowly, heard her soft moan. It was as sensitive as ever. He lifted himself with one hand, caressing her with the other, and took her nipple into his mouth. It had been the first intimate part of her body he’d ever touched. His thoughts rushed back to that moment when she’d first invited him into herself, asked him to touch her and moaned with pleasure when he did. The memory fed the desire burning below his belly. It spread through his body, demanding more.
“Please,” she sighed, her fingers twining into his hair. She’s remembering too, he thought, kissing his way across to her other breast and sucking it until the nipple grew hard between his lips. He moved his mouth back across her chest, gently kissing the scar beneath her breast.
“We’re going to be fine, aren’t we?” she asked, barely above a whisper. “I’m going to be fine.”
“You always have been, love. We are going to be more than just fine,” he whispered back, drawing her down to the blanket, then kissing the soft skin of her stomach. One hand continued lightly caressing her breast. With the other he opened her trousers and pressed two fingers against her panties, feeling warmth and moisture through them. He pressed his face against the pale pink silk, inhaling her scent. It aroused him still more and he used both hands to pull her pants down past her knees. She pushed them with her feet the rest of the way off into the straw, then rolled onto her side. He stretched out facing her, nestling his erection against her moist, warm vagina. He was afraid to go too fast, much as he wanted to bury himself inside her.
She dragged her leg up over his thigh to settle it at his waist, opening herself to him. He caught her lips with his, unable to hide the need in his kisses. She responded eagerly, her tongue exploring his mouth. He reached between them and guided his erection slowly into her. His hand slid down her back, wrapped around her ass to press her against him. Her tongue plunged deep into his mouth in a desperate, open-mouthed kiss. Her hips squirmed in his grip and he pulled back and thrust solidly into her, feeling her whole body vibrate with a groan. He thrust again, feeling her heated juices gush around his cock. He was slick within her, plunging deeper as she opened even more. Then, when his long, stiff member was fully sheathed inside of her she contracted around it, squeezing, grasping, and demanding his essence.
“Emma,” he groaned into her ear as his body responded to hers, surrendering everything to her. She shuddered, grasping his shoulder, pressing her mouth against his neck and moaning against his flesh. Her heart was pounding; he could feel it against his chest providing counterpoint to his own. He held her still, drawing his hand up her back, terrified that she had overexerted herself, she lay so still.
“Emma?” he repeated, pressing his lips to her forehead.
“John?” she replied, pulling her head back to look into his eyes. She was smiling contentedly. Relieved, he smiled back.
“Just checking,” he said, bringing his hand up to brush her hair off her face. “How do you feel?”
“Are you fishing for compliments?”
“Always, darling,” he chuckled.
They lay still together for a long while, listening to the rain on the roof above until it had almost stopped. The absence of sound finally roused them.
“Someone will be out to see to the animals,” Emma whispered into Steed’s ear as if it were a secret. He smiled at the tickle of her breath.
“Someone may wonder what’s become of us,” he replied. “They may send out search parties, thinking we’ve been washed away by the rain.”
They dressed, picking bits of straw from one another’s hair and clothes and bringing the blankets down with them. For the first time in weeks Emma felt a healthy exhaustion borne of exercise, not injury. They hurried through the lingering drizzle to the back door of the house, pausing to remove their boots in the mudroom before entering the kitchen.
Harry was seated at the table with his checkbook open and stacks of paid and unpaid bills before him. Caroline was just pouring him a mug of coffee.
“Here they are,” she said cheerfully, although there was a note of relief in her voice. “And this is the last of the coffee. Shall I make another pot to warm you up? Did you get caught in the rain?”
“We made it into the barn just in time,” Steed said, offering no further explanation.
“I think I’d rather warm up in the bath,” Emma said, standing beside and slightly behind Steed. No one could see her hand run down over his buttocks and between his legs. He stood motionless, but turned his head toward her.
“Sounds lovely,” he nearly purred as she ran her hand back up, squeezing one cheek and then moving away from him toward the back stairs. He followed. “We’ll pass on the coffee, Caro,” he added over his shoulder.
“Lock the door,” she called after them, having no doubt about their intentions. “They better not flood the floor up there,” she added. Harry looked up at her, surprised at her indulgence of her brother’s uncharacteristic behavior.
“With the income Emma’s suggesting, we could remodel that bathroom,” he said, tapping his pen on his open checkbook. Caroline frowned at him, then sat down at the table.
“Has she made you an offer?” she asked, surprised.
“No. But she’s given me an idea of what’s possible. It’s tempting – the whole opportunity is tempting.”
“But you’re hesitant.”
“What happens if I’m working for Emma, and she and John break up? Would it become awkward?”
Caroline thought about it for a moment. Harry waited, taking a sip of the coffee she’d poured him. They heard water running upstairs, and Steed’s low chuckle.
“If they do, then it shall be up to us to see that they’re brought back together. Few people in this world belong together so completely. Perhaps we’re meant to help see that they stay that way.”
“And perhaps I married a hopeless romantic,” Harry said, reaching out to take her hand. She shrugged in a very Steed-like way.
“So we could remodel that bathroom, heh?”
Emma put the plug in the big, claw-footed bathtub’s drain and turned on the water, adjusting the mix to a pleasant temperature. Then she left the bathroom, brushing past Steed, who had stopped in the doorway, with a devious smile. He chuckled at her retreating back, then followed her. She went to their room and undressed except for her camisole and panties then trotted back to the bathroom. Steed also undressed down to his underwear, then glanced up and down the hall before dashing to the bathroom and locking the door.
Emma was reclining in the tub, her head near the faucet, the water gushing over her shoulder in a warm waterfall. Steed stepped out of his underwear and into the swirling water, settling down at the opposite end of the tub, his knees bent, his legs alternating with hers. She reached up and turned off the water.
She’d added something to the water – not a foamy bubble bath, but some sort of oil that slickened their skin and made the water bead in glistening droplets. He stroked the silken skin of her legs as she rubbed one foot up his chest, her face wearing an impish smile. She rubbed his nipple with her toe, sending a buzz of pleasure straight to his groin. He extended his leg between hers, using his toes to gently open her. Her smile melted to a look of erotic pleasure as she spread her legs to him, lifting the one that was not on his chest up to the edge of the tub. He wiggled his toes slowly, navigating her private places carefully, pressing here, poking there, rubbing the ball of his big toe over super-sensitive flesh. He felt her shudder, little ripples of bathwater radiating toward him. She drew her foot down his chest and belly, bringing it to rest on his thigh, toes just touching his penis.
“Let me wash you,” he said, stilling his toes to get her attention. She opened her eyes and reached for a bar of soap on a rack on the wall beside the tap. They shifted positions, Emma turning to settle between his spread legs.
He pressed the hard soap into the muscles of her shoulders and back, massaging her while cleansing the skin. She relaxed, sighing deeply at his efforts as he found and massaged small knots of tension.
“I’d no idea how tense I was,” she said.
“Your body has been compensating, protecting your chest by keeping your shoulders and back tense,” he explained. “Now turn around.”
She complied, expecting him to make more carnal advances as she straddled him, sitting on his thighs. But he continued his cleansing massage, working at knots of muscle in her chest above her breasts that she hadn’t known could be so tight. He worked up and down her arms, placing her hand on his shoulder as he worked his fingers into the tissue of her forearm, then her upper arm, then her shoulder. As he finished the second one she was desperate to thank him. She slipped her hand around the back of his neck and pulled herself to him, feeling her breasts brush his chest, bringing her lips to smother his mouth.
He sighed, bending his knees and planting his feet to keep from slipping under the water. She slid into his lap on his oily wet skin, her warmth engulfing his solid, throbbing penis.
“Take me,” he whispered into her mouth, reaching beneath the water to suit action to words. She lifted a little to let him press his member into her willing core. She moaned, a deep, lustful sound, as he filled her. Then she ground her hips into him, demanding more. He pressed upward against her downward thrust and cried out at the sudden, sharp release it brought.
“Emma!” he barked, surprised at how quickly he’d come and regretting it. She was still moving on him as he shrank within her. She leaned over him, bracing herself with her hands on the edge of the tub, her breasts once again brushing his chest.
“Use your fingers,” she hissed, eyes closed tight, body tensed at the edge of climax. He pressed three fingers into her, lifting her up, feeling her press back down. He pressed against her thrusts, caressing her clitoris, his thumb against her vulva. Then he squeezed her right breast with his other hand, pinching and releasing the nipple in unison with her thrusts.
“Oh John, oh God John,” she groaned through her climax. He felt her whole body shudder as warm fluids gushed past his hand to mix with the bathwater. “John,” she repeated, dropping her forehead to his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her, caressing her back. “Thank you,” she sighed, rolling her head to press her lips to his neck.
He snorted, kissing her cheek and her closed eye, “for coming too soon?” he muttered, a tinge of embarrassment in his voice. She raised her head to look into his eyes.
“Did you? I hadn’t noticed,” she lied with a smile.
“And I love you for it,” he replied.
Emma was exhausted. She went from their bath to her bed, stretching out naked beneath the covers, eyelids too heavy to stay open. Steed bent over her and kissed each one, and then her mouth.
“I just need a nap,” she said. “Wake me in an hour or so.”
“Rest well, darling. I’ll come get you for supper,” he promised, then quietly dressed and went downstairs.
“Uncle, will you read me a bedtime story?” Timothy, the youngest Hill child, stood in front of Steed holding a picture book with a colorful cover. Emma, sitting on the sofa beside Steed, smiled warmly at the little boy. She’d awakened from her nap feeling more alive than she had since before the shooting. Her muscles felt lose and flexible, and the warm buzz of fulfilled desire still lingered in her loins. Supper had been the usual chaotic affair, although Beth and little Linnie, the two younger girls, were staying with a friend. Sara and Ted had dutifully cleared the table while the adults retired to the parlor with the little boys. Caroline had eventually declared it bed time for little Timothy and Arthur and escorted Arthur upstairs.
“Will you excuse me, darling?” Steed said to her as he stood up and took Timothy’s hand.
“Certainly,” she replied, thinking, you’d be a heel to refuse him.
As Steed and Timothy headed for the stairs, thirteen-year-old Sara materialized. Emma got the distinct impression she’d been waiting to catch her alone.
“Uncle told me that you belonged to a pony club when you were a girl,” she said. “He said you won ribbons.”
“Yes I did,” Emma replied, patting the sofa beside her. Sara sat down where Steed had been. She wanted to know all about Emma’s riding experience, clearly comparing it to her own. There were as many differences as similarities between Emma’s aristocratic pony club populated by spoiled, competitive young ladies and Sara’s country riding club. Hearing about the fun shows and point-to-pointing that Sara and Ted participated in with Bradley, Emma grew a little envious. She’d never been able to go to a pony club event without spending two hours grooming herself and her horse first.
Their chat degenerated to giggles as Emma described one particularly disastrous dressage event during which the most popular girl had taken a tumble from her new horse and landed in a pile of recently dropped manure.
“Does Uncle really have to take you back to London tomorrow?” Sara asked when her laughter had subsided enough to speak.
“I’m afraid so, Sara. I have to go back to my company on Monday, at least for a little while.”
“Do you own your whole company?” Sara asked.
“No. I share it with other people. We all own shares in it. But I have the most shares of anyone, and the rest voted that I should run things.”
“But it’s named after you, isn’t it?”
“It’s named after my father. He started the company. When it got big enough, he invited other people to buy shares.”
“Why? I mean, if he owned the whole thing, why sell part of it to other people?”
“Because he was able to use the money they paid to enlarge the company.”
Sara nodded. She was a bright girl who immediately understood the advantages to this arrangement for all involved.
“Did your father die?” she finally asked.
“Yes. When I was twenty-one years old.”
“Do you miss him?”
“Yes. My mother died when I was your age. So it was just my father and me. I missed him terribly.”
“And you were all alone?” Sara sounded truly upset by Emma’s loss, “did you know Uncle then?”
“No. I had other friends, though. I really spent all of my time with the company – I took over when he died and it was a great deal of work. People didn’t believe I could manage it, so I had to prove that I could.”
“Why would they think you couldn’t?”
Emma smiled at the girl’s innocence of the world’s prejudices. “Because I was a twenty-one year old girl in a man’s business.”
“But you showed them, didn’t you?” Sara sounded certain. Emma smiled.
“I did,” she said softly. “I showed all of them.”
“Emma, are you a spy like Uncle?”
Emma wasn’t sure how to reply. She had not thought the children understood what Steed did. She glanced across the room at Harry but he appeared to be absorbed in a book.
“I thought you worked with Uncle,” Sara added. “And he doesn’t work for your company.”
“Sara, people have to go to school to learn how to be spys. I read economics and physics at Oxford, not lock picking and following villains.”
“One of the first things a spy learns, Sara, is to deny being one unless you are asked three times in a row,” Steed interrupted from the doorway. Emma and Sara both looked up at him, one relieved, the other still more curious. Steed was grinning at Emma.
“Are you a spy, Uncle?” Sara asked.
“Are you a spy?” she asked again. He moved into the room to sit beside her, putting his arm across the back of the sofa behind her so that his hand was at the back of Emma’s neck. His light touch made her skin tingle.
“No,” he repeated with a wry smile. Emma cast him a perturbed look for encouraging the girl.
“But are you a spy?” Sara asked once more with a teasing giggle. Steed looked resigned to his fate and nodded.
“But you mustn’t tell anyone,” he leaned close with a conspiratorial whisper.
“Does Emma know?” she whispered back.
“Yes I think so,” he said, glancing up at Emma. She scowled at him. Determined, Sara turned back to Emma and asked her twice more if she was a spy, receiving denials each time. After the second one she looked frustrated and turned back to Steed.
“Three times in a row, Sara,” he pointed out, knowing that Emma would make him pay later. Sara’s face brightened and she repeated her question to Emma once more.
“Emma, are you a spy?”
Emma sighed, wondering why the usually reticent Steed encouraged this game. “I suppose I am, Sara, after a fashion,” she said, her glare at Steed softening at his delighted, adoring expression. He wanted to hear me say it, she realized. He wanted to be sure that I still consider myself his partner, even if I’m also running Knight.
“Did you know the Hill children were familiar with your occupation?” Emma finally asked as they entered the outskirts of London the next afternoon.
“No,” he replied, “Caro and Harry know, of course. I had a word with Caro about it this morning. She doesn’t know how Sara found out, but she promised to speak to her about it.”
“You’re not worried that Sara might say something to a friend at school?”
He shrugged in his most non-committal way. “She’s a smart girl. She’ll understand that it’s family business, not to be discussed outside the house – or in the house, for that matter.”
“And there’s a certain appeal to that sort of secret, when you’re thirteen,” Emma added thoughtfully. Steed glanced over to smile at her.
“What sort of thirteen-year-old secrets did you treasure?” he asked, too late remembering that her thirteenth year was just after her mother had died. But she settled into her seat and closed her eyes, looking thoughtful, not upset. When he glanced at her again a little smile curled the corners of her mouth. “Mrs. Peel?” he coaxed.
“You don’t really want to hear it,” she said firmly.
“Of course I do!” he was all the more intrigued by her reticence. She opened her eyes and looked at him. He got the impression she was judging him, determining whether he was worthy.
“My father was determined to raise me on his own, while running Knight. He didn’t want to send me away to school. I have always been grateful for that. And I hadn’t had a nanny in a few years. He agreed to my demand that none be brought in – I was much too mature for that.”
“I’m sure,” Steed grinned, easily imagining the coltish, teenaged Emma asserting her youthful rights.
“But neither of us was prepared for the inevitable,” she said, sounding as if some horrible disaster had struck the grieving pair. “I was growing up.”
She fell silent and he glanced over. She was watching him expectantly, as if he should understand something unspoken. He gave her an encouraging little smile before looking back at the road ahead. She sighed, seeing that he hadn’t understood.
“I started bleeding. It terrified me. I thought I was dying, like mum.”
Steed wasn’t squeamish, but he did not want to know any more than he had to about any woman’s menstrual cycle. Emma, to his great delight, was as loathe to impart any details as he was to hear them. Now and then over the years she’d occasionally fended off his advances saying not a good time, darling and he’d understood. But this admittance of her fear at the onset of puberty was not about monthly bleeding. He wanted to pull over and reach for her, to comfort her long-ago grief at the loss of her mother. I shouldn’t have pressed, not while we’re in the car.
“There was nobody to explain,” she said. “Nobody to show me what to do.”
“Your mother hadn’t?”
“I think she may have tried, but I was such a little hellion, I didn’t listen. I think I was too embarrassed by it to let her get down to the practicalities.” She was quiet for a moment. “My friend Nancy came to my rescue. I’d struggled through the first time, washing out linens and underthings and hiding it from father and the maid – she was a horrible woman who I would never have confided in.”
“And one doesn’t fraternize with the staff,” Steed offered.
“Indeed,” she nodded. “I think I realized, once it stopped, what was going on. But I was still taken by surprise the next time. That’s when Nancy saw it. She called me a silly twit and dragged me to her mum for a talking to. I think her mother felt terribly sorry for me. She rushed right out and bought me all sorts of paraphernalia that I didn’t need.”
Steed quickly stopped himself from imagining what paraphernalia that might be.
“All of a sudden I went from being father’s little girl, to a young woman with a secret. It made me feel closer to mum somehow. I guess that’s silly.”
Steed reached over and found her hand in her lap. “It’s not silly.” He said.
“And then there was the other secret,” she went on, giving him a sly look that he just caught as he glanced at her curiously and returned his eyes to the road.
“Yes?” he asked since she obviously wanted him to.
“My first kiss,” she said, caressing his fingers in her lap.
“Precocious, weren’t you?” he said, feeling ridiculously jealous of the unknown boy.
“It wasn’t much, really,” she added. “I didn’t really learn about kissing for quite a number of years.” She gave him a pointed, flirtatious look that made his eyebrows arch. “You are such a good kisser, darling,” she added to make sure he understood. He didn’t believe her, of course. After all, she’d been in love and married before meeting him. And she’d been perfectly capable of inciting intense desire with her kisses when he met her. Still, her compliment felt good.
“So I should not be jealous of this fellow who stole your first kiss? What was his name?” he asked.
“Certainly not,” she said, watching him for a moment. “Freddy. Freddy Leighton.”
Steed coughed to hide his surprised gasp. Her friendship with Lord Frederick Leighton had bothered him back when they had first become lovers. He’d had no idea that she’d known him for so long. Or so well. He glanced at her and saw that she was smiling delightedly.
“No wonder you didn’t want to tell me,” he said, deciding to play the jealous suitor. This was the first time she’d mentioned Leighton since returning to him months ago, and he was certain she had no interest in the man other than as a friend. But she deserved a little ribbing.
“Yes,” she agreed breezily, “It wasn’t much of a kiss, but I’ve always remembered it fondly.”
“So fondly that you spurned poor Freddy repeatedly over the ensuring years,” he pointed out. When she didn’t answer he looked at her. She was laughing silently. She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it.
“I remember it fondly because of what I realized when it happened,” she said. “I realized that one has friends, and one, eventually, hopefully, has lovers – remember I was thirteen – and that it is possible to tell which someone was destined to be by how they kiss.”
“You still hold with that theory? Don’t give a fellow a second chance? What if he’s nervous the first time?”
“Are you suggesting I go about giving my male friends second chances?” she asked
“I was thinking selfishly, actually,” he said. “Where would we be now if you’d put me in the other category after our first kiss?”
“Steed, do you remember our first kiss?”
“In every delicious detail,” he grinned.
“Then how can you possibly think I didn’t know exactly what sort of relationship I wanted with you? You never needed a second chance.”
He looked over at her for longer than he should, snapping his eyes back to the road just in time to touch the brakes as they bore down on a slower vehicle ahead. Maybe not in that regard, he thought.
Her ministry-trained driver stopped the black limousine beside the kerb in front of the Knight Industries building and Emma peered out the tinted window. One of a group of reporters who were waiting outside of the building spotted her car and trotted toward it. Her driver, Stanley, quickly got out and opened her door, interposing himself between her and the reporter. The rest of the reporters were following their compatriot making a beeline for the car. Emma got out clutching her briefcase to her chest.
“Walk me in please Stanley,” she instructed. He nodded and gave the reporters a threatening glare as they started walking toward the building.
“Miss Knight, how does it feel to be returning to the office where you were attacked?” a reporter shouted.
“Will you be meeting with the remaining members of the board?”
“How has your absence affected the firm?”
“Is it true you’re going to step down?”
Emma climbed the three steps in front of the building and put her hand on Stanley’s arm, turning to face the reporters.
“Gentlemen, and lady,” she acknowledged at the lone female in the group, “As you have apparently ascertained, today is my first day back at Knight headquarters. I am hardly in a position to answer many of your questions. However, it is not my intention to avoid you. I will be happy to come back and speak to you in about an hour.”
She turned and strode into the building before they could fire off any more questions. Stanley maintained his position at the top of the steps, arms folded over his expansive chest. He was sufficiently imposing to keep the reporters at the bottom of the steps.
“Welcome back, Miss Knight,” Mrs. Emerson greeted her at the lift – Emma suspected that security had called from the lobby.
“Thank you Mrs. Emerson,” she replied, falling in along side the woman to walk to her office. “There are reporters out front. I told them I’d come back and speak to them in an hour. Please have Mr. Hart come to my office. Is Sally in yet?”
“She’s in your office, Miss Knight. I’ll call Mr. Hart immediately.”
Emma smiled her gratitude for her staff’s efficiency and entered her office.
Sally jumped to her feet when Emma entered. “Oh ma’am, you look so well!” she said.
“Thank you Sally. I feel well, too. There’s a group of reporters out front. Please arrange for a lectern to be placed out at the top of the steps within the hour. You can call from here, I’m sure I have other things for you to do after that.”
Sally nodded and crossed to the seating area near the fireplace to use the telephone extension there. Emma found herself watching the girl, her eyes lingering on the spot on the floor where she’d fallen after being shot by Evan Birch. She realized with a start that the carpet was new. She wondered what other small changes had been made without her knowing.
Mrs. Emerson had placed several files and documents in the center of her desk, her calendar open to the day’s agenda on top. She half listened to Sally speaking to whoever took care of moving furniture about the building as she quickly jotted down the questions she’d been asked downstairs. She had just finished when Stephen Hart, head of Knight’s public relations department, knocked and entered.
They spent the next forty minutes crafting a statement for her to make and discussing the answers to the questions they expected she’d be asked. She and Hart discussed whether to bring the reporters inside to the conference room, but decided against it in favor of keeping it brief and seemingly impromptu.
The hour was over in no time. Emma, Hart, Sally, and Mrs. Emerson rode down the lift to the lobby and walked outside. The group of reporters had nearly doubled with the addition of several photographers. Emma stood at the lectern and smiled coolly, giving the photographers a moment to snap her picture with the Knight logo etched on the window behind her. She took the moment to scan the group, but saw nothing untoward. Stanley was still there standing beside the car on the sidewalk. Steed, she noticed with surprise, was lurking by a column at the top of the steps, out of view of the reporters, but well positioned to act if necessary.
She recited her statement as closely to how they’d prepared it as she could – they’d also agreed that she wouldn’t read it. The reporters would be less likely to question what sounded like off-the-cuff remarks. The tactic worked – Emma was not bombarded when she finished. She thanked the reporters and offered Mr. Hart’s services to answer any further inquiries they might have. When she finished speaking Mrs. Emerson distributed copies of Knight’s most recent public reports – material the reporters probably already had.
Steed slipped silently through the door into the building behind Emma and Sally and escorted them across the lobby to the lifts.
“I’m sorry you were ambushed, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, studying her face for signs of distress. She’d looked and sounded cool and businesslike, but he was well acquainted with her acting ability, “Stanley called me from the car. It should have occurred to someone that they’d catch on and be here.”
“It should have occurred to me,” Emma agreed with a sigh. “But all’s well, I think. Sally, why are you standing with your back turned?”
Sally, who was studiously facing the doors, said, “Because I think Mr. Steed is concerned about you and would like to take your hand, ma’am.” The lift stopped at Sally’s floor and the doors opened. Sally stepped out, glancing back over her shoulder at them with a smile as she hurried away. Emma and Steed looked at one another, both of them containing their amusement as the lift continued upward.
“Perceptive girl,” Steed finally said, holding his hat and umbrella and making no move to touch Emma. She cocked one eyebrow and he glanced up at the security camera mounted near the ceiling. That made her chuckle outright, as it was a reminder of the day of the shareholders’ meeting when he’d avoided any contact with her because of the cameras.
The lift reached the top floor and they walked together to her office. She had barely shut the door when Steed’s arms were around her.
“Sally’s perceptive, but not a mind reader, fortunately. I really wanted to do this,” he said, kissing her quite passionately. She returned it eagerly, even knowing that the little sparks they were igniting would have to go untended. “Now try to stay out of any more trouble today, will you? I’ve got a security job – another important person needing guarding – to plan for.”
“Anyone I know?” she asked. He moved his hands to her upper arms and pressed his lips to her forehead.
“It’s someone everyone knows.” He winked as he released her and went to the door.
“Bye Steed,” she called out as he waggled his bowler over his shoulder then put it on his head. She stood in her office door smiling after him for a moment, then returned to her desk to face the real work of the day.
Her first day back was supposed to have been just a half day, but when Mrs. Emerson told her she had scheduled an appointment with a Mr. Charles Barnwell for just after lunch she resolved to keep it. Barnwell, Mrs. Emerson explained, was coming to discuss Knight’s investment portfolio. So although Emma was feeling mentally drained from a morning of meetings with Knight’s executives, she had Sally bring her a light lunch and rested in her office, waiting for the banker.
Her morning meetings after the impromptu press conference had gone well enough. Many familiar faces were gone, including the head of the Knight Weaponry, who she’d suspected of being part of Peter Peel’s criminal network. Somehow Steed had convinced Emma’s ex-husband to identify Knight industry staff members who had been helping him steal information and equipment on behalf of the South American regime that he had allied himself with. A ministry team had arrested all of those identified, but Peter himself had escaped when Evan Birch had attacked Emma. She had had her suspicions about who the traitors were, but for each of the expected absences, there were surprises. Griffith, the head of personnel whom she’d thought was nearly incompetent, had been implicated. And several high-ranking members of the accounting and bookkeeping division. She was relieved to learn that the ministry had arrested none of the staff in the cryptology section of Weaponry, and the software staff had also been cleared. Those were both departments she intended to count upon for Knight’s future growth.
Edmond Stanton had clearly been working tirelessly during her absence making management decisions to see that the duties of those who’d been arrested were taken care of. He’d contacted her about many of them, explaining the need in as concise a manner each time so that she would not fret about details that were out of her control. He’d been so skilled at it she hadn’t noticed his manipulation until today. She couldn’t think of an adequate way to express her gratitude toward Edmond – but she had in mind a long, paid holiday, sometime in the future when things were under control.
Sally too had been damnably close mouthed about affairs at Knight during her convalescence. As Emma’s personal assistant she had visited every few days until Emma went away with Steed. Although she’d offered updates on the state of affairs at Knight, Emma now realized she’d managed to skip all the bad news. Of course, as a very junior person in the organization she could simply claim lack of knowledge. Emma knew better, of course, Sally was a magnet for information – largely because she was remarkably discrete.
Emma ate her lunch and thought through all that she’d learned that morning. The most surprising, and possibly disturbing thing was the continued presence of Alex Harper within the organization. Harper was a ministry agent placed within Knight before Emma regained control and Peter Peel identified the members of his organization. Emma had recognized him within days of taking over and gained his confidence. She had not let Steed know that she knew about Harper, but she’d expected that he would be removed after the arrests. His continued presence could mean that the ministry wasn’t satisfied that the security risks at Knight were eliminated. She had asked Mrs. Emerson to schedule a meeting with him for tomorrow morning. He would, she was certain, explain why he was still undercover in her company.
Meanwhile, she was anxious to find out the condition of Knight’s cash and investment accounts. A friend of Steed’s had proposed a very exciting research and development project that she wanted Knight to get involved in. Edmond had been negotiating the terms, but until she knew exactly how much Knight could afford to invest he could not finalize the deal.
Charles Barnwell appeared in her office at the appointed time bearing a thin file and multiple expressions of regret.
“Please accept my apologies for the manner in which this information has been brought to you, Miss Knight. In reviewing Knight’s file, I have learned that you made several requests to see an account summary which Mr. Stein disregarded,” he began almost immediately after introducing himself.
Emma gestured him to a seat across the desk from her and regained her own chair. He sat down on the edge of the seat, clearly uncomfortable. Emma wanted very much to know why.
“Mr. Stein?” she asked. She remembered asking Mrs. Emerson to find out who managed Knight’s account with the investment firm, but she’d never found out – she’d been shot that afternoon.
“Matthew Stein. He has been dismissed,” Barnwell looked rather grim.
“For not returning our calls?” Emma’s brows rose. “That seems rather severe, even thought I was inconvenienced, Mr. Barnwell,” she said.
“Poor customer service was not the reason for his dismissal, Miss Knight. His management of your – that is, Knight’s – accounts is the reason.” He opened the file he’d brought and took out the top sheet, turning it and placing it on the desk in front of her. “You see, Mr. Stein’s skill was apparently tested far more than we realized by your company’s assets. We had no idea he was so incapable.”
Barnwell had elected to defend Stein’s actions as error rather than outright fraud. Once Knight’s lawyers and accountants looked at the investment account ledgers they’d know that Stein had committed multiple acts of fraud, but he, Barnwell, didn’t have to deliver that news directly to Knight’s CEO.
“Incapable?” Emma picked up the account summary, scanned it, and set it back down. She was sufficiently familiar with such documents to quickly apprehend their meaning. Knight’s investment accounts were nearly empty. She felt faint. “Mr. Barnwell,” she said, making eye contact with him to keep herself focused. She could not believe what she’d just read. “Knight’s last financial report included a substantial sum in liquid investments. These numbers are in gross contradiction with that. Are you saying that Mr. Stein misrepresented the portion of Knight’s finances under his jurisdiction to our accountants? Surely this sort of loss cannot occur over the period of a few months.”
“We are investigating Mr. Stein’s actions, Miss Knight. I am not prepared to say whether he miss-reported financial data to Knight in the past, or whether his recent management of these accounts has caused this situation.”
“But either way, Knight has no cash-on-hand,” Emma said. Her voice was so cold it made Barnwell shiver.
“Knight has the sum mentioned in the grand total line at the bottom of the sheet, Miss Knight. It is a handsome sum,” Barnwell tried, almost hating himself for his performance. He reminded himself of his personal debts, the servicing of which required his continued employment, and carried on.
“Mr. Barnwell,” Emma stood up, leaning both hands on her expansive desk, “Knight Industries is one of the largest corporations in Britain. This,” she stabbed a finger at the total on the report, “is a paltry sum – my aunt Elise has a larger investment portfolio than this.” She knew that was true because her aunt’s investments were largely Knight stock. Of course, it looked as if its value was about to drop. Emma herself held a diverse portfolio, but a fair portion of it was invested in Knight. Steed, too held a substantial block of Knight shares. This Matthew Stein had single-handedly decreased the fortunes of numerous of Emma’s friends and family. Many of them had invested in Knight to support her bid to take over. She glared down at Barnwell, an increasing light-headedness forcing her to lean heavily on her hands. Fortunately, Barnwell took her posture as aggression. He stood up, stepping away from the desk.
