This story copyright © 2003 Mia McCroskey
The characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.
Steed is interested in demolition
Emma invests in real estate
Emma Knight looked again at the box of odds and ends that she’d salvaged from the ruins of her Primrose Hill apartment. It had been sitting on the kitchen floor in her temporary flat for a month since she’d brought it in and put it there. That afternoon she’d not wanted to spend any more time thinking about the explosion or Matthew Stein, the man whose bomb had gone off too soon, killing him in her apartment while she was with Steed. That afternoon she’d taken a long shower and made herself a series of martinis that had neatly erased any thought of the things in the box from her head.
But it was time to face them – the scant remains of her first thirty-odd years of life. She pried open the top flaps and peered inside. It was mostly kitchen items, as that was the only room that had not been almost entirely destroyed. Even after a month a strong burnt smell emanated from the box. She reached in and lifted out a broken teapot, frowning as she noticed a slip of paper tucked inside. She set the pot on the counter and pulled out the paper. Lettered on it in neat handwriting was a very familiar message: Mrs. Peel, we’re needed.
“Where,” Emma asked, “is the body?”
“Over here, Mrs. Peel.”
She had entered the ministry morgue to find herself confronted with a large, irregularly shaped block of cement. Ignoring the similarities it bore to the sculpture she’d carefully carved out of marble and left planted in the garden at the Peel estate, she walked around it to find Steed and Dr. Mildred Booth, the ministry coroner, studying a decayed hand that protruded from the concrete on that side.
“Dead about two years, I’d say,” Dr. Booth was saying. “Somewhat preserved by the cement. Male, based on the bit of sleeve we see here. It will take some time to chip away the rest of the cement without damaging the remains.”
“I’m mainly concerned with identity,” Steed said. “His survivors, if he had any, have long since grieved for him. If we have to simply dispose of the remains, so be it.”
“Steed!” Emma scolded, “his people might believe he is simply missing. You must turn over the body to them, when you’re through with it!”
He studied her for a moment as if wondering if she’d gone soft. She glared at him.
“She’s right, you know,” Dr. Booth said. “It wouldn’t be right.”
“Work carefully,” Steed said to her with a curt nod, then took Emma’s arm and led her out.
“What was that about?” he asked as they walked down the corridor toward the lifts that would take them to his office.
“I was going to ask you. You’re not usually insensitive to the innocent victims. Some woman out there may be wondering what happened to her husband or brother or son. You’d let her keep wondering for the sake of a few hours of effort? What’s so urgent about this one?”
The lift doors opened. Several other people were inside, so their conversation was suspended until they got out, and even after that, until they reached his office.
“This is the fourth body that’s turned up encased in cement in the last three months,” he said, sinking into his desk chair. Emma didn’t sit down, but began pacing in the space between the door and the two guest chairs in front of the desk.
“Who were the others — why do you think there’s a connection?”
Steed pulled a file to the middle of his desk and opened it, spreading out several photographs. She stepped in between the guest chairs to look at them.
“Steven Pike,” she said, picking up one of the pictures. The face was distorted, the skin oddly splotched, but Emma was accustomed to looking at pictures of dead people. “I met with him last week about a joint project,” she glanced up at Steed, who was watching her carefully, “you didn’t hear that,” she added with an ironic little smile. “When was he found?”
Steed leaned back in his chair and watched her as he replied, “Two months ago.”
She stared at Steed. “So either the man I met with, or this one,” she waved the photograph, “is an imposter.”
“Bingo!” he replied. “How long have you known him?”
“Only since I’ve returned to Knight,” she said, setting the picture down. “I wouldn’t know if there’d been a switch before that, and I don’t know him well enough to have noticed in the last two months. So I could be negotiating with a fake.”
She sank down into one of the chairs and folded her arms across her waist.
“More importantly, Mrs. Peel, all of these gentlemen could be imposters.”
She leaned forward and looked at the rest. “I know him – I mean I’ve seen him in the paper,” she pointed at another of the men. “Standard Energy, isn’t he?”
“He is Sir William Trent. Standard Energy is his company,” Steed confirmed. “They’re all business men in high positions with firms that specialize in non-petroleum based energy.”
“What else do they have in common, besides their industry?”
Steed shrugged, looking at the rather thin report from the file. “All of the companies are publicly traded. All of the men have very little family – widowers, no children, divorced. . .” his voice trailed off as he caught her smirking at him.
“I see. No survivors out there longing for their missing loved one,” she said. “You might have explained sooner.”
“I might have,” he smiled triumphantly, “but I was enjoying your indignant display.”
She glared at him for a moment, unable to maintain her annoyance when she knew she was being lovingly teased.
“What do you want me to do? And how much will it interfere with the plans for our wedding?” she asked.
The filling station where Steven Pike’s remains had been discovered was in a small village about an hour outside of London.
“I’ve had nothing but trouble with the fuel tanks,” Rodney Johnson, the owner, told her as they looked into the gaping hole at the side of his property. Emma discretely snapped a picture with the miniature camera she had mounted inside her shoulder bag, the lens peeking out of a small hole in the side.
“So you’re having them replaced?”
“That’s right. Expensive proposition, but it’s my only option if I’m to stay licensed. I thought about selling, but what would I get with the leaky things down there?”
“Assuming you informed the buyer,” she said. He looked shocked.
“Of course I’d tell the buyer, Mrs. Peel. That wouldn’t be right!”
Emma nodded appreciatively. He was either a good performer or an honest man. It didn’t really matter – he’d only owned the filling station for about a year and had not even lived in the area when it was constructed. It was very unlikely he’d had anything to do with the buried body.
He guided her around the small property and she snapped pictures and asked the sort of questions that she thought a coroner’s investigator would ask. It was a thin cover, but she figured it would do. The man knew a body had been collected from his property – he’d reported it. He wanted his new tanks to be installed, so he’d cooperate with anyone who could speed the process.
Satisfied that there was no more to learn from the site – at least not with him following her about – she thanked him and eased back into her Lotus.
She was soon driving back toward town and lost in thought about wedding plans – they were all she seemed to think about these days. A month had passed since Steed had recovered Knight’s stolen money and arrested her ex-husband. At nearly the same moment – a coincidence that had saved her life – one of Peter’s minions had blown up her apartment. Had Steed not returned that day, she would have been at home. As it was, Matthew Stein had killed only himself, and that probably by accident. She hadn’t mourned him. He had previously tried to rape her.
All of these events piled on top of one another had brought her to an important realization. She loved Steed, she wanted to marry him, and she’d better get on with it because life was too unpredictable to wait for the perfect moment. So she’d set the wheels turning, first by informing a few close friends – once they knew, there was no going back. Then by recruiting a general manager for Knight Industries. Emma wasn’t going to give up her hard won position as CEO, but she was ready to admit that the company deserved a larger management team. She was gradually coming to understand that she did not have to prove herself in the boardroom. Anyone who doubted her ferociousness in business need only sit across from her in a meeting for a few minutes.
Faster than anyone would have thought possible she had approached, wooed, and hired Anthony Cruz, a naturalized Brit originally from Central America with a background in the technology-related industries that Emma wanted Knight to focus on. She had intentionally sought out someone with a non-British heritage to emphasize the international image she wanted Knight to develop. She was also contemplating a name change, to Knight International.
Despite all of these accomplishments over the last month, her primary focus was still her wedding. There was far more to do than she had ever guessed, and the hardest decision was still not settled: location. She was determined to have the reception in her own home – a home that she did not yet own.
She had moved, after the explosion, into a furnished flat not far from Knight headquarters in Marlybone. Much as she had craved the safety and comfort of Steed’s familiar mews apartment, it would not have been seemly for Knight’s CEO to live in sin. In fact, Emma suspected, certain factions of the press would have thought it a very juicy story indeed. Fortunately, Steed had reached the same disappointing conclusion, so she’d taken the small temporary flat. And as her new life as part time CEO, part time wedding planner, and part time spy developed, she found that she needed the space and privacy it afforded her. She and Steed would have been on top of one another in his apartment. They both needed space. They needed a house.
The Peels had graciously offered the Peel Estate for the wedding party. It had recently opened as an inn and conference center. She hadn’t declined – it was a reasonable back-up plan, but she desperately wanted the event to be in her own home. She had two real estate agents combing the countryside around London, but so far nothing had suited her or Steed. And until she knew where they would live, she could not drag Steed around to talk to parish priests.
Steed had returned to the ministry after his hiatus chasing Peter Peel and thrown himself into several small cases. He’d involved her, but they hadn’t really been the sorts of challenges she excelled at. This case was the first one that he’d overtly recruited her help with. His “we’re needed” note – heaven knew how he’d known she would open that box this morning – had sent a flash of excitement up and down her spine. She’d willingly rushed to his aid.
She was thinking about the wedding dress expedition that her friend Nancy – one of the few friends “in the know” — was dragging her on tomorrow when the “open house” sign flashed by in her peripheral vision. By the time it had registered in her consciousness she was a hundred yards further along the road, which was bordered by a low, old stone wall. She stopped the Lotus and rose up in her seat to look across the wall. A vast, unkempt lawn studded with shrubs and trees only partially blocked the view of a late-Georgian house. She slid back down, executed a u-turn, and returned to the open gate where a bunch of colorful balloons were tied above the “open house” sign.
She parked with the two other cars in front of the house and got out to wander back and forth in front discretely snapping pictures. It was symmetrically built, two stories with an attic above that. The front profile was not enormous, but from the road she’d noticed a wing extending to the rear. If the symmetry were complete there would be a matching one on the other side. Rather than explore from the outside, she climbed the four front steps and went in through the double doors that were standing open to the summer breezes.
The floor of the entry hall needed work. That was the first thing she noticed. Then she let her eyes follow the curve of a rather grand, if worn looking wooden staircase up on the left to a balcony above. Below the balcony an open doorway led into a large room, with French doors in the far wall providing a view of the back garden in between the two rear wings. To her right was a fireplace and another doorway. She poked her head inside and found a formal parlor with a fireplace backing the one in the entry hall. She was about to explore another door on the right when she heard voices at the top of the stairs. She moved to the center of the entry hall and looked up.
A middle-aged couple and a single man stepped down the stairs, which creaked loudly. He was chattering on in a well-mannered voice about the house’s myriad qualities, not allowing the couple to speak. At the bottom of the stairs when he bid them farewell they seemed to be making a run for it. Emma groaned inwardly at the sales pitch she was about to endure.
“Welcome, madam,” he said turning to her. “Is your husband outside?”
Emma bristled, but did her best to conceal it.
“My fiancé is in London,” she replied coolly. “I was driving by and saw the sign.”
“Ah,” his smile appeared to be painted on. He stepped over to a card table and retrieved his business card. “Barnstable. Elmer Barnstable, estates and properties. Miss –?”
He extended the card to her and she took it. “Knight. Miss Emma Knight,” she replied, resisting the temptation to call herself Mrs. Peel just to confuse him.
“I take it then, that you and your fiancé are seeking a marital home?” he asked obsequiously. “A love nest to be carefully feathered during your happy years together?”
Emma experienced a moment of de’ja vu and realized the man reminded her of certain villainous fellows she’d met on one of her very first cases with Steed involving a marriage broker.
“That’s right,” she replied. “Something near enough the city for his work, but with enough property for his play – he wants to keep horses.” She thought he wouldn’t question her focus on her fiancé’s needs. She was right.
“Well then, you are in the right place, Miss Knight. Allow me to show you around.” He gestured toward the open doorway across from the front door and she went through. His tour was quite thorough, and the house was quite large. Sometime in the past an owner had remodeled upstairs to create a master bedroom suite with its own bathroom. Emma eyed a small adjacent bedroom, thinking the doors could be rearranged to add it to the master suite as a walk-in clothes closet. Barnstable noticed her look and smiled knowingly.
“Yes, a perfect little nursery for when the need arises,” he said. She elected not to disabuse him of his notion. There were, she thought, plenty of rooms that would make an excellent nursery just a little further away from the master bedroom, with room for nanny as well.
“The kitchen was remodeled just a few years ago,” Barnstable announced as he followed her into the room. It was, in fact, well equipped with good quality appliances. Emma could easily imagine cozy breakfasts and suppers here. Next Barnstable led her through a mudroom and into a solarium with several cracked panes and evidence of leaking around the seams.
“I see you can tell that it was an addition,” he said. “But nothing that a bit of caulk and some glazing won’t fix. And imagine the plants you can grow here. Do you fancy orchids, Miss Knight.”
“The fancier, the better,” she replied absently, wondering if the glass panes were all of a standard size or required special cutting. Still, she was taken with the idea of a greenhouse.
Next Barnstable guided her out into the garden, where the summer heat was gentled by the shade of many old, established trees. There was a swimming pool – empty of water and filling with drifts of leaves. He assured her that the mechanics were all in fine working order and she refrained from asking how he could possibly know with no water to pump, heat, or filter. A privacy hedge protected the pool and its decks from the larger grounds. He guided her out through a gate.
“The stable and garage are this way,” he said, directing her along the back of the house. She glanced out across the grounds and saw a wooden structure behind a tall hedge. She paused to peer at it, and realized what it was.
“It’s a hedge maze,” Barnstable confirmed, “a previous owner’s folly. It could be cut down easily enough and the center platform removed.” Emma nodded, saddened by his obvious lack of appreciation for the fanciful.
The stables were big enough for two horses and included a paddock. The garage was big enough for two cars, although Emma suspected Steed’s long Bentley might not fit inside. But there was an additional covered carport.
Barnstable’s tour ended back at the front entrance, where Emma told him in a rather casual tone that her fiancé might call to make an appointment to see the house another day. She could tell the agent did not expect any such call. She drove away quite satisfied with having left that impression. A house that big wasn’t going to be snapped up in an afternoon, and she intended to do her best to get Steed out to it tomorrow or the next day.