“This file contains the account details,” he said, reaching out to place it between Emma’s hands on the desk. “I’ll just leave it with you, and when your people wish to discuss it I’ll make myself available.”
He hurried from her office before she could react.
Emma shifted her weight to one hand and used the other to punch the intercom button on her telephone.
“Mrs. Emerson, could you bring me some water please,” she said. Then she let herself sit carefully back down. She was shaking. She reached up to smooth her hair, but her hands impulsively covered her face instead. A few minutes later Mrs. Emerson found her sitting with her head in her hands.
“Miss Knight?” the older woman rushed to her side, placing one hand carefully on her shoulder. Emma lowered her hands. Mrs. Emerson nearly gasped at her pale complexion.
“Mrs. Emerson, please set up a meeting with our accountants and lawyers. Include Edmond Stanton,” she said weakly.
“Yes Miss Knight. Here’s your water. Are you feeling well?”
“No. No I’m not Mrs. Emerson. It seems that my ex-husband has left us one final calling card — in Knight’s accounts. We shall have to salvage what we can. Please set up a meeting immediately – this afternoon if possible.”
“Miss Knight,” Mrs. Emerson started to object. But Emma’s quick, hard look silenced her. “Yes, Miss Knight.”
Sir Peter Peel hung up the telephone and stretched out on the bed with his hands behind his head. He grinned at the ceiling, mentally tallying the cash withdrawals he was going to be making as he worked his way across Europe. It was rather frustrating that he didn’t dare withdraw it all at once, but he couldn’t transport that much cash, and even converting it to a few cashiers’ checks would be too risky. The sums he dared withdraw seemed paltry compared to what was available.
Dear Emma. I really should do something to thank her for teaching me how to pick locks.
He’d be living in style for the foreseeable future, no doubt about that. With plenty left over for his next project, whatever that might be. All he was certain of was that he was through with Camino Victorioso. They were too hot — and too provincial. After three years in the jungle, visiting civilized lands on their behalf had spoiled him. He wanted the cosmopolitan elegance of Paris. He wanted the beach at San Tropez. He wanted Florence and Barcelona and then, for a break, Portofino or Capri.
But right now he wanted to move. He’d narrowly escaped the net Steed’s people had cast over London, and then England, a month ago. He’d slipped out of the tube train at the rear and into the tunnel, locating a maintenance exit halfway between stops that let him out onto a busy street. From there he’d moved among the masses of evening commuters, eventually making his way to the apartment of a lady friend who’d supplied him with traveling cash and a fond farewell. Late that night, while Emma was recovering from surgery, he’d visited a locker at Paddington to retrieve a valise, then used the identification stored in the bag to rent a car and head for the coast. By the time he crossed the channel his blond hair was five inches longer and dark brown and his eyes were nearly black. His hands bore tattoos and he sucked on the butt of a cigarette, then added it to an overflowing ashtray. The inspector waved him through and onto the next ferry. When he disembarked his rental car had French plates and his hair was salt and pepper grey. The tattoos were gone. His fingers were covered in rings and he wore four gold chains around his neck under his half buttoned shirt.
Since then his appearance and mode of transportation had changed almost daily as he moved through France and into Switzerland. He’d taken his time, being sure to read the English papers, and read between the lines. He was certain that Steed, who he regarded as his greatest threat, had not left England. No, the agent was staying dutifully by Emma’s side.
You just look after darling Emma, Steed. You’re obviously better at it than I was.
“Go home, Emma,” Edmond placed a hand lightly on her shoulder. “We – you – have done everything we can today.”
Emma stared out at the lights of London. Her half a day had stretched well into the evening. Knight’s legal team was burying itself in their contract with the brokerage firm. The accountants were picking through the financial statement that Barnwell had left with her. Edmond was correct. But as she looked out at the city teaming with millions of people all she saw was emptiness. A few hours ago she’d been facing a happy, if busy, future. She’d finally begun feeling ready to think about her wedding to Steed. She’d been looking forward to resetting Knight’s focus on technology by making the computer and software division a subsidiary and pouring funds into the American research project. A single sheet of paper had changed everything. Knight was broke, and she believed that her ex-husband, Sir Peter Peel, was out there somewhere spending its money.
He had won.
She owed it to Knight’s investors and employees to do everything possible to save the company. With no cash reserves she’d have to sell off assets to cover operating expenses. She’d have to cancel their tentative agreement with the Americans. She’d have to cut her own salary. The accountants had painted a rosier picture, but Emma knew better. And this time, if word got out about Knight’s situation, the multinationals wouldn’t be circling for takeover. They’d be bidding pence-on-the-pound for what was left.
Knight’s next public financial statement was due in two months. That would place the final nails in the coffin. The stock price would drop when the analysts found out. Learning how Stein had done it would have little bearing on the reality that Knight Industries was about to enter into a downward spiral.
“Shall I call Sally?” Edmond suggested, “I’m sure she’s still here. She could see you home.”
Emma turned to Edmond, forcing her expression to show gratitude for his kindness. “All right,” she said. He wouldn’t give up, she knew. And he was right.
Emma opened the door to her flat and stopped. Steed was stretched out on the sofa, a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket on the floor beside him. He looked up from a book – one of hers, she thought. Sally peered in around her.
“I’ll just go on home,” she said quietly, and before Emma realized what she’d said she was gone.
“Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked, standing and walking toward her. She hadn’t left the doorway. “What happened to your half day? I telephoned. And then I just decided to come around about an hour ago. You look as if you need cheering up. Fortunately, I have just the thing.”
He came over and took her hand, closing the door and leading her toward the sofa. His manner was gentle. He made no verbal suggestion of celebrating her return to work. She sat down and he handed her two champagne glasses to hold while he opened the bottle.
“Someone told you,” she said. He eased the cork from the bottle with a gentle pop and turned to her to pour the golden liquid.
“Rather remarkable, actually,” he said, plunging the bottle back into the melting ice. “Mrs. Emerson.”
Emma was shocked. Mrs. Emerson had made her position on mixing personal matters with work quite clear. She was aware of Steed’s role in Emma’s life, but it was completely uncharacteristic of her to take action on such a personal level.
“She wanted to advise me that another crime, possibly perpetrated by Peter Peel, had been discovered.”
“What did she tell you about it?”
“That Knight’s investment accounts were drained, presumably by the fellow managing them. Her assumption seems to be that the manager was under Sir Peter’s influence. Is that what you think?”
Emma stared at Steed. Could he really not understand what it all meant? Peter was long gone, escaped because she had taught him to pick locks. He had Knight’s money, and she was left to try to salvage her father’s dream.
“Mrs. Peel?” Steed prompted again.
“Yes, that’s what I think. I don’t know how, or when, but I think Peter arranged for Knight’s capital to be siphoned off – probably to Switzerland,” she paused, a bitter laugh making her healing ribs ache. “I once explained the Swiss banking system to him.” Right after I taught him how to get out of handcuffs.
“How much?” Steed asked. Emma told him the sum in round numbers. He did not look surprised. He just took a sip of his champagne, watching her over the rim of the glass. She held hers absently, not drinking it.
“Sir Peter is on the ‘most wanted’ list of every agency in the world,” he said, trying for reassurance. “He can’t possibly spend it all before he’s caught. It will be recovered.”
Emma shook her head, continuing to fight back tears as she had been all afternoon. I do not cry, she reminded herself. “I can’t count on that. I have to do everything I can to rebuild Knight’s finances. All of the staff, and all of the shareholders, are depending on me.”
“And your management team,” Steed amended, still watching her. She took a sip of her champagne, not acknowledging his comment. He set down his glass and took hers, setting it beside his.
“Did anyone think to order some supper at the office?” he asked. She shook her head. “You go wash up and change into something comfortable while I find us something to eat.”
Steed mixed jarred mushrooms with eggs and cheese that he sliced mold off of. The bread was a bit dry, so he toasted it and spread on butter. By the time his scrambled eggs were ready Emma appeared in the kitchen doorway wrapped in her dressing gown. She had put her hair up, which emphasized her long neck. A few lose strands elegantly framed her face. The sight of her so attired made him smile fondly, as it always did, with the memory of the first time they’d made love. She returned his smile, although he didn’t think she knew why he wore it. He had always been more sentimental than she.
“It’s breakfast for supper, I’m afraid,” he said, setting two plates of eggs on the small kitchen table. He’d fetched the champagne from the living room, and now he refreshed both their glasses. Emma sat down and he joined her.
“Thank you, Steed,” she said after she’d taken a few bites. “I don’t know what I’d do without you to look after me.”
He snorted, gulping some champagne, his eyes twinkling at her. “You flatter me, my dear. You are the most self-sufficient person I know. But I appreciate your – appreciation.”
When they’d finished Steed collected the plates and washed up, letting Emma sit at the table in silence. When he’d finished he offered her his hand and led her to the bedroom. She followed complacently.
“Shall I stay or go?” he asked simply, unable to read her silence. He wanted to comfort her, but not against her wishes.
Emma wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head on his broad chest. “Please, darling,” she said as his arms instinctively encircled her slim form.
Eventually he released her, guiding her into her bed, then undressing and joining her. Once under the covers he held her again, gently stroking her back until he knew she was asleep in his arms. “Rest well, Emma my love,” he whispered to her as he had so many times before.
Emma rolled onto her side to face Steed and ran her fingers through his hair. He appeared to be asleep, lying half on his side, half on his stomach, but he’d gotten up to go to the toilet a few minutes earlier, so she knew he couldn’t be. Her depression of the previous evening lingered, but it was overlaid by a powerful sense of need. She needed Steed – needed the strength he always imparted to her, the sense of completeness that made her stronger than she was on her own. She pressed in against him, wanting him, sliding her hand over his shoulder and down his back. Abruptly he opened up to her, wrapping his arm around her to pull her naked body snugly against his own. He was aroused – he always was in the morning. Their bodies melded, arms holding tight, legs twining together, mouths searching, covering one another’s faces with kisses.
“I need you so much, John,” Emma whispered, rolling onto her back and pulling him with her. He supported himself with his hands on either side of her, kissing her face, then tracing his tongue down her neck to her left breast. He lightly kissed the edge of her scar, then made a trail over her breast to her nipple and took it between his lips. Her hands were all over his back and sides, reaching down to stroke his hips. Pressed between them, his solid penis throbbed eagerly and he ground it against her. “I feel so lost. Fill me. Please fill me John.”
“Emma, love,” Steed shifted his hips, parting her with the tip of his erection and holding it there. “I’ll do whatever you ask, just tell me what will help.”
“Fill me. Make me yours.”
He reached between them to stroke her inner thigh, separating her legs further, then drawing his finger along her labia. He guided his penis into her, stopping half way while he caressed her vulva, sucking her nipple at the same time. She groaned beneath him, pressing her hips upward to take more of him inside while she slid her hands around to press on his buttocks. He held steady, releasing her nipple and raising his head to smile at her.
“Don’t rush me, darling,” he said. She drew in a deep breath, eyes squeezed shut in concentration. He felt her contract around his solid flesh and he pressed against it, then withdrew. She groaned again and her fingers dug into the soft flesh of his ass. He stroked her more quickly and bent his head to nip at her breast again, more sharply this time so that she cried out. He thrust into her as fast and deep as he could and she cried out again, a guttural sound that drove him to thrust once more, pressing his groin against hers as hard as he dared. He knew what she wanted – what she needed – was fast, torrid sex. But he was afraid to lose control as he hovered over her, afraid he’d forget and let his weight come to rest on her weak ribs.
“Put your hands on my chest,” he gasped, withdrawing a bit and returning both hands to the mattress to support himself.
“I’m sorry darling,” she said, thinking she’d hurt him with her groping, or that he needed her to stroke him and she’d been neglectful. She drew her hands in around his torso and brushed them over his nipples.
“No, love, it’s to protect yourself – to hold me off, if you need to,” he explained, then lowered his lips to hers. “But that is a delicious bonus,” he added as she drew circles on his chest. Certain that between them they’d manage to protect her, he focused on the burning in his loins, allowing it to begin building to full flame. As he thrust into her and withdrew he felt her shiver, her juices anointing him. Her muscles alternately contracted and then relaxed, opening her to him still more. She drew her legs up and parted them more. Steed drove in and twisted, then pressed his penis against her clitoris as he thrust over and over again, the friction sending molten heat coursing from his groin throughout his body.
He barely noticed her long, low moan of carnal ecstasy. But his body responded when she contracted mightily around him, her vagina flooding with her own fiery juices. He drove his final strokes, exploding deep inside of her, the rush of fulfillment frothed with joy suffusing his senses.
He rolled off of her, his arm across her abdomen, his mouth pressed to her shoulder.
“Good morning Miss Knight,” he sighed, kissing her shoulder, then raising his head to look into her eyes. What he saw there saddened him, for beneath the familiar glow of fulfilled desire there was a pain so deep that sex — even their most rabid, incredible sex — would never heal it. Nor, he knew, would his expressions of love for her make it go away. No, the only thing that would fix the wrongs she railed against was the recapture of Peter Peel.
As hard as the rest of the week was for Emma, it was harder for Steed. Much though he wanted to spend every evening with her, he was kept on the run escorting the foreign VIP that everyone knew between conferences, public events, and fancy parties – events to which he had hoped to bring Emma. When he spoke to her she was either too rushed to speak for very long or too moody to be pleasant. Steed was a patient man, but a grouchy Emma was more than enough to try even him. So each night, when the VIP was safely stowed inside his home nation’s expertly guarded embassy, Steed haunted the ministry’s communications department seeking information about the international pursuit of Peter Peel. And when he’d learned all he could, he haunted the gym, exercising his body while his brain pondered the problem of tracking down a very smart, very determined thief.
“Steed, I have to say that I usually despise being subjected to tight security,” Xavier Detrey, the cosmetics industry magnate and multi-millionaire, sipped his cocktail and smiled at his English bodyguard. Steed swirled the brandy in his glass to warm it and waited for the Swiss gentleman to go on. “But I have thoroughly enjoyed your company this week. You disappear when appropriate, are unobtrusive when you need to be visible, and you play an excellent game of chess. Are you sure I can’t tempt you to change allegiances? I can offer very generous terms.”
Steed shook his head, returning the man’s smile. “If I did what I do for the money, I’d have sold out long ago, Monsieur Detrey,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m British to the core – can’t imagine serving under a foreign flag, so to speak.”
“But I have British offices – I could employ you through them!” Detrey joked. “But seriously, if there’s ever anything I can do for you, please contact me. And I shall demand your services when I next make such a public visit here.”
“Only if you’ve been receiving death threats, please,” Steed added. He was not interested in becoming Detrey’s personal watchdog in the UK. He’d only taken the assignment because Mother had been grousing about him spending so much time with Emma. Still, Detrey’s offer – his second one – was tempting. Steed set down his brandy and reached into his jacket pocket. He withdrew a small piece of paper with a long series of numbers on it and set it on the table between their chairs.
“What’s this?” Detrey picked it up.
“There is something you can do for me, Monsieur Detrey,” Steed said, all hint of joking gone from his voice. “Your brother is a member of the Swiss government. If I’m not mistaken, I believe he is very senior in the agency that oversees banking.”
“Yes, Yves is quite successful, for a little brother,” Detrey studied the numbers on the paper. “But I know what he will say – if you ask what I think you will. Our banking system is successful because it offers complete privacy, Steed.”
“As I’m well aware,” Steed nodded. He was, in fact, personally aware of the value of a numbered Swiss account. “However, I think you, and your brother, would agree that your nation’s intention is to provide privacy for those conducting legitimate business and personal banking matters.” He paused and Detrey looked up at him, nodding slowly as if unwilling to make an admission that would backfire. “Funds have been transferred to that account from the investment accounts of one of Britain’s largest corporations. Illegally transferred by a dishonest investment manager. The account’s owners are now in possession of millions of illegally gotten funds.”
“You can prove this?”
“Positively. All I want, since I know your country will not freeze the account on short notice, is a statement of deposits and withdrawls – ongoing statements, actually.”
“Someone is spending the stolen money,” Detrey nodded, lips pursed as he looked from the paper in his hand to Steed’s face. “If this person is a known criminal, we can act quickly to cut off his access.”
Steed shook his head, “No, I don’t want him cut off. He’ll just find another way, and he’ll disappear. I need to track the withdrawals to track him.”
Detrey folded the slip of paper and put it in his own pocket. “I will speak to my brother. I know you are an honest man, Steed. For this, however, you will owe me another game of chess.”
Steed saw Detrey safely aboard his corporate jet, then returned to his office at the ministry. He had a great deal of information laid out before him on note cards and in the form of bank statements and other such reports. He sorted through it once again, sifting the pertinent information to the top and summarizing it in scrawling longhand on a lined notepad. Finally he picked up the telephone and dialed Knight Industries.
“No, Miss Price, I will not authorize a thirteen percent staff reduction,” Emma tapped her pen on the meeting agenda on the table in front of her. “Knight’s people are its most valuable asset,” especially since it has no cash assets, “eliminating them with broad strokes will not solve our cash-flow problems.”
Miss Price, the senior accountant from operations, assumed a patient expression that Emma knew all too well. The woman had underestimated Emma’s understanding of the business as well as her temper. “Miss Knight, my recommendation is with an eye to the future. Certainly there would be immediate costs in severance and other expenses, but in the long term, Knight would be operationally more efficient. We’ve determined that thirteen percent would put us at the breakeven point on the day-to-day balance sheet.”
“And does the day-to-day balance sheet take into account the overtime that will become necessary for those who remain to do the jobs of those who have been dismissed? Or does your proposal include reorganization to eliminate the need for whatever work those people are doing now?”
Miss Price was momentarily speechless, and Edmond Stanton stepped in to save her from further abuse by the CEO.
“I think perhaps Mr. Harper has a proposal that will be more palatable,” he said, nodding at Harper to urge him to speak up. Emma turned her gaze toward the “consultant” who was actually a ministry agent. He’d been placed within Knight before she regained control to try to identify the sources of security leaks. She’d recognized him from a case she’d worked on with Steed years in the past and challenged his presence in her company. After that, she’d worked with him, promoting him and giving him access to the departments where he thought the leaks might be. So far as she knew, neither of them had revealed this joint effort to Steed or anyone else at the ministry. Only Bond had guessed that she knew, and even then she’d refused to confirm his suspicion.
Harper had explained, the day after her return to the office, that the ministry wasn’t yet convinced that they had apprehended everyone at Knight who was involved in Peter Peel’s network. Then he’d admitted that he had agreed to stay on because he rather enjoyed the position she’d put him in, and he knew she needed all of the loyal supporters she could get. She had elected not to ask what would happen if it came to a question of loyalty to her or the ministry. In any case, Harper had come up with some very solid suggestions during his short tenure, and whether they were actually his or the work of ministry experts didn’t really matter to Emma. In fact, she rather hoped that whole departments of ministry workers were being kept busy providing Harper with solutions to Knight’s problems.
Harper spoke up now, outlining an opportunity to sell their interests in certain heavy industries. This would include “selling” the support staff to the buyer and would eliminate the overhead of leased offices in various cities. It was an elaborate scheme, but Emma grasped the fundamentals immediately. It hurt to discuss such a thing – whittling away at the Knight empire that her father had struggled to assemble saddened her deeply.
As Harper answered questions from the others present, Mrs. Emerson stepped in to the conference room and leaned close to Emma’s ear. “Mr. Steed is on the phone. He say’s it’s important, and that it’s good news,” she whispered so that only Emma and Sally, seated on her left at the conference table, could hear.
“Put him through here, then,” Emma replied, grateful for the opportunity to get up from the table and, for a moment, not think about breaking up the company. She rose and went to the telephone on a side table, snatching it up as it started to ring. She gestured at Harper and the others to go on discussing his proposal.
“Mrs. Peel?” Steed’s voice was pleasantly cheerful. She caught herself smiling at it and turned to face the wall.
“Yes Steed. Mrs. Emerson said it was important,” she said, a clear message to get to the point. But the smile on her face softened her tone.
“Yes. And good news, of a sort. We’ve found references in Evan Birch’s papers to the same numbered account that Stein transferred Knight’s funds to.”
“So Birch –?”
“So it seems. He’s not talking about it, of course. There’s more.”
Steed knew Emma didn’t need long to contemplate what he’d told her in order to grasp most of the ramifications. So he went on to the next item. “Birch had a personal payroll.”
“And I gather you don’t mean the butler and maid,” she said with wry grin. For a moment she sounded like the Emma he adored.
“No. The banker and the executive assistant and the auto detailer – detailer as in paint jobs and new tags and filed serial numbers, that is,” he said.
“Banker,” she repeated. He’d known she’d pick up on it.
“Yes. Matthew Stein has been collecting regular payments from Mr. Birch for years. It’s fair to assume that Knight’s accounts were being managed at Birch’s instruction, which, we know, is the same thing as Peter Peel’s. Also, I expect to receive some information about the account shortly – with luck I’ll get a statement showing the location of any withdrawals.”
“And we know there’s only one person who could be making withdrawals,” Emma said. “Steed, how did you know the number of the account Stein transferred the funds to? You didn’t steal that file from my offices, did you? You know you could have just asked me,” she said. Steed chuckled.
“No, Mrs. Peel, we thought it would be much more interesting to steal them from Barnwell’s office. I wish you could have been there to help – you’re so good at that sort of thing.”
“Perhaps you’ll call me for the next one,” she suggested.
“I’ll make a point of it,” he replied, heart warming at the sound of their usual comfortable banter.
“One other thing, Steed.”
“The executive assistant?”
“Is not Mrs. Emerson. Mr. Birch has had his fingers in a few other pies besides Knight’s.”
“Thank you Steed.”
Emma was genuinely smiling as she replaced the telephone receiver and turned back to the meeting. As she retook her seat Edmond Stanton leaned close to her.
“You look quite pleased – did he propose or something?” he asked.
Emma cocked one eyebrow at him, placing her left hand flat on the table and glancing down at it. He followed her gaze, eyes lighting on her ring.
“Certainly not, Edmond. Not over the telephone,” she said. His eyes narrowed as he looked back at her face. He wasn’t wrong, there was definitely a sparkle there that had been missing for weeks.
“What then?” he asked. Emma realized that the meeting had come to a halt and all eyes were turned toward them. She raised her voice to address everyone.
“I’ve just learned that the authorities have had a breakthrough in the case against Evan Birch and others he was involved with,” she explained. She wasn’t about to go into more detail. Only a few members of the management team were fully aware of the situation. The rest had simply been told that Knight needed to tighten its belt in the wake of the shooting, arrests, and associated scandal.
“It’s getting late, Sally. I won’t have your father complaining to me – or to the Peels – that you’re riding the train at all hours,” Emma said, rising from the sofa in her office and heading toward the bar. “Have a drink with me, and then go home.”
“Actually, ma’am, I have an appointment to see an apartment – well, a room in an apartment – in a little while. It’s a two bedroom with three roommates. I’d be the fourth,” she said. She sounded excited at a prospect that, to Emma, sounded dreadful. Ah youth. Emma poured them each a glass of red wine from a bottle she’d opened the previous evening and brought them to the table in front of the fire. Sally was dwarfed by the big armchair.
“Thank you,” she said, taking her glass.
Emma stood staring at the empty fireplace. She still hadn’t had a chance to look into its functionality. “Then it will be very late by the time you get home. Why don’t you stay at my apartment? I need to see Steed, and I’m sure he’d be happy to have me at his place.”
“That’s very kind of you, ma’am,” Sally replied, happy to take her up on the offer. “I could get in much earlier.”
“That would be good, but it’s not my prime motivation. I know how tiring those long train rides are.”
Emma glanced down into her glass and noticed a bit of cork floating in it. She absently wandered back toward the bar to fish it out.
Edmond Stanton appeared in the open doorway. Spotting Emma he strode in unannounced.
“You’re engaged to John Steed, aren’t you?” he said as he approached her. Emma turned toward him, one arm wrapped around herself under her breasts, the other holding her glass to her lips. It was a defensive posture she’d been adopting a lot lately.
“Would you like a drink, Edmond?” she asked. He came closer.
“Yes, whatever you’re having. Are you?”
“Engaged to Steed?” she glanced at him over her shoulder, “Yes.” She poured him the last of the wine and handed the glass to him with a smile. “Have a seat.” She gestured at the chair by the fireplace. Only then did he notice Sally. Emma saw him start, staring at the girl. “It’s all right. Sally knows all about it.”
Still somewhat flustered, Edmond made his way to the other armchair and sat down. Emma perched on the sofa and took another sip of her wine.
“Congratulations, my dear. There are many who believed he’d never succumb to any woman’s charms. I suppose if anyone could crack him, it would be you.”
Emma saw Sally’s face turn puzzled at Edmond’s obvious familiarity with Steed.
“A long time ago you suggested to me that you knew something about Steed,” Emma said, remembering a casual comment he’d made shortly after she’d started working with Steed. At the time she’d intended to pursue it with him, but circumstances had caused her to forget all about it. Until now.
Edmond smiled at her, a look of nearly fatherly pride. “That’s right. I’ve been wondering when you’d ask me. Steed was a corporal – about your age, my dear,” he nodded at Sally, “when he began making a name for himself in military intelligence. By the time the war was at its hottest he had built a reputation as the smartest, most ruthless, and most effective operative in the field.”
“And you were aware of him because –?” Emma asked. Steed had never mentioned knowing Edmond. If he had, he would have known her father, too, since he and Edmond had served together. Surely Steed would have mentioned that.
“I was behind various desks in various command centers handling intelligence gathering throughout the war. Steed wouldn’t have known me, I was anonymous. As was your father,” he added as if he’d read her mind.
“Did my father know of Steed?” she asked, not sure how she felt about it.
“Without a doubt. Steed’s exploits were legendary in certain circles. Not all of them are appropriate for such company as this, I feel compelled to add,” he glanced at Sally, then back at Emma, his expression conveying disapproval. “Don’t you think he’s a bit old for you, Em?” he asked.
“No,” she replied simply. She rarely gave a thought to the difference in their ages – and when she did it was almost always because someone commented on it. She had briefly allowed herself to consider whether Steed was a father figure, then decided that she didn’t really care if he was. He wasn’t really old enough to be her father, at least not by the standards of their social class, biology aside. As for his age, he was the fittest man she knew, and he certainly didn’t lack energy and enthusiasm for all manner of activities. No, the difference in their ages mattered not a whit to her.
“How old is Steed?” Sally asked. Emma cocked one eyebrow at her, not because the question was impertinent, but because she thought Sally knew.
“He’d be, what? Forty-four now?” Edmond asked, giving Sally a knowing look. She looked quite surprised.
“Yes, that’s right,” Steed said from the doorway, having made one of his favorite types of entrances – a sneaky one. “I brought you this, Mrs. Peel,” he said, holding up a file, then setting it on her desk. “The information from Birch’s files on Stein. Your lawyers should be able to make good use of it.”
“Thank you Steed. Join us for a drink – I’m afraid the wine is gone,” Emma said. “You remember Edmond?”
“Yes of course, although not, apparently, from as far back as he remembers me,” Steed said as he crossed to the bar and poured himself a brandy.
“My signature was on more than one set of orders you received during the war,” Edmond said. “Not that you could have read the handwriting.”
Steed sat down beside Emma and she suddenly had the impression that they were facing her father, seeking his approval. It would be a completely silly thought if Edmond hadn’t been her father’s best friend, and if Steed hadn’t actually sought out her father-in-law to ask for his blessing before proposing to her. That had set the precedent and now Edmond seemed inclined to act as surrogate father.
“Not that I would have bothered to try,” Steed replied to Edmond. “So Mrs. Peel has played her hand, so to speak?” he asked, taking Emma’s hand and holding it so that the engagement ring was visible.
“Not overtly, no,” Edmond said, eyes narrowing at the other man, “but I put two and two together with her grandmothers’ ring – yes, I remember it, Em. When did you reach this agreement?”
“At Christmas,” Emma said, chin rising defiantly. She didn’t like the feeling of being interviewed that Edmond’s tone implied.
“That long ago, and you haven’t announced it,” he said, not a question, but a statement that sounded concerned. “Are you having second thoughts?” The last was directed at Steed.
“Not at all. But I hadn’t realized I should speak to you about it, Mr. Stanton,” Steed said. Emma felt him stiffening. He didn’t like Edmond’s tone any better than she did.
“We couldn’t announce it before my divorce was final. And then I had the board meeting to get past, and then I was shot. Now we’re in this mess, and the time just isn’t right,” Emma said, her gaze turning from Edmond to Steed as she spoke. He had not mentioned it since their visit with his sister, but she knew it was there, hovering in his thoughts, growing more and more insistent with each passing week. I’m a fool to keep putting it off. But I can’t right now. I just can’t.
Steed’s expression was anything but comforting. He looked pensive, as if weighing various options. She didn’t want to think about what they might be.
Sally stopped in the middle of “her” room and set her two suitcases on the floor. Or rather, on the discarded clothes that covered the floor. Technically, she had agreed to pay one quarter of the rent on the apartment for half of a bedroom, but her new roommate seemed to be divisionally challenged. The only clear space in the room was Sally’s bed, and judging by the rim of clothes, magazines, and less identifiable objects on the floor all around it, it had only become clear quite recently. Heaving a sigh, she began shifting the debris across an imaginary line using her feet. If I don’t take a stand from the start, I’ll never have the space I’m paying for, she assured herself as she uncovered a brassier and another undergarment that she couldn’t really identify. If the apartment weren’t so cheap, and so much closer to the office than her parents’ house, Sally might have turned around and walked out.
She was surprised to find half the closet empty – mainly because the clothes in it had been jammed into half the space. The bottom two dresser drawers were empty. Of course. That’s what’s all over the floor, Sally grumbled to herself as she stowed her underwear. She’d met her roommate the other night. Meg had seemed pleasant enough, if a bit scattered. And the room had been relatively tidy. Sally was glad that her parents hadn’t insisted on helping her move – not that the two suitcases of clothes really constituted moving. If they’d come here she’d probably be dragged back to the country with them. As she stowed her second pair of work shoes she reflected that this was nothing like Lady Emma’s move into London a few months ago. She had just stretched out on her bed with a book when the sitting room exploded with people.
“Hey, you’re here!” Meg cried, swinging around the doorframe. “Oops! Sorry about the clothes – I was done-in this morning, almost didn’t make it to work at all, and it’s only a half day on Saturday!”
“I just shifted a few things,” Sally said, trying not to sound as irritated as she felt, although she suspected that Meg was immune to such subtlety. Meg pulled off her pastel blue jumper as she strode into the room, dropping it on the pile Sally had made. Then she stooped to sort through the pile and drag out a bright purple blouse, which she put on over her head without bothering with the buttons. It clung to her in what Sally thought was an unattractive way. Meg’s figure was not made for slinky styles. But even as Sally came to this conclusion, Meg pulled off her skirt and replaced it with skin-tight black slacks.
“Come on, it’s Saturday night and the party’s starting!” she said, heading back out into the sitting room. Sally put down her book and followed. She hadn’t bargained for living in a perpetual party, but then, the London lifestyle was part of why she was here.
While Sally was discovering the chaos of her new roommates’ weekly party, Emma was studying a loan agreement between Knight Industries and one of England’s largest banks. The accountants assured her that Knight could function for a few more weeks without an infusion of cash, but by then the interest income and dividends usually generated by the company’s investments would be sorely missed. Several banks were willing to extend credit to Knight, but the terms were consistently avaricious. If Knight defaulted, the bank would practically own the company. And such agreements required the approval of the board of directors. She wanted to stall informing the board of the theft as long as possible.
Emma set the agreement aside and picked up a handwritten letter she’d been working on. It was addressed to Harry Hill, Steed’s brother-in-law. It explained that circumstances at Knight had changed and she regretted that she was not able extend the offer of employment that they had discussed. The assets identified for sale in Alex Harper’s proposal were exactly those that Harry’s skills in the futures market would benefit. If they were to sell those divisions, they’d have no use for Harry. Emma had briefly entertained the thought that if the ministry had developed Harper’s proposal, Steed might have been involved with it, skewing it to discourage her recruitment of his relative. But she had decided that was too manipulative, even for him.
With a heavy heart, she set the letter in her outbox for Mrs. Emerson to type, knowing that she’d have one more opportunity to stop it when it was returned for her to sign.
When Steed phoned her late in the evening she eyed the piles of work on her desk and reluctantly agreed to meet him at one of their favorite restaurants.
Emma was distant through supper, and she barely seemed to notice when Steed dropped her off at her apartment and went home. He’d considered simply staying uninvited – he figured he didn’t really need an invitation any more to join her in her bed. But Emma’s mood had been so discouraging he resisted the desire to try to comfort her and drove instead back to the ministry and to the gym.
Sunday was much the same. Steed didn’t even bother to call Emma when he headed for the stables for a ride. He needed to think, and he did that very well in the company of a horse. Besides which he knew she’d decline the invitation and by not asking he avoided the inevitable hurt.
Emma, Edmond Stanton, and Angus Benson, the vice president in charge of software, spent a good deal of Sunday picking at the details of a deal with a large American firm. They very much wanted to be involved with the research and development project – they firmly believed that the results would be very lucrative. But with Peter Peel in possession of Knight’s cash, they were searching for a way to close the deal at a lower initial investment. When Benson suggested a rather surprising strategy, Edmond, the notorious negotiator, reddened with embarrassment for not thinking of it first. Without hesitation Emma picked up the telephone and called Reginald Styles, the friend of Steed’s who brought the deal to their attention in the first place. He’d targeted Knight because it was reported to have rich cash reserves. But buying in with its own cash was not the only way. Perhaps Reggie had other resources. They all agreed that a piece of the pie was better than none.
But Reggie wasn’t in. Emma dismissed the others, insisting that they should let the problem go until she heard from him. She, however, lingered in her office reviewing departmental reports and answering notes from various managers seeking the CEO’s guidance.
Steed recognized the boxy figure between the guest chairs in his office before he’d turned on the lights. When he did, Mother’s head swiveled to look over his shoulder at Steed. A tall figure rose from one of the guest chairs and stepped to the far corner of the room. Rhonda, Mother’s assistant.
“Good afternoon, Mother,” Steed said, unflustered by his superior’s presence. It never paid to be surprised by Mother’s behavior.
“Good ride, Steed?” Mother asked, taking in Steed’s fine riding clothes. Steed went around his desk and sat down.
“Horses are my weakness, Mother,” he replied with a smile. Mother’s eyes narrowed and Steed felt a wave of apprehension about the coming interview.
“Unfortunately, not your only weakness. Please explain this.” Mother waved at Rhonda and she stepped forward to place a sheet of paper on Steed’s desk, then withdrew. Steed looked down at a copy of the Swiss account statement that he’d received from Detrey via diplomatic pouch the day after the VIP returned home.
“It’s a statement from the account that Matthew Stein transferred Knight’s funds into,” he said matter-of-factly. Mother wasn’t taken in by his ingenuousness.
“And through those withdrawals you are tracking Peter Peel. It is not within this organization’s budget for one of its best agents to pursue a thief across Europe.”
Steed’s nostrils flared. He took a moment to contain his anger. “I think it’s my responsibility to assist in recovering a prisoner that I lost,” he replied coolly. Mother scowled.
“That is a black mark, it’s true,” he said, “but not your motivation. We have discussed her before, and you have assured me that you can be objective.”
Steed did not reply. But his implacable stare didn’t phase Mother.
“She needs you, and lord help you, you need her,” he raised his hand and Rhonda stepped forward, taking hold of Mother’s wheelchair. “Take leave. Go after him. At your own expense.”
Steed watched Mother retreat through his office door, and nodded slightly at Rhonda as she reached in to close it. She paused, her features softening. “Good luck, Steed,” she mouthed. Steed’s brows shot up. It was the first time he’d seen her even pretend to speak.
When she woke up sometime Sunday afternoon Sally realized that her new living arrangement could be detrimental to her career. At her roommates’ party she had been introduced to more than just their friends. Alcohol had flowed freely, and at some point someone had pressed a homemade cigarette into her hand. She’d never been particularly interested in smoking, but she hadn’t wanted to seem standoffish. So she’d taken a drag on the cigarette and coughed awkwardly as she passed it along. She wasn’t so naive that she didn’t recognize that it wasn’t normal tobacco, and when it came around to her again she took another long drag. Out of curiosity.
As she squinted through the dirty bedroom window at the painfully bright spring sunshine she came to two important realizations. Her boss stocked much higher-quality wine and liquor than her roommates, and she didn’t need to use drugs or alcohol to make her life seem interesting. It was already interesting enough.
It wasn’t the first time she’d gotten drunk – the youth in her village had had little other entertainment – but it was the worst. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she’d talked last night for a while with a fellow who’d been quite nice. She hated that she wasn’t sure whether he’d been genuine because her senses had been blunted by dope and cheap red wine.
Swallowing down a wave of nausea, she shuffled out into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of club soda left over from the previous night’s mixer supply. Looking into the refrigerator she realized that for the first time in her life she needed to buy her own food. It was an unpleasant thought given the state of her stomach.
“Hey Sal,” her roommate Annie appeared in the doorway. She looked bright and alert, not at all like Sally felt.
“Good morning,” Sally replied, “Um, afternoon I mean.”
“Good party last night, huh? Hey, looked like you got something going with Terrance – Meg’s brother. He’s pretty sweet, huh?”
“Yes, I liked — he’s Meg’s brother?”
“He didn’t tell you?” Annie sauntered on into the kitchen and plugged in the kettle.
Sally tried to think back over the previous night, but it hurt her head. “He may have,” she admitted.
“Yeah, your first party around here is always the toughest. You’ll get used to it. Anyway, Terrance called earlier. I told him you weren’t up yet.”
“What? He called me?” Sally sunk down onto a rickety kitchen chair and rested her head on her hands.
“Oh, no, he usually calls Meg on Sunday mornings – it’s a family thing. They were raised going to church every week, but now they just have a good gossip instead.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Sally muttered, not really hearing what Annie was saying.
“So after he asked for Meg and I told him she wasn’t back from her run yet, he asked about you.”
“Meg was out running this morning?” Sally tried to imagine moving that quickly and felt nauseated again.
“Yes, of course. Keep up, Sal. Terrance asked if you were running too and I told him you weren’t up yet.”
Sally was sure it wasn’t good that he’d been told she was sleeping the day away, but she couldn’t bring herself to think about why.
“You can’t work twenty-four hours a day, Mrs. Peel.” Steed sat in one of the guest armchairs on the other side of Emma’s big desk. She tapped her pencil impatiently on the document she’d been reviewing. It was Tuesday night and Steed had given up phoning and simply come to her office.
“And yet I must,” she replied caustically. “I took responsibility for this company. It falls to me to do everything I can to keep it afloat.”
“You may feel healed, but you aren’t. You’re pushing yourself too hard. What does Hemming say about your conditioning?” At least he can help her keep herself strong and flexible.
“Nothing,” she half whispered, not meeting his eyes.
She sucked in a deep breath and looked up at him. “Nothing. I’ve had to cancel my sessions with him.”
“And have you cancelled your doctor’s appointments, too?” he barked, anger and concern welling up too fast for him to contain it.
Her eyes narrowed and he knew he’d gone too far. There would be no reasoning with her, not tonight. He wanted her so desperately, wanted to hold her, to feel her touch, to talk with her, to hear about her work to save Knight. But none of that was to be. Not tonight. She didn’t answer him, just picked up her pencil and looked pointedly down at the document. She knew that he could find out whether she’d seen the ministry doctor, even find out the results of his examination. There was no need to answer. This was Emma at her iciest, and Steed, who was rarely her target for it, felt a growing desire never to experience it again.
He rose and moved around the enormous desk – her fortress, he often thought. Startled, she looked up at him, her face a mix of anxiety, regret, and exhaustion. His heart quailed at the sight. Let me help you, Emma.
“Good night, darling,” he said, leaning down to kiss her. “I love you.”
Emma watched him go, his kiss lingering on her lips. It had felt horribly final, more like a good-bye than a good night. She wanted to go after him, but the weight of the document in her hands held her down. She was still staring at the door through which he’d gone when she heard the ding of the lift arriving. And then he was most certainly gone.
The tip of Steed’s umbrella hovered over the button for the lobby, then he stopped and redirected it to the button for Sally’s floor. He heard music as the doors slid open and smiled as he strode down the hall toward it. The door to Sally’s little office was half open so he looked in. She was sitting at her desk with her legs curled under her reading a book that she held in her lap. There was a half-eaten sandwich on top of a brown paper bag on the desk next to a black Knight Industries mug. The cheap little radio that was emitting the tinny pop music was sitting on a bookcase against the wall. As Steed watched her lips moved along with the lyrics and she bobbed her head with the beat. Suddenly he realized who she reminded him of. He hadn’t thought of Venus Smith in years.
When he tapped on the open door with his umbrella handle Sally’s head snapped up in surprise. She was on her feet switching off the radio before she realized who was at her door.
“Steed!” she said as she smoothed her skirt and sat down properly in her chair.
“Don’t worry, Sally, I’m alone,” he said, stepping in to sit in the uncomfortable guest chair in front of her desk. Sally visibly relaxed and he wondered if Emma knew just how hard the girl worked to impress her. “You like that music?” he asked.
“Yes. It’s lively.”
He nodded, “Mrs. Peel does too.” Sally smiled and nodded, not surprised the he wouldn’t like it. “You’re here awfully late.”
“I was just –,” she paused, realizing he’d seen that she was reading a novel, and the evidence of her dinner was there in front of her. “It’s quieter here than at my flat.”
That was a gross understatement. Although she’d grown up the eldest of five, after just four days she found it impossible to find quiet time among her boisterous roommates, their assorted boyfriends and friends, and the constant stream of food delivery. Besides which she had more space here in her office than in her half of her bedroom. She wondered if Steed could have the slightest idea what it was like for a young woman on an entry-level salary to live in London. She doubted he had a clue.
In any case, he seemed to accept her explanation, or perhaps he just wasn’t really paying attention.
“You couldn’t get her to leave, could you?” Sally asked, knowing it was rather forward, but feeling on safer ground than discussing her living arrangements with her boss’s lover.
Steed shook his head, running his hands over his umbrella, which he’d laid across his knees. “I need your help, Sally,” he said, looking her in the eye. It wasn’t his usual flirtatious look, either. He looked worried and unhappy. Sally would have done anything for him if it would make that look go away.
“What can I do?” she asked.
“I’m going after Peter Peel.”
“I thought someone was after him.”
Steed shook his head. “He’s on every agency’s top ten list, but nobody’s actively pursuing him. I’ve been tracking him through various contacts. I know where he was three days ago, and last week, and I know how much of Knight’s money he’s withdrawn from the bank. I have to go stop him. For Knight. And for her.”
Sally nodded, understanding that both reasons were really the same. But what was he asking of her? Not to go with him, surely. “What do you need me to do?”
“Oh no, Steed,” she shook her head, “You have to call her. You can’t go off and not speak to her.”
“Oh I will,” he assured her, “but I need you to tell me the truth. She won’t let me know if she’s not doing well, or if Knight’s situation becomes so precarious that she can’t hold it together. I need you to watch over her and tell me what’s really going on, tell me whether I need to come back here for her.”
“I see. I can do that.”
“And I’ll keep you informed about what I’m doing – that only seems fair.”
“That would be – fair,” she agreed, actually delighted that he’d offered. “When are you leaving?”
He shrugged as if it didn’t really matter, “Tomorrow some time, if I can arrange it. I’ll have to take leave from the ministry, and I’ll have to call in some favors to find out where he’s gone. I’ll let you know, when I know.”
“Good luck, Steed. I’ll pray for you.”
Steed stood up, holding his hat and umbrella in front of him. He smiled down at her. “Thank you Sally, that means a great deal to me, although I don’t suppose you’d think it,” he said. Then he left her office. She listened to his footsteps in the corridor until they faded away, then stood up and turned the radio back on.
Emma felt as if she had not been home in a week, although in fact it was only two days. After a full week of late nights that ended in her collapsing on her bed, oblivious to her surroundings he’d finally succumbed to the sofa in her office and ended up sleeping there overnight. She’d regretted it all day as her stiff muscles cried out for relief. Every time she looked in a mirror her hair looked flatter and her complexion looked duller. She desperately wanted to take time to go to the ministry and use the gym, or at last the steam sauna. But the paperwork piled on her desk and her hectic schedule of meetings kept her in the building all day, every day. Although she’d refused to answer Steed about it before he left, she had been to the doctor, and he’d told her in no uncertain terms that she had to cut back on work and get more exercise. Each day she promised herself that she’d find time to follow his orders, and each day ended with her still in the office.
Steed had been gone for a fortnight, and although he called nearly every day, their talks were short and unfulfilling. He seemed reluctant to tell her much about what he was doing – just as reluctant as she was to tell him how hard she was working. So they talked aimlessly for a few minutes before signing off with sincere, if unenthusiastic, endearments. This evening he’d found her at the office just before she left, so she knew she wouldn’t hear from him at home. She wished he would call – maybe at home she could find the words that seemed trapped in her heart when she was behind her big desk at the office. But she was also relieved knowing he wouldn’t. She could bathe and fall into bed without any sense of expectation.
Entering her bedroom she took off her jacket and blouse and kicked out of her shoes. She went into the bathroom and started water running into the sink, then searched through the medicine cabinet for the moisturizing cleanser she’d spent too much money on. As she shut the cabinet door, jar in hand, the mirror reflected a double image – herself, and a man with piercing dark eyes. She was momentarily confused, and in that moment he reached around her, pinning her upper arms to her sides. His bear hug around her injured ribs sent daggers through her chest. The smell of cheap whiskey and sweat emanating from his clothes nearly gagged her. She smashed upward with the heavy jar, banging it weakly into his face. Although she hadn’t hurt him, he loosened his grip with one arm to catch her hand, knocking the jar to the floor where it shattered in a gloppy mess.
His other hand groped upward, grabbing at her right breast. Shocked, she thrust backward with her elbow, but his grip on her hand minimized the blow. He squeezed with his other hand, kneading her tender flesh until the nipple rose sharply against her camisole. She squirmed in his grasp, aghast at how weak she was. In all the fights she’d had with men, none had ever blatantly groped her. This man’s leering face, reflected over her shoulder in the mirror, made it clear that groping was only the beginning of what he had in mind. Desperate and unable to overpower him through sheer strength she went limp. That took him by surprise and she slipped downward through his arms. She crouched and bowled into his legs as he bent to grab at her. Losing his balance, he fell on her and she felt something in her chest crack with an explosion of pain. She’d rebroken her rib.
Although she tried to stay curled in a protective ball, he got one arm around her waist, pinning her against his chest as they lay on the narrow bathroom floor. Something cold and sharp sliced into her side – the broken jar of cleanser. His whiskey infused breath was hot on the back of her neck.
“How do you like it?” he hissed, teeth brushing her shoulder threateningly. “I could bite your ear off. Would that thrill you?”
She wanted to scream, but her mouth was as dry as feathers. She pounded weakly against his sides and tried to kick him, but he remained behind her, out of her range. Her heart was pounding, her chest aching as she gasped for breath, panic welling up as she had never known it. This couldn’t be happening. She had never lost a fight, not when it really mattered. Not when Steed wasn’t there to rescue her.
He forced his other hand between her legs, gathering her skirt up around her hips, her struggles only making it ruck up faster. Somehow he rose up onto his knees and then she was on the floor on her back, pinned by his forearm across her clavicle, fragments of the jar on the floor piercing her flesh through her camisole. He pressed his fist against her through her panties, his knee on the floor between her legs. She brought both hands to his throat, driving her thumbs into the unprotected flesh of his neck. She felt the ridges of his windpipe begin to collapse. His eyes were like black holes boring into her. He was angry and desperate, and his grin belied alcohol-induced madness.
He withdrew his hand from her groin and brought it up to slap her hard. Her head turned with the blow and her eyes came to rest on the metal handled toilet brush in a stand beside the toilet. She removed one hand from his neck just as he grabbed the other one and pressed it to the floor beside her head. She reached out, praying that he was too focused on her struggling to notice. Both of his hands were busy holding her down, so he slammed his knee into her groin.
“I’ll bet you can take that. I’ll bet you like them big,” he growled. Emma’s fingers closed around the toilet brush, it’s bristles providing a good grip. Thanking whatever whim had caused her to buy the stainless steel accessory, she swung it as hard as she could at the back of her attacker’s head. He howled and reared up on his knees, reaching for the brush before she could land another blow. She sat up and drove her other fist into his gut. Then, when he stared bulge-eyed at her and grabbed at his middle she swung the brush again, connecting solidly with the side of his head. He toppled sideways, the other side of his head striking the edge of the bathtub.
He crumpled. She struggled out from under him and touched his neck. His pulse was alarmingly strong. He would not be out for long. She reached up to her dressing gown hanging on the back of the bathroom door and pulled out the belt. She was so weak she could hardly shift him to get his hands behind his back. She tied his wrists, then she removed his belt, heaving him over to get it out of all of the loops, and secured his ankles. His eyes started to flutter open as she cinched it tight. He moaned, still only semi conscious. She dragged herself to her feet and reached round to her back to feel the fragment of glass impaling the soft flesh at her waist. The skin around it was sticky, but she could not tell if it was cleanser or blood. Afraid to find out, but knowing she had to, she stumbled out of the bathroom and stopped in front of the tall mirror on the closet door. It hurt when she craned her neck over her shoulder to look at the wound in the mirror. A chunk of the jar protruded from her back, blood mixed with creamy cleanser oozing down to the waistband of her skirt. Now that she saw it, she felt the associated pain.
She sat down heavily on the bed looking at her attacker’s feet through the bathroom doorway. She could not call the police. They would notify Steed, and he’d break off his pursuit of Peter to come to her. Much as she wanted him – needed him – she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t let him put her ahead of the recovery of Knight’s fortune.
She sat on the bed for a few minutes staring at his feet, feeling the blood oozing from her wound. Then she stood up and returned to the bathroom. He was still semi-conscious. He wore an expensive suit, but his shirt was stained and he did not have a tie. She carefully reached down and felt inside his jacket. No weapon, but she found his wallet in the inside pocket. Studying its content, she snorted, then dropped the wallet on the floor in front of him and looked at his face. Bruises were beginning to show on the side of his head. Matthew Stein. My banker.
And suddenly she knew whom to call.
On Tuesday a withdrawal from the numbered Swiss account in an amount equivalent to about five hundred British Pounds had been made in a small branch bank in an even smaller town on the border between Switzerland and Italy. Based on the pattern of previous withdrawals, Steed surmised that Peter Peel was about to cross the border, and that he had a substantial amount of cash with him, unless he’d managed to spend more money in Switzerland than Steed thought was possible without making oneself extremely noticeable. And all of Steed’s sources said that no mysterious Brit was on a spending spree in the lovely Swiss Alps.
So Steed flew from London to Milan, rented a sleek, red Alpha Romeo, and drove north on the A9 to Como. It wasn’t too hard to think like Peter Peel, not for a man of Steed’s experience with criminal minds. Or it might have something to do with their similar tastes in fine clothing, a refined lifestyle, and women.
In Como Steed made contact with the local authorities, who were cooperative if a bit amused by this earnest Englishman with his bulky dossier. Steed provided them with all of Peter Peel’s known aliases – a list that had nearly doubled beyond the fist full of bogus passports they’d found in his home safe. There was no doubt at the ministry that Peter Peel had been well prepared to flee when he managed his escape. He had, they suspected, caches of identification, clothes, cash, and disguises, tucked away all over Europe and perhaps beyond.
The Alpine Italians were a serious, efficient lot, doubtlessly influenced by their Swiss and Austrian neighbors. Within twenty-four hours they had found someone with one of Peel’s aliases registered at hotel in a nearby resort town. The ski season was all but over, but the resorts did an off-season business in hiking tours and spa services. Steed fancied a good massage.
But Albert Axelrod, alias Peter Peel, had checked out of the posh resort after just one night, unsurprisingly leaving no forwarding information. At a loss for a trail until Peter surfaced at another bank or with one of his known aliases, Steed checked in and took advantage of the spa, calling his various contacts several times between his massage, swim, sauna, and herbal wrap treatments – the last of which had sounded over-the-top even to a confirmed sybarite, but it turned out to be deliciously rejuvenating. He vowed to bring Emma to a spa like this. Soon. The spa staff were very forthcoming with opinions of the other English gentleman, but it was clear he’d made no reference, at least no honest one, to his immediate plans.
Steed’s growing network next located Peel lakeside in the town of Garda. Steed pointed the Alpha east toward Lago di Garda and some good wine. The teller in the Garda bank remembered the attractive Englishman who’d patiently waited while she verified his withdrawal. The funds had been available in the Swiss account, and he’d presented adequate identification. Steed was at his most charming in Italian, the language rolling off his tongue as he flirted with the middle-aged woman. The other Englishman had said he was heading west to Portofino via Milan, and that he’d come recently from France and had enjoyed driving along the lake.
All lies, of course. At least Steed knew not to head back toward Milan. Instinct told him that Peter Peel was also done with France. He was obviously enjoying his European tour. But would he make for a coastal city – say Venice – and take ship across the Mediterranean? Or would he continue east by land? Steed was beginning to suspect that Peel’s goal might be one of Europe’s less cooperative neighbors, like Turkey. A westerner could live a pleasant life on the western coast of Turkey, so long as he was not bothered by the frequent calls of the imams.
Steed hopscotched from one country to another in pursuit of his quarry for the next two weeks, never more than a few days behind, but never managing to catch up. Peel did stick to the land – perhaps a ship presented too few opportunities for flight. He would touch down for a few days in a medium sized town, withdraw hundreds of Pounds worth of the local currency, live comfortably but not excessively, and then move on. On a few occasions Steed reached a town while Peel was still in it, but it seemed like Peel was exiting the far end while Steed was entering the near.
After fourteen days of cars and trains, Steed collapsed on the bed in a hotel room in Istanbul. It was a city he loved. He sorely missed Emma and wished she was there with him to explorer the bazaar and visit the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace and his personal favorite, the cool, dark Basilica Cistern. Once in his youth he’d joined the local men swimming in the Bosphorus. He’d do it again to impress her, if she were there. Lying on his back, he laughed out loud at him self. As if Emma would be impressed by me leaping into the raging water below the Palace.
“Emma, you need your real doctor. I can handle the spin on this – completely cover it up in fact – but your rib needs attention.” Lord Frederick Leighton of Leighton and Brenford Consultants stood beside Emma in the bedroom. They were watching two bulky men lift a crate that was just big enough to hold a man.
Freddy had arrived within a half hour of Emma’s call. By then Stein was conscious and spitting vulgarities at Emma. She had considered shutting the bathroom door, but decided there was a chance he could find a way to slice his bonds if she weren’t watching. So she’d taken her handgun from her bag and moved a chair to where he could see her through the doorway. The sight of the gun had silenced him.
Emma had summarized events to her old friend and he’d made a telephone call. Then he’d taken her into the kitchen to remove the glass fragment from her back, clean that wound and the one on her side, and apply bandages from her first aid kit. He’d remained silent throughout the process and Emma had bitten her lower lip to keep from complaining about the pain. When he was through he’d gently lowered her camisole and turned away. Emma had wrapped herself in her dressing gown, although the belt was still around Stein’s wrists.
“Where will they take him?” she asked, ignoring his statement. He sighed, watching the men carry the crate out of the room with numerous grunts. Emma hoped none of her neighbors were watching, although it wasn’t the first time strange men had removed bodies from her apartment.
“You don’t want to know. They’ll make sure he’s very discouraged from bothering you again.”
“What if he goes to the police? Accuses them of accosting him?”
“Then it will have nothing to do with you, which is what you’re worried about, or so you said.”
Emma followed the men out into the living room, then went to sit on the sofa as they maneuvered the crate out the door. Freddy followed her.
“If I go to the doctor, Steed will be notified and come back. I don’t want him to give up his search for Peter. And there’s nothing they can do about a broken rib – believe me, they made that very clear the first time. I’d know if it were worse.”
“You’re as stubborn as ever. I give up arguing with you,” he plopped down beside her. “At least let me stay with you tonight – no, no, don’t get any ideas,” he raised both hands in mock protest, for she hadn’t reacted at all to his proposal, “I’ll be right out here on this nice, comfy sofa.” He patted the cushions and grimaced at their firmness.
Emma had to smile at his antics. “Will it be billable time?” she asked. He chuckled, then tenderly stroked the side of her face. She closed her eyes, enjoying the touch in spite of herself. God I miss Steed.
“It’s on me,” he whispered. “A favor for a friend in need.”
Sally sipped her wine cooler – her roommate’s cheap wine cut with cheaper cranberry juice — and watched Meg’s brother Terrance work his way across the sitting room toward the bathroom. He appeared to be drunk, which wasn’t too surprising since the party had been in full swing for four hours. She’d been glad to see him, if a little anxious about what he thought of her after Annie’s report on her last Sunday. He’d approached her a little shyly, re-introducing himself and offering to fetch her a drink. She’d gone with him to the kitchen to mix her own. They’d stayed there talking for a while until more guests came in clambering for alcohol. Sally had let Terrance top off her wine, turning it a frightful pink color, then followed him back out into the sitting room where they’d been separated by various conversations for the next couple hours.
She was exhausted from keeping her boss’s long hours all week. Not that she resented it. Lady Emma was so desperate and depressed Sally wanted to do all she could to help her get through these days while Steed was away. If that meant being a friendly ear at nine o’clock at night, or going out for coffee at ten, she wanted to be there to do it. Once or twice Emma had shooed her home, but more often she simply didn’t notice how late it was when she finally dragged on her coat and told Sally she was going home. Sally supposed that her boss’s reputation for being aloof and self-centered was deserved, but those aspects of her personality were just a small part of the woman that Sally admired tremendously.
“So, Miss Sally, Meg says you’ve got a real job.” Terrance was back, squeezing himself onto the sofa between her and one of Annie’s friends.
“Well, I have a job, that’s true,” Sally replied, not intending to sound cagey.
Terrance eyed her curiously for a moment and she realized that she had probably sounded as distant as her boss was accused of being. She decided she liked it. It certainly had his attention.
“So what is your job?” he asked, “What does Sally Howard do?”
“I’m a personal assistant, for an executive.”
Terrance grinned, although she wasn’t sure why. Then she did: “You’re a gopher – a ‘girl Friday’ huh? Who’s the executive? Some overbearing masher with bad breath that you don’t dare sneeze around?”
“Not at all –.”
“Come on, wouldn’t you be better off in the secretarial pool? Maybe you could get into a union then – much more secure jobs for union folks, you know.”
“I love my job, Terrance,” she said firmly, realizing too late that she was being teased.
“Yeah? So who’s this executive you slave for?”
“I work at Knight Industries.”
“What? Do you think I wouldn’t know enough about the corporate world to recognize his name?”
“I didn’t say that, Terrance, I just don’t want to bore you with my work,” she backpedaled, somewhat unsuccessfully she feared. She had assumed he wouldn’t know Knight from British Petroleum. “I work for Emma Knight, the CEO.”
Terrance leaned away from her, pressing rudely into Annie’s friend behind him, and whistled. “The ice queen herself,” he said.
“That’s not very nice – and where have you heard it?” Sally asked, quite surprised.
“You haven’t asked what I do,” he replied.
“All right, what do you do, Terrance? I mean, do you have a job?”
“Yes I have a job, miss personal assistant to the queen. I’m a reporter.”
Uh-Oh. “Really?” she managed to hide her alarm. “What paper?” He isn’t interested in me at all. He just wants dirt on Lady Emma.
“You know those vending boxes on the street where you buy the Times of London?” he asked glibly.
“Yes,” she groaned inwardly. But he looked so young to be a Times reporter.
“Well, I work for the paper that’s dumped in the free bins next to them – the Green Sheet. I’m sure you must read it,” his face lit with a sardonic grin. “Of course, my boss calls me a copy writer and makes me write slogans for the paid advertising. But I concentrate on my real reporting. I had a front page article the other week you may have seen – it was a survey, really, on the increase of dog poop on the sidewalks of our city. London’s beginning to look like Paris.”
Sally couldn’t help giggling at his explanation, and he joined in. “You’re walking down the street and – yuck! – you step in something nasty. We’re all going to have to stare at the sidewalks as we walk. Darned grim, I say,” he went on.
“And was that what the people you interviewed said?” Sally asked.
“Oh yes, all three of them,” he laughed. “But really, Sally, I do want to be a serious reporter. I’ve read all about your boss. She was quite a sensation for a few weeks. Has she recovered from that shooting?”
Sally felt her mood sober at his question. She paused, organizing her thoughts before answering to be sure she didn’t say something she shouldn’t. “She’s back at work and very busy, but these things take time. I try to do all I can for her.”
“You’re quite fond of her, aren’t you?”
“Yes. She’s a very special person.”
“Then I apologize for calling her an ice queen. It’s just what people say. I’m sure she’s quite pleasant.”
“She is, and she isn’t,” Sally admitted. “I mean, her reputation is deserved. But when you get to know her she’s so smart and clever. You know where you stand with her – she doesn’t play games. And she expects top performance from those around her – that’s why she seems arrogant. She is a little self-centered, though. But isn’t everyone, really?”
Terrance was watching her intently and he smiled at her question. “Well, I know I am,” he admitted. “I’m not so sure about you, though. It takes a very giving person to be so loyal to the type of person you just described.”
Sally thought about Steed, about how he was as arrogant and self-centered as Miss Knight and yet they were perfectly matched. She realized that on some level each of them must give something to the other. “I’m working on my selfish, arrogant side,” she said, peering into Terrance’s surprisingly green eyes. They twinkled with mirth. Suddenly, out of sheer impulse and with no thought to the consequences, she leaned close and kissed him, lightly, on the lips.
When she drew back her expression was as startled as his. It had felt unlike anything she’d expected. Her heart was racing. She wanted to do it again. Instead she stood up, hands pressed against her thighs as if holding down her skirt against a breeze. “I’d better say good night,” she said, then turned to step over the legs of the person seated behind her on the couch. Terrance sat frozen, only his eyes following her as she retreated to her room.
Emma paused in the doorway between the gymnasium and Hemming’s office. The ministry’s fitness trainer looked up, then rose from his desk.