Steed was not at his apartment, so Emma shut herself into his closet-sized darkroom and developed the film from her miniature camera. She was glad that Steed had not changed his own equipment since their earlier association – he still had film holders and an enlarger to fit the tiny film that her camera used.
She was hanging up the last of the prints to dry when she heard him call out to her. Checking that the photographic paper was secure in the light-tight paper safe she switched from the red light to normal and opened the darkroom door.
“In here,” she called.
“What did you find out?” he asked as he joined her, the two of them barely fitting in the room. But that had never bothered them before. He scanned the row of pictures hanging over the developing trays and frowned. “Mrs. Peel, unless I’m quite confused, this is not a filling station,” he said.
“No. It’s the house we’re going to buy,” she replied, an impish smile lighting her face. He resisted the urge to kiss it, sticking with the professional demeanor he’d assumed when he thought they were going to talk about the case. He reached out and turned one of the prints slightly to eliminate glare from the overhead fixture.
“That’s the front entrance,” she explained, “and this is the solarium,” she touched another dripping print. “This is the dining room – it’s big enough for a ballroom, really. And the kitchen is actually quite modern, although it’s hard to tell in this. The agent simply wouldn’t get out of my way.”
“Of course, he was unaware of your photographic needs,” Steed said, looking at another print.
“Still, he was rather inconvenient,” she sighed playfully. “That’s the stable area. The garage is adjacent.”
“That chicken coop will have to go,” he said, studying the dilapidated structure.
“I think it could be repaired,” she countered.
“Nonetheless, I hate the sound of chickens in the morning,” he said firmly.
“Really? I had no idea.”
“It hasn’t come up, has it?” he asked, fingering another photograph. “Is this a hedge maze?”
“It is,” she sighed. He looked down at her – they were standing so close the small difference in their heights actually mattered – and finally let his detachment evaporate.
“Mrs. Peel, I believe you’ve fallen in love,” he purred. She cocked one eyebrow at him, then looked back at the photograph of the hedge maze.
“So you’ve learned to recognize it?” she asked archly.
He winced. “Don’t be cruel, my dear,” he said. She turned her face back to his with a look of mild contrition and he smiled, stroking her cheek with fingers that were damp from the photographs.
“How much are they asking for this decrepit pile?” he asked. She named the figure, which was higher than appropriate but not astronomical. And certainly not beyond their resources. “Well,” he sighed, knowing that they’d have the house if she wished it and merely hoping the wiring was newer than the structure and the stable was in decent condition, “I suppose I shall have to go have a look. Now what about the filling station?”
She turned to the handful of photographs she’d taken there. They were nearly dry, so she took them down and they moved into the living room. He studied the images of the hole around the fuel tank where the body had been found, of the small building, and of its owner. He looked the very essence of a mechanic, a breed of man that Steed rather liked, given his penchant for antique motorcars.
“What’s this?” he asked, shuffling a picture of junk behind the building to the top. He pointed to the corner of a sign lying amid the rubble. Emma frowned. “It looks like an English Petroleum sign,” he said, leaning over the print.
“I didn’t notice it when I took the picture,” she admitted.
“Why would it be there?”
“I think we shall have to find out about the prior owner,” she sighed. I should have noticed that.
“Not to worry,” Steed said cheerfully, “since I’ll be going out that way. You can check with the parish records office while I visit this house of yours.”
“I give up,” Emma grumbled as the door of the third bridal shop closed behind her. Nancy hooked her arm through Emma’s and launched her down the sidewalk. “These shops are full of naive young things buying whipped cream to inflame their future husbands. The saleswomen take one look at me and see a questionable case on her second go ‘round. ‘No romance in this one,’ they think. ‘She’s not going to buy expensive frills.’”
Nancy burst out laughing, squeezing Emma’s arm. Emma glowered at her. “Are you mad, Em? You’re positively glowing with romance,” she scolded, although she did find Emma’s somewhat calculated approach to dress shopping rather disappointing. She wasn’t sure why she’d anticipated a morning of fittings and giggles over the relative appeal of various styles. That would be completely uncharacteristic of Emma, even if it was typical of most brides. She thought back to Emma’s wedding to Peter Peel and it hit her. “Emma, why are we making the rounds of these shops?”
“I don’t know,” Emma sighed, looking across the street at one that they’d already visited. “I think I should just go buy a nice suit and be done with it.”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant. Why don’t you have them coming to you?”
Emma frowned down at her.
“Remember your first wedding? You were so busy at the office you had them come there and fit you. I think part of the problem here is that these saleswomen have no idea who you are.”
“Maybe I should just walk in introduce myself right off,” she suggested wryly. “Then they’ll know I mean business.”
Nancy summoned more patience. Dealing with her friend this last month had required a lot of it despite the upturn in Emma’s situation. It seemed as if she’d traded the stress of Knight’s near failure with the pressures of planning the perfect wedding. Scheduling it for Christmas Eve had been the most audacious move Nancy had ever seen her friend make in a long history of audacity. Now Emma felt that she had to live up to the demands she was putting on the guests by providing a spectacular holiday event. What Emma didn’t seem to understand was that for her and Steed’s true friends, of which there were far more than they realized, the simple fact of their finally managing to have an open, committed relationship with one another was spectacle enough.
“I wouldn’t assume that these saleswomen read the business press,” she said carefully. “What you want to do is impress upon them the fact that your shopping expedition is properly financed. They think second wedding means you’re spending what you’ve saved from alimony, or your marrying because your widow’s pension isn’t enough to live on.”
“That’s appalling, Nancy.”
“Yes. But true. This is the real world. You need to conduct this business in your world, Emma. You don’t belong here.”
“What do you mean I don’t belong here? This is London. I live here!”
“Don’t be obtuse. You know very well that you’ve never set foot in these sorts of shops before,” she looked around at the profoundly middle class shopping street. “Either we go to the boutiques where you bought the outfit you’re wearing, or you call them to your office like you did last time.” It occurred to Nancy that the Pucci pantsuit Emma was wearing should have been a clue for some of the saleswomen.
“All right,” Emma sighed, looking at her watch, “designer boutiques it is. But not today. Steed and I have to take a drive out to the country.”
“I have an errand to attend to, and Steed has to look at a house,” Emma decided to admit as she headed back toward her car, which was parked at the other end of the block.
“A house! Emma, that’s real progress. Have you seen it then?”
“I found it yesterday. As Steed put it, I seem to have fallen in love,” she laughed.
“With the house? How charming. I hope he likes it.”
“Oh, he will. It’s old fashioned, like him, and it has a decent stable.”
“You’re terribly hard on him, you know. He’s a perfectly dashing man with elegant tastes.”
Emma smiled, “don’t I know it,” she said.
“Well? What do you think?”
“The roof will have to be replaced within the next two years. There’s a disturbing crack in the foundation at the back of the west wing. The wiring is thirty years old and the plumbing is older, except for the more recent renovation – and that looks suspect. There are several leaking windows that have caused water damage. Shall I go on?”
“No thank you.” Bitterly disappointed, Emma stared out the window of the country inn where they’d stopped for supper after his visit to the house and her visit to the hall of records.
“Perhaps I should,” he said, craning his neck to see her face, his voice softening, “The stables are in fine shape, the façade is lovely, the grounds were well kept until the last couple years since it’s been unoccupied,” he paused to watch Emma turn back to him smiling again. “The kitchen is quite functional and the boiler seems to be relatively recent,” he added.
“So you don’t hate it?”
“Not at all, my dear. Look, any old house is going to present challenges. This one’s rather appealing, for all of its defects. Do you want to make an offer?”
“After I’ve made a list of all the things that they should fix.”
“They won’t, you know.”
“But they’ll drop the price. Trust me, Steed. This is my specialty.”
Steed’s smile contained just a hint of lechery, “Mrs. Peel, you have many specialties. Tell me what you found out this afternoon.”
Emma smiled and picked up a lamb chop, nibbling on the disk of meat at the end of the thin rib. Steed cocked an eyebrow impatiently. She put down the rib and wiped her hands on her napkin.
“The filling station was constructed two years ago by English Petroleum. They sold it to Mr. Johnson about a year later when the village population had shrunk so much it was no longer profitable for them.”
“Why did the village shrink?”
Emma took another bite of lamb and chewed it slowly, watching Steed’s eyes narrow at her as he awaited her reply. She looked just a little bit embarrassed.
“A large research facility moved out of the area just about the time they were building the station. Quite a few people lost their jobs, and a few moved with the facility.”
“What was this facility researching?”
“As it happens, it was an advanced nuclear energy facility. It was relocated closer to Calder Hall. Nuclear power is the most promising non-petroleum energy technology going right now, by the way. Are any of the victims involved with it?”
Steed thought for a moment and then nodded, “Clive Lucas was – is – with a firm that specializes in nuclear energy research and consulting. Not, I believe, one that had a facility in this area, though.”
“No, I’m certain of that,” Emma nodded, still looking uncomfortable.
“And that would be because –?”
“That would be because the facility that moved away belongs to Knight Industries.”
Steed tried, but he couldn’t help emitting a little laugh. Emma shot him a withering look and he managed to reduce his reaction to a smile. “Oh come now, Mrs. Peel, you weren’t running the show then. You are simply not allowed to feel guilty about these things. Besides which we both know that sometimes such changes are necessary for the overall health of the company.”
“Very well, you may take that attitude, but when the masses decide they don’t approve of something Knight has done, it won’t matter that I wasn’t involved at the time. They’ll be more than happy to lay their grievances at the feet of Emma Knight.”
“So change your name,” he replied with a victorious grin. Emma smirked at him and he nodded, widening his eyes encouragingly. She shook her head and laughed. “You can’t blame a man for trying,” he sighed. “There’s someone we need to speak to. Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at ten.”
Emma finished her lamb chop and clasped her hands over her plate, elbows on the table. “That presupposes that I will be at my apartment,” she said. He shrugged, silently conceding his erroneous assumption. “Who are we speaking to?”
“Dr. Arthur Weddings – no joke,” he shook his head to silence her comment, “he’s the Ministry of Defense’s top man on energy.”
“A slightly eccentric scientist?” she asked brightly. She had a special affinity for their nation’s socially inept geniuses.
“Perhaps more than slightly,” he agreed.
Emma smiled down at Dr. Arthur Weddings as they walked side-by-side along a surprisingly busy corridor within the Ministry of Defense’s London offices. That they had found Dr. Weddings at his office on a Sunday was not surprising. That so many other people were also working was. Steed followed Emma and Weddings a step behind; he preferred to leave the egghead scientists to her. Their pace was sedate as Dr. Weddings used a crutch to compensate for a crippled leg. Neither this nor his diminutive size seemed to have a negative effect on his energetic personality.
“It’s a fascinating facility, Miss Knight. You should hear it when the breeze picks up – all those hundreds of windmills spinning. It’s rather eerie.”
“I would love to, Dr. Weddings, although it is a bit remote. That single installation must provide enough power for all of the Orkneys, given the small population up there.”
Weddings nodded enthusiastically, his head bobbing like an excited bird’s. “Here we are.” He stopped, leaning heavily on his crutch with one arm while he inserted a key from a ring tethered to his pants by a chain into the lock of an unmarked door. He gave it a push inward, gesturing for Emma to precede him. She cast a glance at Steed over his head, winking.
“Well Major, I did a little checking into the companies you inquired about,” Weddings said when they had seated themselves in his office. Emma was always a little surprised to hear Steed’s military title used, although the military types they often dealt with seemed unable to resist. She supposed that Dr. Weddings had been working with soldiers for so long it was ingrained habit.
“And what can you tell us, Doctor?” Steed replied.
“They are all highly respected organizations with very talented research staffs. But for various reasons, all four have fallen on difficult times. It’s rather puzzling, really — while they are each pursuing a different line of research and development, all are founded on proven concepts. In fact, representative from three of the companies were speakers at a conference I attended just last month.”
Steed opened the file he’d been carrying and took out a sheet of paper. “Just out of curiosity, Doctor, were any of these men there?”
Weddings took the paper and nodded. “Yes, Clive Lucas and Sir William Trent both participated in panel discussions,” he said.
“And were you impressed with their comments?” Emma asked. Weddings handed the paper back to Steed and reached up to straighten his thick-lensed eyeglasses. Then he peered through them at Emma.
“Now that you mention it, no. Not especially. Lucas was rather quiet, I thought, while Sir William went off on the most ridiculous tangent. I think most of the audience lost track of what he was saying a few sentences in.”
“So you are not basing your opinion of the companies on those two, I take it?” Steed asked.
“Gracious no. It’s their past products I’m considering. Research papers, publications, and actual products – like the system sensors on those windmills, Miss Knight. Standard Energy has a real winner in those. And yet, when they bid for a larger government contract they were underbid. It made no sense to me. But I’m not involved in procurement, thank heavens!”
“Would a look at what they have on the drawing table now help you to better assess the firms, Doctor?” Steed asked. “Perhaps their talent is drying up, causing them to lose to the competition.”
“It would certainly be enlightening, Major. Certainly,” Weddings bobbed his head again, causing his glasses to slip.
“Then I’ll see that you have the opportunity. Thank you for your time, Doctor,” Steed said, rising. Emma joined him and thanked the doctor as well.
“When do we break in?” she murmured to Steed as they made their way down the corridor.
“Tomorrow evening,” he said.
“And this evening?” She asked hopefully. He just smiled and winked at her.
“Miss Sally Howard?” Mr. Gifford raked the group of a dozen trainees with his inherently suspicious gaze.