“Emma!” he greeted her, coming around his desk. He grasped her upper arms through her leotard and tsk’d as he squeezed them. She made no comment as he handled her forearms in the same way, then wrapped his big hands around her torso and worked his way down over her hips to inspect her legs. “You have your chest wrapped. That’s good. I read your file after you called – strict orders not to risk re-injury.” He said, escorting her out into the gym. She chose not to mention that she had wrapped her chest because her rib was already re-broken. She’d been very disturbed after Stein’s attack – not by the fact that he’d attacked her, nor even by the sexual nature of his actions, but rather by her unaccustomed weakness. That experience had been more powerful than all of Steed’s warnings. She realized that he’d been trying to prevent her having to learn the hard way.
“You’ll start on the equipment,” Hemming was saying as he led her into the smaller gym that was filled with exercise equipment. “I want fifteen minutes on the treadmill – the first five walking and the rest at no less than a jog.”
Emma complied, quickly falling into a trance-like state, her mind wandering as her body covered the artificial miles. Before she knew it Hemming was in front of the device, turning down the speed setting. The timer showed that she’d been running for close to thirty minutes.
“’ere, Emma, what’s chasin’ you then?” he asked as she slowed to a walk, drawing in long breaths that hurt as her chest expanded. She felt her heart rate dropping back to normal. For the first time in months she felt really good. She was covered with a sheen of perspiration, and her chest ached, but overall her body had finally recaptured the coordinated, powerful feeling that she had been accustomed to since childhood.
Hemming supervised her using the various equipment, making notes about the amount of weight and tension and the numbers of repetitions while she worked. When he was satisfied that she’d worked every muscle in her body, unaware of the unexpressed pain some of the exercises had caused her, he lead her back out to the larger gym. A group of trainees were participating in a Karate class. Emma watched them wistfully – she would like very much to practice the moves they were learning, but the risk was too great.
“One last thing,” Hemming said, stopping her in front of a big, canvas-covered punching bag. He nodded at it, positioning himself opposite her.
“What shall I do?” she asked, accustomed to taking his direction.
He snorted. “Hit it, woman. You’re all pent up. You miss your man – yes, everyone here knows what he’s up to. You’re angry with your ex-husband. Hit the bag, Emma. Get it out of your system here, where it’s safe.”
Emma punched the bag, a weak, slow blow with a closed fist that jarred her rib painfully. Then she hit it again, harder. The pain was no worse, and the satisfaction was high. Across from her Hemming nodded encouragement. She struck again, a one-two punch, followed by an upper cut. And then she was slugging the bag with all her might, grunts of pain and effort transitioning to traditional shouts as she opened her hands and chopped. She spun and kicked, chopped, and kicked again. All of the fury she’d been too weak to vent on Stein burned through her again and she spent it on the solid canvas.
Her furious attack on the bag drew the attention of the trainees. Their instructor paused, allowing them to turn and watch Emma until she’d worn herself out. She landed one last blow on the bag and stepped back, hands on knees, to catch her breath.
“All right,” Hemming said, releasing the bag and glancing at the trainees, “back to it, then,” he said. The Karate instructor clapped twice and his class reformed, mutters of “Emma Peel,” echoing in the large room. Emma straightened, smiling at the retreating students.
“I guess you were right,” she said, “thank you, Hemming.”
The trainer nodded curtly and gestured toward the door to the locker rooms. “Just be sure to come back this time – day after tomorrow.”
“Count on it,” she assured him.
Steed did not number Turkish among the languages he read and spoke, but he had a fair understanding of it when spoken. Standing in the lobby of the hotel where a Boris Schmidt – one of Peter Peel’s aliases — was registered he listened to a pair of rather liberated young Turkish women seated near him discussing their holiday in the city. He suspected that their parents in the fishing village of Bodrum had no idea where their daughters were spending their evenings.
He was distracted by their comparing notes on the young men at last night’s nightclub when Peel exited the lift and strode across the lobby to the front doors. Steed recognized him just in time, moving so quickly the two young women stared at him curiously as he raced toward the doors. Peel was already half way up the block and Steed wondered if the man could possibly have recognized him dressed as he was as a member of the Turkish tourist police force.
Turkey was not a nation where he could flash his red card and gain the unquestioning assistance of the authorities. He had to handle apprehending Peel very discretely here, where extradition wasn’t an option. His choice of disguise was intended to allow him free access to most places, and had the added benefit of not looking odd if he did capture Peel. The unfortunate part of the disguise was the intimidating rifle that came with it.
Steed shouldered the weapon and hurried after Peel, able to keep him in sight by virtue of his blond hair amid the sea of darker heads on the crowded sidewalk. A trolly car clattered by and Steed was relieved that Peel did not board it – he would have hated losing him in that manner again. Steed grew more convinced that Peel had recognized him as the man moved at nearly a jog toward a very old part of the city. His heart fell as his quarry turned right around the antique Turkish bath house, heading toward one of the many entrances to the grand bazaar.
Steed did break into a jog to reach the bazaar entrance before Peel managed to lose himself in the crowds of shoppers. He was harder to follow here where fair-haired European tourists were abundant. Steed caught sight of him turning a corner, heading deeper into the leather section, then turning again down toward the very center of the bazaar where the princes of salesmen — the carpet vendors — resided. The tourists, who identified Steed’s attire as that of someone who was there to protect them, parted for him willingly. He entered a shop draped with rich carpets just a few paces behind Peel.
And stopped in dismay. Two young apprentice salesmen stared wide-eyed at him from among a dozen chest-high piles of rugs. At the back of the shop a hanging rug flapped back into place. Steed made for it, drawing it aside to find a staircase leading up. Barely pausing he climbed up, hearing the creak and slam of a door above as the stairs were momentarily illuminated by bright sunlight. In a moment he reached the door and slammed it open, reluctantly unshouldering the rifle to poke it out ahead of himself.
The ancient roof of the bazaar was a collection of domes amid a network of paths and doorways. A quickly moving figure disappearing around a dome off to the right caught Steed’s eye and he lit out after it. But within a few turns he knew there was no use. Peel could hide amid the domes indefinitely, or even duck into another doorway leading to the brass section, or the shops that specialized in birdcages.
Then he spotted a ladder on the side of a nearby dome. He climbed to the top and spun in a slow circle, a lone uniformed figure amid a sea of beige domes. The sun radiated off of the ancient, handmade tiles creating weirdly distorting heat waves. Steed squinted, thinking he saw someone moving in the distance near the edge of the roof. Then he was sure: the door to a Han — a large warehouse and workshop that was so old the bazaar had grown up around it – opened and closed. He slid down the side of the dome and raced along the paths to it, flinging the door open into darkness.
“Sally? Telephone!” Ruthie, Sally’s third roommate called out, catching Sally between her room and the bathroom. She had just come in from work. It was half ten.
“Yes? This is Sally,” she said into the phone. She really wanted a quick bath and her bed, but she had to take the call. It could be Steed – he did sometimes call her at home if he didn’t find her at the office. She thought he must do it when he missed Miss Knight terribly. She couldn’t leave him in some foreign city without a friendly voice. It was beyond Sally’s experience to understand that few places in the world were truly foreign to Steed.
“I’m sorry for ringing you so late, but they said you never get home from work until now.”
“Terrance?” she leaned against the wall by the telephone table and slid down to the floor.
“Yes. How are you?”
“Exhausted, actually. But it’s a pleasure to hear from you. Conducting another survey?”
“No,” he chuckled. “But I’d like to.”
“I mean, I’d like to invite you out, if you can get away from your executive,” he sounded nervous despite his flippancy. Sally smiled happily. She hadn’t ruined everything after all. She’d been sure she had after kissing him last weekend.
“All right,” she replied. “When?”
“Friday? We could see a move, have some supper.”
“Yes, all right. I’d like that.”
“Right then. I’ll come by – can you possibly be ready by seven?”
“Yes, of course. I’m not a slave, despite what you seem to think.”
“You look nice today, Sally, I meant to mention it earlier,” Emma settled into her chair looking across the desk at her assistant. Sally smiled, appreciating the compliment. She’d taken a long lunch, visiting a nearby department store where the girls at the makeup counter had done her face in the hopes that she’d buy their products.
“Thank you ma’am. Actually, I have a date tonight, so I was hoping to leave early.”
“Hey!” Emma exclaimed cheerfully – she was managing to be cheerful again now and then, even though the circumstances at Knight were not particularly improved. “I guess living in town is good for your social life.”
“Yes ma’am. I think it has more to do with my roommates having lots of friends about all the time. Can’t help but meet them.”
“Really? Are they hanging about when you finally go home at night? Or is this mostly weekend socialization?” Emma felt the need to acknowledge Sally’s ridiculously long hours, although she realized after she’d said it that her intended humor wasn’t very funny.
“Weekends, really,” Sally admitted. “I prefer to have some time to myself after work. Actually, I stay here to read sometimes – it’s much quieter.”
“And you’re around if I call. I know what you’ve been doing Sally. I can’t begin to thank you for being so supportive. I know I’ve been rather pig-headed a lot, lately.”
“Oh no, Miss Knight –.”
Emma shook her head to silence Sally’s protest. “So tell me about this date? After all, you’ve been privy to my personal life – you owe me.”
Sally grinned, realizing that her employer was right. Turnabout was fair play, after all. “He’s my roommate’s brother. I met him at a party they had the day I moved in.”
“They had a party for you? That’s nice!”
“No, they have a party every Saturday night.”
“I know. It’s a bit much. But in any case, Terrance and I have talked a bit at the parties. And now he’s invited me to the movies.”
“You like him?”
“I agreed to go out.”
“Well, one might agree to go out for any number of reasons. Don’t be evasive with me Miss Howard,” Emma grinned and leaned back in her chair. Sally realized she was missing an opportunity for guidance here.
“He’s funny, and smart,” she said.
Sally felt herself begin to blush. “Yes – he has the most lovely green eyes.”
Emma’s grin increased and she leaned forward over her desk, templing her fingers in front of her. “So he’s taking you to the movies? And supper?”
“Yes, he said so. Can I ask you, ma’am – how do you think I should act?”
“I don’t think you should act at all, Sally. You should be yourself.” Emma realized that Sally looked anxious. She really does like him. “Here’s what you do. Be polite, and ask him about himself – you said you’ve talked a bit, so you’ll have to think up questions you haven’t already asked – maybe about his family? Oh, but you mustn’t pry too much about his sister if she’s your roommate. Be open about yourself, but don’t tell him everything. You need to maintain some mystery. It drives them crazy.
“Yes ma’am, I’ve come to realize that,” Sally said, her mind racing as she thought about questions she could ask Terrance about himself.
“And at the end of the evening, what if he tries to kiss you goodnight?” Emma wanted to find out how shy Sally was – did she plan on being kissed, or was she afraid?
“Well, actually, ma’am, I kissed him. Last week.” By the way Emma’s brows shot up Sally knew she had to explain. “We were talking, at the party, and he –,” she paused, realizing that she did not want to relate the conversation she and Terrance had had prior to the kiss. “He suggested that I was not very forceful, not demanding. I wanted to prove otherwise, so I kissed him. Then I went in to bed. I was quite exhausted, actually.”
Emma straightened in her chair and slapped her hands on the desk merrily. “Good girl! Always keep them guessing. So here’s what you do tonight: don’t let him kiss you – he may try when he picks you up. Fend him off all evening. Then at the end, you kiss him again. Keep it on your terms tonight.”
“Yes ma’am. I understand. But when do you stop? I mean, when do you let him take charge?”
“When you trust him, Sally,” Emma’s response sounded wistful, as if she was thinking of a personal experience. “If you never feel that you trust him, then never let down your guard.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but what about love?”
“Love without trust is not going to last, Sally. Don’t settle for that.”
Sally nodded slowly, wondering if Miss Knight’s standards were too high for most people to achieve.
Knowing his eyes would adjust to the dim light inside the Han, Steed stepped in quickly and closed the door. He had been inside other Hans and he knew they were all similar – a large warehouse space on the ground floor with workshops and sometimes living space around a balcony above. He had to be on the workshop level – the door might once have lead to external stairs, or it may have been cut centuries ago when the bazaar was constructed. Crouching low, he took a step to the left and encountered a wall. Then he took two steps to the right and found another. He was in a corridor. Already his eyes were adjusting and could make out the rough bricks on either side. He started forward, rifle once again at the ready.
As he’d anticipated, the corridor opened onto the internal balcony. Dim lights on the ceiling far above cast strange shadows on the floor below. Stacked crates filled the space under the balcony on the far side, and stacks of smaller cartons, some unpacked, cluttered the central floor space. The crates contained baskets – thousands of baskets woven by Turkish peasants and shipped here for sale. If a tourist were to venture out into central Turkey they could buy the same wares for a tenth the price, but the savings would be offset by the cost of the journey.
Movement on the balcony far to the right caught Steed’s eye. His quarry was descending a ladder to the main floor. Steed looked around for a closer means of descent, but saw none. Meanwhile a man on the opposite balcony shouted at Steed. He couldn’t quite understand, but he was sure it wasn’t a friendly greeting. Seeing no better course, Steed lit out along the balcony toward the ladder Peel had used.
He had almost reached it when a rectangle of bright light appeared below – an outer door had been opened. The light flickered as someone passed through the door, then vanished as the door was closed.
“Dammit!” Steed muttered, grasping the sides of the ladder and swinging over the edge. He burnt his palms sliding down and caught more than one splinter. But he hit the ground running, finding the outside door and flinging it open.
The street was awash in people of all description. Steed made use of his height to look for Peel’s bright head, and for the disturbance his passing was bound to cause. There – a block and a half down to the left. Peel darted across the street between slow-moving vehicles, then continued on the other side of the street. Steed covered half the distance between them by the time Peel had reached the next corner. He rounded it to the right. Steed got there a moment later and charged down the next short block, coming to a stop at what he next encountered.
A wide, modern road skirted the edge of the old district. Cars rushed past in both directions in four traffic lanes. And there, just up the street, was Peter Peel getting into a taxi. Steed sprinted toward the car as it pulled away from the kerb, trying to make himself visible to the taxi driver, who would most certainly stop for a tourist police officer. But either the driver didn’t see him, or Peel was more persuasive than Steed’s uniform, for the car moved off into traffic leaving Steed with just the memory of it’s license plate number. He looked around for another passing taxi, but there were none. Unable to believe he’d failed, he started walking slowly toward his hotel and a telephone.
Terrance appeared at Sally’s apartment precisely on time. Although she tried to be punctual herself, it was a trait she found disconcerting in others. She realized as he leaned close to try to kiss her and she deflected him that in a date extreme punctuality seemed a little too eager. She also felt a little thrill as she picked up her purse and smiled into his green eyes – so far Miss Knight was one for one.
He’d picked several possible movies, allowing her the final choice. She surprised him by selecting the subtitled Italian comedy. He surprised her by taking her to a Chinese restaurant for dinner rather than Italian. They talked about their jobs and families over dinner, with Sally trying to ask more questions than he did, and to provide fewer answers.
Meg had been more than willing to tell her that her brother’s self-image as a budding reporter was overblown and that the recent “article” had really been an installment of the Green Sheet’s regular reader survey feature. Terrance had been substituting for the publisher’s wife, who usually focused on cheerful, non-confrontational topics. Terrance’s submission would probably have been rejected if he hadn’t turned it in so late that neither the publisher nor his wife saw it. Meg had Sally rolling with laughter over the reprimand Terrance had received and his indignant response. Apparently he’d nearly quit his job over it. Sally did not bring up any of this over dinner, of course. But as Terrance paid the check she caught herself speculating about the wages of an advertising copywriter.
The movie had received very good reviews and Sally had wanted to see it, so as the opening credits rolled she settled in happily. Thirty minutes later she felt Terrance’s fingers on the back of her hand, which was resting on her leg. She glanced at him. He appeared to be watching the movie screen intently. He lightly caressed her hand, almost absently, as if he wasn’t doing it on purpose. To her utter amazement, his touch made her skin tingle, the sensation running hotly up her arm and through her body. It was delicious. She sat frozen, barely able to focus on the movie screen, certainly unable to read the subtitles. She wanted to turn her hand over, to feel him touch her palm the way he was caressing the back of her hand. Miss Knight hadn’t mentioned handholding. In a way, the sensation Terrance’s touch created was far more erotic than her kiss the other night. That had been quick and impulsive. This was slow, steady, and deliberate. And she did not want him to stop.
She’d participated in her share of snogging with the village boys, and even a bit of touching that had made her tingle all over. But she’d never let it go too far, believing that the right time and person would come along and she’d recognize it, and him. She’d been taught by conservative parents and ministers to save herself for marriage, but the influences of modern society had been pecking away at that conviction since she was in her late teens. It was all but gone now, replaced by a resolve to choose her time and lover. She thought as she turned her hand over on her leg and Terrance twined his fingers in between hers, that the choice might be made soon.
He held on to her hand as he walked her home and they discussed the movie. She did her best to hide the fact that she’d missed a fair chunk in the middle. She let go of her hand to open the downstairs door to her apartment building, then she turned back toward him. She couldn’t tell what his intentions were, or whether he expected a goodnight kiss. He was smiling whistfully down at her, his green eyes nearly concealed under his half-lowered lids.
“Thank you for a lovely evening Terrance,” she said softly, one hand on the doorknob, the other at her side.
“It was fun,” he replied, and for a moment she thought he was going to just walk away. He took a deep breath, “can I call you tomorrow?”
“Yes, please,” she sighed in relief. Then before he could reply or move, she raised her free hand to his shoulder and tilted her face to his, kissing him again. This time it wasn’t so light, and it wasn’t so quick, and before she could force herself to pull away his hands were on her waist and he was kissing her back.
“Thank you, Sally,” he whispered as he raised his face away from hers. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” He stepped away, trotting down the front steps, the smiling back over his shoulder before heading up the street. Sally griped the door handle and closed her eyes for a moment, holding on to the warm, floating sensation of his kiss, then opened the door and went upstairs.
“Steed. It’s so good to hear your voice,” Emma pulled her feet up onto her sofa and cuddled the telephone as if it were her lover in the flesh. “God I miss you.”
“Me too. I’m flying from Istanbul to Washington DC – leaving late tonight.”
“He’s gone to the States?”
“Apparently. The truth is, I nearly lost him here. And I was so close.”
Steed was still bitter about being out maneuvered in the bazaar. It hadn’t been a test of athletic ability, but of cunning and local knowledge. It was as if Peel had planned and executed a well-practiced route. In retrospect Steed realized that perhaps he had. He’d obviously known which rug merchant had roof access, and the workers in the Han hadn’t given him a second look.
Steed had contacted Interpol immediately, asking them to monitor the airports and ferries. Then he’d gone to the ferry docks himself. But it had taken the authorities two days to sift through the airline passenger rosters and turn up Noel Delancey traveling with an Irish passport. He’d taken off five hours after Steed lost him on a flight to Paris with his luggage booked through to Washington.
Delancey was one of the aliases they’d found references to in Peel’s papers. Steed found the ministry’s new indexing system rather helpful in sorting through the vast collection of data they’d amassed on Peel. He mentioned it to Emma and she snorted. She had found the system somewhat lacking on a case last fall.
“You know they’ve updated what data they include based on your criticism,” he pointed out, which was true.
“That’s something, I suppose,” she said, just happy to be chatting somewhat normally with him. But his news had her mind churning. “Will you contact our friends in Washington?” she asked.
“I already have. Stetson is meeting my flight, and Amanda is reviewing the immigration records. But he may not have caught the flight from Paris, or he may have entered the States under a different alias. He’s on the lose until he withdraws more money.”
“You don’t sound too confident, Steed.”
“I’m not. I hate having lost two days, and another day and a half traveling. And he must know by now how I’m tracking him. He’s going into deeper hiding, I’m sure of it. Stein transferred funds to other accounts that we don’t have access to. If I were him, I’d switch to one of them.”
Emma shuddered at the mention of Stein. But Steed knew nothing of the attack and she never intended for him to find out. Initially it was to prevent him from giving up the chase, but now it was because she wasn’t sure how he’d react to Stein’s physical assault on her. Although she’d taken it in stride outwardly, she’d had several terrifying nightmares in which she struggled ineffectively with a fetid creature that had one clear aim. So far she’d awakened trembling each time before the dream monster had achieved its ghastly goal. She would have to make herself tea, or practice some yoga, and once she’d even picked up a fencing foil to chase the beast away before she could get back to sleep. If the dreams continued, if she dreamt that the creature raped her, she knew that she would have to seek professional help. But until then she combated the dream by keeping her appointments with Hemming and rebuilding her strength.
“Can’t Weems and Plath work on that?” she asked, “Wouldn’t that be part of their investigation of Peter and Birch?”
“Yes you’re right, darling,” Steed replied, genuinely pleased that she’d seen the situation so clearly. “But I have to ask them to put priority on it, and technically I’m on leave.”
“They’ll do what you ask, Steed, even if it’s unofficial.” Her confidence bolstered his mood tremendously.
“I’m going to get him, Emma. Maybe in Washington, or maybe in the next town where he stays just a little too long. I’m not going to give up.”
His tone – somewhere between determination and desperation, made Emma long to hold him in her arms. For a flickering moment she considered begging him to forget about Peter, and the money, and come home to her. But she held her tongue until the impulse passed.
“I love you, Steed. Always know that,” she said instead.
Before leaving Istanbul Steed had a withdrawal from his own numbered Swiss account wired to him. As a rule he did not dip into his savings for day-to-day living. But he regarded this expenditure as a sort of insurance premium for his future with Emma.
“Sally!” Emma stood in her office doorway, her firm tone stopping Sally in her tracks on her way to the lift. She’d thought to drop off the files she owed Mrs. Emerson and hurry back to her office to finish two memos she was working on. She had not come in at all over the weekend and she hadn’t been able to catch up with her work all day. It occurred to her as she turned back toward her boss that she had allowed her workload to become unbearable by putting in such long hours. There was no way she could complete her duties during normal business hours. Terrance’s attentions over the weekend had shown the advantages of freeing up more of her time. She was as devoted as ever to Miss Knight, but she needed more time for herself. No time like the present, she thought as she followed Emma into her office.
“Actually, Miss Knight, I’d like to talk about something with you,” she said as Emma led her toward the sofa. She took her favorite position in one of the big armchairs. She knew that Emma had wanted to replace the furniture by the fireplace – back when they thought Knight had some cash to spare. She’d planned on asking for this armchair, if it wasn’t wanted any longer. Now Emma seemed stuck with the furniture, and the lovely Renoir over the mantel was being put up for auction at Sotheby’s. Sally knew that decision – to sell the painting that Sir John Knight had purchased before she was born – had been nearly impossible for Miss Knight to make. It said more to Sally than any of the income statements and reorganization plans about the true state of Knight’s financial affairs.
“Business?” Emma asked, sinking down onto the sofa. It was late afternoon and she’d had a very intense session with Hemming during lunch.
“All right. Then I want a report on your date,” Emma replied, smiling wickedly. Sally felt herself blush. She had thought Miss Knight had some new assignment for her.
“Well, ma’am, I’ve realized today that I have more work to do than I can complete – during normal business hours, I mean,” she paused, noting Emma’s surprised expression. “It’s not that I mind working overtime, ma’am. I don’t expect to go home at five every day. But it seems as if I have to put in full days on weekends as well as extra hours during the week to complete everything. I’m not complaining –.”
“Well you should be, Sally. You’re absolutely right. Mrs. Emerson and I, and doubtless others who’ve figured out that you’re a good worker, have been taking advantage of you. Let’s review what you’re working on and reassign some of it.”
“Thank you ma’am,” Sally said with relief. “It might be best if I make a list and we review it tomorrow – I might forget some things if I try to recite them off the top of my head.”
“Fine. Have Mrs. Emerson put an appointment on my calendar and tell her she’s to sit in,” Emma leaned back on the sofa and crossed her legs. “Now, tell me about your date – am I right to suspect that it has something to do with your need for more personal time?”
“No ma’am! I’m not trying to shirk my duties so that I can spend time with Terrance. I know how much you’re sacrificing for Knight right now –.”
“Of course you’re not!” Emma raised a hand palm out to silence her assistant. “Besides which, you are in not expected to make the same sacrifices that I do on behalf of this company. Now, how did it go?”
“Well,” Sally swallowed hard and thought about how to begin. Then she described her date with Terrance, smiling proudly as Emma nodded approval at her movie choice. Then she came to Terrance touching her hand.
“You hadn’t said what to do if he tried to hold hands,” she explained. “And it was so nice – it felt so . . . ,” Sally shrugged, unable to put the sensation into words. Emma grinned appreciatively.
“That ‘oh my!’ feeling, hum?” she suggested. “So what did you do?”
“I held hands with him. All the way home.”
Emma nodded, clearly thinking about strategy. “And?” she asked pointedly.
“And I wasn’t sure if he was going to try to kiss me good night. So I kissed him again.”
“Good. Did he kiss you back this time?” Sally felt her face coloring again and knew Emma saw it too – she smiled deviously. “Apparently so. Well then, what’s next?”
“Well, actually, it already was,” Sally admitted, thinking back over Saturday afternoon and evening. Terrance had called, and then come over early before the weekly party got started. He’d brought a case of beer and helped Sally and Annie set up the snacks. Sally had been relieved to learn that their parties depended on guests bringing drinks and food – that she wasn’t expected to help fund a weekly bash. When everything was ready Terrance had suggested a walk and they’d wandered through a nearby park in the late afternoon sun. Sally had never spent so much time with someone and still found plenty to talk about. To her relief, the party had been smaller than the previous weekends’ event. She was able to talk with some more of her roommates’ friends, peripherally keeping track of Terrance but concentrating on not seeming to concentrate on him. The hour was late and she was standing in the kitchen chatting with Annie’s best friend Hannah when she felt a hand on her shoulder an a warm presence at her side. Terrance leaned close and placed a kiss on her cheek.
“Good night, Sally,” he’d said, “I have to get up at some ridiculous hour in the morning. Good night Hannah,” he added, glancing at Sally’s companion before leaving. Hannah’s expression had been anything but friendly. She gave Sally a narrow-eyed stare, then turned to the counter where the drinks were arranged. Sally had been about to ask her what was wrong when Annie came in calling Hannah’s name.
Sally described all this to Emma, who listened thoughtfully. “Was that the last time you talked to him, then?” she asked.
“Yes. He didn’t call me yesterday at all,” Sally realized that she was letting her anxiety come through in her voice.
“It can be like an addiction. If you don’t hear from him you go through withdrawal,” Emma’s secret smile told Sally that she was thinking of a similar personal experience. “He said he had to get up early, so he probably had something to do. I’m sure you’ll hear from him again soon. In the mean time, did you have a chance to find out why your roommate’s friend was so upset?”
“No. Annie wasn’t up when I left for my parents’ yesterday, and I didn’t see her last night or this morning. I’m afraid that maybe Hannah likes Terrance and he doesn’t like her.”
“Or they have some history – they’ve been involved and broken up.”
Sally grimaced. “How can I deal with that? Being friends with her when I know he’s dated her?”
“Who says you have to be friends with her? Just be pleasant and let it go at that.”
Lee Stetson, American operative for an agency just as anonymous as Steed’s ministry, watched through the terminal windows as the British Airways airplane from Paris taxied to the gate. Since Steed’s call the day before yesterday he and his partner Amanda King had spent all of their spare time looking for clues as to the whereabouts of Peter Peel. Stetson had known and occasionally worked with Steed for several years. Last year he and Amanda had collaborated with Steed on a case during which Emma Peel had stepped back into the Englishman’s life. The outgoing and friendly Amanda had befriended the often unapproachable, aristocratic Emma. To Lee’s surprise, their friendship had survived distance and some serious conflicts during a subsequent case. Amanda had been on the phone with Emma twice since Steed’s call, the relatively short conversations resulting in Amanda expressing deep concern for her friend.
“She’s very depressed, Lee. I can hear it in her voice,” Amanda had said after her second talk with Emma. “I’ll never forget how she was when she arrested Sir Peter – there was no emotion, or if there was it was hatred that she was concealing very deeply. Now she believes he’s ruining her life. We’ve got to help Steed recapture him.”
Lee had approached their supervisor, William Melrose, for permission to pursue Peter Peel officially. Billy had eyed Lee suspiciously.
“Isn’t that the Brit that was arrested in the Wentworth case last year?”
“Yes. He escaped from their custody almost two months ago. They’ve tracked him across Europe. Now the trail has led here to Washington.”
Billy templed his fingers, elbows propped on his desk. “Who’s tracked him?” he asked.
“He’s coming here?”
“Yes. As you might imagine, he’s taking it somewhat personally. Peel was in his custody when he escaped.”
Billy’s eyes widened and he leaned back, hands lowering to the arms of his chair, “Steed lost him? That has to be a first. Peel’s not a threat to security here, is he?”
Lee didn’t like the sound of that, he had to think fast. “He’s living well off of stolen money, and there’s a lot more where that’s coming from. We expect him to be looking to invest in something as illegally profitable as his arrangement with the South Americans was – for that matter he may still be connected to them.”
“That’s thin, Scarecrow. Very thin for me to commit two of my best agents to it.”
“Come on Billy, Amanda and I don’t have anything else hot going on right now. If something comes up we’ll leave Steed to handle it on his own.”
Billy sighed, leaning back over his desk to reach for his coffee mug. “All right. But only until something comes up, and I want you to keep it low-key. I don’t want Dr. Smith in here asking questions.”
“You got it. Thanks Billy.”
Steed’s bowler atop his tall frame was unmistakable amid the rest of the passengers coming in to the terminal from the tarmac. He spotted Lee and broke free of the line of bedraggled travelers. Lee grinned at his amazingly tidy appearance. Only Steed could spend hours on a transatlantic flight and come out looking like he’s just coming from his tailor’s shop.
“Thanks for coming, Stetson,” Steed said as he shook Lee’s hand, his trademark umbrella clutched along with a small carry-on bag in his left hand. Lee revised his opinion as he studied the other man’s face. He looked drawn and tired, a man under too much pressure for too long. He stopped himself from asking after Emma. He knew Steed had not seen her in several weeks. Reminding him would probably just seem cruel.
“Come on, let’s get you settled in your hotel and then we can go over what Amanda and I have found,” he suggested.
“Forget the hotel – I’ll check in later. Let’s get to work – after I collect my bag.” Lee wasn’t surprised that Steed had overruled him. He would have done the same were the circumstances reversed.
Emma sat at her desk watching the Sotheby’s curator and his assistant carefully lift her father’s Renoir from the wall over the fireplace. Forgive me, Papa. Her heart ached as they positioned the painting over the crate they’d brought. Sir John Knight had bought it in honor of Knight’s tenth anniversary, at the end of a very profitable year. And now, under her guidance, Knight was very likely in its last year and the painting must be sold. The light seemed to fade from the room as the painting of sailboats on the Seine slid into the crate. It’s all my fault, Papa. I promise to get it back. I’ll get it all back, no matter what it takes.
An hour later Mrs. Emerson found Emma still seated at her desk staring at the blank wall.
“Your tickets were just delivered, Miss Knight,” she said, glancing curiously at the wall, then back at Emma. She set a travel portfolio on Emma’s desk. “Everything is in here. Your flight leaves in three hours.”
Emma turned her gaze toward her secretary. My father’s secretary. Does she blame me, I wonder? She should. “Thank you, Mrs. Emerson. Please have Stanley bring my car around in fifteen minutes.”
“Yes Miss Knight.”
James Bond sorted through eight weeks of mail, setting aside the real from the junk and making a pile of magazines and other lower priority reading material. He’d been undercover in Southeast Asia for five weeks and on leave in Tahiti for two in the company of a very inventive local artist. She’d found uses for watercolors that he had never imagined. The Sotheby’s catalog caught his eye and he indulged in a fond memory of her. Taking it from the low priority pile he poured himself a scotch and sat down on the padded leather sofa to flip through it.
Steed checked into the Washington Hilton at midnight after keeping Lee and Amanda in their office accessing data and reviewing reports all afternoon and evening. He felt fairly certain that Peter Peel had arrived in Washington two days ago, entering the country under another of his aliases. Then he’d rented a car with different identification. He’d told the rental agency he wasn’t leaving the Washington area, but none of his aliases had turned up in any area hotels.
“He could have just kept driving,” Amanda had suggested. “We can widen our inquiry, but without a direction it will take a lot of time.”
“Or he could be staying in a private home. Your files have known associates, right?” Lee had added. They’d spent the rest of the evening combing through Steed’s files and plotting the American associates on a map. None were within five hundred miles of Washington. The possibility that Peel could be driving to one of them hung in the air of Lee and Amanda’s office. Steed had rubbed his eyes and closed his files. It was time for a different approach. Emma might know of someone not mentioned in Peel’s papers.
Dropping his bags on the floor he went directly to the telephone and dialed Emma’s home phone number. It was five a.m. in London. Emma might be awake, and if not he knew she would not mind being awakened by him. Her tape recorder answered his call, her outgoing message a vestige of happier times, cheerfully offered to record his message. He asked her to call him at the hotel as soon as she could, and left Lee and Amanda’s office number as well.
He showered, leaving the bathroom door open so that he could hear the telephone. Then he opened his carry-on bag and removed the bottle of Pernod he’d bought from the duty free shop during his layover at Orly.
At one a.m. he called again, thinking she might have been deeply asleep – she certainly needed her rest. Her recorder answered again and he didn’t leave a message. Thirty minutes and another glass of Pernod later he tried her office number. His call was picked up by the switchboard – which meant that neither Emma, nor Mrs. Emerson, nor Sally were in. He asked to leave a message for Miss Knight with the operator who, he knew, was one of the security personnel located in the building lobby.
“Miss Knight has gone away, sir,” the operator informed him curtly. Steed sunk down on the bed, his exhausted mind filling with dread.
“Away?” he muttered. “Away where?”
“I’m sorry sir, I am not privy to her travel arrangements. I will take your message, of course.”
“No, never mind,” he said, rudely pressing the buttons on the phone to end the call. He dialed Sally’s home number from memory, oblivious to the fact that he was likely to wake her roommates at six thirty in the morning. It did not, apparently, matter. None of them answered. Defeated, he replaced the receiver and picked up the Pernod bottle.
She’s gone away. Why didn’t she let me know it was this bad? Why didn’t Sally warn me? He drank a big gulp of the crisp, icy liquid and refilled his glass. Where are you Emma? You promised you wouldn’t leave me again.
Lee called Steed’s room twice from the hotel lobby, but got no answer. Impatient, he flashed his identification to the desk clerk and demanded to know Mr. Steed’s room number.
His identification and a five-dollar bill got the maid to open Steed’s room. She glanced in after unlocking it, then backed away shaking her head. Lee frowned at her, then looked in himself. Steed was sitting on the floor with his back to the bed, one hand wrapped around a glass on the floor, the other arm cradling an empty bottle in his lap. The bed was still made, although Steed was wearing charcoal grey silk pajamas.
Lee stepped in and closed the door.
“Steed?” he said, bending over the other agent. Up close the smell of licorice was sharp. Steed didn’t respond. “Steed!” Lee shook his shoulder and he moaned. “Wake up.”
But Steed wasn’t so much asleep as comatose. His head rolled from side to side, his eyes shut tight.
“Promised you wouldn’t …” he muttered. Then his eyes popped open and he stared glassily at Lee. “Where did she go?”
“Where did who go?” Lee asked, realizing as he said it that Steed wasn’t even aware of him.
“Emma,” Steed moaned.
Lee gently removed the empty bottle from Steed’s hand then took the glass and set them both on the nightstand. The days when he could consume a whole bottle of liquor and be awake in the morning were long gone. He imagined it was much the same for Steed, who had a few years on him.
“Come on,” he said, hooking his hands under Steed’s arms and hauling him upward. The man was remarkably heavy, but fortunately he automatically helped by getting his feet under himself and standing unsteadily. Lee guided him to the bathroom. Stepping into the small room, Steed’s eyes popped back open and dropped to his knees in front of the toilet, retching.
Lee stood back and waited until Steed had finished, then stepped in and flushed.
“Any better?” he asked quietly.
Glad to at least have received an answer, Lee leaned in to the shower and turned on the water. He heard Steed retch again as he adjusted the water temperature.
“Okay, get in,” he said, turning back to Steed. Steed didn’t move. Lee reached down and flushed the toilet again, then pulled up on Steed’s shoulders. He straightened, still on his knees. “I’m not undressing you, Steed. Get up and get in the shower.”
Steed put his hands on the toilet seat and pushed upward, standing unsteadily and lurching toward the stream of water in the shower.
“Oh, don’t do that –,” Lee groaned as Steed stepped under the water still in his pajamas.
“Okay, well, I’ll just be out here,” he said, stepping out into the bedroom. He opened the closet to see the suit Steed had worn yesterday hung on the hotel hangars. He took it out and laid the three pieces on the bed. Then he opened Steed’s still packed suitcase and studied the carefully folded suits and shirts. He took out the top shirt and laid it with the suit. He was sure there were neckties and underwear in the case, but he hoped Steed would recover enough to select them. Of course, if he were in this condition, he’d drag on some jeans and a sweatshirt. But he knew Steed well enough to know that his dress was always important to him, even when he felt like he was dying.
He leaned into the bathroom. Steed was standing under the running water with his face upturned into the spray. As Lee watched, Steed slowly reached up and unbuttoned his pajama top, shrugging out of it so that it landed wetly on the shower floor. Then he reached for the drawstring on the bottoms. Lee retreated.
Lee was stretched out on the bed watching the morning news on the television when the water went off. He swung his feet to the floor, but paused, hoping Steed would take a moment to dry himself off without assistance.
“Stetson?” Steed appeared in the bathroom doorway wrapped in a towel. He leaned against the doorframe and squinted at Lee.
“Yup. Any better?” he asked again.
“A little. You don’t happen to have any tomato juice, do you? And some raw eggs?”
“Ah, no. Here, I got out a fresh shirt for you. I’ll leave the underwear to you,” he pointed at the clothes he’d laid out on the bed. Steed swayed as he walked across the room, but he made it to the dresser where his suitcase lay open and braced himself with one hand while he found underwear with the other. Lee focused on the television while Steed put on the white briefs, dropping the towel, then picked up the trousers Lee had unfolded.
They had shared a small cabin on a submarine for several weeks the previous winter, but that didn’t make Lee any more comfortable just laying there watching Steed dress. So he stood up and walked over to the television, peering down at the screen.
“I need to shave,” Steed muttered, rubbing his chin.
“Be careful,” Lee said, knowing Steed favored a straight razor. He was glad to see Steed take a battery-powered electric razor from his bag.
Twenty minutes later Steed slowly lowered himself into the passenger seat of Lee’s Porsche. Relieved to have gotten the other man this far, Lee slipped behind the wheel and put the car in gear.
“So,” he said, still keeping his voice low in respect for Steed’s condition, “will you tell me about it?”
“She’s gone away,” Steed said, staring blankly ahead.
“Emma?” Lee glanced at him as he pulled into Washington’s morning rush hour traffic.
“I’m afraid that she’s given up. She’s left London. She’s left me.”
“How do you know?”
“I called. They told me, at her office. She’s gone away.”
“That’s all Sally would tell you?”
“I couldn’t reach Sally.”
“Her secretary, then?”
“No, the switchboard operator.”
“Let me get this straight, Steed. You drank a bottle of liquor based on information from a night switchboard operator?”
Steed slowly turned his head to direct dull grey eyes at Lee. “You think I jumped to conclusions?”
Lee couldn’t help grinning. “Come on, I know who will have tomato juice and eggs.”
Steed squinted out at the suburban Virginia neighborhood curiously. The tidy yards and well-kept houses on moderately large lots indicated prosperous, proud owners. It was Friday morning and most of the husbands had already streamed out of the houses to their sedans to drive to the train station or the office. Now children carrying book bags were trooping along the sidewalks toward school. It was idyllic in a way that held no appeal for Steed. He understood that some people craved this life. He knew that he did not. A city apartment with neighbors close by was acceptable because of the benefits of being in the city. But a home required space. Land for horses. A garden. A buffer zone between Steed and the rest of the world. Were Emma to propose this sort of lifestyle he was not sure what he would do.
Emma. He felt his heart sink, despite Stetson’s point about his jumping to conclusions. I’ll live here, God help me, if it’s what you want, if you’ll just come back.
Lee parked the car in front of a house with a white picket fence. He got out and came around, holding the door while Steed climbed out of the low-slung car. Aware that Steed was accustomed to his and Emma’s convertibles Lee put out a hand to prevent the other man from hitting his head on the doorframe. But Steed unfolded gracefully from the Porche. They walked carefully up the front walk and Lee rang the doorbell. Married more than a year and I have to ring the doorbell at my wife’s house. Steed’s got nothing on me for a screwed up relationship, he thought.
The door opened and Jamie, Amanda’s younger son grinned out. He had a jacket half on and apparently had just dropped his book bag on the floor.
“Hey Lee!” he said cheerfully, then half turned and shouted, “MOM! Lee’s here with someone.”
Steed shuddered at the loud shout.
“Come on in,” Jamie added, kicking his book bag under the hall table so the two men could get by.
“Jamie, this is John Steed. Steed, Jamie is Amanda’s younger son.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jamie,” Steed shook the teenager’s hand, his voice quite pleasant and even despite his condition, Lee noted.
“Phillip? School!” Amanda’s distinctive drawl called out from somewhere upstairs.
“Come on Steed,” Lee urged the other man in to the living room. There were thumping steps on the stairs and a babble of voices that concluded with several warm farewells. Then the front door opened and closed.
“Lee?” Amanda appeared in the living room doorway. “What are you –? Oh, good morning Steed.”
Lee stepped over to Amanda and placed both hands on her upper arms and a kiss on her forehead. “Steed’s had a bad night, Amanda. He’s looking for some tomato juice and raw eggs,” he said, then turned back to Steed, “anything else?”
Steed, who’d lowered himself gingerly to the sofa, rattled off a long list of ingredients that made Amanda grimace. “Trust me,” he added, seeing her expression, “it’s the best thing for me.”
“Yeah, because it’ll make you sick,” she muttered too quietly for the Brit to hear. Lee shook his head, following her into the kitchen.
“He’s already done that,” he said. Amanda grimaced again.
“What happened?” she asked as she started assembling the items Steed had requested.
“Last night he tried to reach Emma and was told that she’s ‘gone away.’ He decided that meant permanently. But he wasn’t able to reach anyone who’d really know what’s going on.”
“He tried again this morning?”
“No. I’d better help him with that,” Lee realized. It was early afternoon in London now. He got Steed to recite the Knight Industries phone number and dialed, asking to be connected to Sally Howard. The young woman answered on the second ring. Lee handed the phone to Steed rather than introduce himself.
“She decided late on Wednesday to accept an invitation to a management conference in Frankfort, Steed,” Sally explained. “Mr. Stanton urged her to go – he wants her to make some contacts. He also told me he thought it would do her good to get away. They took away the Renoir yesterday. She was very sad.”
“The Renoir? Oh – from her office. They’re selling it? She must be devastated.”
“I’m afraid so. It’s to be auctioned with the rest of the fine art from upstairs next week – there are two Picassos and some small sculptures – Rodin studies, I think. The preview is this weekend. I think Mr. Stanton didn’t want her to be able to go linger at the auction house.”
“He’s a wise man, Mr. Stanton,” Steed said.
“Even if you don’t much like him?” Sally added. She was sometimes amazed at herself for the things she let herself say to Steed. She heard him chuckle weakly. He didn’t sound well. “Are you all right Steed?”
“Yes – well, no. But I’ll recover. Do you have a number for her in Frankfort?”
“Yes of course,” Sally gave him the number and bid him farewell. She wondered as she replaced the receiver on her telephone just what he’d thought when he’d been told by the Knight operator that Emma had “gone away.” Poor man.
Steed concocted his auntie’s guaranteed hangover remedy in Amanda’s blender and consumed the stuff with growing enthusiasm. Lee and Amanda were amazed at the effect it had on him, although Amanda was certain that the drink had very little to do with his recovery.
After a grueling morning telephoning other agencies and contacts Steed met a Swiss diplomatic attaché outside the Swiss consulate to collect another account statement. The last withdrawal it showed was in Paris. Steed was more certain now than before that Peel would start using the funds in one of the other accounts. He telephoned Weems at the ministry and learned that their man in the Cayman Islands was working on that end. So he called there and followed a telephone trail all over the island for a good part of the afternoon. After a strange dinner of take-away Chinese food with Lee he took over Amanda’s desk to telephone Emma in Frankfurt.
He’d felt sheepish about his assumption that she’d fled from the stress, but when he heard her voice his fear was washed away by pure joy.
“Tracked you down,” he said brightly, knowing she’d recognize his voice.
“Darling! I’m so glad you did. Did Sal – Mrs. Emerson tell you where to find me?”
“Um, yes. Mrs. Emerson,” Steed paused. She had started to say Sally. Why would she think I talked to Sally?
“This conference was rather last minute, but they needed a fill-in for two of the panel discussions and Edmond pressured me endlessly. At least there’s no cost to Knight. And I did have drinks this evening with two men that he wanted me to meet.”
“Stanton’s setting you up now?” Steed asked, only half joking.
“Of course not, Steed,” she laughed at him, “They’re financiers. Edmond has nothing but Knight’s money on his mind. And I think there may be an opportunity for us with one of them.”
“Well that’s good news.”
“Yes. How about you? You’ve arrived safely, I gather?”
“Yes. I’m with Lee now. Amanda’s gone home. We’re certain Sir Peter arrived here, but I’m afraid the trail’s gone cold. I’m hoping you can help. Can you think of any people he knows in this part of the States?”
“Yes, a few,” Emma proceeded to list half a dozen friends and acquaintances, some of which Steed was sure were in his files.
“Thank you, darling,” he said as he wrote down the last name and hometown. “What time is it there now? Oh dear, nearly two a.m. I’m so sorry to have called so late.”
“Better to have called late than never to have called at all, Steed,” she yawned.
“I miss you terribly, you know,” Steed glanced up at Stetson seated at his desk, but the other agent seemed to be engrossed in catching up with his own work.
“Me too, darling.”
“Can I toast your bun, Steed?” Amanda stood in front of the British agent with a platter of raw hamburgers in one hand and one of hamburger buns in the other. She laughed at Steed’s puzzled look. “We put the buns on the grill for a few seconds to toast them – but some people don’t like that,” she explained.
“Oh! Certainly Amanda,” Steed replied. “Not being a hamburger connoisseur, I will follow your lead.” Amanda grinned and headed toward the barbeque grill where Lee was spreading the glowing charcoal.
“Mr. Steed, don’t you eat hamburgers in England?” Phillip, Amanda’s older son, asked. Steed turned toward the young man, who was seated across from him at the King’s picnic table.
“They’re not unheard of, but they’re not a regular menu item, Phillip,” he said. “and where I live, the backyard barbeque is not possible.”
“Because I live in an apartment – I don’t have a backyard.”
“Like Lee,” Phillip nodded with understanding. “But you must have friends who have barbeques.”
“No, not really. My friends who have gardens – we call them gardens – don’t tend to host barbeque parties.”
“That’s too bad,” Phillip looked sincerely regretful. Steed smiled, but refrained from observing that he didn’t feel particularly deprived. He did have to admit that Lee and Amanda and Amanda’s sons made it a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Particularly after a fruitless morning of long distance pursuit. Steed was itching to be on the move, but he had nowhere to go until Peter Peel showed himself somewhere, somehow.
“Freddy says you’re feeling low and I should try to cheer you up,” Emma’s friend Nancy said as they were seated in a small Italian restaurant near Emma’s apartment. Nancy had left a message for Emma on her tape while she was in Germany, and Emma had forced herself to return the call and accept her the dinner invitation. She knew Freddy must be behind it, she hadn’t heard from Nancy in several months – since her friend had filed for divorce and gone off to stay with her brother in Wales for a while.
“I’ve been better,” Emma admitted, knowing that Freddy would have filled Nancy in on the public details. She trusted him to have kept the rest to himself – that was what she paid him for, after all.
“Is it your friend Steed?” she asked. “I know Freddy has always thought he’d hurt you.”
“That’s wishful thinking on Freddy’s part,” Emma said, shaking her head ruefully, “The trouble is my company. Our finances are very weak. We’re struggling to stay afloat.”
“Oh Em, I’m so sorry. After all you went through to regain control! Yes, I know about it. Freddy explained that, too. I’m sorry I wasn’t around to help you.”
“I suppose it’s still for the best. If I weren’t the CEO now then I think those in charge would have closed the doors already.”
Nancy grinned, “But you’re not overly self assured about it,” she said. Emma smirked at her and picked up the menu.
Germany had been lonely, if successful. She’d made contact with several sources of funding that would not require the same rigid terms as the English banks she’d first talked with. Still, a loan was a loan, and it represented an admission of defeat to Emma. And she’d come back to her office Monday morning with the empty wall over the fireplace. Only her full calendar had kept her from staring at it and bursting into tears.
She hadn’t even had time today to quiz Sally about her most recent date with the cub reporter. Before she’d left for Germany Sally had confessed that she was nervous about his work. Emma had shrugged it off and urged Sally not to do anything she wouldn’t do. Thinking back on the conversation over the weekend she’d realized that had probably not been the best advice. She was fairly certain Sally was still a virgin, and she didn’t want to be accused of advising her to change that. So now she wanted to know how far Sally had taken it – assuming the girl would tell her. She knew that at some point her friendly advice would verge on the voyeuristic. It was no way to substitute for Steed.
As she stretched out in her bed that night Emma had to admit that dinner had done her good. Nancy had effectively distracted her from her own misery with outrageous stories of her divorce from Howard. Apparently Nancy had seen her husband’s character flaws – starting with the lack of personality that Emma had spotted the first time she met him – only after several years of marriage. Howard had cheated on her rather publicly, and Nancy had received a generous settlement because of it. Drifting off to sleep, Emma wished her divorce from Peter could have been that uncomplicated.
“We’ll see you tonight at the Greenbriar, Steed,” Lee patted the top of Steed’s rental car – a pale blue Mustang.
“Drive safely,” Amanda added, waving from the sidewalk. Steed waved back and eased the car into gear. He was on the move at last. Peter Peel had turned up – as Albert Axelrod again – at a very fancy resort in West Virginia. Steed had asked Lee and Amanda to go there and check in while he lurked in the background. He was sure Peel would be on the lookout for him.
“Thanks for taking care of the boys on such short notice, Dottie,” Lee said as he opened the door of his Porsche for Amanda.
“Don’t mention it, Lee. You can’t very well pass up a free trip to the Greenbriar. Even if it is in the middle of the week . . .”
“That’s right, mother. Now don’t let Phillip get away with not finishing his homework,” she glanced up at her sons, who were standing on the front steps.
Once Lee and Amanda had driven away Dorothea “Dottie” West ushered her grandsons inside the house and headed toward the kitchen where Amanda had set out ingredients for dinner. Phillip and Jamie followed her, both boys flopping down on chairs in the adjoining family room.
“So tell me again about this Mr. Steed,” she said. Dottie had been away visiting her sister for the weekend and so had missed the Saturday barbeque with the distinguished Englishman.
“He’s English,” Jamie provided guilelessly.
“Well duh. Mom met him when they went to England last year, Grandma,” Phillip said.
“So he’s a film maker too?” Dottie asked, since it had been a business trip.
“I guess so. He didn’t say,” Phillip replied.
“He knows a lot about cars,” Jamie said. “But he’d never had a hamburger.”
“Oh come on, doufus, he didn’t say that. He said he wasn’t a connie – a conno – Grandma, what’s that word?” Phillip looked toward Dottie for guidance.
“Connoisseur?” Dottie suggested.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Well, I’m not sure I’d describe anyone as a hamburger connoisseur,” she laughed, “but it sounds like Mr. Steed is a connoisseur of something.”
“Wine,” Jamie suggested, “and cars. And he kept mentioning some woman. It was funny, actually. Mom and Lee would mention Emma, and he would say ‘Mrs. Peel.’ Right?” he looked to his brother for confirmation.
Phillip nodded. “Yeah. It was like he was being all formal about her, but from the way mom and Lee talked about her, they’re all good friends.”
Dottie looked thoughtful for a moment, “I think she’s called here,” she said. “Amanda has spoken to an English woman who identified herself as Emma Peel.”
“I think it’s really mysterious,” Jamie said. Phillip snorted at him and Dottie raised her eyebrows inquiringly. “Well, Mr. Steed just showed up here at the end of last week and now he’s gone and they’re going off on this trip. And they call this woman by different names. I think Lee has gotten Mom involved in something mysterious.”
“Why blame Lee?” Phillip asked somewhat defensively, “Maybe it’s Mom who’s gotten him into trouble.”
“Boys! Dottie half shouted. “Nobody’s in trouble. Phillip, have you finished your homework?”
“No,” the older boy groaned, automatically rising from his chair to head upstairs.
“Jamie, please set the table,” Dottie added so as not to seem to be punishing Phillip. She had wanted the conversation to end because the boys had hit upon something that she’d been pondering for some months herself.
“Wow,” Amanda breathed as Lee navigated the turns of the Greenbriar’s long driveway. “I’ve heard of this place since I was a teenager.” She was craning her neck around each turn to take in the beautiful landscaping and the building itself glimpsed now and then through the trees.
“It’s something,” Lee agreed.
“You’ve been here before?”
Lee shrugged and reached for her hand. “Not with you.”
She smiled and nodded, understanding his way of telling her that past relationships were over.
“So we’re using Simpson?” she asked to change the subject.
“Yup. Mr. And Mrs.” he grinned at her, thinking as she was of all the times they’d used those aliases when they were not involved with one another and how it had sometimes caused considerable awkwardness.
Lee wasn’t at all surprised when the bellhop who loaded their bags on a trolley and guided them to their room was a mustachioed and bespectacled Steed. Once inside their room he shut the door and began unloading their bags.
“He’s here,” he said, “Room 405.”
“Why haven’t you just arrested him?” Amanda asked. “Not that I don’t want to stay and enjoy the resort a little.”
“I haven’t been able to get close enough. If he sees me he’ll bolt. I need your help to pen him.”
“You have a plan?”
“I’m working on it. Your input will be most welcome,” Steed said as he opened the door and stepped into the hall. “I hope everything is to your liking, sir, madam, he said nodding at Amanda. Please ring if you need anything.”
“I’ll have the trout,” Lee said, glancing up at Steed as he handed him his menu.
“Very good sir,” Steed nodded curtly. His hair was short and white and he seemed to be a couple inches shorter due to shoulders stooped with age. Lee had not immediately recognized him. Amanda was also disguised, her hair wrapped in a fashionable scarf and her bright brown eyes obscured behind thick-lensed glasses. “He’s across the dining room at the table to the right of the big fichus. With the blond,” Steed muttered as he noted Lee’s order.
Lee glanced across the room. “They look like a matched set,” he muttered back. The corners of Steed’s mouth curled. “Who is she?”
“I’m not sure. I’d like to find out before grabbing him. I don’t think he’s suspicious yet, so we can probably wait until tomorrow.”
A note slipped under Lee and Amanda’s door asked them to take an early morning swim. They found Steed dressed in shorts and a loose short-sleeved shirt using a long handled brush to sweep the sides of the swimming pool. They settle into a pair of lounges at the water’s edge.
“She’s an actress – small roles mostly,” Steed said, eyes focused on the brush under the water.
“That’s why she looked familiar!” Amanda whispered. She wore a big sunhat and enormous dark glasses. Lee felt exposed in his swim trunks and polo shirt – not a disguise at all. “She was in that silly movie Jamie dragged us all to see last fall. What was it?” Amanda paused, trying to remember. Lee jumped in to end her ramble.
“Did he meet her here on purpose, or is it a happy accident?”
“Hard to say. We haven’t yet turned up any previous connection between them.” Steed crouched as if to examine a particularly dirty spot on the poolside.
“If she’s just an honest actress, we may be able to enlist her,” Lee speculated.
“I was thinking the same thing. To really succeed at what I want to do, we need access to his offshore accounts before we nab him. I wasn’t holding out much hope, but his new friend is encouraging.”
“So you want to hold off, try to approach her?”
“I’d like Amanda to approach her,” Steed stood up and started walking along the poolside with his brush – he couldn’t stay in one spot too long without looking suspicious. Amanda got up and wandered toward the pool steps, which were ahead of Steed in his circuit. As he approached she dipped her toe in the water.
“May I swim while you clean?” she asked him in a normal voice.
“Yes of course, miss,” he replied in a rather good American accent.
“Word among the staff is that she swims every morning, right around now, while he’s still in his room,” he added in a whisper.
“All right. I’ll see what I can find out.” Amanda smiled dismissively at Steed as she went back to her lounge to set down her hat and glasses and take off the brightly colored sarong that covered her one-piece swimsuit. Steed gathered his pool cleaning tools and disappeared just a moment before Peter Peel’s friend appeared on the pool deck.
Lee pretended to doze on his lounge as he watched Amanda and the other woman swim laps in the large, decoratively shaped pool. After a while he heard Amanda’s voice, answered by another woman. He couldn’t hear the words, but from the tone he could tell Amanda had succeeded in starting a conversation.
“Her name is Lisa Manning. She says she met him here yesterday morning. She’s completely infatuated with him – she says it’s the accent,” Amanda smiled at Steed, who arched one eyebrow at her. There was no way for him not to think of Emma when presented with the facts of Peter Peel’s charm. She had once fallen for it just as this Lisa Manning was.
“That’s not good,” Lee observed. “She may not be so willing to betray him if she’s falling for him.”
“I said infatuated, Lee, not in love. There is a difference,” Amanda said.
“Okay, so what do we do with this difference?” Lee asked, just a little annoyed. He took a bite of toast and looked at her curiously as he chewed. Steed had slipped into their room after Amanda’s swim and they’d ordered breakfast.
“I steered the conversation toward honesty, and I think it’s very important to her. If he’s not telling her where he gets his money – and I’m sure he’s not – then she’ll probably not approve if she finds out he’s lying to her. Plus she won’t approve of what he’s done.”
“And just how, pray tell, did you get that sort of information from her?” Steed asked.
“Oh, I complained that I thought the restaurant had tried to overcharge us, asked her if she’d had any trouble. It built from there.”
“I suppose you slapped the blame on your poor waiter, too,” Steed grumbled, but he was impressed with Amanda’s technique. “Here’s the dossier on her that I put together,” he pulled a notebook out from inside his shirt and handed it to Amanda. “I hope you can read my handwriting, I took all of the information over the phone. You come up with some more approaches to her. I’ve got to get back out there and keep an eye on Sir Peter. I’ll make contact with you early this afternoon.”
Steed rose and slipped out the door. Amanda looked from the notebook to Lee.
“He sure does have to be in charge, doesn’t he?” she asked, shaking her head.
Lee laughed, taking the notebook from her to flip it open and skim the pages of neatly written notes.
“I would recommend a glass of the chardonnay with that, sir. We have a very nice French vintage by the glass or –.”
“I’ll try this one, from Washington State,” the bulky, bald man in a plaid shirt pointed to a cheaper wine on the list and held it up in front of Steed’s face. Steed tried not to grimace as he took the list and noted the man’s selection. Washington State. Now there’s a world-class viticultural area. He stepped away from the table, pausing to make notes and eavesdrop on Peter Peel, to whom he had his stoop shouldered back.
“It’s all set, darling. But we should get to the stable in thirty minutes,” Peel was saying.
“All right Albert. If they have boots there, then I suppose I’m ready to go,” his companion replied. Steed concluded his notes and turned toward the kitchen door, noticing Lee and Amanda appear in the entranceway as he did.
A disturbance behind him forced him to half turn, not wanting to face Peel but needing to know what was going on. Lisa was leaning back in her chair, her hands raised in front of her to block her face from the camera being pointed at her by a wiry little man with a beard. Peel jumped up as the flashbulb went off, knocking the camera from the man’s hands and punching him squarely in the jaw. The man went down with a cry. Peter turned back to Lisa and grabbed her by the elbow, hauling her up.
“Come on,” he said, “Let me get you out of here.”
The pair brushed past Lee and Amanda and several other people without noticing them. Steed bent over the injured photographer, who was starting to sit up. Lee stepped up close as well, playing concerned guest.
“Go to the stables,” Steed instructed Lee quietly, hands braced on the photographer’s shoulders as if he were supporting him. Lee could see the man starting to look anxious through his pain. Steed was actually holding him down, not helping him. “Stay with them.”
Lee took Amanda’s arm and led her away without a word. Steed rose, pulling the photographer to his feet.
“There now, that’s better,” he said in his American accent. “Let’s just get you to some first aid, shall we?” He put a supportive, restraining arm around the fellow and escorted him through the swinging kitchen door. Behind him he heard the man in the plaid shirt shout something about his lunch order.
He kept going, marching the still stunned man out the back door to the garbage cans, then pressing him against the wall of the building with one forearm arm across his collarbone. He used his free hand to search through his jacket pockets until he came up with a wallet. The man squirmed and protested, but Steed’s strength and size were overpowering.
“So Mr. Jackson, I don’t see any sort of press identification here,” Steed said, holding up the man’s wallet and staring coldly into his eyes. Jackson’s brows knit and he tried again to pull Steed’s arm away from his chest.
“I’m freelance,” he snarled.
“Why were you taking their picture? What’s the story you’re working on?”
“She’s an actress.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know!” he nearly wailed. “I don’t know. Look, the man gave me five hundred bucks. Told me to come in and snap their picture. He didn’t even want the photo – he just wanted it to be public. He never said he was going to slug me.”
Steed dropped the man’s wallet and moved away from him. “Seems like you earned your five hundred dollars,” he said angrily. Five hundred dollars of Knight’s money.
Lee and Amanda returned to their room to change in to clothes suitable for riding, then hurried across the resort grounds to the stable. The two blonds were riding away from the stable yard just as they arrived. Lee did his best not to seem anxious as he arranged for two horses. When the stable manager told him it would take a few minutes he couldn’t help pacing the yard. Amanda strolled along the bridle path until it topped a low rise. From there she could see Peel and Lisa walking their horses sedately. She tried to signal Lee that all was well so far, but he was paying no attention to her.
Steed stripped off his waiter’s jacket, leaving him in the less obvious black slacks and shoes and a white shirt. He hurried up the stairs to the fourth floor and trotted along the corridor toward room 405. Just as he reached it the door opened, so he kept walking to room 407 and stopped as if opening the door. A man came out of Peter Peel’s room carrying two suitcases. He shut the door and walked down the hall toward the elevators. Steed waited until he’d entered one, then bolted back to the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. He emerged in the lobby as the man was exiting through the front doors. Steed strode quickly after him, darting to the side on the wide front veranda to stand behind a column and watch the man load the bags into a big, two-tone American car. Steed memorized the license plate and watched the man get into the car and pull out around the circular drive.