“Present Mr. Gifford,” Sally replied promptly. He studied her for a moment as if committing her appearance to memory and then moved on with his roll call. Sally uncrossed her legs and ran a hand nervously over her carefully pinned up hair. Finding her way into the unmarked Whitehall building that housed the mysterious ministry had been as nerve wracking as her first trip to Knight Industries. She did have the benefit of having been here once before, but on that occasion she had been terribly frightened and had paid little attention to her surroundings. She did recall that Miss Knight – Emma – had seemed quite familiar with the place when she’d guided her out. But that stood to reason. Emma had worked for the ministry — and she probably still did in some less than official capacity.
Sally wondered as she listened to the rest of the roll call whether the thin file that Mr. Gifford had with her name on it contained Steed’s recommendation and James’s letter of reference. She rather hoped that her classmates would not find out about her relationships with the two extremely senior agents, or with Emma, for any number of reasons.
She still wasn’t sure about this decision – to quit her very good job as Emma’s personal assistant at Knight Industries and enter the ministry’s training program. But Emma had encouraged her and Steed had been enthusiastic. When she’d mentioned it to James to ask him if he thought she was suitable he had simply gone to his desk and scrawled out a letter of reference on his personal letterhead. That he was stark naked at the time, as was she, was not mentioned in the note.
James. Her feelings regarding him were becoming increasingly difficult to manage. A month ago she had approached him to ask a very delicate favor. He had granted it, taking nearly the whole night to show her the many ways he knew of to give her pleasure, and teaching her the same kind of skills. And that, she had thought, had been that. He’d driven her home in the morning, placing an affectionate but far from passionate kiss on her lips before she got out of his car.
A day or two later she’d found herself with Terrance, her boyfriend, and ostensibly the reason she’d sought James’s tutelage. She had kissed Terrance the way that James had taught her – a far more provocative kiss than she’d ever given the younger man before.
Terrance had pulled back and stared at her, a surprised smile lighting his whole face.
“Sally?” he’d asked softly. She’d shrugged and put her arms around him, pulling herself against him for another kiss, this time allowing her tongue to slip over his lips. He’d responded nervously at first, letting her take the lead as she brought one hand in between them to caress his chest through his white – well, grey – cotton shirt. She knew that she’d found his small, male nipple when he gasped and his kiss became nearly a nip. It pleased her immensely, this newfound power to arouse. But then he’d found his own power and he’d pressed her down on to her bed, rubbing randomly at her ribs and breasts and soaking her face with his kisses.
“Get off!” she’d cried, feeling an ominous hardness pressing against her thigh just below the hem of her shorts. This was not what James had taught her — this was groping and drooling. She’d pushed him off, rolling him so that he landed on the floor beside her bed with her staring down at him red faced. Remarkably he had managed to undo the top few buttons of her light cotton blouse. He peered up at her exposed bosom looking absurdly surprised.
“But Sally, the way you touched me –,” he’d nearly whined.
“Meant that I’d like to do more than just hold hands, Terrance. It didn’t mean that I want you to slobber all over me. There are things in between!”
“You need to figure out what you want, Sally. You can’t just get a man started and push him away like that!” Terrance tried for indignity as he sat up, but his continued attention to her half-open blouse deflated it. She realized that despite his clumsy approach she rather liked the way he was looking at her. Certain traitorous parts of her body were definitely agreeing with his assessment.
“It’s better if you go slower,” she’d said gently, praying that he wouldn’t ask how she knew. He did not. But he did climb back up onto the bed beside her. “Why don’t you try touching me with one hand, in one spot?” she’d suggested. To her complete surprise, he carefully placed one finger on the tip of her nose. She’d had to grin, and he’d smiled back. Then he slid his fingers along her jaw and around to the back of her neck.
“I wanted to be sure you weren’t trying to trap me,” he’d said.
“I am definitely not trying to trap you, Terrance,” she’d replied, closing her eyes as he pulled her close for another kiss. His hand slipped down her neck and inside her blouse, but there his temerity stopped: he cupped her breast on the outside of her brassier. The effect was just as powerful as if she’d been naked in his arms. She sucked in a ragged breath between his kisses and reached out to caress his waist and hip.
“That’s much better,” she’d sighed between kisses along his jaw and down to his Adam’s apple. Gradually she’d unbuttoned his shirt, and he had undone hers. Only then had she pulled him back down onto the bed, enjoying the feel of his skin against hers. When he awkwardly unhooked her bra and slipped his hand under it she felt the same throbbing, hot pressure she’d known with James. She’d pinched at Terance’s nipple and he’d understood, pinching hers very gently, and then with more force as she responded by pressing her groin against his. The rock hardness inside his trousers inflamed her even more and before she knew it she was undoing his belt and the buttons on his waistband.
“Suck me,” she whispered as she slowly lowered his zipper. He seemed to have frozen and she opened her eyes to look at him. His face was contorted in complete concentration. She moved her hand away from his groin and his eyes popped open.
“Don’t you dare, Terrance. You hold on until I’m ready,” she said. His mouth parted as if to speak, but he just stared at her. She realized with inward delight that he was speechless, far to absorbed in the sensations below his belt. She thought of James’s lessons about pacing and control and realized Terrance had nowhere near the experience that James had, and probably had very little control. So it was up to her. She left his groin untouched and dragged her hand from his navel to his neck instead, enjoying the feel of soft fuzz on his belly and coarser hair on his chest. She teased one nipple and watched him flinch, knowing the sensation she was creating was not pain despite his expression. Then she slipped her hand around to his back and stroked him slowly, allowing her pelvis to press lightly against his, and enjoying the contact of their bare stomachs. He drew in a long breath and let it out slowly.
She decided to try again. “Kiss my breasts, Terrance,” she said – neither a question nor a command. He looked just a little bit frightened and she could not imagine why. She lay back, stretching her leg out so that her foot rested on his calf, just to maintain contact with his lower body. Slowly he raised himself on one elbow and bent his head to her chest, nudging her loosened bra up and kissing her in the depression between her breasts. He tentatively stroked her stomach, and then her ribs, and then brought his hand up to caress her breast as he kissed it again. Her nipples were burning. She wanted to grab his head and forced his face against first one and then the other. But he seemed to be avoiding them.
“Please,” she heard herself moan, “suck me Terrance.”
“You mean?” he raised his head to look at her face.
“Oh God please,” she repeated, and then she moaned even louder as he complied, his mouth like a cool balm on her heated flesh. She felt her nipple tighten between his lips, felt him suck harder, heard herself moan again. Her hand slid into his hair and pressed him to the other breast, his lips coming off of the first nipple with an audible pop. She caught his hand and guided it down to press at the place between her legs that was desperate for attention. She couldn’t leave him to it, she didn’t trust him to know what she needed, so she showed him, rotating his fingers in small circles against the crotch of her shorts. And then he took over, slipping his hand inside of her shorts and the pants underneath, sending shivers up her spine as his fingers delved into her moist center.
“You’re so wet,” he said, voice hoarse with desire, raising his face to look into her eyes.
“I told you it would be better slow,” she whispered.
“What next?” he asked. She paused, wondering how it was possible that she was leading this expedition and wondering if this could be Terrance’s first time. In a flash she decided not to ask – he might deflect the question back to her. So she reached back down to his zipper and lowered it the rest of the way.
“Take my shorts off,” she said – and it was a command. He sat up and untied the drawstring that held her shorts around her waist, then he pulled them down along with her pants, all the way down her legs and over her bare feet. She considered asking him to kiss her there, but if she was right, if he’d never been this far before, than that would be too much. And, she realized selfishly, he probably wouldn’t do it very well.
Before he could lie back down she rolled onto her side and opened the drawer in her shabby night table. She took out one of the handful of condoms that James had pressed upon her. She saw Terrance’s eyes widen when he saw it. What must he think?
“I got them for us,” she explained, hoping he believed her. She saw from his delighted smile that he did. “Come here,” she said, and he stretched out beside her, one hand already trained to find and caress her breast. She enjoyed it for a moment as he rubbed his thumb over the nipple. While he worked she slipped her hand inside his pants and returned the favor, slowly stroking the solid mass inside his briefs.
“Lie back,” she said, sitting up to open the condom wrapper. She pressed his pants and briefs down to his thighs, revealing his big, solid erection. And it was big – as big as James’s. The sight of it inflamed her. She hurried to put on the condom, caressing him as she went and feeling his warm flesh throbbing in her hands. She could wait no longer, although she knew that she should, that there were many more ways to build desire.
“Now Terrance,” she breathed, lying back down and pulling him onto her by the shoulders, reaching down to guide him into her, spreading her legs wide to draw him inside. He took over, instinct driving him to thrust and pull out and take her nipple into his mouth before thrusting again. She clamped her hands around his small, tight buttocks and pressed him into her, grinding her pelvis against him as he thrust.
“Oh Sally,” he groaned, his thrusts increasing, his shoulders rigid. He threw his head back and cried her name again all through his deep, grinding orgasm. She rose up to meet him, pushing against him, clutching at his ass, feeling him shrink within her while she still ached for release. He rolled off of her on to his back, panting through a wide grin. Sally bent one knee and resisted the urge to plunge her fingers into herself. What would Terrance think of me if I did that?
The following day Bond telephoned her at the office, asking if she was well. Before she knew it she was asking him for an advanced lesson. And a week after that, she was back for another. In between, her second encounter with Terrance left her in much the same state as the first, and once again she could not bring herself to ask him for more. But with James that was never a concern. He played her like a fine instrument, first tuning her, then stroking her until she rang with fine, clear notes. And when she looked into his smiling, contented eyes she felt herself shiver with happiness as she never did with Terrance.
“I’m going to miss you, Sally,” Emma had said the week after that, setting Sally’s short letter of resignation on her desk. Across from her Sally nodded shyly, praying that her employer’s urging to find out what it would be like to be an agent had been sincere. She had called Steed, and he’d arranged for her to join a trainee class starting in two weeks. She was nervous and excited, and desperately hoped she wasn’t making a terrible mistake. “If you change your mind you come right back here. I won’t let Steed force you into anything.”
“Really? Thank you Emma. That’s a great relief.” And it truly was. There were moments when Sally felt as if she was throwing her life into chaos. But there were an equal number of moments when she saw a clear vision of her future – her future as a spy the equal of Steed and James and Emma.
Sitting in the dingy ministry classroom with the other eleven trainees listening to Mr. Gifford’s orientation she began to slip into a vision of chaos. As he outlined the skills they would need to master, the knowledge they would need to absorb, the understanding of world politics, culture, languages, and history that they would need in order to function in the field, she felt a growing sense of dread. Was she really expected to learn all of this in the next year?
Steed bent and cupped his hands and Emma stepped into them. He easily raised her up to poke her head over the eight-foot wall surrounding the Standard Energy wind power research facility. Security lights illuminated the stark rear wall, a single door in the middle and windows only in the second story. She dropped back to the ground and Steed wiped his hands together.
“There’s no cover. But I didn’t see any security cameras, only lights.”
“In the windows?”
“No, the only windows are upstairs. I’ll go over and then let you in the front gate.”
Steed sighed as he bent to hoist her up again, easily lifting her high enough to climb on top of the wall.
“One of these nights you’re going to lift me over a wall,” he said in a loud whisper. She grinned down at him and then disappeared over the other side. Arching one eyebrow at the spot where she’d been, he took off for the front gate at a trot. Getting out of bed after midnight for a bit of breaking and entering always put him in a good mood. What they’d done in bed prior to that was like icing on the cake.
Five minutes later the chain-link front gate slid open just wide enough for him to slip through. Emma closed it and fell in behind him at a brisk trot. He quickly picked the lock on the glass front door and waved her in ahead of him.
“I’ll check the offices, you go to the labs.”
Without comment Emma glanced around the lobby and chose a corridor leading into the depths of the building. Steed made for an ornately carved door off of the lobby. Thirty minutes later Emma met Steed back in the lobby, each with a small armload of files.
“Any trouble?” he asked.
“All’s quiet. And this,” she held up her files, “Is fascinating reading.”
“Yes?” he headed for the door, pausing to look outside before opening it.
“Super efficient windmill designs, advanced bearing lubricants, optimal location surveys,” she followed Steed across the yard, sliding the gate closed behind her and hearing the click of the simple latch. They returned to the Bentley, which was parked just down the road, and got in. “ – Standard Energy is on the verge of some very big breakthroughs. What did you find Steed?”
Steed set his files in her lap and started the car.
“Take a look. The top one is Sir William’s personnel file. I also picked up a couple other interesting looking items.”
While Steed drove them back toward his apartment she looked through Sir William’s file. In addition to salary and compensation records it included the results of medical and psychological tests. There was a marked change in them nine months prior – His blood pressure had gone up drastically while his weight had dropped a stone. His psychological profile indicated a shift from an organized, analytical personality to one that thrived on stimulus. How could the doctors administering these tests not have noticed? she wondered.
The next folder contained a market analysis that identified the company’s competitors, among them the three other firms whose executives had been replaced. Emma turned to the back of the analysis and found a cover letter that had been moved from the front.
Steed glanced at her and then back at the road. “I see you found it,” he said evenly. She was glad there was no hint of gloating in his tone. She closed the file and looked at the road ahead.
“Freddy has many clients. You’d find similar documents in my office. Do you think I’ve been replaced?”
Steed grinned, but didn’t look at her.
“Well? Do you?” she repeated.
“I have firm, if very intimate, evidence that you are the same Mrs. Peel that I have always known,” he said. “Besides which, you don’t fit the profile. Knight Industries is much more diverse than the victims’ companies, and you, my dear, have people who’d notice a change.”
“And I haven’t been running things at Knight long enough to have been replaced yet – it takes months, even years, to train someone as well as these men must be. Perhaps it’s time we speak to them directly.”