Peel’s plan became crystal clear in an instant. He had to get to the stables.
“Ready Amanda?” Lee held her horse’s head as she stood on the mounting block and lifted her foot toward the stirrup.
“Wait!” Steed came around the corner of the stable at a dead run. Amanda paused to look at him as her horse skittered sideways in surprise. “Where are they?” Steed came to a stop beside Lee, who was struggling with the startled horse.
“Out on the trails. Amanda was watching them until a minute ago when our horses were ready,” Lee replied, his attention half on Steed and half on the horse. Steed reached out and took the reins on either side of the bit, gently lowering the horse’s head toward his own chest. The horse calmed down.
“Someone’s just taken out his luggage in a car. I’ll go after them. You two go see if her room’s also vacated, and run the license plate,” he recited the plate number and Amanda repeated it. “I’m willing to bet he’s going to rendezvous with that car somewhere out here.”
“Then we should come help you stop them,” Lee protested.
“I only have to stop him, she’ll be no trouble. And I’m best alone on horseback,” he moved around to the stirrup, “Besides, if I fail, I don’t want you involved. He doesn’t know you’re after him too, so you still have a chance to get close next time.”
He sprang up onto the horse, seized the reins, and kicked it into an immediate gallop, heading for the bridle path.
“Next time!” Lee shouted, thinking that Billy was probably already unhappy enough.
“Come on,” Amanda said, putting a hand on Lee’s shoulder to hop down off the mounting block. “Let’s go check on her room.”
Steed was glad that Amanda was tall with long legs: the stirrups on the saddle that had been adjusted for her were almost long enough for him. It was a western saddle, usually ridden with the feet lower than he was used to, so he didn’t mind his slightly bent knees at all. The horse was well trained and willing, and together they covered a lot of ground quickly. The bridle trail was well marked and Steed had no choice but to follow it, although he feared that Peel might have turned off of it and headed cross country. He scanned the sides of the trail for signs of horses leaving it.
When the terrain changed from woodland to grassy rolling hills Steed got a break. He spotted two riders, their light-haired heads shining in the sunlight, topping a hill off to the left. A few strides later he spotted hoof prints in the grass leading off the trail. He turned his horse to follow them.
As if he’d triggered a warning, the two riders spurred their horses to a run and vanished over the hill. Steed crouched over his mount’s neck, urging it to greater speed. Topping the next hill he spotted them climbing one up ahead. He had gained on them.
On the next rise he saw them veering further to the left, entering another wooded area along a dirt road. He shifted direction, making straight for the woods, wondering why they had not gone straight and hoping it was because Peel wasn’t quite sure where he was going and not because of a concealed obstacle.
It was an obstacle: a stream in the valley between two hills. Peel and Lisa had traversed it at a small bridge that was part of a the road they were now on, while Steed’s horse approached it from the top of a hill, half running, half sliding on it’s hocks down the steep slope. The animal sprang with a grunt at the bottom of the slope, carrying itself and Steed across the stream and bounding up the far side with several mighty heaves. Steed patted its withers happily as they turned left onto the road, now just a quarter mile behind the other two riders.
Lee quickly picked the lock on the door to Lisa’s room. It was empty, the bed unmade, but no sign of any personal belongings.
“She’d packed too. She knew they were leaving,” Amanda said with a frown.
“But does she know why?” Lee wondered, double-checking the bathroom.
“Let’s call in the license plate and see what that tells us – maybe she arranged this to get away from the photographer,” Amanda said. “You know, I think I read something in People magazine about her recently. She got a lot of publicity for breaking up with that actor in that science fiction series.”
Lee came out of the bathroom and shook his head in amusement at his wife. “Remind me not to make fun of you reading that stuff,” he said.
A long, high pitched whistle wailed across the valley as Steed came out of the trees behind the other riders. A trailing plume of smoke approached at the head of a long dark line snaking across the land. The road along which Peel and Lisa galloped took them on an intercepting course with the approaching train. Steed begged his horse for more speed and the animal responded as best it could. But it was already sweating heavily and flecks of foam flew back from its mouth to moisten Steed’s shirt.
Steed watched as the train and his quarry approached a single point not far ahead. They might make it across the tracks ahead of the train. If they did not, they would have little room to turn their horses. At first he prayed that they would not beat the train, and then, in the last seconds, he prayed that they did, for they would not be able to stop in time and he did not wish to see the horses, or Lisa Manning, killed.
The train whistle shrieked again, the engineer seeing the riders and warning them to turn back. Steed held his breath as riders and train seemed to converge. And then the train filled his vision and the riders were gone.
There was no squealing of locomotive breaks. The whistle continued its scolding wail as the train roared on and on. Steed habitually counted ninety-three cars including tankers and boxcars and flatbeds stacked with containers. Long minutes passed, Steed patting his horse’s withers as the animal snorted and pawed the hard dirt road. It had nearly caught its breath when the caboose rolled by like a curtain opening.
Two rider-less horses stood on the dirt road a hundred yards beyond the railroad tracks. A haze of dust on the road marked the passage of a vehicle in the distance. Steed could imagine what it looked like.
Boiling with frustration, he walked his horse across the tracks and collected the two abandoned animals, then headed all three back toward the stables.
Sally hadn’t realized that one could visit the auction houses and look at the fabulous things about to go on sale. But Bond had called her on Friday to ask about the items from the Knight collection listed in the Sotheby’s catalog, and when she’d explained he’d asked her to meet him on Sunday to look at them. She’d agreed, telling Terrance when she saw him Saturday night that she had some work to do Sunday, which he’d accepted without question.
Viewing the other paintings and sculptures being auctioned along with Knight’s in the auction house’s gallery spaces was amazing. It was like a museum, but completely different. For one thing, the visitors – many potential buyers – leaned in close and even touched the art, all under the watchful eyes of the staff.
“When you’re going to spend this much money, you’re allowed to inspect the goods,” James had pointed out. Still it gave Sally a thrill to reach out with an index finger and stroke the leg of a small, rotund figure – one of the Rodin sculptures from Knight’s offices. Never mind that she could have touched it any time while it was displayed outside the board room, doing it here felt like a little crime.
“It’s so cool,” she said, glancing at James. He smiled, the corners of his mouth curling up in that charming way of his.
“I need your help, Sally,” he said, unwittingly echoing Steed. She knew immediately it had something to do with Miss Knight. For an instant she wished one of these men would want to do something desperate on her behalf. Then she thought about the emotional turmoil Miss Knight’s relationships with them brought her and reconsidered her wish.
“What can I do?” she asked.
“Tell me which of these pieces Emma misses the most. I can’t save them all, but I might be able to save one of them.”
“You’re going to buy one?” Sally was astonished. The reserves on some of the pieces were as much as half her salary, and some were astronomically higher. Swallowing hard as James shrugged non-committally, she led him over to the Renoir that had been removed from Emma’s office. She forced herself to look at the reserve price posted beside it. It was one of the lower ones, just about two-thirds her annual income.
“This belongs over the fireplace in her office. It was the first painting her father had Knight purchase, when she was a girl,” she explained, repeating what Emma had told her when she’d complimented the painting during her first week of employment.
Bond stepped close and studied the brush strokes for a few minutes, then stepped back.
“It’s been expertly restored within the last decade. The reserve could be much higher.”
“Could it?” Sally felt faint at the thought of the amounts of money the people in the auction house at that moment must lay claim to. She knew Miss Knight was wealthy, but seeing so many people who were equally so, or more so, and who seemed to think nothing of it, was overwhelming.
“Yes. They’ve priced it to sell. Just how bad are things at Knight, Sally?”
Emma was allowing herself fifteen minutes in the steamy sauna after her session with Hemming. He had pushed her hard today and while she was pleased with her own progress in regaining her accustomed strength and flexibility, she was also certain to be sore and tired later.
The steam billowed as the door opened to admit a male figure with a towel wrapped around its waist – when the ministry began encouraging female agents and staff to use the fitness facilities it had divided the locker room and showers by gender, but none of the other facilities. Emma had picked up a great deal of useful information by sitting discretely in a steamy corner listening to the boys, who tended to check their usually cautious natures at the door. This man was alone, so Emma didn’t slip into the shadows. He plopped down on the tiled bench across from her with a sigh and stretched his arms over his head. His knees sprawled wide, testing the security of his white towel. Emma smirked, recognizing the type, and then the man himself. She was happy to see him despite his habitually suggestive behavior.
“How are you, Emma?” he asked, bringing his knees together and sitting up straighter on his bench. “I understand you’ve been facing some tough times.”
He knew it was me all along. What an exhibitionist.
“Yes, James. Money is very tight at Knight just now.”
“So you’ve got Hemming helping you to stay loose,” he chuckled at his own cleverness. Emma had to smile. Good thing she was desperately in love with Steed, because she could fall for Bond, and every bit of gossip she’d ever heard indicated that that was a very bad idea.
“I’m amazed at how hard it is to regain what I lost after the shooting,” she admitted, certain that he’d been through the same sort of recovery more than once.
“Well, Hemming’s the best at that kind of PT. He’s worked enough of us through it, I suppose. I hear Steed’s off looking for your ex-husband. On your orders?”
Emma felt herself shiver despite the clammy heat. Had she sent him away? Certainly not overtly. “No. Steed does as Steed chooses.” She heard herself snap. James leaned forward, elbows on knees, to peer at her through the mist. She sat up straight, her hands in her lap, wearing her own towel as if it were an evening gown.
“I know you feel committed to turning things around at Knight,” he said. “but speaking as one of your larger shareholders I want you to know that your happiness is more important to me than the company. What your husband did to Knight is not your fault.”
“Thank you James, but I’m not sure my father would agree. After all, I’m the reason Peter had access to Knight in the first place. If I’d concentrated on the company instead of him nine years ago none of this would have happened.”
“And you’d be a dull CEO still trying to fill her father’s shoes.”
Emma stared at him for a moment, then burst into laughter at the irony. “Instead I’m a desperate CEO selling off her father’s shoes to keep the doors open,” she said.
James leaned back and laughed with her, the mirth not reaching his eyes as he watched her wrap her arms around herself and rock forward and back a few times. He wanted very much to move to her bench and take her in his arms, she so clearly needed to be held. But he wasn’t the man to do it, especially as undressed as they were. His intentions could be as pure as the steam around them, but if word got back to Steed he’d lose two friends. He’d have to comfort her in a different way.
“Lisa Manning’s agent says she’s due back in Los Angeles the day after tomorrow to begin shooting a television pilot,” Lee said to Steed as he hung up the telephone. As he spoke the door to Amanda and Lee’s office opened and Amanda came in.
“There was a Noel Delancey seated next to Lisa Manning on a flight out of Washington last night,” she announced, handing Steed a computer printout with two names circled in pencil.
“He’s still with her, and he’s getting sloppy,” Steed said, the corners of his lips curling in delight as he looked at the passenger list. His head popped up and he skewered first Lee and then Amanda with his cool, grey gaze.
“I need your help in Los Angeles.”
“Of course we’ll help,” Amanda said before Lee could speak. His eyes snapped to her, his expression surprised.
“Thank you, Amanda. You know how important this is to me. And to Emma.”
Lee’s hesitation evaporated when Steed used Emma’s first name. He could not deny assistance to a man on such a quest. The question was, could he explain that to Billy Melrose? Lee wouldn’t have been remotely interested in trying before he’d met Amanda King. But since she’d worked her way into his work, and then his life, his priorities had shifted.
The similarities between his life with Amanda and Steed’s with Emma were striking: professional bachelor spy recruits civilian woman assistant, falls for her, realizes it’s mutual, and turns into half of a devoted couple. But the complications were different. For Lee and Amanda, the obstacle to their being together was their work – it was against agency policy for married couples to team up in the field. But Lee could no more imagine working without Amanda than she could without him. They also recognized the danger to her family should their relationship be known to the criminals they targeted. So they had worked out an uneasy compromise – a secret wedding and sporadic married life. But it wasn’t working for either of them, and the time to tell Amanda’s family and their close agency associates was rapidly approaching. They continued to delay it only because they knew it would mean drastic changes to their professional and personal lives that they were not yet willing to make.
Steed and Emma, it seemed, did not face the same official restriction, or if they did they chose to ignore it. Emma’s association with the ministry had been severed for several years and only sporadic in recent months. But from what Lee understood Steed very much wanted her participation in his cases. They had once been a powerful duo, and Lee suspected that their enemies would be particularly interested in stopping a full-blown reunion. He wondered if Steed, or Emma, had contemplated the danger they might be courting by pursuing a public relationship. Still, he wasn’t going to be the one to discourage it. His recent drinking binge and his single-mindedness about Peter Peel aside, Steed needed Emma. He functioned better with her in his life. Lee understood that, and he would do what he could to help the other man achieve it.
Emma held her pen poised over the space for her signature on the letter to Harry Hill. She knew she shouldn’t delay any longer. Harry did not deserve to be left hanging. He must think she was frivolous or even cruel to have led him on about a job. The sale of the first of Knight’s heavy industry holdings had gone through yesterday. Knight would have a small infusion of cash by the end of the week, but less of a reason to employ the man she had come to think of as her brother-in-law. Biting her lower lip, she lowered her pen and scratched her signature on the paper, then initialed the file copy. The two sheets of paper seemed as heavy as lead as she placed them in her out box.
A light knock on the door drew her attention and she gestured for Sally to come in.
“Good afternoon, Miss Knight,” Sally said, coming across to sit in one of the guest chairs. “I wondered if we could go over some things – Mrs. Emerson said you’re free for the next hour. I have an appointment this evening, so I was hoping to leave early.”
Emma smiled at her, “six o’clock isn’t early Sally,” she said. Sally smiled back because that was exactly the “early” departure time she’d had in mind. “Go ahead – I do have a few minutes now,” Emma added. I wish you’d come a minute earlier and kept me from signing that letter.
“First off, Steed’s heading for Los Angeles with the American agents. He sounds optimistic – maybe it’s because he has their help. He’ll probably call you late tonight.”
Emma nodded, glad to know that Amanda and Lee were helping him. He’d sounded so lonely in Europe.
Sally went on to review other projects she was working on in succinct terms. She had learned to recognize how people liked to communicate and adapt her reports to them. She knew Emma wanted summaries and would ask for detail where she wanted it. On the other hand, Mrs. Emerson wanted narratives – she wanted to hear how Sally reached her conclusions or constructed her reports. The latter were more tiring for Sally – she tended more toward Emma’s way of thinking – but she had to admit that when she forced herself to work Mrs. Emerson’s way she found more errors and flaws in her logic.
When she’d finished her review and answered Emma’s questions, Emma leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs, a sign that she wasn’t through, but wanted to change the subject. Sally waited, knowing what was coming.
“How is your friend Terrance?” Emma asked.
“He’s fine, Miss Knight. I spoke to him last night.”
“You haven’t seen him this week?”
“Only Saturday night.”
“No progress?” Emma sensed reluctance on Sally’s part. It saddened her to realize that her protégé might not want more guidance. Sally shrugged, pursing her lips.
“No, ma’am. To be honest, I’m not sure what I want. He’s very sweet, and I do like to, well, you know, kiss him. But at first it was very exciting. Now it’s not so –.”
“No little tingle when he touches you?” she nodded understandingly.
“Less of one.”
“Well, maybe you need to go a little further,” What am I saying? Stop it!
“I think I would, ma’am. But he doesn’t seem to be interested,” Sally sounded frustrated.
Emma frowned. “Well, if he’s not, then end it. You can be friends with him, but don’t encourage anything physical if there’s no spark.”
Sally sighed and picked at her fingernails. It was clear she wanted to say more. Emma waited.
“I have to wonder if it’s just me, ma’am. Maybe I’m not responding the way he wants. Maybe I’m supposed to be doing something –.”
“These things tend to be instinctive, Sally,” Emma said, “you kiss him, he kisses back, you kiss a little more – know what I mean?” Sally looked blank. Emma rolled her eyes at her. “You open your mouth, use your tongue!”
“Oh!” Sally started to color. “I’ve been afraid to do that. It seems so – vulgar.”
Emma uncrossed her legs and leaned across her desk to stare Sally down. But Sally had learned to endure her boss’s glare and didn’t flinch. “Sex is not vulgar, Sally. We are all sexual creatures. I know that you will enjoy it very much, when the time comes. Maybe Terrance isn’t the right man for you, but give it a little more before you give up on him. I liked seeing that sparkle in your eyes a few weeks ago.”
“Lisa Manning?” Amanda slipped into the chair opposite the actress at a table in the diner across from the television studio. Lisa, who had been eating a bowl of watery broth, looked startled, and then puzzled as she thought she recognized Amanda.
“Yes?” she asked tentatively, reaching instinctively for her handbag. Amanda discretely opened her wallet to let Lisa see her identification, which was clearly of government issue, although not terribly informative.
“We spoke in West Virginia a few days ago. At the pool. Do you remember?”
“Yes! That’s where I’ve seen you. What are you doing here?” Lisa brought her hand back up onto the table and picked up her spoon.
Sensing that the other woman wasn’t going to bolt from the diner, Amanda relaxed a little and put her wallet away. Billy had allowed them to put a surveillance team outside Lisa’s Malibu home. Peter Peel was there. So Steed, Lee, and Amanda had flown to LA. Steed had been torn between simply going in and getting Peel, and enlisting Lisa Manning’s cooperation. Lee had convinced him to have Amanda approach Lisa first. He didn’t come out and say that Steed had come close and lost Peel twice before, so this time he should get more help. But the message had been clear and Steed had accepted the tacit criticism with grace.
“You have a friend staying at your house,” Amanda said. Lisa’s frown was enough to confirm her statement. “Is he calling himself Albert Axelrod? Or is it Noel Delancey?”
“What do you mean? His name is Albert.”
Amanda took a sheet of paper from her bag and placed it on the table beside Lisa’s plate. It was the airline passenger list showing that the man in the seat beside Lisa had been Noel Delancey. “He traveled with you under a different alias,” she said.
“That must be an error. Albert was next to me.”
“Airlines are very careful about these things, Miss Manning. Is this Albert?” Amanda placed a printout from an immigration computer with Peter Peel’s picture next to Noel Delancey’s name. Lisa gasped. Amanda added a similar printout, this one in the name of Peter Peel. “This is his real identity.”
“Peter Peel. So he’s been lying to me about his name? Is he really English?”
“Oh yes. He’s very English. And very much a criminal.”
“That bastard!” the actress hissed, glaring at the page in front of her. “Men are such creeps!”
“I have to ask you something, Miss Manning. It’s important,” Amanda said, leaning over the table to get Lisa’s full attention. Lisa looked up at her curiously. “Why did you leave the resort in West Virginia with him? Why did you let them check you out of your room and use the horses to meet the car?”
“Because of the paparazzi – that photographer. I’ve had more than enough of that sort of publicity recently. Albert – Peter – said he’d arrange for us to get out of there.”
Amanda nodded, “Well, Peter also arranged for the photographer to convince you to follow his plan.”
“What?” Amanda nodded, letting Lisa’s anger grow on its own. “That rat. I’m going to throw him out on his ear. ‘I need a place to stay for a few days, darling,’” she imitated his accent, “‘Just a few days until my new place is ready, darling.’ He doesn’t have an apartment in LA, does he?”
Amanda shook her head. “He’s on the run. He stole millions of Pounds from his ex-wife’s company in England. That’s what he’s living on – that and nice people like you. Will you help us arrest him?”
Lisa snorted, “So you can take him back to face his ex-wife?”
“And the English court, although I know his ex-wife, and the court will be the easier encounter.”
“Good. I hope she rips his head off. Yes, I’ll help. I’ve had it with losers using me.”
“Ready to buy some art?” James asked as Sally came down the steps outside the Knight building. He was dressed in a perfectly tailored pinstripe three-piece suit. Sally felt shabby in her Harrods’ winter sale woolen suit, which was really too warm for the season. James offered her his arm and guided her toward a silver Austin Martin that he’d parked in the no-parking zone in front of the building. Sally habitually glanced around for the bobby who usually patrolled the neighborhood and took special delight in writing up citations for illegally parked cars. Fortunately he wasn’t around.
James found legal parking near the auction house on New Bond Street and once again took Sally’s arm to escort her inside.
“Thank you for bringing me, Mr. Bond,” she said as the doorman closed the door behind them.
“Well, I may need your advice if the bidding on the painting goes too high. And please call me James, you don’t work for me.”
Sally allowed herself a giddy, inward smile. “All right, James,” she said. She allowed herself a moment of guilt for enjoying James’s company more than Terrances’s. Then she decided she could return to reality – Terrance was part of her world and James was part of her boss’s that she looked in on now and then – later. James, she knew, was a very dangerous man in many ways. Miss Knight had made it clear that he was particularly dangerous to young women. But knowing it didn’t eliminate the little flutter of excitement that stirred in her breast as he guided her with a hand on her lower back to a seat in the auditorium.
“Lovely weather here. I can see why you’ve stayed, Sir Peter,” Steed placed himself between Peter Peel and the setting sun, forcing the other man to squint up at him from the lounge chair he was lying on.
The calming sound of the surf punctuated by seabird cries rose up to the wooden deck from behind Steed. Behind Peter, the sun reflected off the sliding glass doors leading into the house. Although he couldn’t see them, Steed knew that Amanda and Lisa Manning were inside watching. Lee was on the steps leading down to the beach, staying out of sight just below deck level.
Steed stood at ease, hands by his sides, his umbrella and bowler left behind in the rental car. Not that it mattered: he hadn’t brought any of his lethal accessories to the States with him. If he felt out of place in an immaculate handmade three-piece suit on a pool deck in Malibu he did not show it.
If Peel was surprised to see Steed he did not show it. He picked up the bottle of watery American beer from the deck beside the lounge and took a swig. He wore dark glasses, but Steed had the sense that their eyes were locked on one another.
“What can I do for you Steed?” he asked, his mouth splitting into a grin, “A loan? Some pick-proof handcuffs?” he burst out laughing, a disturbingly hysterical sound. As he spoke the swimming pool pump switched on automatically, a low mechanical hum just below the susurrus of the surf.
“The displeasure of your company. In England. And that little notebook of yours with all of the information about the accounts where you’ve stashed Knight Industries’ money,” Steed took a step closer in order to loom over Peel. “Oh, never mind – we already have that.” He glanced up at the glass doors. Miss Manning had found the notebook among Peel’s things earlier in the afternoon and given it to Amanda. Lee already had people arranging for the money to be wired to the Knight Industries general account. It was unorthodox and probably not strictly legal, but it could be done, and once the money was moved it would be nearly impossible for anyone to claim it didn’t belong to Knight.
“Then you have what you really want, Steed. Or has Emma kicked you out of her bed too? Or maybe you enjoy being her errand boy?” Peel took another swig of beer and laughed again. “You could join me instead. Screw her, screw ‘em all. Like the one who owns this place. Get what you can and move on. And believe me I know, with Emma the getting is good,” he laughed again, “while it lasts.”
If the glare of the sun hadn’t concealed Steed’s neutral expression Peel might have been alarmed. It was far more chillingly frightening than hot anger. “Have you discovered her favorite little move, Steed?” Peel added, holding up his beer bottle suggestively.
Without warning it was hurled from his hand by a backhanded blow. It shattered against a poured concrete planter, brown glass shards scattering amid bright pink bougainvillea petals on the weathered wooden deck. Peel turned his head to look at it, his senses slightly dulled from having consumed three such bottles that afternoon, his smile fading as the violence of Steed’s blow finally made him realize how much danger he was in.
Steed reached down and grabbed the collar of Peel’s Hawaiian print shirt. The thin fabric stretched taut around Peel’s shoulders as Steed heaved him up and dragged him four steps over to the swimming pool. Peel grasped Steed’s wrists, yelling wordlessly, his head turning from side to side dislodging his dark glasses. He kicked with his feet and tried to get them under himself for some leverage, but Steed dragged him too quickly. By the time Steed had lowered Peel to the deck, his head and shoulders out over the clear blue water, Lee had pounded up the steps and the sliding door had opened.
Down on one knee, Steed pressed Peel’s head back into the water. He seemed almost detached from his own actions as the other man gasped for air just as his mouth was submerged. Peel’s arms stretched up to pound weakly on Steed’s shoulders. But Steed just held him, his blank grey stare meeting Peel’s blue eyes through the shimmering water.
“Steed!” Lee grabbed the powerful Brit by the shoulders and hauled him up off of Peter Peel. As if regaining consciousness himself Steed shrugged off Lee’s grip and stood up. Peel hadn’t moved – he still lay half submerged in the pool. Frowning at his friend, Lee bent down and pulled Peel’s shoulders out of the water, rolling him onto his side along the edge of the pool. He pounded the man’s back twice and was about to try to reposition him and being chest compressions when Peel coughed.
Lee glanced up at Steed, who was standing with his hands tightly clasped, staring down at Peel with a look of disbelief on his face. As Peel coughed again Lee dragged his hands behind his back and put on handcuffs.
“Are you all right, Steed?” he asked, standing up. Steed raised his gaze from Peel’s damp head to meet Lee’s concerned look.
“Forgive me,” he said softly. “I forgot myself.” Then he turned and walked to the edge of the deck, placing his hands on the railing to look out at the sea.
Amanda and Miss Manning came out and helped Lee drag Peel to a sitting position. He was conscious, but dazed.
“I don’t want to hand him over to the local authorities,” Lee said. “He may seem subdued now, but he’ll recover. Amanda, call agent Riley. Tell him we’ll wait here until he can get his unit here to take command.”
Amanda nodded and turned back to the house. Lee watched as Lisa Manning crouched in front of Peel.
“Screw them and take what you can? Was that it, Albert?” she said. Peel’s eyes focused on her as she spoke. “You’re a horrible, evil man. I wish he’d held you under a little longer.” She rose and strode back into the house.
Lee looked down at Peel. He was more alert now, and even cuffed Lee suspected he could do a lot of damage. He bent down and untied the drawstring that held Peels swim trunks up. Peel’s brows shot up as Lee pulled the string out of the waist of the shorts.
“Lie down. On your stomach,” Lee ordered, using his foot to nudge Peel into compliance. Then he bent down and used the string to bind Peel’s ankles tightly together. Satisfied that the man wouldn’t escape this time, Lee walked over to the edge of the deck to stand beside Steed.
“Forgive me,” Steed repeated, not looking at Lee. He was deeply embarrassed. It had been many years since he’d allowed himself to be so governed by his emotions as to nearly kill a man. He had worked long and hard to achieve the self-discipline that was a point of honor for him. That it had vanished in an instant in the face of Peter Peel’s uncouth words shook Steed’s self-confidence. Mother is right. I can’t be objective where she’s concerned.
“You know,” Lee said, also staring out at the silvery sea at the spot where the sun was about to descend below the distant horizon. “He’s the only man alive who could say those words and have that effect on you.”
Steed half turned to look at Lee, frowning slightly, but anxious to hear more of Lee’s redeeming words. Lee glanced at him, then straightened and turned to face him.
“Those words from anyone else would be empty. But he knew exactly what to say to drive you over the edge. Either he’s drunk, or he has a death wish. Or he grossly underestimated you.”
“Thank you Lee. For that, and for stopping me.”
“Don’t mention it. I won’t,” Lee winked and turned to face the house, noting that Peel hadn’t moved. “I suppose you’d like to get back to London.”
Steed turned as well, studiously avoiding looking at Peel. “The thought had crossed my mind,” he said cheerfully, his composure regained. Lee grinned.
“Sally, it’s Steed.”
“Steed, how’s it going?” Sally held her breath. In his last report he’d said he was very close.
“It’s over. I’m coming home. How is she?”
“How is she, Sally?”
“Just the same, Steed. Working too much – although not as much as before. Depressed. She misses you terribly.”
She heard him exhale a deep breath. She could picture him rubbing his temples with his free hand, hunched over the telephone.
“Sir Peter is in the custody of the Americans. They’ll extradite him to us when they’re done. We’ve seized all of his accounts. I’ve pulled some strings, freed up the assets before anyone could try to freeze them. There’s going to be a wire transfer to the Knight general account. Do you have a pen? I’ll give you the details.”
Sally wrote down the amounts Steed told her, gulping at the enormous sums, even though she knew it was only about two thirds of what had been stolen.
“Check for the wire transfer in the morning. Paperwork will follow. I think it’s just in time to prevent Knight having to disclose the loss.”
“Yes, she’s been holding the reports on her desk until the last moment. When will you be back?”
“I’ll catch flight tonight and be there in the morning. I’ll call you then.”
“You should call her, Steed.”
“When I get back,” he said firmly. “Good evening Sally.”
Emma’s office door was half open. Sally tapped on it, then walked in slowly to allow her eyes time to adjust to the dim light. The only light was shed across the surface of the enormous old desk by a small Tiffany lamp. It illuminated papers and files and Emma’s sleek, black Mont Blanc pen. Emma was standing at the far end of the L-shaped room, her slim figure silhouetted by the dim light of the city beyond the windows.
“Good evening, ma’am,” she said, continuing to the windows to stand next to her employer.
“Sally.” Emma’s voice was flat, as if she spoke from a great distance.
“He’s coming home, ma’am,” Sally said.
Emma’s expression melted. She covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes shining with kept tears.
“When?” she whispered.
“He caught Peter?”
“Yes ma’am. In Los Angeles – Malibu. They seized his accounts. He had this,” she handed Emma the slip of paper where she’d noted the amounts Steed said they’d recovered from Sir Peter’s various accounts. Emma looked down at the paper in her hand, at the amounts written there and the total Sally had provided.
She couldn’t stop the tears then. The hand covering her mouth slipped to her eyes and she sucked in a ragged, weeping breath. It was not all that had been stolen, but it was enough. Enough to reopen negotiations with the Americans. Enough to convince the board to go ahead with the computer subsidiary. Enough that the remaining loss could be explained in the quarterly report sitting on her desk.
Desperate to comfort her employer, Sally stepped close and put her arms awkwardly around her. She was surprised at Emma’s solidness, all hard muscles over fine bones.
“It’s all going to be fine, ma’am. Please don’t cry,” she said, releasing her and stepping back a little.
“I never cry,” Emma replied automatically.
“Of course not,” Sally agreed because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Amazingly, it was exactly right. Emma recovered herself, wiping her eyes and smiling.
“That’s what Steed always says,” Emma said with a little chuckle. Sally smiled. “Does he have any idea that you’ve been telling me everything?”
Emma nodded, smiling. “Sally, have you ever considered getting into Steed’s line of work?” She was surprised when the girl looked embarrassed and nodded, turning her gaze out to toward the city.
“He brought it up. He told me if I ever want to discuss it to let him know.”
Sally’s head snapped back to face Emma. She looked stricken.
“I’d miss you terribly, but you need to do what’s right for you. It could be a very good career,” Emma said. Sally’s expression lightened. Her shy smile returned and she turned back to look out the window.
“I think I might like it, ma’am,” she admitted.
“But if you do, I hope we can be friends. Will you please call me Emma?”
“I’ll try,” Sally said, “But I may not be able to manage it, ma’am.”