“Yes. We’re meeting with the agent about your house tomorrow, and I must get this material to Dr. Weddings. What are you doing Wednesday?”
On Steed’s first visit to the house Barnstable had given him the broad tour. He wanted a closer look at certain areas, so they’d arrived early this morning for another look around before negotiating the price with Barnstable. After a detailed inspection of the foundation Steed had disappeared into the cellar. Emma didn’t follow. Instead she stepped out through one of the pairs of French doors into the garden and followed the somewhat overgrown gravel path past the pool to the gate in the hedge. She had not had sufficient freedom to wander the grounds on her previous visit to the property. This morning she was determined to conquer the hedge maze before finalizing an offer on the house.
She had seen from an upstairs window that it was a double symmetrical maze – one entered in a quadrant and had to pass through that quadrant and the one next to it in order to reach the center. A separate, mirrored path occurred in the other two quadrants. She had noted the proper turns from above, so aside from having to press through a few places where the hedges had nearly grown together, reaching the center was not at all difficult for her. She climbed the platform, skipping a rotted step, and surveyed the maze and surrounding gardens. The hot summer combined with a moist autumn had turned what had once been a carefully groomed setting into a wild space. She rather liked it, although she knew it would be necessary to groom it.
She spun around toward the house where Steed was emerging from a door at the end of the west wing. What room is that? The Library? She waved as he walked across the lawn toward the maze. “Come in to my lair!” she called. He stopped at the overgrown entrance to the maze.
“They’ll be here any minute,” he called across the hedges.
“Then you should hurry,” she replied. “It’s simple. Step in and turn left. That’s it. Now go on straight. Yes, just push between those two – they’ll have to be trimmed. Now go right.”
She continued to guide him through the maze, ignoring his occasional grumbles and whacks at the bushes with his umbrella. At last he mounted the platform, also noting and avoiding the rotten step.
“I want this maze, Steed,” she said when he was standing beside her looking out across it.
“And how do you feel about the house that comes with it?” he asked, turned his gaze from the grounds to his fiancé.
“It’s all perfect,” she said, looking into his eyes. He couldn’t help smiling at the glint in hers.
“It’s a bit run down and rambling,” he pointed out.
“I expect that I will be too, eventually,” she sighed, reaching up to tip his hat down onto his forehead.
“I hope not any time soon!” he replied, pushing it back and putting his arms around her.
“Could you live here?” she asked, her expression so hopeful he couldn’t deny it, or tease her any more.
“I could. And more importantly, a pair of horses could too.”
“We may need more than just the pair, eventually.”
“We’ll add on to the stable,” he winked. “Shall I negotiate with them, or do you want to?”
Let her. He shook his head ruefully as he followed her unerring path back out of the maze.
Barnstable had set five chairs at a smallish library table in the room designed for that purpose at the end of the west wing. It was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases that Emma longed to stock with books. The parquet floor had a few squeaky places that Steed said indicated weakened under flooring. There was a patch of water-damage on the ceiling plaster in one corner that was directly beneath the master bathroom. Entering from the garden, Steed and Emma found that Barnstable the estate agent, his attorney, and Emma’s attorney, Mr. Pennington, had introduced themselves and were waiting.
“I’m so sorry we kept you waiting,” Emma said as she preceded Steed into the room, removing her gloves as she spoke. Introductions were soon made and Emma sat down beside Mr. Pennington across from Barnstable and his attorney.
“Mr. Steed?” Barnstable asked as Steed stalked around the perimeter of the room examining the empty shelves. He looked up as if surprised to be interrupted. “Will you join us?”
“Oh, don’t mind me,” Steed replied, moving on to examine one of the window frames.
“Shall we discuss the condition of the property?” Emma asked, clearly taking Steed’s request to heart. Mr. Pennington opened a file that he’d placed on the table and Emma consulted a typed list of items.
And a long list it was, sighting everything from the leaf-clogged gutters to the suspect flooring. Steed conveniently walked over a particularly squeaky spot just as she mentioned it. Barnstable’s head shot up at the sound, but Steed’s back was turned. Emma ignored the agent’s growing discomfort and moved on to her pre-composed list of requirements. She wanted the pool filled and its mechanism inspected. She wanted the maze hedges pruned, the solarium repaired, several suspect windows replaced, some flooring in the kitchen repaired – all at the seller’s expense. She also wanted complete surveys of the plumbing and wiring. Adopting a generous tone, she conceded that repair and upgrade of those systems should fall to the buyer.
Barnstable looked aghast. Emma smiled sweetly.
“Miss Knight, these demands are –,” Barnstable glanced up at Steed, who had paced around behind him, and looked back at Emma, who had drawn her lower lip in between her teeth in her most apprehensive expression, “Negotiable.”
It was more like a rout. Emma gave in on the maze pruning and window replacement, but stood firm on the pool and the surveys. Barnstable kept glancing at Steed and agreeing to Emma’s demands. Finally Pennington presented two copies of the hand annotated agreement for the others to sign. Barnstable added his signatures to Emmas’, then Emma turned to Steed.
“Darling, can we trouble you for a signature?” she asked brightly. Steed glanced up, smiled warmly, and crossed the room to the table. He took the pen Emma was holding up and signed without glancing at the agreement.
“Thank you dear,” Emma said, covering the pen and sliding a copy of the agreement across the table to Barnstable.
Emma and Steed shook hands all around, Emma taking Pennington aside for an extra thanks and to confirm that they’d come by his office the next day to sign the official version and complete the financial arrangements. When the purchasers had gone Barnstable looked at Steed’s signature on the agreement and shook his head.
“Is Mr. Steed quite all there?” he asked, “He seemed so disinterested. This is hardly a minor commitment.”
Mr. Pennington exchanged an amused look with Barnstable’s attorney, who shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure,” Pennington said, “but I believe Mr. Steed is very nearly the head of British Intelligence. In any case, he’s an extremely important person in the intelligence community.”
Barnstable frowned, staring again at Steed’s signature. “How could such a man leave theses negotiations to a woman?”
Now Pennington frowned, offended on his client’s behalf.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Barnstable, I should have prepared you,” Barnstable’s lawyer said, clearing his throat tensely. “You were negotiating with the chief executive officer of Knight Industries. I thought you knew.”
“I did know,” Barnstable “She inherited it. From what I understand she’s not even involved with the day-to-day business.”
The lawyer shrugged, no longer feeling guilty. “Miss Knight is known to be the second toughest negotiator in Britain, second only to her employee Edmond Stanton,” he said.
Barnstable crumpled the agreement between his fists, glaring at his lawyer. “I just gave away nearly twenty-thousand pounds because I felt sorry for that woman having to handle this matter for her dim-witted fiancé!”
“Dr. Weddings?” Steed tapped on the doorframe of the scientist’s open office door. The doctor peered up at him through his thick glasses, then raised them and looked again.
“Ah, Major Steed. Come in, come in. Have I told you about the advances in hydro electrics they’re making in the States? Enormous dams stacked with towers of churning turbines that light whole states more efficiently than any fossil fuel-burning plant!”
“No, I don’t believe you have, Doctor. I’ve brought you something to review – strictly confidential, of course.”
“Of course,” the doctor waved Steed in.
“Straight from the drawing boards of Standard Energy’s research facility,” Steed said, placing the files on the doctor’s desk. Weddings sniffed and opened the top file carefully as if he must not damage it. Steed settled into a chair to wait. He intended to return the files later – he hoped Emma wouldn’t mind another field trip.
Weddings worked his way through the files studying diagrams and reading specifications. After thirty minutes he closed the files and removed his glasses to rub his temples.
“Well, Major,” he said. “This is most baffling.”
“Yes?” Steed sat up straight.
“The concepts they are exploring here are close to brilliant. With minds like these in its employ, Standard Energy should be at the top of the industry.”
Steed fixed Weddings with his most searching gaze. “You’re certain Doctor?”
“Absolutely, Major. I do not understand why this firm is failing.”
“Thank you doctor.” Steed took the file and found his way out of the Ministry of Defense’s large headquarters.
Are you happy with today’s shopping?” Steed asked as he drew a line from the nape of her neck down to her buttocks.
“Ummm, very,” she sighed. Then she abruptly rolled onto her side to look at him. “Are you?”
Seated beside her on his bed with one leg folded in front of him and the other knee raised he forced himself to look thoughtful for a moment.
“Steed? Are you having second thoughts?” A little frown turned down the corners of her mouth. He couldn’t bear it.
Stretching out facing her he ran his hand from her shoulder over her ribs and down to her hip, reaching around to cup her ass.
“I have never had a second thought where you’re concerned, Emma,” he whispered into her ear, disregarding his many moments of uncertainty over the years. “I’m delighted with the house. I think it suits us.”
“So you like the idea of being a land owner, hum?” she purred, nestling her body against his as if it belonged there – which, as far as he was concerned, it most certainly did.
“It has always suited me,” he said, his slightly proud expression emphasizing his aristocratic features. She pursed her lips, eyes narrowing.
“Steed, what other land do you own?” she asked suspiciously. The corners of his mouth curled, amused at the accusatory tone in her voice.
“Come now, Mrs. Peel, you must allow me some secrets,” he said.
“You have plenty. Tell me about your property.”
He grinned, taking a moment to caress her again and enjoy a long, sultry kiss. But she would not be put off indefinitely. When he paused for a breath she slipped her hand up against his lips and stared impatiently into his eyes.
“You know the valley where my sister’s house is?”
“You don’t own your sister’s house, do you?”
“Of course not. Caro owns her house,” he seemed a little surprised at her suggestion. “She owns the land it’s on and about half the valley. I own the house that two of our aunts live in, and the other half of the valley.”
Emma thought about the amount of good, arable farmland in that valley. It included at least one village, several farms, and some large stands of timber. She’d always known he had money – family money, money from mysterious sources, money tucked away here and there. She had never been so indiscrete as to inquire into the Steed family fortunes. That they’d financed his and Caroline’s very good educations was evidence enough of their existence. But the holdings he had just described were substantial, and extremely valuable. She wanted to ask about the house he’d said his aunts lived in – particularly since he’d never mentioned it even when they were in the area, but she decided to file it away for another time – perhaps next time they visited his sister.
Emma was not impressed by wealth, but she was not immune to its seductive power. That Steed’s fortunes matched hers – perhaps even exceeded them – made her feel all the more drawn to him.
“I can picture you riding your lands, checking up on the tenant farmers. Tell me, do you accept the rents in goods, or only cash?”
“Strictly cash!” Steed replied, then narrowed his gaze at her. She had a feeling she was about to be repaid in kind for her inquisitiveness.
“And just how many villages are there on the rather vast tracts of Knight lands in Sussex, my dear? How are those rents paid?”
Emma smiled a crooked, devious smile and said, “promptly, darling. No one crosses a Knight.”
“And no one has for several centuries, I imagine,” he chuckled, drawing her into another kiss.
She let this one linger on, renewing it with growing enthusiasm. This was their third night together in a row, and she was beginning to feel the same intensity that they’d shared in the year before Peter’s return. In those days they’d spent more nights together than apart, although they’d retained separate residences and independent lives. Privately, they had been as bonded to one another as if by marriage, although they never, ever spoke of it. But that reticence had been a barrier that she had come to despise. Almost a year ago when she’d decided to leave Peter and had sought out Steed again, she’d resolved only to accept him if they could speak their hearts to one another. To her infinite delight, Steed had been the first to do so, quietly confessing his love for her many weeks before she had summoned the courage to do the same to him.
The barrier had dissolved to be replaced by other less easily conquered inhibitions that she’d never expected. Her guilt for leaving him in the first place, his remorse for letting her go without trying to stop her. She’d gone on to hurt him again, even after he’d proposed marriage and she’d accepted. But his devotion, she had learned, ran far deeper than even she could have guessed. Just as she had once resolved to engage in their relationship on his terms if that was the only way she could have him, he was readily changing his life in order to have her in it. She was without a doubt the luckiest woman alive.
She grew certain of it as his caressing fingers wandered across her breast, circling her areole until it prickled and her nipple grew so hard it ached. He passed his fingers over it gently, light eyes watching her face as she sucked in a sharp eager breath. She lounged back, presenting both breasts to him like playthings, one arm curled above her head. He smiled, rising up on one elbow to accept the invitation. His lips seared her sensitive skin, the tip of his tongue drawing languid patterns on her. His fingers traced sparks across her ribs, following the line of each one from the center to her side, then tracing back and finally teasing her belly button.
One leg drew up, the other one bent to the side, opening her to him as his hand drew nearer. He rubbed her stomach with the flat of his hand, knowing she wanted him to plunge further and enjoying watching her desire build. It showed in her face, her mouth slightly open, her eyelids fluttering over infinitely deep, brown pools. Before he would satisfy her he would take her mouth, he would surprise her eyes wide open and dive into them. He did so, his kiss hungry with his own controlled desire, his tongue searching her mouth, tangling with hers. She responded as he’d known she would, strong arms wrapping around him, drawing him down against her so that their bare skin made contact along the whole length of their bodies. Animal lust raged through him and he moved to shift over her, to merge with her until he was completely inside of her.
She used the moment when his balance shifted to roll him back, countering his move and laying him out beneath her instead, easily proving her own supple strength. She straddled his hips, one hand on his shoulder, the other tracing patterns on his chest much as he’d done on hers. He lay still, allowing it because it was what he’d wanted all along. Beneath her, enveloped in her moist warmth, his erection throbbed out its more basic need. She moved on him, but did not admit him. Not yet.
She stretched out on top of him, her hands on the mattress above his shoulders bearing some of her weight, her legs on either side of his. Her nipples hardened even more as they brushed the coarse hair of his chest. He reached up to finger them and she shuddered, compulsively pressing her mouth to his. He pinched and a jolt of lightening surged to her groin. Tearing her mouth away from his she reared up, driving her pelvis into his to satisfy her sudden, intense need. She gasped as an orgasm took her, selfishly rubbing her clitoris against his solid penis.
Just as she’d taken advantage of his distraction to roll him, he moved her. In a fluid motion he sat up, wrapped one arm around her beneath her arms, and rolled her onto her back. Balanced on one hand he used the other to guide himself into her, then drew his hand up the back of her thigh, bringing her leg high up against his own ribs. She raised the other leg as well, crossing her ankles above his back. His hand came down to pinch at one nipple and then the other and she groaned, running her fingers through his hair. He caught her hand and laid it above her head with the other one, holding both wrists as he slowly pressed into her.
Her chest heaved against his as she panted, hips writhing as if in struggle. But his grip on her wrists did not concern her – she longed to be mastered, and he was the only man she’d allow to do it. He covered her face with kisses as his hips worked, moving his solid penis within her. She drew him in, her mouth sucking his tongue, the powerful muscles of her vagina pulling him inside of her. He let her take him, let her suck on his tongue like a teat, let her milk him until he roared with a surging, burning orgasm. She roared as well, twisting beneath him, finally truly struggling against his restraining grip as her body bucked against his. He released her, drawing his hand back down to lightly caress her breast, then bending his head to kiss it. She wrapped her arms around him, holding him to her as he kissed her other breast then raised his face to hers.
“Only you, John,” she whispered, her lips brushing his, her many layers of meaning clear. He moved to the side, still wrapped in her arms.
“Only you, Emma,” he replied, letting himself slip into the heavenly half-conscious world where, for a little while, they were one.
“Steed, you roused me from a very comfortable bed. You cannot also expect me to boost you over this wall,” Emma said, looking up from the passenger seat of the Bentley at the familiar eight-foot structure.
“I hesitate to point out, Mrs. Peel,” Steed replied as he pushed himself up to stand on the seat and from there step to the top of the door, “that it was my bed — from which, for at least a few more months, I may still claim rousing-out rights.” He placed his hands on the top of the wall, which he could now easily reach. Seeing what he intended, Emma got out of the car and started toward the front of the building. Behind her Steed scrambled to the top of the wall and dropped down on the other side. She was waiting by the gate, arms full of files, studying the empty road in front, when Steed slid it open for her.
“Right then,” he said as he picked the lock on the front door again, “back where you found them and you can return to that comfortable bed.”
Emma extended his share of the files to him as she marched past him and on down the hall toward the labs.
Five minutes later Steed returned to the lobby. He peered out the front door, and then down the hallway. As his gaze traveled back toward the front door a light caught his eye. He leaned over the reception desk to look at the telephone switchboard. The light indicated a telephone call was in progress from research lab one.
The files in the lab had been rearranged. Emma quickly scanned the new piles and found a likely spot for the files she was carrying. She slipped them in between other files, patted the top of the pile, and turned to go.
“Hold it right there,” a gruff voice echoed in the large, dimly lit lab space. A man in a security guard’s uniform had entered from another door. He was holding a gun. Emma stopped in her tracks, putting her hands behind her on a worktable to feel for a weapon.
“Hands up,” the guard barked. Emma raised her empty hands with a sigh and a crooked smile. The guard came to her looking curious as well as determined. “Sit,” he gestured at a chair with the barrel of his gun. Emma stepped to the chair and sat down, folding her arms. The guard kept his eye on her as he backed to a desk and felt around for the telephone on it. When he let himself glance down to find it Emma started to rise, but he looked back very quickly so she settled back with an apologetic shrug. His eyes narrowed as he moved the telephone within his range of vision and awkwardly dialed it with his left hand.
The guard spoke to the police briefly then hung up the telephone.
“There’s really no need for that,” Emma said quietly. “I wasn’t stealing anything.”
The guard didn’t respond, but did study her for a moment, clearly taking in her skin-tight cat suit. He could see that she wasn’t lying – there was no room to hide anything. But he was, apparently, rather single minded. He continued to stand by the desk holding the gun pointed at her.
Seeing a shadow pass by the door she shifted on her chair to draw the guard’s attention. The shadow entered the lab.
Steed crept silently around the room until he was behind the guard. His arm was around the man’s throat before the guard heard him. Emma jumped up to catch the gun as the guard dropped it. He made a tight, choking sound, clawing at Steed’s arm with his other hand for a moment, then he went limp. Steed set him down gently and Emma placed his gun on his chest. Without a word or backward glance they made for the hallway.
Sirens wailed at the front of the building and Emma glanced the other way down the hallway, a hand on Steed’s shoulder.
“Out the back and over the wall?” she asked. He shook his head and strode purposefully toward the lobby. She followed. He walked right up to the door and opened it.
“Hello, yes, please, come in. He’s in the lab – just down that corridor,” Steed sputtered. The officer hardly looked at him and didn’t notice Emma, who stood behind Steed.
“Right,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at his partner, “let’s go.”
“So glad you’re here,” Steed added to their retreating backs before stepping out through the open door.
They walked quickly out through the gate and around to the Bentley parked close by the wall beside the compound. By the time the puzzled policemen came out of the building they were two miles away.
“Thanks you for seeing me, Sir William,” Steed strode into the well-appointed office inhabited by the man who’d replaced Sir William Trent at Standard Energy.
“Mr. Steed, you were fortunate to call just when I had a cancellation in my calendar. You mentioned something to my secretary about improving market share.”
“Absolutely, Sir William. And what firm doesn’t need a boost in that area, eh?”
Steed shook the imposter’s hand vigorously and offered his business card, which identified him as a vice president with King Consulting. It was an old card. Sir William gestured toward a chair and sat down himself behind his desk. Steed launched into his pitch, promising an analysis of Standard Energy’s competition and consultation on their marketing strategies. As he talked he watched Sir William’s imposter carefully. He seemed to be completely at ease in his role.
“We have the services of a consulting firm, Mr. Steed,” he said when Steed had finished.
“But are you satisfied with them, Sir William? Let’s be honest with one another. What I see is a firm in need of help. Standard Energy has been out-bid on the last three major contracts it tried for, contracts it needed badly. Is your marketing consultant really serving you?”
Sir William stood up. “Thank you for your interest, Mr. Steed,” he said simply. Arching one brow, Steed rose and shook his offered hand, surprised at the suddenness of his dismissal. But his expression changed to a wily smile as he exited Standard Energy’s offices. Clearly Sir William’s imposter was not in a position to fire Leighton and Brenford.
Emma parked her Lotus outside the suburban headquarters of Harp Hydroelectric and studied the building for a moment before getting out. She and Steed had split the four replacements the only way that they could. The security guard at Standard Energy might recognize her, and Steven Pike at Atomic Resources knew her. They had discussed her taking advantage of that, but had been unable to come up with an approach that would not conflict with Knight’s interests. So she was left with Alan Graham at Harp Hydroelectric and the fourth replacement executive, Trevor Smyth at Solar Systems, a company name that never failed to make her smile.
Harp Hydro, as the lettering on the building called it, resided in a modern, three-story office building in an industrial neighborhood south of London. As Emma got out of her car a heavy lorry rumbled by kicking up road dust. She coughed and waved it away from her face, then brushed her jacket compulsively and headed for the building entrance.
She was here as an efficiency expert, claiming to have been recommended by Lord Frederick who was, she was here to inform Mr. Graham, taking a greater interest in Harp Hydro.
She watched the false Mr. Graham’s already pinched features grow even narrower as she related this information to him over his frightfully tidy desk. He did not strike her as someone who needed the services of an efficiency expert. He did strike her as being extremely concerned that Guy Brenford’s partner might become involved with their marketing relationship.
She left Harp Hydro without an assignment, but with a growing sense of relief that Brenford, and not Freddy, was the connection among the four companies.
Steed’s visit with Steven Pike at Atomic Resources went much the same. Pike – or rather the replacement for Pike – deftly dismissed him when he suggested that Leighton and Brenford could be replaced.
Emma was not at all surprised by the enormous model sun in the lobby of Solar Systems’ suite of offices in London. Off to one side a cleverly constructed display showed how sunlight supplied by, of all things, a wide spectrum electric light bulb, was collected by solar panels to power an electric fan. Emma had just flipped the switch to turn off the “sun lamp” when the receptionist announced that Mr. Smyth would see her. The fan’s motor hummed on as she walked away from the display, making her glance over her shoulder at it curiously.
“You’ve caught us out, I see,” a sophisticated male voice said. Her head snapped back around. “I’m Trevor Smyth,” an attractive man in a well-tailored suit said. He walked over to the display and switched the “sun” back on, then smiled at her. “It’s a mock-up. The fan is actually plugged into a wall socket behind the display.”
“I see,” Emma said curtly. “Fortunate, then, that I am not with the media, or the ministry of business ethics.”
“Oh dear, yes,” Smyth’s brilliant smile was put, Emma suspected, to effective use regularly. “But it’s not really unethical. You see, our entire office is powered by solar panels up on the roof. So although this bulb is merely for show, the principle is still employed here.”
Emma nodded, admitting to herself that he had a point.
“Shall we go to my office, Mrs. Peel is it?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He escorted her into the depths of the large suite, offered her refreshment, and listened with apparent interest to her sales pitch. She grew frustrated with his smooth façade, fearing that there was nothing to learn from this encounter. Finally she mentioned that she’d been sent by Lord Frederick, and Smyth’s mask cracked. It was a tiny thing, really, rather like a facial tick. But it was unmistakable. As was the sudden urgency of his next appointment, which had previously escaped his memory.
“It was the bum’s rush,” Steed said, pouring more champagne into her glass.
“Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry,” Emma agreed, turning back to her painting as she sipped the fizzy liquid. Somehow champagne always made her want to experiment with new colors. She picked up her brush and tried a particularly deep purple for a shadow that she would ordinarily have done in blue.
Coming up behind her, Steed looked at the still life and raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. She ignored him.
“So what is your conclusion?” she asked, pausing for another sip.
He wandered away again, pacing the length of her small sitting room in five strides.
“That we need to buy that house and get you into it. There’s not enough room here to swing a cat.”
“About the case.”
“That Brenford is the key, and your friend Lord Freddy may, or may not, know anything about it. Although it’s a bit hard to swallow the idea that he’s oblivious to his partner’s activities.”
Emma refused to leap to Freddy’s defense, choosing instead to focus on the facts.
“Just what are Brenford’s activites, then? And, by the way, I rarely swing cats indoors.”
Steed stopped pacing to grimace at her and she smiled back. He wandered toward the table where she’d arranged an onion and a broken teapot on a very expensive silk scarf.
“Your teapot’s broken,” he said, reaching for it.
“Don’t,” she squealed and he stopped, looking over his shoulder at her, “touch that!”
His lips curled in a satisfied smile and he came back around to look again at her painting. He looked from the canvas to the display several times, shook his head and looked at Emma instead.
“So that’s what you’re painting,” he purred. She turned to him, holding her paint-covered brush near the tip of his nose.
“What is it you think Brenford’s up to, other than bad consulting work?” she asked again. She could guess why he hadn’t answered. He hasn’t figured it out. That makes two of us.
“I think,” he said, gently pushing her hand to the side to move the threatening brush away from his face, “that we should concentrate on finding a connection among the companies that are out-bidding our target firms. After all, they’re the ones benefiting.”
“All right. Who are they?”
“That, my dear, is just the sort of thing that Mother has dozens of minions trained to find out. What time are we due at lawyer Pennington’s with the money for the house?”
Steed checked his watch and pursed his lips. “I really do need to go to the ministry. I’ll have it wired.”
Emma gave him a suspicious look. “You may wire half of it,” she said.
“Mrs. Peel, I know I have joked about living off of your Knight Industries fortunes, but it was just that – a joke. I will buy our home.”
Emma put down her brush and faced him fully, hands on hips and expression frightfully determined. “Steed, I will not be a kept woman.”
“No, but you will be my wife,” he replied with equal determination. She did not alter her determined stance. “Very well. The house needs so much work – you may pay for all of the repairs.”
“Why would I repair a house that you own?”
Steed felt himself growing angry and forcefully suppressed it. This is ridiculous!
“Wire half, Steed. If you wire more, I’ll have Pennington send it back. He is my lawyer.”
Steed snorted a laugh and shook his head. “There’s my error, conducting these things using your employees. I should think I would have learned after using Sally.”
“Yes,” she agreed pleasantly, “I should think.”
“Emma, is it different when you’re in love?” Sally asked, staring pointedly into her wineglass. At the end of her fourth day as an agent trainee she had sought out her former employer for one of the evening chats that had been a regular habit before she left Knight.
Seated with her legs curled under her on the new sofa in front of her office fireplace, Emma’s brows arched as she studied her former assistant for a long moment. It was not that she didn’t understand the question, but the implications of it startled her. She sipped her wine and cleared her throat.
“Do you ask that because you are, or you are not? And do I correctly understand what you mean by ‘it’?” she asked carefully. And when did you begin to experiment?
“Because I don’t know. I’m confused, and happy, and afraid all at once, and I’m exhausted from training,” she looked up at Emma with a grim little smile that made the older woman want to hug her just to lend her some strength. She hadn’t answered Emma’s second question, which was answer enough.
“That sounds rather like love, Sally – except for the exhaustion. I hope Terrance understands that.”
Sally’s expression completely confused her. First she looked startled, and then she looked guilty, and then she stared down at her glass to avoid Emma’s gaze entirely.
“Sally? What am I misunderstanding here?”