She laughed at herself and Emma had to join in, her heart growing lighter as the realization that her life – the life she’d longed for and almost given up hope on — was finally going to be possible.
“Tell me when he’s getting home. I want to be at his apartment when he gets there,” She said, already planning the reunion, a little voice at the back of her head praying that it would be as happy as she hoped.
The spring was taking a long time to come, so Emma lit a fire in Steed’s fireplace and slid a perfectly seasoned roast into the oven. The comforting smells of woodsmoke and roasting meat soon filled the mews apartment. Emma put a bottle of Steed’s favorite ’36 in an ice bucket and set it with two glasses on the side table near the sofa. Then she stretched out on the sofa to wait.
Sally had reported that his flight had arrived on time that morning, but he’d gone directly to the ministry and stayed most of the day. Emma had enlisted an acquaintance at the ministry – one of the many clerical workers to whom she’d endeared herself over the years — to alert her when Steed left. She was engrossed in an obscure novel from his shelves when the phone rang once. Thirty minutes later Steed opened the door and came in, setting his hat and umbrella on the chair by the door and his bag on the floor. He sniffed the air, obviously smelling the fire and roast, and frowned. Then he stepped in under the arch and saw her.
“Mrs. Peel,” he said softly, wondrously.
“Hello Steed,” she replied, “What’s a four letter word for a military settlement?” She held the crossword and a pen on her lap. He walked slowly into the room, coming around the sofa to stand in front of it.
“How did you know I’d be coming — ?” he paused, eyes narrowing at her sly smile, “Sally.”
“She does work for me, darling.”
“And always has,” he nodded, sitting down beside her legs, one hand on the back of the sofa, the other reaching for her of its own accord. He touched her hair, which was as soft as ever, then drew the back of his fingers along her jaw.
“Emma,” he said, his use of her first name capturing her full attention as it always did, “We must never again rely on someone else to speak for us.”
She captured his hand and brought it to her chest, placing it over her heart. “I know. So I’ll begin. I have loved you from that day years ago when you took me skydiving. Those years were so fun, the games we played with one another, the childish challenge to never admit it. Never face one another with the full truth and agree to grow. That made it easier when Peter came back, and I’ve sometimes thought you knew he would, so you protected us both.” He was shaking his head and she nodded understanding of his denial, “I know. It was just how things were, for both of us. Just good friends. I have thought for a long time now that I could never forgive myself for breaking your heart. I couldn’t accept that you have forgiven me. How could you, if I was so guilty?”
“Emma,” his voice was full of pain. She reached out and put her fingers on his lips, shaking her head.
“Let me finish, please. Then I hurt you again, being stubborn and willful. I thought I had grown up, that I understood how things were between us at last. I believed that my business with Peter was mine to conclude before I could move on with you. And I was certain that once I had control of Knight it would be concluded. Peter would be out of my life and I could finally have you on my terms, and on yours.”
She paused, taking a deep breath, looking into the fire for a moment. He waited.
“When I regained Knight and realized that Peter was still in control, I – for a little while I believed I’d lost it all. Peter had won, and I could never have you. All I could do was try to save Knight. That was my duty — so many people’s jobs depended on it. My life didn’t matter – Peter had stolen everything. Then you left,” she seemed to shrink into the sofa cushions, her grip on his hand so tight it hurt. “Your reports to Sally kept me going. I couldn’t bear to hear all the details directly from you. You were doing what I had failed at, for me.”
“For us, Emma,” he said before she could go on. His serene grey gaze probed the depths of her deep brown eyes. “It has always been us, whether you realized it or not. Of course I forgave you for leaving – how could I not? I let you walk away without a word, knowing you would have stayed if I’d asked. I couldn’t ask. I was a coward,” he shrugged. “You gave me another chance and I grabbed it. I’ll do anything to keep you now. I may be a coward, but I’m not stupid,” he shared her smile and it warmed his heart.
“Well, mostly not stupid. I think – if I’m honest with myself – that I have loved you since we met. But when I first realized it – when we became lovers – my response was to try to get over you before you noticed. Because you were so cool, so aloof, I thought my infatuation was one-sided. You were my only lover who never insisted on telling me that she loved me. I was so blind I did not realize that you were the only woman who ever truly did.”
Emma felt herself melting. She had been prepared to make apologies and beg forgiveness one final time, praying that he had undertaken his quest for her and not as a means to rid himself of her. But Steed, dear, wonderful Steed, had defused her trepidation with an admission of his own. How she’d wondered about his feelings in those early days when he never said anything. How she’d feared meeting someone leaving his apartment when she had to go there late at night. Eventually she’d come to realize how he felt, but to hear him say it now, to hear him admit to his own insecurity – John Steed insecure! – was a balm to her troubled soul.
“Peter Peel has stood between us from the day we met, one way or another,” he went on. “In the end it fell to me to banish him and I have gladly done it. He is finally, truly gone, Emma. His grip on Knight is lost. His hold on you is over. Let him go and hold on to me.”
Belatedly Emma realized that there were tears running down her face. Steed was kissing them away, brushing her hair away from her eyes and holding her head between his hands as his lips cleansed her. Her arms were around him beneath his suit jacket, exploring the familiar solidity of his torso.
“Shhhh,” he whispered into her ear, “Don’t cry Emma my love. We have the rest of our lives now.”
“I never cry John.”
“Of course you don’t,” he chuckled, pressing his forehead against hers, his eyes swimming fuzzily in front of her. She chuckled too, dragging her hands up and around his neck.
“I’ve made you supper,” she said.
“It smells wonderful,” he replied.
“Why don’t we eat, so that we can get on to – other things.”
Emma didn’t really notice how Steed removed the catsuit she’d made a point of wearing for their reunion, nor exactly when all the pieces of his suit had fallen away giving her access to his warm, solid flesh. They had enjoyed the champagne with supper, Emma’s roast along with potatoes and vegetables were perfectly prepared. But supper had gradually degenerated into bare- and stocking-footed caresses under the table and champagne induced giggles. Emma had risen to clear the table and Steed had grabbed her, rising as he did to wrap his arms around her and capture her mouth with his.
“Leave them,” he’d begged her. And she had. They’d progressed up the stairs quite slowly, silently agreeing to let the anticipation build.
Emma placed a light kiss on Steed’s forehead and pulled away from him, smiling craftily as he reached for her and she evaded him. She rose to her knees and reached over to open the drawer on the bedside table. She locked her gaze with his, still smiling, as she took out a small bottle and closed the drawer.
“What’s that?” he asked as she took out the stopper and set it on the table, then held the bottle to her nose. The heady scent of lavender made her smile at a memory of southern France.
“Think of Provence,” she instructed her lover. “Acres and acres of purple lavender. The warmest spring in years. Remember?” She poured a small pool of the scented oil into her hand, set the bottle aside, and rubbed her hands together. Steed was smiling.
“I remember,” he said, inhaling the scent. She started to reach out to him and stopped, eyes still locked with his as she rubbed the oil over her own breasts. He exhaled a long, ragged breath as he watched her draw her hands down over her ribs and belly. Only then did she reach out to caress his chest.
He lay still while she massaged him, reacquainting herself with the muscles and scars of his body by touching them all with her strong fingers. She retrieved the bottle and drizzled oil over his engorged penis, then used her index finger to delicately spread it on his shaft and his balls until they glistened.
He took the bottle from her. “Your turn,” he said, inclining his head at the pillows. She obligingly stretched out on her stomach. “Not fair, darling – you got to play with me,” he said as he poured a small pool of oil in the depression at the small of her back.
“I’ll turn over when you’ve done this side,” she replied.
“Two for one, hum?” he asked as he spread the oil over her back with both hands. As he had nearly two months ago in his sister’s bathtub, he worked at the knots in her back and shoulders with his knuckles and even his elbows. For all her exercising with Hemming, she had still been under tremendous stress and it had collected in the muscles of her back. After he’d worked his way over her buttocks and down her legs, she rolled over in a languorous motion.
Steed smiled with anticipation and poured more oil into his palms. He started with her feet, massaging each of her toes and flexing her arches until she moaned with pleasure. He worked his way up her legs, barely managing to refrain from kissing her alabaster thighs and plunging his face into her bush. But she had made the rules by using only her hands. He was determined to abide by them, if only to please her.
He poured oil into her bellybutton, which made her giggle, then spread it over her abdomen, lightly touching the scar beneath her breast. He rubbed the oil in great, luxurious circles on her breasts, closing slowly in on her rosy, hard nipples. She ran her tongue around her lips and he could wait no longer. One hand still caressing her breast, he supported himself above her on the other and lowered his face to hers. As he kissed her and gently squeezed her nipple to greater hardness he drew his knee up between her legs, parting them to press against her in a way he knew she would respond to.
She stiffened with a sharp intake of breath, her kiss freezing, her eyes squeezed tightly shut.
“Emma,” Steed raised his head and moved his knee, unaware of the cause of her fright. She breathed again, opened her eyes, and reached for him, pulling him down to the mattress beside her and burying her face against his neck. He automatically held her close, feeling her trembling as her heart pounded.
“What’s wrong, love?”
She did not answer, but her trembling stopped and her heart slowed. She took her arm out from between them and snaked it around his back to press herself against his chest.
The telephone on the bedside table jangled disconcertingly.
“That would be the telephone,” he said against her hair, still confused and worried about her.
“They already know you’re home,” she whispered, disappointment clear even in her hushed tone.
“Afraid so,” he said, releasing her and rolling to the edge of the bed to reach for the telephone. “Steed here.”
“This is an A-list notification. There has been an explosion at Emma Knight’s home.”
“Thank you. I’ll go immediately,” he replied, the response coming automatically even before he’d processed what the efficiently neutral voice had said. He hung up the telephone and turned back to Emma.
“What is it?” she asked as he reached out to caress her hair.
“Where would you be if I hadn’t come home today?” he asked.
She frowned. “At home, by this hour. John, I haven’t been working as hard. Surely Sally has told you –.”
“At your apartment,” he interrupted.
“Yes. John, what is it?”
“There’s been an explosion at your apartment.”
“Is it –?” she put a hand to her face and covered her mouth as if trying to contain a sob.
“I don’t know,” he replied, swinging his legs off the bed. “Let’s go find out.”
Steed parked the Bentley a half a block away from Emma’s building, which was as close as he could get. The area had been cordoned off by the fire brigade, and dozens of neighbors, some in nightclothes and dressing gowns, stood outside of the perimeter. Emma had ridden in silence and Steed hadn’t pressed her. Her moment of panic in his bed was forgotten, for the time being.
He climbed over the door and rounded the car to take her hand as she did the same. Somehow he steered her through the crowd and past the outer ring of police guards, flashing his red card to quell any challenges from the officers. He kept her moving toward the building entrance where he recognized Stanley Weems and Edgar Plath, the agents who were working on the Knight Industries case under his supervision prior to his taking leave to track down Peter Peel.
The streetlights cast weird shadows on the debris on the lawn outside Emma’s ground floor apartment. Her living room window was a blackened maw, singed shreds of sheer curtains hanging in it like rotten teeth. Steed tried to interpose himself between it and Emma.
“Miss Knight,” Weems greeted them, “Steed – nice to have you back.”
“Unfortunate circumstances,” Steed replied pointedly.
“Yes,” Plath put in. “Weems just means we’re glad you’re here to help.”
“If I meant that, I would have said it,” Weems muttered under his breath, but Plath ignored him and turned to Emma.
“I’m so sorry to see you under these circumstances,” he said gently. Emma nodded silently, her gaze drifting away from the agents to look across Steed’s shoulders at her apartment. He wanted to make her go back to the car, but if it were not her home he wouldn’t even consider it. And because it was her home she deserved to be here. He felt her hand slip into his and hold on tight. He squeezed back.
“What’s the story?” he asked the other agents.
“Incendiary device in the middle of the sitting room. There was enough explosive to damage the unit above,” Plath said. He turned to Emma, “I’m afraid it’s a total loss.”
Emma felt numb. She drew in a deep breath through her nostrils and grimaced at the burning smell in the air. Her home. Her belongings. Burnt.
“The good news, if one can call it such, is that the explosion was so powerful it blew out what little fire got started,” Weems added, glancing at the firemen coiling their hoses.
“And there’s a body,” Plath said. Steed felt Emma stiffen even more than she had already been.
“Who?” she asked softly, her free hand drawing a stray lock of hair off of her face.
“We can’t tell. Maybe from dental records. Unless you have some ideas?” Plath’s eyes narrowed as he studied Emma. She glanced at her apartment again, then released Steed’s hand and walked toward the dark window.
“Miss Knight,” Weems started to follow but Steed stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
Emma stopped outside the window and looked into the darkness. Ruined furniture, scorched books, that silly bird sculpture a melted mess. She covered her mouth and nose against the acrid smell of burned paint and synthetic fabrics. She was glad that the darkness concealed most of the room from her — that she couldn’t see into her bedroom through the blasted doorway on the right. Steed came up beside her, his solid presence lending her strength.
“Where was the body?” she asked, forcing herself to look away from the burnt apartment.
“Right at the center of the explosion. They think the bomber was setting it and it went off by accident.”
She swallowed, wondering if it was possible, fearing that it must be. She could think of nobody else.
“Stein,” she whispered, staring at Steed’s chest.
“Emma?” he asked, not sure what she’d said. She let her eyes rise to his face. It was filled with compassion.
“Matthew Stein,” she said. “It could be him.”
Steed frowned, brows knit for a moment until he recognized the name. “The investment banker,” he said. He stared into her eyes for a moment, his piercing gaze seeming to read her soul. She swallowed again, the acrid air burning her throat. He nodded and turned away, returning to the other agents. A moment later he was back, placing his arm around her shoulders to guide her toward the car.
Steed guided Emma to the sofa and poured her a brandy. She took it, kicking off her shoes and drawing her legs up to wrap her arms around them. Steed left her to go clean up the supper dishes and think through what had happened. She obviously had a reason to suspect Matthew Stein. And, he supposed, it would not be hard to guess at Stein’s motive. He’d manipulated Knight’s investments on Birch’s instructions and presumably never seen a cut of the profit. Then he’d been fired when Birch was caught. He was clearly dishonest, but was he also violent? And did he have enough knowledge of explosives to construct a bomb? Apparently enough to construct it, but not enough to safely set it and get away.
When the dishes were done and the leftover roast wrapped and put away, Steed returned to the living room and poured a brandy for himself. He pulled off his shoes and stretched his legs out on the sofa toward Emma’s still huddled form. He sipped his brandy and waited.
After a while she spoke.
“He broke into my apartment about two weeks after you left. He attacked me.”
“What did he do?” Steed asked gently, his imagination running wild.
“He touched me. Through my clothes. I was so weak and tired I could hardly fight him. I was terrified,” she took a sip of brandy, then set the snifter on the table behind the sofa. Steed did not fail to recognize the significance of this admission. Emma never admitted to fear. “He got me onto the floor and drove his knee between my legs,” she whispered, eyes staring blankly across the room as she relived the moment.
Steed continued to watch her, waiting for some sign that she wanted him. He’d unwittingly imitated her attacker earlier, and now he wanted to know all that had happened before he risked doing it again.
“What else?” he asked, barely above a whisper. Her eyes flicked to him, focusing on him at last.
“I hit him with the toilet brush,” she said. “Not hard enough to knock him out, but it distracted him. I don’t really remember what else I did; I was hardly able to fight back. But he fell and hit his head on the bathtub. He was knocked out long enough for me to tie him up.”
Steed nodded and sipped his brandy. “And you were cut – on your back, and your side, weren’t you?”
She nodded, remembering the shards of the broken jar and the cuts that Freddy had told her should have stitches. Steed had seen them, of course, when he massaged her earlier.
“What did you do then?” Steed asked, truly curious. He knew she had not called the authorities. If she had he would have been informed. She gave him a wan little smile and lowered her gaze to her knees. “Emma?” he prodded.
“I called my spin doctor,” she said, looking back up at him. He frowned for a moment, then remembered the term she’d used for someone who corrects publicity problems.
“The person who helped you strategize your return to Knight after the shooting is also your personal ‘clean-up’ team?” he asked, trying not to chuckle. She managed a little smile herself as she nodded and shrugged.
“Who is this versatile person?” Steed asked. “He – or she – could be useful to me.”
He didn’t like the look she gave him then. It was somewhere between embarrassed and defensive. But she didn’t say anything.
“Emma? Who did you call?”
“Leighton and Brenford Consulting,” she finally said, eyes on knees again.
“Leighton and Brenford,” Steed repeated, the first name sinking in. “Frederick Leighton? He’s your consultant? What the hell does he know about getting rid of would-be rapists? Obviously not much!” Steed swung his feet to the floor and rose, taking a gulp of his brandy, then turning back toward her.
She was peering up at him looking terribly contrite and incredibly desirable. He snorted a laugh at the absurdity of the foppish Lord Freddy managing disposal of a criminal – his kind of work. He took another sip of brandy and put the glass on the table.
“He had a couple of his men take Stein away. He said they’d discourage him from bothering me again,” she said.
“And I suppose he stayed to comfort you,” Steed said, his mind reeling with ridiculous jealousy. She winced and he instantly regretted his words. He sat down at her feet, one arm on the back of the sofa, the other stretched out around her, his hand on the arm of the sofa that she leaned against. She sat curled in ball encircled by his protective arms.
“I’m sorry, Emma,” he said. “For that remark. And that it happened at all. Tell me what to do to help you.”
“Forgive me,” she said.
“For what?” he frowned.
“For trying to hide this from you so you wouldn’t find out that I called Freddy instead of you. For wanting you to keep after Peter more than I wanted you here with me.”
“Darling, I accepted your faults a long time ago. That you are stubborn and bloody-minded is my cross to bear. If it’s any help, you were right. I would have dropped everything and come to you, and, as it turns out, you didn’t need me.”
She reached up and brushed the unruly lock of hair off of his forehead, her hand landing on his shoulder, the backs of her fingers brushing his neck.
“Oh but I did need you. I just knew I couldn’t have you and muddled through on my own.” She lowered her legs and pressed herself into his arms. He held her willingly, bundling her against his chest as if to make up for his absence after the attack.
“And something good did come of it,” she said, leaning her head back to raise her face to his, “I went back to Hemming after that, and kept my appointments with him.”
“So I noticed,” he said, stroking her solid, muscular back. She smiled against his neck. “Let’s go back to bed,” he suggested, still stroking her.
“Steed, I don’t think I can – pick up where we left off. Not tonight,” she said.
“You seem to forget that I flew in from the States overnight. I’m exhausted,” he said, loosening his grip in order to stand up. She rose with him.
“Yes, that’s right. What time does your body think it is now, anyway?” she asked as they walked arm-in-arm toward the stairs.
“I have no idea,” he chuckled as he followed her up. “but it’s definitely time to be sleeping.”
Emma woke up sobbing. She could not control the gasping wails that seemed to well up from her very soul. There had been a monster. An enormous, charred creature lumbering toward her, its thick arms hanging from broad shoulders, its hands scraping the ground with a chilling, grinding sound. The face was a hideous mass of burnt flesh, teeth and bone. She was trapped on the bathroom floor, her feet and hands skittering on tiles slimy with face cream. The monster loomed in the doorway, flames licking around it and blackening the wooden doorframe.
The heat was what awakened her, her hands flailing against the heavy comforter that was too warm for two people to sleep under at that time of year. Steed was instantly awake, drawing off the heavy cover and wrapping his arms around her, making soothing, wordless sounds. She realized where she was and whom she was with, and buried herself in his protective embrace until at last the sobbing stopped.
“Bad dream?” Steed asked. He was no stranger to the hauntings of his own psyche.
“He was all burnt,” Emma said, realizing as she did that Steed did not know of the monster in her dreams since Stein’s first attack. But he guessed.
Stein. “He can’t hurt you again, darling,” he said. Although getting over his last act will take some time. Assuming it was him setting the bomb.
She breathed in a deep breath and let it out slowly, shifting against him so that he loosened his hold on her to let her lie on her back. She stared at the ceiling for a long while. Steed began absently stroking her abdomen through the t-shirt she’d borrowed. As the nightmare faded she reached a conclusion: Stein had unintentionally pushed her along the path that she had chosen when she’d sought out Steed months ago. She was unencumbered by her old life now. Everything was gone in a giant blaze. This realization imparted a shocking sense of freedom. She knew that she had yet to mourn the loss of her belongings, but she also knew that she could go on, and that the way would be easier now with so little to carry.
“I’ve no place to go. You don’t mind if I stay with you?” she whispered, her eyes sliding from the ceiling to his face. He frowned, surprised that she’d even ask, and she grinned.
“Gottcha,” she said, tracing the side of his face with her index finger.
“Vixen,” Steed said, capturing her in a gentle, loving kiss.
“You love it,” she sighed when his lips released hers.
“No,” he said, kissing first one high cheekbone and then the other, “I love you.”
“Prove it,” she whispered challengingly.
He slid his hand up under the t-shirt, favoring her breasts with his gentle touch. But he didn’t linger there. He drew the shirt up her abdomen and lowered his face to the soft flesh of her stomach, kissing his way toward her panties. She slid her fingers into his hair, her legs parting of their own accord as his kisses approached the fringe of hair just showing there. He slipped both hands inside her panties and pulled them down, working them over her long legs with her help. When they were lost in the tangle of sheets and comforter he worked his way back up, tickling the delicate skin of her inner thighs with his night’s growth of beard. His fingers parted her, his mouth following to suck gently on her vulva.
Supporting herself on her elbows to watch him, she sighed and let her head fall back, breasts jutting proudly upward within his t-shirt. He slid one hand across her stomach to cup a mounded breast and massage a nipple until it towered like the top of a skyscraper. His tongue worked within her, rubbing her clitoris until she groaned and pressed herself against his face. He lapped at her, consuming her juices and sucking her to draw more. She convulsed again, filling his mouth with her essence and crying out – a sensuous, throaty cry that thrilled him, sending a jolt of white-hot desire to his loins.
He rubbed his damp face against her curly auburn hair, then kissed the thin skin in the fold of her pelvis. She shifted, lowering her shoulders to the mattress and reaching out to thread her fingers into his hair. He let her draw him up her body, placing kisses here and there as he went until he was stretched out beside her exploring her face with his tongue.
She was exploring his ass through his silk pajamas, squeezing the powerful muscle there, and then running her hand up his back, pressing hard. He sighed at the sensation: partially massaging, mostly sensual. She rubbed her hand back down his back and inside his pajama bottoms, then around to the front where his erection tented the soft fabric.
“Take me,” she sighed, gently gripping his thick penis. It was warm and dry, except, she found as she rubbed her hand up and down, for a few drops of semen at the tip. She smeared it around, eliciting a harsh groan from Steed. He reached down and jerked his pajama bottoms over his hips, then shifted his legs between hers and positioned himself above her. A look of distracted pleasure on her face, she rubbed the tip of his penis in her vagina, making circles around her vulva as she drew in a deep breath. Her chest rose, breasts straining against her t-shirt. Steed lowered his face to them, mouthing first one nipple and then the other through the thin fabric. She pressed his penis against her clitoris and removed her hand, slipping it around his hip to grasp his ass. She pressed him down, pushing her pelvis up, driving him half way into herself. He dropped his hips against hers to fill her the rest of the way. She squeezed his ass as she raised her legs, stretching her pelvis beneath him, shifting position so that he could sink in deeper.
He pulled most of the way out and slowly pushed back in, his shaft slick and hot with their joined fluids. Sheathed within her again, he rotated his hips, stirring her. Stirring himself. He repeated the move once more, painfully slowly as his loins throbbed with contained desire.
“Keep going,” she moaned, pressing her mouth to his and plunging her tongue inside. He complied with another slow stroke as she drew her legs even higher. “Faster,” she added, sucking at his tongue.
He reared up on one hand, reaching with the other arm to capture one of her legs and bring her ankle in against his shoulder. She moaned again, her complete exposure to him fanning the flames in his loins. He thrust faster as she came around him, a hot, wet orgasm that left her panting. She gripped his bicep and strained against his plunging pelvis, desperate to become one with him, if only for a few magnificent seconds. He thrust faster and harder, his face contorted in his inward focus. The feel of his penis nudging her cervix with each stroke sent little shocks all through his body that combined and built into a single, massive bolt of searing passion. He exploded, pumping his essence into her in long, throbbing spasms, unaware that he cried out her name, unaware that he smothered her with great, grasping kisses as his orgasm wracked his body.
Drained, filled, semiconscious, they lay together in a tangle of arms and legs amid the equally tangled sheets. Gradually Steed’s bones and muscles reformed and he lifted his heavy leg off of hers and shifted to wrap his arms around her, one buried in the pillows behind her neck, the other across her stomach. She sighed, half asleep, and turned her face toward his for a lazy kiss.
“Let’s go to Provence and make love in a lavender field again,” she sighed, stroking his forearm. He smiled, pressing his lips to her shoulder.
“Let’s stay in bed for three or four days,” he sighed. “It seems like every time we manage to spend a night or two together something happens and we’re apart for weeks.”
“Let’s get married at Christmas.”
He lifted his head to look into her eyes. They were twinkling mischievously. “Really?”
“Uh hum,” she nodded, her hair rustling against the pillow, “Let’s be one of those annoying couples who think nobody has anything better to do with their holiday.”
“On the anniversary of our engagement?”
“Yes, let’s make it Christmas Eve. Let’s be dreadfully self-indulgent.”
“You think anyone will come?”
“If we throw a good enough party they will,” she laughed.
Despite their resolve to stay in bed for days, the ringing telephone early in the afternoon found Emma in the shower and Steed in the kitchen slicing the leftover roast for lunch.
“Steed, Bond here. I heard what happened,” James’s smooth voice sounded concerned. “How is Emma?”
“Better than you might think, actually,” Steed said. “I think she’s in shock about the loss of her apartment. But she’s able to see the positive side.”
“Speaking of future, I was hoping you and she would join me for supper tonight. I have a surprise that I think will brighten it.”
“All right. I’ll have to ask her – I suppose there’s a chance she has plans,” Steed frowned, realizing he had no idea what sort of weekly schedule she’d been keeping since he left.
“I have nothing to wear,” Emma suddenly realized when Steed told her of the invitation. He set her plate with her sandwich and a handful of green grapes in front of her and sat down, pouring her a glass of beer from a large bottle he’d opened.
“You have some things upstairs,” he pointed out.
“Work clothes,” she dismissed them out of hand, then paused with her sandwich halfway to her mouth, “I have nothing to wear to work!”
“But you just said –.”
“Edmond and I are meeting with the Americans on Monday. I need to look exactly right.”
“Dressed to kill?” he chuckled. But she nodded seriously.
“I’ll need to do some serious shopping over the weekend. And this afternoon!” She looked at her wristwatch and grimaced.
“This afternoon?” Steed cried. He had been developing a lovely plan for the afternoon, leaving just enough time to shower and dress before going over to Bond’s for supper. Emma smirked at him, reading his mind.
“I wore this to seduce you,” she indicated the catsuit she’d put back on. “I refuse to wear it all weekend.”
“Did you really imagine you needed to seduce me?” he chuckled, focusing on a much more interesting topic than shopping.
“I imagined that I’d enjoy it,” she replied coyly.
“Ah!” he chuckled again, flattered.
“But in any case, I need something different to wear, and some under things,” she took a bite of her sandwich and put it down. “I just have time for some basics this afternoon,” she added when she’d finished chewing.
Steed sighed and took a long gulp of beer. “All right. Where do you want to go?”
She stared at him, chewing another bite of sandwich, “You want to come?” she asked, not sure if she liked that idea.
He shrugged. “If I can’t have you in bed, then I’ll be your shopping bag bearer for the afternoon,” he said.
Steed happily followed Emma into the lingerie department. He was not at all embarrassed by the racks of brassieres and panties and the scantily clad mannequins displaying delectable lacy garments. He paused to leer at a particularly enticing black lace bodice while Emma flicked through a row of white bras looking for her size.
“May I help you sir?” a saleswoman with long, shining blond hair and a full-lipped smile simpered at Steed. Emma glanced at them, then turned back to her search with an amused look on her face.
“Yes, perhaps,” Steed replied, favoring the saleswoman with his most charming smile.
“A gift for someone special?” she asked.
“Yes, very special,” Steed said, not looking at Emma, who turned away to hide her grin. “My dear auntie Matilda,” he leaned closer to the saleswoman and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “she believes she’s the Queen. We try to indulge her. It’s all quite harmless.”
“I see,” the saleswoman inched away from Steed. “And what does – um — auntie like to wear?”
Steed straightened his bowler and looked around at the displays for a queenly bit of underwear.
“Excuse me miss,” Emma interrupted. The saleswoman eagerly abandoned Steed in favor of helping Emma find a bra in the size and color she wanted. When she fled to the stock room Emma exchanged a grin with Steed.
“I know you’re dying to look at the neckties, Steed. Why don’t I meet you there in a few minutes?” she suggested.
“You don’t think I should buy something for auntie Matilda?” he asked.
“If you go away I’ll buy something for you,” she coaxed. His eyes brightened and he turned on his heel. Emma chuckled as he made a beeline for the escalators. When the saleswoman returned with Emma’s bra she found her customer examining a black lace bustier.
“Oh, you hardly need something like that with your figure, miss,” the saleswoman said.
“I wasn’t thinking of support,” she said. “It’s more along the lines of a present.”
“For a friend or relative? Do you know her size?”
“I’ll be wearing it,” Emma said, selecting the appropriate size. “But I know he’ll like it.”
“Oh! I see. Yes,” the saleswoman seemed to run out of agreeable statements. Emma cast her a guileless smile and handed over her collection of purchases.
“I’ll also need some panties and a garter belt – black.”
“We have hose that stay up without a belt, miss – have you seen them?”
“Yes. But he’s rather old fashioned,” Emma replied, watching with amusement as the poor saleswoman finally blushed.
In two hours Emma supplied herself with a small wardrobe of casual clothes, shoes, and handbags, along with the lingerie. Steed had noticed her occasional pauses as she looked at a pair of sleek, zippered boots or a particularly daring blouse. She would stare at the item as if seeing a ghost then close her eyes and turn away before opening them. He did not comment, hoping that she would turn to him when she was ready to face her loses. Certainly the middle of Harvey Nichols was not the place for it.
At last he loaded her bags into the Bentley and held her door for her before climbing in himself. He sagged against the seat and groaned.
“Worn out darling?” she asked.
“Jet lag,” he suggested, starting the car.
Steed had never visited Bond’s London apartment, but Bond’s much vaunted double-oh rating put him in the top salary echelon within Britain’s intelligence community. After his years wandering Europe in the war and wandering the world just after it, Steed had elected a career path that, in recent years, kept him closer to home most of the time. Therefore he was not eligible for double-oh, which was an MI-6 international designation. His base salary was generous, but not top echelon. However, he consistently received bonuses for his efforts that doubled or even tripled his annual income.
During the chaotic years just after the war Steed had found a number of lucrative assignments and opportunities that didn’t conflict with his morals and loyalty to his homeland. The interest from investments he’d made with that income had been trickling into his Swiss account, augmenting his share of the family money, for years. Steed had no reason to envy his associate’s paycheck. But he was curious to see how Bond spent it on his home. After all, the man spent vast swatches of time abroad.