“Nothing, Emma. It’s a simple question. Is it different when you make love with someone that you’re in love with?” her tone was so desperate Emma forced herself not to snap back. And then she thought about the question. Her gut reaction was to say that she didn’t know, that she had never made love with a man she did not love. But if she was honest with herself she had to admit that she had not loved Peter when he’d returned, and sex with him then had been mechanical at best.
“Yes. It is different,” she said. “But you don’t think you’re in love with Terrance, do you?”
Sally heaved a deep sigh and seemed to force herself to meet Emma’s caring gaze. “I don’t. It’s not him – he’s not the one that it’s so amazing with.” She stopped speaking, but Emma was sure that she wanted to say more, that something was weighing heavily on her.
“You’re seeing someone else, and you think you might be falling in love. That’s wonderful Sally. Tell me why it’s upsetting you. Do you feel disloyal to Terrance?”
“Terrance is – nice, and I am very fond of him. I think that I could love him. But with him I never – he always finishes and I –,” she stopped, the words caught in her throat. She simply couldn’t express such intimate details. Emma nodded, understanding the girl’s embarrassment, and what she was trying to say.
“But with the other man it’s better?”
“James is amazing,” Sally sighed, so relieved to get it off of her chest she didn’t even think of how Emma would react.
Sally’s eyes widened as she realized what she’d said. She stared dumbstruck at Emma, watching the other woman’s face register shock followed by anger, and then a cold masque that was more frightening than the anger.
“James,” Emma said in a very slow, measured way, “is not a man to fall in love with, Sally.” Let alone sleep with when you’re young and inexperienced.
Emma slipped her picks into the lock and glanced up and down the corridor as she manipulated them. The lock clicked and she opened the door and slipped inside. The ministry’s staff had been researching energy-related government contracts for almost two days and had provided a preliminary report that the company that had underbid Standard Energy on the windmill sensor contract was a diverse firm called Alternative Sources. It had also included the rather interesting information that Alternative Sources had missed its last three delivery dates and the Southwestern England Windmill Project was in danger of losing its funding. Now Emma was breaking into their offices to see if she could find out why.
While she had missed this sort of work during her years back with Peter, she had to admit three times in as many days was a bit much. And on this case she was constantly faced with conflicts of interest. She was very tempted to “borrow” the concepts that Standard Energy’s scientists were working on and direct Knight’s energy division to follow the same lines of research. Her deeply ingrained code of ethics dictated that she adhere to the secrecy act that she had signed, and the act made everything she did in her work with Steed classified. When the case was over she would have to talk it over with Steed. They could not allow their two jobs to compromise one another. If it meant that she couldn’t help with some cases, so be it. The trouble would be identifying those cases before she was involved.
The filing cabinets were locked, but she found the key taped under the top drawer of the secretary’s desk. As she fingered through the files her mind wandered back to her conversation with Sally. She had been tempted to go find James tonight and let him know just how appalling she found his behavior. But she’d put the case ahead of her anger, both because she’d promised Steed and to give herself time to calm down. Attacking James Bond was not a wise move, even for her.
Her fingers paused on a file labeled with the code name of the windmill project. She extracted it and spread it out on the secretary’s desk, photographing a number of very informative documents before replacing it.
“They’re rather arrogant, don’t you think?” Steed asked, studying an 8 by 10 print of one of the documents Emma had photographed. “Keeping this in the file.”
“It’s almost as if someone wanted to be sure to keep the evidence,” Emma replied from the table where she was enjoying a dish of scrambled eggs. She had gone home to her own apartment after her nocturnal break-in, and come to Steed’s in the morning to develop the film. In exchange he’d made her breakfast.
The document was a letter on plain paper, not letterhead, outlining Standard Energy’s bid on the windmill project. It was signed simply “William.”
“So Sir William, or rather his imposter, told Alternative Sources’ exactly what it needed to beat. Can we connect the other four companies to Alternative Sources in the same way?” Emma asked.
“I supposed I need to find out what contracts the other firms have lost to them. Hey, I don’t suppose –.”
“Oh no. I have work to do at Knight today. It’s your turn to do the sleuthing,” Emma said firmly.
“But you have just the right connections. . .”
“I happen to know that your connections are excellent, Steed,” Emma rose and crossed the room to his side. “Good luck,” she added, pecking him on the cheek.
“I’ll call you later,” he said, returning his attention to the photographs as she headed for the door.
“It has to be you, Emma. I’ve said all that I can to them. They’re ready to accept our offer. All that’s needed is for you to put in an appearance there.”
“To go groveling,” Emma grumbled, tapping a pen on her desk.
Edmond shrugged, not denying it. “You can’t blame them for being put out, given our on-again, off-again negotiations,” he said. Emma closed her eyes and exhaled a long breath. Then she opened her eyes and looked up at her father’s Renoir over the fireplace. Edmond was right. They had plunged into negotiations with the Americans when the opportunity to collaborate on a computer data storage research project was first presented to them. But soon after opening negotiations her ex-husband’s theft of Knight’s cash reserves had been discovered.
They had back-pedaled on the deal, Edmond performing his most elegant performance yet keeping negotiations open while not committing. They had hoped to find financing, but everywhere they looked the price was too high. They had been about to give up and back out all together when Steed had captured Peter Peel and recovered most of the stolen money.
Emma did not mind going to Atlanta, although it would be unbearably hot in late July. It was just bad timing – she hated to abandon Steed in the middle of a case. As if reading her mind, Edmond leaned forward over her desk, eyes narrowed in a displeased expression.
“You’re working with Steed, aren’t you?” he asked.
Emma had given no formal reason for her decision to cut back her involvement in Knight’s day-to-day operations after the money was returned. Edmond was aware of her engagement to Steed, but not that they had set a date and were actively planning the wedding. He was also aware of Steed’s profession and her involvement with it. His assumption that she had withdrawn from Knight in order to work with Steed was understandable. That he disapproved was not surprising.
“You know I can’t discuss Steed’s business, Edmond,” she replied, hating resorting to avoidance.
“Why not, when you’re allowing it to take precedence over your own?” he snapped.
Emma tried to stare him down, but he would not surrender. He knew her tactics, and the tactics that she’d inherited from her father.
“Examine your loyalties closely, Emma. Your father and I had to choose after the war, between Steed’s sort of work and this company. I never expected you to face the same decision. Marry him if you must, but let him keep his profession to himself. This company needs you. Does he really need your amateur assistance?”
“It’s not a matter of need, Edmond,” she shook her head slowly, not wanting to engage in an argument with him even though his words had enraged her. “I have to be involved to know when and how to help him. If he simply disappears on a case I won’t be able to bear it – not having done all I could.”
Edmond looked at her for a moment longer, then leaned back in his chair – the closest she’d get to acquiescence. Emma reached for the intercom button on her telephone. She instructed Mrs. Emerson to make travel arrangements for her for Sunday afternoon, returning Edmond’s pointed stare as she spoke. “There’s no reason for me to get there before Monday, Edmond,” she said when Mrs. Emerson had all of the information.
Edmond sighed and stood up, his long body in its light summer suit slowly unfolding from his chair. “You should have everything you need there,” he nodded at the file on her desk. “But if you have any questions call me.” He turned and strode out of her office. Emma stared at the empty doorway for a few minutes, contemplating what he’d said about her father, until Mrs. Emerson filled it. Her secretary came into her office with a sheet of paper.
“You’re booked on a flight Sunday afternoon so that you arrive in Atlanta for supper. You have a suite at the Hilton, where Mr. Stanton always stays. I’ve left your return open,” she said, placing the itinerary on Emma’s desk.
“Thank you Mrs. Emerson,” Emma said mechanically. “I’ll call you from Atlanta Monday morning.”
“Yes Miss Knight. Have a safe trip.”
Sally dropped onto the bench in the sauna, carefully tucking her towel around herself before leaning back, closing her eyes, and emitting a deep sigh.
“Hemming’s tough, isn’t he?” a familiar voice asked. Sally’s eyes popped open and she rotated her head to look up and to the left. She’d been beaten to the sauna by the one other trainee she didn’t particularly want to talk to. The tall, leggy blond who seemed not to break a sweat no matter how hard Hemming’s sessions were. She could bend like a rubber band and kick above her own head. Sally desperately wanted to hate her on principle. But more often than not she found herself chuckling at Purdey’s witty, sotto voce comments.
“I can’t believe how tired I am at the end of each day,” she said, deciding being friendly was wise – you never knew who people really were around here. Purdey was so good, she might just be an agent planted among them. James had vaguely hinted that such things were done.
“Don’t let it get to you. You’re doing very well. Of course, I hear it only gets harder – we’ll be starting self-defense in a day or two and weapons next week. Have you ever used a knife?”
“Only on food,” Sally said. In fact, she had used knives on still living food – poultry for the family table. But she didn’t think relating her country heritage was necessary. Purdey sounded as if she’d been to the right schools where they didn’t teach girls how to pluck a chicken.
“I heard Hemming talking to someone on the telephone about coming in to teach fencing. Sounded like he was very pleased when the person agreed. I think we’re in for it.”
“Probably some sadistic French fencing master,” Sally groaned and Purdey laughed. “We won’t be able to understand him, let alone actually fence.”
“Hummm. Maybe we should brush up on our French,” Purdey said. When Sally didn’t reply, too embarrassed to admit that for her it would be an elementary lesson, Purdey shifted down the bench at her level. “I wouldn’t worry,” she said. “The fencing vocabulary is fairly limited.”
“I hope so,” Sally finally managed. She was relieved when the door opened and two more people came in. The swirling steam parted enough to reveal two men and a woman all wrapped in white towels.
“Hey Sally!” the male trainee said, plopping down across from them. “Is that Purdey?”
“Yes Matthew. Hello Alice,” Purdey straightened in a way that to Sally suggested a preening swan. The other man moved past Purdey and Sally and sat down. Sally glanced at him and froze, staring into James’s warm, amused eyes.
He didn’t speak, and was soon forgotten by the other trainees in the steam. They continued to discuss how hard Hemming had been on them and to speculate on what was in store. Although James had seated himself two feet away from her, his presence was palpable. Then he leaned back and stretched his arms out along the back of the bench. His fingertip touched the back of her neck and she drew in a deep breath.
“Are you coming Sally?”
She realized that Matthew had asked her something.
“I’m sorry?” she sputtered, “I was sort of drifting,” she said. James’s fingertips caressed her invisibly.
“We’re going for a few pints. Want to come?”
No. I want James. His fingers gave her a little push, then withdrew.
“Um, sure, that sounds great,” she said, knowing she didn’t sound at all enthusiastic. As the other trainees rose to go she risked another look at James. Later, he mouthed silently. Understanding, her body tingling with anticipation, she rose and followed her classmates.
Steed closed the outer door of Leighton and Brenford’s offices, patting his breast pocket where he had tucked the miniature camera he’d used to photograph the firm’s client list. He would have preferred to speak to Lord Freddy in person – to get a sense of whether he might be involved or not. But he did not think Emma’s lifelong friend was likely to be open with him, so he had to resort to covert methods. It was just as well that Emma was away – he knew she would not criticize him for his bit of burglary, but he was glad he hadn’t had to decide whether to ask her to come along.
With Emma in Atlanta Steed was also finding time to catch up on ministry reports and personal business, and to begin planning the engagement party that he’d promised Emma months ago.
It had been a bumpy road to this juncture – finally planning the official announcement of their engagement. He had proposed to her on Christmas Eve, what might be considered a short time after she had returned to him last fall. But to him it was three years later than it should have been: he should have asked her to stay with him when Peter Peel had returned. That he’d been incapable at the time of making the necessary choices, of changing his life to meet her needs, was irrelevant in hindsight. He’d let her go once. It would not happen again. She had accepted without hesitation and had even provided an antique engagement ring since the timing of his proposal had been rather impulsive.
But then they had had to wait. First because they had a ridiculous disagreement and had ended up apart on New Year’s Eve – which was why he owed her a party. But even after they’d reconciled they’d had to wait for the official stamp of approval on her divorce, and then for her takeover of Knight Industries to be complete. He had expected that they could make their announcement after that, but then Emma was shot by a member of Knight’s board and Peter Peel had escaped from Steed’s custody. And once she was recovered enough to return to the office she had learned that Knight’s cash and investment accounts had been drained. She had focused all of her energy on keeping Knight afloat with no cash. Steed had, after a time, realized that until Knight was solvent she would not allow herself to be his. So he had gone after Peter Peel, who had Knight’s money. Peel was a smart man, and it had taken Steed several weeks to track him across Europe and the United States. He had eventually cornered him on a beach in California, nearly drowning him in an embarrassing fit of rage.
Steed had wondered since then how much the destruction of Emma’s apartment by one of the other victims of Peter Peel’s larceny had accelerated her readiness to meet him at the altar. Prior to it she had blamed her hesitation on the demands of her ailing company. He suspected that even with the money recovered she might have continued to put him off in favor of Knight. But the explosion – as devastating as it had been – had taught her what he had learned when she left him years ago: everything can be lost in an instant.
He spoke to the owner of one of their favorite restaurants about a private party for thirty. After confirming one of the dates that he and Emma had discussed, he visited the exclusive stationers that printed his personal letterhead to arrange for lithographed invitations. During his visit he realized that while his personal stationary listing his London apartment as his address would still be useful, he and Emma would want new paper for their new home. He had the shop’s designer prepare letterhead intertwining their initials and including the address of the house. The designer mounted the sample sheet and laid a tissue cover over it. It required considerable charm to convince her to set it into a stationary box and gift-wrap it, but in the end she did, capitulating when he told her for the third time how happy his future wife would be with her design.
“Steed? Are you there listening? Pick up the telephone darling, please.”
Emma’s voice was echoing in Steed’s living room as he unlocked the door. He left it open in order to run to the telephone.
“I’m here Mrs. Peel,” he said quickly, fearing she’d disconnect before she heard him.
“Just coming in?”
“As a matter of fact – Just hold on a moment while I shut the door, will you?”
“I’ll send you Knight’s long distance telephone bill,” she quipped as he set the receiver down. He took a moment after shutting the door to pour the glass of sherry that he’d promised himself, then returned to the telephone.
“So Mrs. Peel, how goes the begging?”
“You know I despise it. But it’s going well. I’ve been wined and dined, and tomorrow they’re taking me on a shooting party, which, I gather, is quite an honor. Something about women not being allowed.”
“I can’t imagine that stopping you,” Steed said. “How is the wine? And the dining?”
He could hear the longing in her sigh through the phone lines. “Well, it isn’t Paris. Please could we go to Paris, Steed? I’m longing for a meal with proper sauces.”
“As soon as you come home, and we sort out these energy men, of course.”
“Any progress on that front?”
“Yes, some – I’ve been doing deep research.”
“You mean of the sort that I usually handle?”
“It’s only fair that you take a turn.”
“So you think. In any case I’ve made some more of those connections we’ve been looking for between Alternative Sources and the others. You’ll enjoy reading it when you get back. When will that be, by the way?”
“Not until Saturday evening, I’m afraid. Which reminds me – I believe I left the invitation to the Stanton’s party on your mantle. You will go, won’t you?”
“I had hoped that wasn’t necessary,” Steed said, glancing up at the envelope propped against the base of the picture frame. “After all, it’s Stanton who sent you away –.”
“Look Steed, it’s bad enough that I have to miss it. You must go to represent us.”
“Am I representing Emma Knight, CEO? Because it seems to me Mr. Stanton is far more suited to that role,” Steed grumbled.
“You are representing us, Steed, you and me. Please.”
James cocked an eyebrow at the door to his penthouse as a rapid knock sounded for the second time before he had time to move. He snapped his book shut and rose, striding to the door.
“Emma!” he said as she pushed through it and past him, then spun around to face him. “Welcome.”
“She’s only twenty James. How dare you seduce her.”
James shut the door and studied her, taking in her crimson cocktail dress and jacket trimmed with matching feathers. He took advantage of the inch he had over her by standing close enough to make her crane her neck to maintain her glare. God she’s sexy when she’s angry.
“No younger than you your first time, I’ll wager,” he said. He didn’t see her hand coming until it had slapped his head to the side and left a crimson print on his cheek. He rubbed at it and looked her up and down, then stepped around her, heading into the sitting room.
“Want a drink?” he called over his shoulder, making for the bar. She trailed after him, some of her rage dissipated by the act of hitting him.
“No. How could you do it, James? She’s not a part of your world.”
He poured himself a double shot of scotch and turned to face her again, allowing himself a small frown. “Funny,” he said, “I thought she was.” He took a gulp of the searing liquor and waited for her to reply. When she didn’t he went on. “In any case, she asked me.”
“Asked you,” Emma stepped closer, eyes narrowing at him. He took another gulp of scotch and set the glass down in case she attacked him again. Part of him hoped she would.
“She wanted to learn what to do with her boyfriend – Terrance isn’t it?”
“So that would account for the first time. And after that? Do you know she’s fallen in love with you?”
James couldn’t suppress the little smile. This time he saw Emma’s hand coming. He caught her wrist and twisted her arm out to the side, wrapping his other arm around her. Before he could stop himself he’d pulled her close and kissed her. In retrospect he realized that he was fortunate she only used her free hand to shove him away, breaking his hold on her wrist and slapping him again before stalking across the room to stare out the windows.
“If you break her heart I’ll break something much more valuable to you, James,” she said to the window. Then she turned around to glare at him. “And then I’ll be quite pleased to tell Steed what just happened.”
James waited a beat, thinking about the possible repercussions of his impulsive action. He didn’t want to lose Emma’s friendship. And he could not afford to make an enemy of Steed – he was far too senior at the ministry. Nor did he wish to hurt Sally, of whom he had grown quite fond.
“I don’t want to break her heart, Emma. Nor did I mean for her to become emotionally involved.”
“How could you possibly think she wouldn’t?” Emma asked, truly amazed. “She’s been looking in the window at your world for months. She doesn’t know anything about being shot, or tortured, or held captive by the other side. All she’s seen is a romantic, adventurous life and she’s been desperate to join in. You let her in. And awakened her body, I’m sure quite expertly. Of course she’s fallen for you. And soon you will go off on a mission and lord knows you may never come back. So before that happens you will act responsibly and find a way to let her down easily.”
James nodded and picked up his scotch to take another gulp. “You’re right. And I will.” When it’s really over. You, Emma Knight, do not control everything. And Sally is not the child you seem to think.
“Thank you,” Emma headed toward the door. James followed her with his eyes.
“Emma,” he said as she reached the doorway into the foyer. She stopped and looked back, one hand on the doorframe. “I’m sorry about the kiss.”
“Really?” she tilted her head to the side with a crooked smile that took him completely by surprise.
“No. But let’s just pretend I am.”
She nodded and turned on her heel, escaping the apartment before he could say any more. They both knew that the heartbreak she feared for Sally was equally possible for her every time Steed left his apartment.
Steed shot his cuffs as he looked around the richly appointed penthouse home of Edmond and June Stanton. He had not particularly wanted to go to the party alone, but Emma had practically begged him to.
Being a social creature he ordinarily accepted party invitations with pleasure. But he was well aware that Emma’s close associate, and her father’s best friend, did not especially approve of their relationship. His extremely developed sense of self-preservation told him to stay away from Edmond Stanton. But it had seemed petty to refuse. Besides, it was a better way to spend the evening than sitting in his apartment trying to concentrate on a report from the ministry while missing her and drinking too much. Might as well drink too much in company.
“Good evening Steed,” Stanton slipped between two groups of guests to greet him. Steed was very aware of Stanton’s disapproval of his relationship with Emma, the sources of which included the difference in their ages and his incorrect assumption that Steed had been reluctant to commit to Emma. As he shook the man’s hand Steed wondered whether he should mention their planned wedding date. Emma had not yet informed anyone at Knight lest the news leak to the press. Steed decided to behave himself and hold his tongue as Stanton, a very good host, saw that he had a drink and introduced him to a group of other guests.
But his definition of behaving himself did not match that of polite society with regard to engaged men. Flirting was second nature to Steed. Emma knew it; she was usually amused by it – rolling her eyes when he became particularly outrageous — and not in the least bit threatened.
Without her occasional smirks to curb him his behavior was more outrageous than usual. Within thirty minutes two attractive women had tucked their telephone numbers into his pocket, fortunately not the same pocket, or at the same time. As he extricated himself from an increasingly suggestive conversation with yet another woman he found himself almost face-to-face with an old army friend, Colonel Kevin Wycoff.
“Steed! What a pleasant surprise,” Wycoff said, extending a hand for Steed to shake while eying him closely.
“Hello Kevin. How long has it been? Weren’t you posted off in some delightfully exotic locale?” Steed took in the Colonel’s deep suntan and well-worn summer weight suit.
“Yes, Egypt,” he confirmed. “Exotic? I suppose. Delightful? Well, some aspects certainly are,” he flashed a familiar, meaningful smile. He and Steed had done their share of carousing over the years, both while Steed was still in the service and afterwards, when Steed had joined the ministry and Wycoff kept his commission.
“Ah, Cairo,” Steed sighed. “Say, is that nightclub still open where –?”
“Not since last fall. One too many camels on the dance floor and the police moved in, I’m afraid.” Seeing Steed’s alarmed expression Wycoff chuckled, “Oh, not the proverbial type, Steed, good heavens! I mean real camels. The owner thought it would attract the tourist traffic if he added local color.”
“Added a bit of local aroma, too, I should think,” Steed said.
“Nobody seemed to mind that. The trouble arose when the animals would steal the customers’ drinks. Have you ever seen a drunken camel, Steed?” Wycoff laughed as he did his rubbery-legged imitation of such a creature, arms wide, his own drink sloshing dangerously. Steed laughed as well.
“You’re joking,” he insisted as Wycoff settled back down. But the Colonel shook his head adamantly.
“It’s the truth, Steed!” he declared and they both laughed again. “So what have you been up to, old man? The usual, I suppose?”
“More or less, yes,” Steed replied, relying on his companion to fill in his own version of the details.
“And what lovely creature have you recruited to help you? How do you always manage to convince such remarkable women to get involved with your nasty business?”
Steed smiled and sipped his drink, trying to decide how to reply.
“Ah, forgive me, Steed. I did hear that Mrs. Peel’s husband reappeared. That must have been a blow. I’m sorry I never met her – I understand that you and she were an exceptional combination.”
“How long have you been back in England, Kevin?” Steed asked – appearing to change the subject when in fact he was very interested in the answer. It seemed that his friend had missed the news of Peter Peel’s fall from grace and subsequent divorce.
“I took a long leave when my tour in Egypt ended last year. I’ve been trekking in Africa for months and months. Got back here about three weeks ago,” Kevin replied, accepting Steed’s conversational shift politely.
“Africa, was it? Did you do any big game hunting?”
“A bit. But after all these years aiming guns at other men, or directing younger men to aim guns at other young men, I found that I didn’t have the heart for it. Live and let live is my new motto.”
“And how do your superiors feel about that?” Steed asked lightly.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m cashing out soon. Might just get back into your line of work, to keep busy.”
Steed stared at him, concealing his surprise as a half dozen reasonable reasons why that was a terrible idea ran through his mind. But looking into his friend’s eyes he suddenly realized that he was being baited. So he sipped his drink and smiled warmly.
“I’ll be happy to put in a good word for you then, old chap,” he said evenly. Wycoff’s eyes widened, and then he was off in gales of laughter again and Steed chuckled along.
“Saw right through me, there. Well, that’s why you’re the best, as they say,” Wycoff said. “No, actually I’m planning to retire to my family’s estate and raise things. Horses, tulips, maybe a little cane.”
“So how do you know the Stantons?” Steed asked.
“Same way you do, I should think,” Wycoff replied, giving Steed a start. But of course that was impossible. “After I was pulled out of the field during the war I ended up in operations. Edmond and I spent days hunkered down in the cabinet war rooms. I envied you blokes still out in the field during those days, although I knew I wasn’t cut out for it.”
Steed nodded, absorbing the story with relief. The truth was, he had only recently learned that Edmond Stanton and Sir John Knight – Emma’s father – had been part of military intelligence’s upper echelons during the war. It was how Edmond knew of him, and his reputation. But if Kevin believed that he had come into contact with Edmond during the war he was satisfied to let him think so for the time being.
“Well, well, speaking of delightfully exotic,” Wycoff said, looking over Steed’s shoulder toward the penthouse door. Guessing his meaning Steed half turned to look toward the door. “Now there’s someone I’m going to meet – and how convenient that she seems to have arrived alone!”
To Steed’s utter delight, Emma was standing near the entrance greeting June Stanton with a light kiss on her cheek. Steed’s eyes flicked toward his friend and back toward his fiancée and he made a rather wicked decision. It was an old game. He knew Emma would play.
“Coming?” Wycoff asked, not taking his eyes off of Emma.
Steed glanced into his empty glass and shook his head, “You go on – as you’re just back from Africa, I’ll give you a head start,” he said. Wycoff snorted a laugh and started across the room.
The movement caught Emma’s eye and she glanced over. Steed winked and inclined his head. Her brows rose half a centimeter, and then she turned toward Wycoff, who was nearly at her side. Smiling, Steed turned away.
He was met a moment later at the bar by June Stanton, come to fetch Emma a drink.
“Your Emma is here, Mr. Steed,” she said cheerfully. “I hope you don’t resent the deception – she begged us not to tell you she would be back in time after all.”
“Of course not, Mrs. Stanton,” Steed replied. “But in return I hope you’ll indulge us in a little deception of our own.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s just something we sometimes do for our own amusement – we’ll act as if we don’t know one another for a time.”
June Stanton studied Steed for a moment, eyes narrowing with thoughts that Steed suspected were not necessarily complimentary. Her husband had been out of the intelligence business for a long time. He probably had little compunction about sharing what he knew about Steed with his wife, particularly when his career was currently linked to Emma’s success. But June suddenly smiled and half turned back toward where Emma was talking to Wycoff.
“Makes the reunion more intriguing, hum?” she asked.
Steed smiled and winked. “Indeed,” he said. June nodded and headed back toward her guest. Steed refilled his champagne glass and wandered toward the far side of the room and a group of people who he hadn’t previously talked with.
“I was across the room and I simply had to come meet you,” Wycoff said, taking Emma’s hand and raising it to her lips. She inclined her head with a small smile.
“Colonel. Kevin. Kevin Wycoff.”
“Knight. Emma. Miss Emma Knight,” she responded. He nodded appreciatively at her gentle mocking of his nervousness.
“I am delighted to meet you, Miss Knight,” he paused, frowning. Emma smiled winsomely. “Emma Knight. You wouldn’t be John Knight’s daughter?”
“One and the same,” Emma acknowledged.
“Well I’ll be. You know I worked with your father and Edmond during –.”
“Here you are Emma dear. Ah I see you’ve met Kevin,” June Stanton reappeared with a glass of champagne for Emma.
“Yes,” Emma took the glass, “He was about to say that he worked with my father during the war, I believe,” she replied, smiling at June, then turning her attention back to Wycoff.