“Steed, Emma, it’s good to see you,” Bond opened the door to his penthouse as soon as the gentle chime of the bell sounded. Emma stepped in and he kissed her on the cheek, then shook Steed’s hand. “Come in. Have a drink,” he added, leading them through the marble-floored foyer and into a spacious sitting room.
“Sally!” Emma cried happily when she spotted her assistant standing by a floor-to-ceiling window. Sally, who’d been watching a flock of pigeons circling outside the window, turned and favored Emma and Steed with a happy smile.
“What are you doing here?” Emma asked, suddenly suspicious. Is James the reason that she’s finding Terrance less interesting? I’ll kill him! She turned toward James, her concern clear in her expression.
“I invited Sally as well,” James said calmly, leading Steed over to a bar – mahogany inlayed with walnut. “She helped me with something recently.”
“What was that?” Emma asked, arching an eyebrow at Sally. Sally just smiled, which made Emma’s curiosity more urgent.
“Patience, my dear,” James said as he poured two glasses of champagne. “Your favorite beverage, I believe,” he said to Steed, who nodded appreciatively. James carried the bottle across the room to where two more glasses stood half empty on a side table near Sally. When all were bubbling merrily he raised his. The others followed suit. “To the future of Knight Industries – I believe I’ve shared this toast with some of you before, but it’s still relevant.”
“To Knight,” Steed concurred. Emma and Sally drank as well.
“Please, sit down,” James gestured at the brown leather sofa that faced the windows. Steed waited for Emma to take a seat at one end, then sat beside her. Sally sat in an armchair where she seemed to have been before they came in. James took a matching chair across from her.
“Is your apartment really destroyed, ma – Emma?” Sally asked. Steed’s head snapped around at her use of Emma’s first name. Emma smiled encouragingly at her and nodded.
“I haven’t gone back. But they said it was. I intend go in, when they’re done with it. At least, I think I do,” she shrugged, ducking her head to look down at her hands for a moment. Then she recovered. “There may be something to salvage. Perhaps in the kitchen.”
“Like a broken teapot, perhaps?” Sally asked with a playful smile. Emma understood her reference to a piece of china that Steed had broken and she’d kept anyway.
“Perhaps,” she agreed. “But in any case I’ve resolved to move on.”
“That’s commendable,” James said, his tone suggesting that he didn’t completely believe in her resolve. “What do you think, Sally? I’m not sure I can wait,” he went on.
“Yes, please James. I don’t think I can stand it,” she replied. Emma and Steed exchanged a bewildered glance as James stood up and disappeared through a doorway into a darkened room.
“I have something to show you,” his voice echoed from the dark room. Emma frowned at Sally, but the girl just smiled back. She seemed to be containing a great deal of excitement.
James reappeared in the doorway, stepping through sideways while carrying a large, thin object. He rotated as he entered the sitting room to display what he was holding. Emma sprang to her feet, then walked slowly across the room, her eyes fixed on the Renoir. Steed rose too, watching her, then glancing at Sally. She was grinning from ear-to-ear as she watched Emma approach the painting. Then Steed looked at Bond. His eyes were also locked on Emma, his expression one of pride and affection. Be gracious. He’s not going to win her away from you, even with this, he assured himself.
“How?” Emma asked simply. James set the painting on a side chair and stood beside Emma to look at it. Steed quickly joined them, standing on Emma’s other side. Shut out of the group, Sally stayed seated like a spectator.
“It was a public auction. I bid,” James shrugged. “I had inside information about the best item on the block,” he added.
“I can hardly believe it,” Emma said, stretching up to kiss James on the cheek, then turning back to the painting. “I never expected to see it again.”
“I’m not sure it fits in here,” James said. “I don’t suppose you know a good place for it?”
“Knight Industries might be willing to repurchase it,” Emma said, nodding slowly. She didn’t know what James had paid – she’d studiously avoided seeing the results of the auction. But whatever it was, she’d willingly pay it back, plus the commission.
“That would work out rather well, actually,” James said. “I had to liquidate some stock to buy it. I’d like to re-establish my position in Knight Industries – I hear it’s going to go up soon.”
Emma’s mood was noticeably buoyant through James’s excellent dinner. Her happiness influenced the others, making it a jolly evening.
Steed quickly forgot any petty jealousy over James’s surprise when he saw the ebullient effect it had on Emma – after all, he’d be the target of her pleasure later, not James. Sally was clearly proud to have had a hand in the surprise. Steed had never seen her so animated as she described her first visit to an auction house. She was young and inexperienced, but Steed continued to believe that she could find a place in the ministry. For one thing, she seemed to adapt quickly to circumstances and people – he’d seen her personality shift in an instant depending on whom she was dealing with. And for another, she managed to combine loyalty and discretion in equal measures. She was, he thought, no less experienced than Tara King had been when she’d begun her training.
James was relieved that Steed had recovered Knight’s fortunes from Peter Peel. He had sold more stock than he’d wanted to get the Renoir. The bidding had not been too heated, but there had been two others interested. He’d almost given up when the price was double the reserve, but one glance at Sally’s intense expression had forced him to nod once more. Thankfully, the gavel had fallen. And Sally’s joy at his success had made it worth it. She was a rare thing in his life – a young woman without an agenda that in any way involved espionage. He found her refreshing.
Emma’s gaze kept returning to her father’s painting. She could not take it back to Steed’s, of course, much as she wanted to. It was far too valuable to load into the boot of the Bentley. No, it had to remain in James’s care – insured, she assumed – until Monday when she could arrange for purchase and professional transport. Transport back to its home on the wall in her office. And in a few weeks she would allow herself to look for furniture to replace the suite that she despised in front of the fireplace. And her desk chair. For the first time since Sally told her that Steed was coming home she allowed her head to spin with plans.
“Can we drop you off Sally?” Steed asked as he and Emma approached the door. Emma was picking up her bag, so missed the speculative glance Sally cast at Bond.
James spoke before she could, “It’s out of your way,” he said smoothly. “I’ll see that she gets home safely.”
Whatever he was thinking, Steed’s face remained impassive as he nodded. “Good evening then. Thank you, James, for everything.”
“Yes,” Emma put in, “James, I will be in touch on Monday. You’re sure, Sally?”
“Yes, Emma. You and Steed go on,” Sally replied. Emma’s eyes narrowed at her, a warning look that Sally knew well. She responded with an innocent smile.
“Are you tired?” Emma asked as Steed turned the corner into Stable Mews.
“Not overly,” Steed replied.
“Good. I want to make a call, and I don’t want you falling asleep.”
She gave him her most knowing little smile, half turned in her seat and leaning against the door. He felt that warm little glow at the base of his spine that only she was able to ignite with just a look.
“Help me put this away, will you?” Bond lifted the painting and carried it back into the dark room. He set it down and switched on a lamp, revealing his richly appointed study. Sally stepped inside, looking around at the wooden paneling that seemed to glow from within, the leather upholstered furniture and the elegantly carved desk. A large patch of empty wall behind the desk drew her eye. He followed her glance and smiled.
“So I fibbed,” he said. “Actually I tried hanging it there. It does look quite nice.”
“You’re a kind man, James,” Sally said.
“Yes, that’s me, perennial soft touch,” and her majesty’s best assassin. “Here, hold the box open,” he nodded at the crate in which the painting had been delivered and picked up the painting.
“I’d like to ask you for a favor,” Sally said when the painting was secured. James switched off the light in the study and guided her back out to the sitting room.
“I owe you more than one,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
Steeling her nerve, Sally stepped close enough to James to catch a whiff of his dense, musky cologne. She looked at the minuscule pattern of polo players on his tie, slowly raising her eyes past his collar, his square jaw, the dimple on his chin and his aquiline nose. When her light blue eyes met the sapphire of his her heart skipped a beat. She swallowed, took a small breath, and forced herself to speak to his expectant gaze.
“Teach me,” she said.
The first hurdle crossed, she brought one hand up and placed it on his chest, fingers slipping under the lapel of his jacket. He arched one eyebrow, then placed his own hand over hers. “Please,” she added. “There’s someone I want to be with, but I don’t know what to do.”
He slowly shook his head, eyes narrowing as he thought he understood her. “You can’t have him, Sally. Nor can I have her,” he said.
For a moment Sally looked puzzled, and then understanding dawned. His perception shook her to her core. But she couldn’t let him know it. She had been trying for months to think of her attraction to John Steed as a schoolgirl crush.
“No,” she said, putting her other hand on his chest and looking at his tie again. “It’s not — you don’t know him, James,” she said. “It’s a friend, my – boyfriend –Terrance.”
He pursed his lips, uncharacteristic embarrassment over his blunder making him unsure how to respond to her. She looked back up at his face, her eyes bright, her lips slightly parted. Without thinking he lowered his face to hers and kissed her.
She was tense. Her jaw clenched and her hand beneath his clutched at the fabric of his jacket. And yet as he drew away and her eyes fluttered open he felt a need for more. He inwardly chastised himself for taking advantage of her, then reminded himself that she had clearly asked. As he watched her she licked her lips – not sensuously, but nervously. He smiled at her and took both of her hands in his.
“The first step is to relax,” he said, leading her to the sofa. “Tell me about this Terrance.” He stretched one arm along the back of the sofa, his hand inches from the back of her neck, the other hand still holding one of hers in her lap. “What do you like to do with him?”
“We talk a lot,” she said, closing her eyes. He wondered if she was concentrating, or if she didn’t want to look at him while she described her boyfriend. “We go on long walks. And to the movies.”
“What do you do when you’re alone together?” he asked pointedly, sliding his fingers to the back of her neck. Her eyes shot open and she inhaled a sharp breath. He smiled encouragement. She smiled back, shyly.
“We kiss,” she admitted.
Reminding herself that she had asked, and trying not to think too much about how incredible that first kiss had been, she scooted awkwardly on the sofa to get closer to him and put one hand on his shoulder as she gave him a light, close-mouthed kiss.
“That’s it, sort of,” she said, eyes and hand dropping to her lap. His fingers twinned into the hair at the back of her neck. She’d bundled the rest of it up on top of her head for the evening.
“Do it again, then. Slowly this time,” he instructed. As she leaned close again he lifted her hand to the side of his face. As their lips met, he caressed the back of her neck. He felt her relax, felt her jaw ease and her lips soften. She started to withdraw and he held her neck gently. “Now open your mouth,” he instructed, drawing her lips back to his.
Sally followed his instruction. As she parted her lips he took them hungrily, his tongue playing over them. She slid her hand around to the back of his neck. She didn’t want him to stop. She felt as if she was being consumed. As she consumed him she grew hungrier for more. Her heart was beating faster and faster, and she needed to breath. He released her, their faces a few inches apart. She wondered if it was bad form to gasp for air. She couldn’t help it. He was smiling, but there was something else now, a look in his eyes that she suspected should frighten her. But it didn’t. It made her breasts ache, and the warm, fizzing sensation between her legs was unmistakable.
“You want him to touch you, don’t you?” he asked. But it no longer had anything to do with Terrance and they both knew it. He was instructing her, but they would both enjoy the lesson. She nodded. “Show me.”
She reached for his hand and guided it to her breast, setting his fingers on the top and hoping he’d find his way to the solid, aching nipple. She closed her eyes as he cupped her, his thumb and forefinger gently squeezing until she couldn’t contain the moan that roared up from her groin. As he kissed her again she twined her fingers into his soft black hair, his gentle pinches and caresses enticing her to match his opened mouth kisses with her own. Before she realized it she was probing his mouth with her tongue. He tasted of the cigars he and Steed had smoked, and wine. Then his mouth made a hot, slick trail down her neck and she wanted to cry out at the pressure that surged below her belly.
“I feel like I’m going to explode,” she moaned. He lifted his head to look into her eyes.
“Let it come,” he said softly, then leaned close to draw her earlobe between his lips. She shuddered from deep within, a deliciously hot flash of energy tingled in her thighs and painted streaks of light behind her closed eyelids. She gasped, her body going momentarily limp in his arms. He held her, his face pressed to her neck, her forehead on his shoulder.
“Oh,” she finally managed to whisper. He stroked her back, reaching into her hair to find the barrette she’d secured it with and undo it.
“That,” he said when he’d loosened her long, wavy, strawberry blond hair over her shoulders, “was a little orgasm. Did you like it?”
“That was little?”
He drew back and looked into her eyes. His were filled with laughter, but not at her, she knew. “This is going to be fun,” he purred. She pursed her lips, agreeing, but not sure she should let him know.
“Emma says you’re a very dangerous man,” she said.
“I am,” he replied.
“Whom are you calling at this hour, anyway?” Steed asked as he planted his umbrella in the stand and his hat on its handle. Emma crossed to the telephone and referred to her small address book for the number. Steed thought about another drink and decided on sherry. He held up the bottle and Emma nodded. She was dialing an inordinate amount of numbers. He realized that he was going to dread opening his telephone bill with Emma living with him.
Emma’s living with me. The realization buzzed through him, filling him with happy, nervous energy. Will we kill one another? He poured two glasses of sherry and brought one to her. I suppose it’s better to find out now than later. She was waiting now. Listening to the click and crackle of an overseas connection. She took a sip of sherry then swallowed quickly to speak.
“Amanda? It’s Emma.”
Steed had guessed who she was calling, and suspected that he knew why. He settled in on the couch and picked up a book that was on the end table – an obscure novel he didn’t remember taking off the shelf.
“Yes. Thank you so much for helping him. I suppose you do know how much it means to me,” Emma settled down in the chair by the telephone, realizing that no conversation with Amanda King could be brief. “No, he didn’t mention it. — I see. No, Amanda. If he’d followed the procedure that he and Sally had in place he would have known. – Yes, you do have a point. I will. I’m sorry he was any trouble.”
Steed was studiously not listening, or at least pretending not to listen. It crossed his mind to go upstairs, but he didn’t. And he had to look up when she paused again. As he’d feared, she was glaring at him. He shrugged innocently. If Amanda was scolding Emma for not telling him that she was leaving town, then he did not have anything to apologize for. He had already forgotten his mortification for having gotten so drunk. He hadn’t wanted to relive it by telling Emma about it.
“Did he? Well, it does work, horrible as it looks,” Emma went on with a chuckle. “Something about the protein in the eggs and the acid in the other ingredients. Amanda, the reason I called, besides to thank you, is that I want to invite all of you here for the Christmas Holiday.” Now Emma had a gleeful look on her face. Steed had to smile with her. “It’s going to be rather special. Steed and I are getting married. On Christmas Eve.”
She held the receiver away from her ear so that Steed could hear the happy shout issuing from it. When the commotion died down on the other end she listened again and frowned ever so slightly. “I don’t know. Steed, what day of the week is Christmas Eve this year?”
He shrugged, then went to his desk and found a calendar. He flipped to the end of the year and carried it over so that she could look at it.
“Hey, it’s a Saturday. That’s fortunate, I suppose. Yes –.” Emma listened some more, nodding silently. Steed returned to his seat and drank some more.
“Tell her we’re paying for their airfare,” he said suddenly. Emma’s gaze snapped to his. He nodded. He knew the Americans could afford the trip, but it would be a large expense and it hardly seemed fair to demand their presence without offering. “For all of them,” he added.
“Amanda, Steed has just reminded me to tell you that it’s our treat – for everyone. Yes, your mother and sons. Of course – we wouldn’t dream of asking you to leave them at home on Christmas. That isn’t important. I just want to know that you will be here. I think I’m going to need you.”
When Emma concluded her call she joined Steed on the couch, taking up her accustomed position at the opposite end.
“You met her sons,” she said, sipping her mostly untouched sherry. He nodded.
“They’re bright, very well-raised. Quite fond of Lee, I think,” he said. “But I did not meet her mother. I gather that she’s a strong presence in the family.”
“Well,” Emma stretched her legs out beside Steed’s and laid her head back on the arm of the sofa, “with the crowd we’re likely to end up with she’ll have some competition.”
Steed chuckled and finished his sherry. “She told you about my, um, weak moment,” he said. Emma raised her head to peer at him from under half-lidded eyes.
“Yes. And you heard my response,” she replied, sounding remarkably unyielding. He nodded, accepting her judgment. It didn’t really matter – Amanda had been more angry that neither Sally nor Emma had told him of her travel plans than he had been. Emma set her glass on the table behind the couch and crawled toward Steed, stretching herself out on top of him. His arms instinctively encircled her waist and he let his hands find their way to her upper back and her buttocks. She traced his lips with one finger, eyes still half closed, warm breath tickling his face. “I’m sorry that you didn’t know where I was,” she whispered. “It was thoughtless of me – I should have left a message with Amanda.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Perhaps you’d like to make it up to me?” Her crooked little smile, quickly lost in a deep, urgent kiss, was answer enough.
“Touch me like this,” James guided Sally’s hand over his ribs and his hard belly until her fingers just touched his erection. She gasped, and so did he, then he chuckled at his own eagerness and took a deep breath to calm himself down.
“Is it all right?” she asked with concern.
“More than all right,” he replied, taking her hand again and rubbing her fingers along his shaft. She watched what he was doing, fascinated by the look and feel of his maleness. He wasn’t sure what he was doing, or rather, why he was doing it. How old is Sally? Old enough, he decided, sure that she was. And age had not mattered to him in the past, on a mission, when the job required it, or even when it didn’t. But she wasn’t part of the job, and quite possibly he’d have Emma Knight to contend with if she ever found out. That was a prospect that part of him eagerly anticipated. He wondered if Steed ever picked a fight with her just for the pleasure of making up.
He had shown Sally how to touch him fully clothed and she’d been almost clinical in her exploration. There was no question by then that they would keep going, and he’d eased her sweater out of the waistband of her skirt and slipped his hands up inside to unfasten her bra. She’d leaned back against the sofa, inviting him to caress her compact, round breasts. He’d drawn her sweater and bra off over her head and introduced her to another type of kiss.
From there they’d progressed to his bedroom where he’d removed her skirt and tights and panties to discover a well proportioned, evenly padded young figure. Her ivory skin was sprinkled all over with freckles that made him want to connect the dots. He’d had her undress him, making her explore the various fastenings and layers not so much because she’d need the knowledge — her boyfriend was unlikely to wear the same quality of clothes he did – but because each carefully undone button increased his arousal by a small fraction. By the time he was nude his erection was enormous and his whole body was humming with sensitivity. Her lightest touch was like fire. He was grateful that she was so tentative in her exploration. He could not take much more.
“It will hurt the first time,” he told her and she nodded.
“You won’t want to do it again tonight, so I want to show you other things first. Do you understand?”
“What other things?”
“There are a lot of ways to play, Sally,” he said, leaving her hand still stroking him and sliding his own across her bare stomach to cup the triangular patch of light curly hair between her legs.
Emma bent to suck at one of Steed’s nipples and he responded by running his hands up and down her arched back and wiggling his hips. Buried within her, he was holding himself at the edge through sheer willpower. He could never get enough of her, and he wanted each time to last longer than the last. For a moment he entertained a vision of a distant future when each encounter would take hours and they’d make love constantly.
“That’s a Cheshire cat grin if I ever saw one,” she said, moving on him in a way that drew all of his attention back to the moment.
“What plans do you have for this time in about a decade?” he asked, reaching up to run his fingers through her hair. She shrugged, bending over him to half kiss, half lick his chin, then his lips, then, folding herself nearly in half again, his other nipple.
“Probably about the same,” she finally answered, smiling wryly at him. “You?”
He sat up, putting his arms around her to roll her onto her back, thrusting deep into her as she wrapped her legs around his waist. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say,” he said as she cried out wordlessly. They’d both learned to do that – to repress what they wanted to cry – years ago. And although the barriers between them were almost all gone now, old habits died hard. He thrust into her again, feeling his climax coming. He stopped and lowered his face to her breast, wondering as he sucked on her hot, solid nipple what it would be like when she was nursing their child. The thought drove him over the edge.
She was ready as well, rising with him to a blazing, sublime instant of complete union. As her body convulsed, the essence of her climax spilling around him, she moaned into his ear, the wordlessness forming into meaning, “I love you so much, John. More than I can bear.”
“Emma,” he sighed as his own orgasm subsided. “my darling Emma.”
Sally had thought it was simple. She was a country girl, after all, so the mechanics of sex were no mystery to her. But as James repeatedly brought her to the peak of arousal with his hands and his mouth, only to gently ease her back down, or to push her over the edge so that she groaned with newly discovered pleasure, she was amazed at the things he did. It embarrassed her at first when he kissed his way down her belly and pressed his mouth between her legs. Surely men don’t do that! She thought, then gasped as his tongue teased her toward another orgasm. Suddenly she wanted to repay the favor. She wanted to taste him and to feel his hot, silky flesh between her lips. She was certain that that was done, and she wanted to know what it was like.
So when he stretched back out beside her, walking his fingers up her chest to lightly circle her nipple, she sat up and leaned over him.
“Sally?” he asked, one hand on her shoulder.
“Let me,” she said, stroking him with one hand and adjusting her position to lower her head over him. He obligingly laid back, his legs akimbo, his erect penis towering toward the ceiling.
“Watch your teeth,” he warned with a toothy grin. She glanced at his face – he had put his hands behind his head and looked as if he were lying on a sandy beach basking in the sun. He is, she thought happily, he’s basking in me. She felt intensely powerful as she extended her tongue to lick the tip of is penis. He tasted salty and strangely sour. She kissed him with tightly closed lips. Then she moistened them and wrapped them around him, careful to keep her teeth sheathed behind them. She sucked gently and he groaned, his hips rising toward her as she lifted her head. She looked back at his face. His eyes were closed, his mouth twisted in a rapt smile. She lowered her head and sucked again, taking more of him into her mouth and slowly sucking her way off again.
“Again,” he rasped, rising up on his elbows now to watch her. She complied, the ends of her long hair falling around her head to tickle his thighs and belly. He bucked against her, out of control as she sucked him. He was surprised that she held on as the first wave of orgasm took him. And then she moved back, hand over her mouth as his semen surged, covering his belly.
Sally sat frozen beside him, mesmerized by the sight of his shrinking member. He lay for a moment with his forearm over his eyes, waiting for his senses to recover. Then he drew up one knee and leaned across the bed to the nightstand, taking several tissues from a box. He glanced at Sally as he cleaned himself up.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, looking devastated. He frowned for a second, then tossed the soiled tissues on the floor and reached for her. “I didn’t mean to – set you off,” she said, allowing him to lie her down and embrace her.
“I rather thought that was the whole point of this exercise,” he said, stroking her hair.
“But you hadn’t finished showing me.”
He pressed his lips to her forehead and then the tip of her nose. “My dear Sally, should you ever find yourself in bed with a man who can only managed it once, run away. You deserve better.”
“So you can –?”
“Come again?” he asked with a chuckle. To his utter surprise, she blushed, the color rising from her breasts right up to her forehead. He continued stroking her hair – it was so thick and lustrous he was becoming addicted to it. “Why don’t you practice some of the things I’ve shown you,” he suggested. “If you’ve been paying attention then I’ll be ready to continue to the next lesson before you know it.”
“Let me sleep,” Steed groaned as Emma ran her fingers up and down his spine.
“Play with me, Johnny,” she whispered into his ear. He turned his head to hide it so she switched to the other side, crawling across his back. “You know you’re not done. Not really,” she said, her breath raising the hairs on the back of his neck. Beneath him his loins stirred. He was, in fact, exhausted. But she was right. If only she wouldn’t call me Johnny.
As if sensing that his body was betraying him, she slid her hand over his ass and between his legs. Surrendering, he parted them and elevated his hips, granting her access to his rapidly hardening member. She caressed him to greater arousal, barely touching his balls until he groaned with pleasure and then encircling his shaft so that he thrust impulsively into her hand. Meanwhile she was kissing the small of his back, working her way up his spine. She took her hand out from between his legs and reached under him from the side instead, pressing her naked body against his back while she stroked him more, harder and faster.
He rolled onto his side, forcing her to her side behind him. “Come here, you,” he growled, turning his upper body to reach around and grab her by the arm. She came willingly, allowing him to drag her across himself and lay her out in front of him on her stomach. He parted her legs and kneeled between them, drawing her hips upward with a hand on either side. She rose on her elbows and knees. “Won’t let a man get a good night’s sleep, hum?” he said, drawing three fingers from her vulva to her anus, collecting the moisture of her renewed need combined with his own cum from a while before. He rubbed it on his penis, the elixir of their shared existence.
“You weren’t asleep,” she insisted, her voice obscured by the pillow she had her face pressed into.
“I might have been,” he said as he drove into her, not too gently. Her animal cry into the pillow told him he had read her correctly. She was still burning for him, a lingering need that had not been satisfied the first time. She threw her head back as he thrust again, groaning loudly. He pulled part way out and pressed his hands between her legs on either side of his penis, stroking the sides of her labia with his fingers. She emitted a long wail, her deep muscles contracting to create a barrier that his every instinct forced him to drive through. They both gasped at the sensation as he penetrated her again, bending over her with the force required to overcome her contraction. He reached around her, slipping two fingers into her to tickle her clitoris.
She moaned his name, her head dropping back to the pillow as she gasped. She contracted around him as he thrust again and he wiggled his hips, unrelenting, driving deeper. “Yes darling?” he groaned as she squeezed him so tight it almost hurt. Her hand shot back and pulled his fingers away from her. He almost laughed, thrusting into her again. It was the first time he could recall her indicating that she’d had enough. Something within him wanted to know her fully satisfied, wanted to pump into her everything he could until she could take no more. Something within him wanted to know that ultimately he was enough for her.
He began stroking in earnest, withdrawing a bit each time and driving in deep, his penis beginning to feel raw from rubbing against her insides. She moved with him in a primal rhythm that sent them both spinning to near unconsciousness as their brains joined their bodies in total release.
He collapsed on top of her, unable to stop himself from toppling forward. Belatedly he managed to slip to one side, giving her room to breathe beneath him.
“You can go to sleep now,” she said after a long while. “John?” she dragged herself out from under him and he fell to the mattress, his face landing in the pillows where hers had been. His breathing had slowed to long, shallow breaths. She couldn’t help grinning. He was sound asleep. “Thank you, love,” she whispered, kissing the back of his neck. Then she pulled up the sheets and stretched out herself.
“You’re sure this is what you want?” James asked. It wasn’t, he realized, a fair question to ask while he was stroking her labia. But her response was neither carnal nor impulsive. She reached down and stilled his hand, then looked into his eyes for a moment.
“I don’t want to be a commodity,” she said, “worthless as a wife if I’m ‘used.’ This is my body and I intend to live in it. Starting now.”
He nodded with renewed respect for her, although he suspected her association with the emancipated Emma had a lot to do with her strong sense of self. In any case, it was powerfully erotic, knowing that she’d made a decision to come to him for this most delicate of lessons.
“You’re not – using any sort of protection, are you?” he asked gently, praying she had at least sought out that sort of knowledge in advance. She shook her head, obviously understanding and not particularly embarrassed. He sat up and opened the drawer on the nightstand, feeling around inside until he grasped what was needed. He unwrapped the condom and handed it to her.
“Never, ever, be intimate without knowing you’re protected,” he said. “There are too many consequences – more than you realize. Being an unwed mother is a very hard life. The other options are even harder. Everything we’ve done, and that we’re going to do, is for pleasure, but this isn’t a game.” He listened to himself and suppressed a wave of self-loathing. How many women have I bedded without the slightest idea of the consequences for them? With other agents it was of little concern – they had taken responsibility for their bodies long before he came along. But there had been other virgins, and he had little idea what had become of them after the one time, or sometimes a short affair. Watching Sally turn the condom around in her fingers he put it out of his mind. I’m doing the right thing for her, at least, he told himself. If I refused she’d probably go ahead with this Terrance fellow, and he might well ruin her.
“Show me,” she said, handing the condom back to him. He took it and sat up.
“You should know how to put it on,” he said, illustrating. “Know how it looks when it’s right. And never let him take it off until he’s completely done. Do you understand?”
Sally thought about how James had shrunk the first time and nodded. His semen had continued to ooze out even then. Watching him roll the thin material over his erection heightened the ache between her legs, which surprised her. All night the things that had inflamed her desire had surprised her – his breath on the back of her neck, his kisses on her ribs, his touch on the inside of her thigh. Her body was alive with sensitive places that she had never suspected. Nor had she expected that watching him would be so erotic.
The condom in place, he laid her back, holding himself over her with his groin pressed against hers. She frowned for an instant, confused about what came next – he had laid his penis against her, but not entered her. Surely she had not misunderstood?
“I’m sorry that it will hurt,” he said, “but I promise that it will only be this once.” Then he kissed her, almost chastely at first but progressing quickly to hungry, open-mouthed kisses full of tongue and need. She had to respond, one hand twining into his hair, the other sweeping over his back possessively. She was completely absorbed by him when he reached down and directed himself into her.
The pain was sudden and sharp and she cried out, nearly biting his lip. But he didn’t stop: he filled her with his solid presence, then pulled back and pressed in again. Through the pain she felt her desire escalating. The undefined need that she’d been feeling all night, that she’d felt before with Terrance, suddenly coalesced. This was the only way to satisfy it, and if it weren’t for the pain of her torn flesh she knew her consciousness would transcend the mere physical sensation. She railed at the unfairness of her female construction, that this first time should be so marred. Try as she might to ignore the pain and feel only the ecstasy beyond it, she could not.
James, she could see, had transcended. His body was like a coiled spring winding itself down with constant, paced strokes. His face was contorted in concentration, from her detached view it was almost comic, although she knew she had looked much the same earlier, during his less invasive lessons. As he reared up, driving deeply into her, throwing his head back to groan out his satisfaction, she silently thanked him for his careful tutelage. She could not help being disappointed at not sharing his climax, but she could not blame him for taking his pleasure after all he had given her that night.
And then his head dropped to her shoulder and he lay over her, weight supported on strong arms around her and despite being enveloped in his embrace she felt suddenly cold. It’s over. I’m not a girl any more. I can never claim innocence again. The tears were a complete surprise, but the sense of loss was so powerful she couldn’t stop them. James stirred above her, shifting to the side and pulling her tightly against him.
“Shhhh,” he whispered, stroking her hair once again. “It will be all right. You have so much to look forward to now. And I’ll be here for you, I promise.”
Emma heard Steed’s footsteps on the stairs and rose to pour him a cup of coffee. He shuffled into the kitchen, his hands shoved into the pockets of his dressing gown, his uncombed hair tousled. He eyed her narrowly as he took the cup from her.
“Are you the woman who wouldn’t let me sleep last night?” he asked. She arched one brow at him and sat back down at the table. A partially eaten half grapefruit sat before her next to a notepad and pen and her own coffee cup.
“You seem to have made up for it this morning,” she said. “It’s nearly ten.”
He sat down across from her and took a long sip of the hot beverage, holding the cup between both hands, his elbows on the table.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, looking from her notepad to her face. She was wide-awake, bathed and attired in one of the dresses she’d bought yesterday. She radiated happiness. He hated to mar her continued good mood.
“I’ve been listing,” she replied. “Things to do, errands to run. You may not like the first one.” She tapped her notepad with her pen. He frowned.
“It wouldn’t be right, your staying here,” he said. “People will talk, engagement or no.”
Her lips curled in a knowing smile. She looked down at her notes. “Item one: find a place to stay until the wedding,” she read. She looked up to meet his eyes and they both smiled. “Not,” she added, “that I will necessarily sleep there very much.”