The colonel was delighted to tell Emma about his days in military intelligence as he guided her out onto the terrace to look at the view. For her part, Emma was intrigued to hear about those dark days when she and her mother had been practically imprisoned at the country house in Sussex while her father remained in London. She’d known about the blitz and that her father was in danger. Huddled within their darkened home she and her mother had listened to the sound of the German airplanes flying overhead with their payloads of death. But she’d been too young then to fully understand what it had been like for her father. And while Steed had told her a little about his missions during the war, his experiences dropping into occupied France to gather intelligence had been nothing like that of the men and women trapped in London, running the war and praying that the bombs would continue to miss their underground headquarters.
“Steed.” Lord Frederick Leighton appeared at Steed’s side as if out of thin air. Concealing his surprise, Steed shook Leighton’s hand.
“Lord Freddy,” he acknowledged. “It has been a long time.”
“Yes. At least since the pilot’s sudden return, I think.”
Steed couldn’t repress a small smile at Leighton’s disrespectful nickname for Sir Peter Peel. Perhaps they had something in common, besides affection for Emma, after all.
“Yes, I suppose so,” he agreed, knowing that it was true. He also knew that Emma had seen Leighton with some regularity in the last few months – in his capacity as a marketing consultant for Knight Industries. Which was, Steed supposed, the reason he had been invited to the Stantons’ party.
“I haven’t spoken with Emma in a few weeks,” Leighton said. “How is she? Things have certainly been difficult for her.”
Steed managed a quick glance around the large living room. He didn’t see Emma, so he surmised that she had moved out onto the terrace with Wycoff. Leighton must have just arrived. Steed studied him for a moment. Does he know that I know he helped Emma that night? Emma had been attacked while Steed was away, and after managing to overcome her attacker she had asked Leighton for help rather than contact any authorities who would in turn have contacted Steed. No, he thinks it’s his little secret. Well, he ought to understand that secrets are my business.
“She’s away on business,” Steed replied, adopting a casual tone.
Leighton nodded sympathetically. “She’s so driven by her work. I’m sure it’s difficult.”
Steed made a little shrugged and sipped his drink. “Tell me, Leighton, how did you meet your partner – Guy Bradford, isn’t it?”
“Brenford,” Leighton corrected him, his face brightening at Steed’s inquiry about his business. “It was through a client, actually. Guy was handling some matters for them, as was I. We found ourselves working together. It went well, so I offered to buy into the business.”
“You were independent before that.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes. Dabbling, really – I’ll admit it. Taking advantage of my network of friends and acquaintances. Guy had the offices and the staff. I provided funding for some expansion. It’s been a very successful arrangement.”
“I see,” Steed replied. “And do you and Mr. Brenford work together on your projects, or do you each have your own clients?”
“We each have our specialties, so we share some clients and work on some independently. What’s this about Steed? You’re rather inquisitive.”
“I’m just interested, My Lord. Any friend of Mrs. Peel’s –,” Steed broke off, watching Leighton’s eyes as they were drawn toward the terrace door. Emma had just stepped in, her laughter chiming as her unmistakable presence filled the room. She was dressed in crimson, her long legs nearly entirely bare below her short dress, and her décolletage seductively concealed by a frizz of white feathers that encircled her neck and framed her head. Quite a few people in the room glanced toward her as she turned her gaze back toward her companion, Colonel Wycoff. Steed guessed that several men wondered what it would be like to part those feathers over her breast. He was very much looking forward to being the only man who found out.
“Well, well, it seems you were misinformed, Steed,” Leighton said. “Shall we catch up with her? I’m sure that fellow she’s with won’t mind sharing her company.”
“Mr. Steed!” a bright voice drew his attention back to the group of people he’d been speaking with. Before he could move away a delicate feminine hand was on his arm, drawing him in to help settle an argument. Out of the corner of his eye Steed watched Leighton stalk across the room to greet Emma.
“Freddy!” Emma cooed when she saw him coming toward her. She had also seen him talking to Steed, and seen Steed distracted. She couldn’t help feeling a bit of apprehension over whatever they might have been saying.
“Emma darling,” Freddy embraced her lightly “How are you? Tell me things are going better.”
Rather than answer Emma smiled at Wycoff. “Lord Frederick Leighton, this is Colonel Kevin Wycoff. Colonel, Lord Frederick,” she said, placing a hand lightly on each of their arms. She leaned closer to Wycoff and added, “his friends call him Freddy.”
The two men shook hands politely.
“We were discussing the ivory market,” Emma went on. “Colonel Wycoff has been in Africa for several months.”
“Ivory?” Leighton said somewhat blankly.
“Yes, you know, elephant tusks?” Emma said, cocking one eyebrow at him.
“Yes, I know,” he said grumpily. “And what is the colonel’s position on elephant tusks?” he looked from Emma to Wycoff, realizing that she wasn’t going to let him direct the conversation.
“I’m all for them!” Wycoff declared. “On elephants. I’m involved with a preservation organization. We’re acting to prevent the extinction of the African elephant.”
“Ah,” Leighton said, eyes flicking to Emma to see if she was really interested. She appeared to be, to his great frustration.
“If enough nations embargo the importation of ivory, there will be no market for it and the elephants won’t be slaughtered.”
“It’s a sound strategy,” Emma nodded. “If I can be of any help, I hope you’ll contact me.”
“Most assuredly, Miss Knight,” Wycoff’s smile was as disarming as Steed’s could be. He had not mentioned Steed at all although she knew they had been talking when she came in. She didn’t have to think too hard to know why: Wycoff’s flirtation was as practiced as Steed’s. She was hoping for an opportunity to get to know Wycoff better once he understood her relationship with Steed. She suspected that he was a wealth of information about the young, reckless Steed that she desperately wanted to learn about.
Emma had known when she urged Steed to come to the party that she’d be home in time. She had decided that a little surprise, and some intrigue, was just what they needed. With his nod and wink Steed had picked up the gauntlet of her surprise and run with it. Now she wondered what the next step in their dance would be.
She saw Steed detach himself with some difficulty from a rather buxom woman and wander toward her and her admirers. Wycoff noticed him too, and if he was unhappy at Steed’s finally coming to “meet” Miss Knight he covered it well.
“Steed, have you met Miss Knight and Lord Frederick?” he asked as Steed approached. Emma could tell from ten feet away that Steed was tired of their game. Their eyes locked, his secretive smile was all for her, and it sent a tingle of warmth through her body as she returned it. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Freddy’s face fall. She didn’t dare allow herself to look at Wycoff.
“Miss Knight is it?” Steed asked, pressing her hand to his lips and lowering it, but not letting go.
“Mr. Steed,” she replied coolly.
“And Lord Frederick Leighton,” Wycoff added, trying to act the gentleman in the face of a confusing dynamic.
“Yes, Lord Freddy and I are acquainted,” Steed said without looking away from Emma.
“And so, I think, are you and Miss Knight,” Wycoff added, looking to Leighton for agreement.
“Yes of course they are,” Leighton said, nearly a groan. “I take it Emma neglected to mention her – attachment — to Steed?”
“More to the point, Steed failed to mention it,” Wycoff grumbled. “Not very sporting of you, old chap.”
Steed finally forced his gaze to leave Emma’s glowing face and look at his old friend.
“I’m terribly sorry Kevin, but you were so enamored I couldn’t resist. It was unkind of me. I suspect you were not fully introduced to the lady – although you did mention her earlier.”
Wycoff looked from Steed to Emma, and then at Leighton who, having understood a little of Steed and Emma’s deception, was grinning appreciatively.
“Miss Knight is – or rather was – Mrs. Emma Peel,” Steed concluded. Emma shot Steed a quizzical look and he knew she wondered what had been said about her earlier. He just smiled evenly as Wycoff stared at him for a moment, then at Emma, and then burst out laughing.
Leighton shook his head and glared at Emma in mock annoyance. “You are incorrigible, Emma. How can you lead a fellow on like that?”
“I did nothing of the sort, Freddy. The Colonel and I had a pleasant conversation. That’s what one does at parties, isn’t it?”
Wycoff managed to get his laughter under control and nodded. “She’s right, you know, My Lord. She did nothing to encourage me. Other than being her perfectly lovely self.”
“It’s just something we do at parties,” Emma added, smiling at Steed again. His light eyes drew her in and she fought a desperate internal battle not to press herself into his arms. “People will talk to you when you’re alone, less so when you’re part of a couple.”
“Well, it worked on me, and I enjoyed every moment,” Wycoff said, his good nature taking over.
“When did you get in?” Steed asked her as if the other two men did not exist.
“I dropped off my bags and came directly,” she lied, not caring to discuss her visit to James. “I wanted to surprise you. I was in the States,” she added glancing first at Leighton and then at Wycoff, “but the meetings went very well and I was able to come home a day early. I knew Edmond would want to hear about it, and I very much wanted to surprise Steed,” Emma explained.
“And now I must go cancel some plans I made for later this evening,” Steed said, his eyes suddenly widening as he released Emma’s hand and hurried away.
Leighton stared at Steed’s retreating back and then turned to Emma. Wycoff’s brows shot up as he watched Steed go. Seeing their shocked expressions Emma had to giggle.
“He’s kidding,” she said.
Neither man looked convinced. “Miss Knight, I know John Steed,” Wycoff said. “He’s been making the rounds of this party and I’m certain I saw him collecting telephone numbers. Are you sure?”
“Quite sure, Colonel, really, he always does that. It doesn’t mean anything – it’s like a bad habit,” Emma explained. But Freddy was shaking his head, looking more determined than ever to help her see the error of her ways. She shook her head and put her left hand on his wrist. “We’re engaged, Freddy. We’re getting married in December,” she said.
Both Wycoff and Leighton’s gazes fell to the ring sparkling on her finger. Wycoff looked extremely surprised and didn’t bother to hide it. Leighton looked stricken for just a moment, but then he recovered, concealing his disappointment under a thick veneer of good manners.
“My dear!” he said, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. “Congratulations. I had no idea. Please forgive my indiscretion.”
“What indiscretion Freddy? I know you believe that you have my best interests at heart.”
“Steed. John Steed –,the man who was just here — is getting married?” Wycoff sputtered. Now Leighton simply had to laugh with Emma.
“Why yes, Colonel, I can’t imagine why you find that hard to believe!” Emma said, her sarcasm clear even through her laughter.
“Here we are,” Steed reappeared with four glasses of champagne on a small tray. They each took one and Emma found a table for the tray. “To youre successful deal, my dear,” Steed raised his glass to Emma.
“I think we have two deals to toast,” Leighton said, holding his glass up and also looking at Emma.
Steed cocked one eyebrow at her. She shrugged and gave him her best I couldn’t help it, darling, look.
“So we’re making it public?”
“I think it’s time, don’t you?”
“Assuredly. Shall we ask Edmond to make an announcement?” he was joking, but Emma pursed her lips and looked around at the other guests. “Emma,” he said, easily regaining her attention, “no. Let’s wait for our own party, hum?”
She nodded. “You do owe it to me, don’t you?”
Walking with Emma’s hand in his Steed felt like he was floating over London’s dusky streets. It was so demonstrative, to hold on to her as they moved along, and it felt so right. He was amazed at how possessive he could be when she allowed it. Tonight she seemed eager to be his. The thought of her in his arms inflamed him.
He handed her into the passenger seat of the Bentley and went around to his side. She watched him coax the old engine to life and disengage the hand brake, her gaze burning through his formal attire to caress the flesh beneath. He let himself look at her and saw glowing desire in her eyes.
“You look beautiful tonight, my dear,” he said managing to maintain a conversational tone as he pulled out of the parking space and started toward home. “Every man at that party wanted to caress those feathers.”
“But you knew only you would,” she said. “I wore it for you. I’ve been wanting you since Atlanta, since I let myself think about coming home,” she added frankly. He glanced at her, relaxed in her seat, her eyes still undressing him salaciously. He smiled and turned to watch the road, sheer force of will quelling the physical manifestation of his intensifying desire.
They entered his flat from the garage, the fingers of one of his hands touching her thigh just below the hem of her dress as he unlocked the door with the other. She slipped past him into the kitchen, moving toward the stairs and then turning to face him. She put one hand on the railing and the other on the wall, blocking his path. In her heels she matched his height, her brown eyes glowed in the dimly lit kitchen, penetrating his as he moved to stand close to her.
“Since Atlanta,” she repeated, her voice husky. “On the airplane, when everyone was asleep, I used my fingers. She paused, watching his nostrils flare. He hadn’t moved, but his body – a certain part of it — nudged her. “It wasn’t enough. I need you, big and solid, inside of me.”
She lowered her hands to her hips and drew her dress upward, looking down at his bulging trousers. He looked down too as she revealed her erotic secret. She drew the hem of her dress above the tops of her stockings, revealing the creamy skin of her upper thighs. And she kept pulling it up, revealing her garter belt. In between were only her bare skin and the triangle of auburn curls between her legs. Steed reached out, slipping his fingers beneath one of the straps holding her stockings, then following the line of her pelvis down into the damp curls. She sucked in a rough breath as he parted her labia with his thumb, rubbing gently, inciting a shiver.
“If Edmond weren’t my employee, I would have dragged you into a bathroom at his party,” she breathed. “While we were there I wanted to let you know how much I wanted you, but Freddy and your friend the Colonel wouldn’t leave us alone. I wanted to feel your hand between my legs in the dark corner of the terrace, but you didn’t come outside,” she went on as he quickly unfastened his belt and trousers and lowered them along with his briefs, freeing his manhood.
“Here?” he asked, although he didn’t know why. Of course here. Now.
Before she could reply he wrapped one hand around her buttocks and parted her with the other, his penis finding an unerring path to its goal. She raised one leg, pressing her thigh against his waist. With little effort he swiveled her so that she was pressed between him and the wall, one hand on his shoulder, the other on the stair rail mounted at just the perfect height.
She growled with pleasure as he thrust into her, and he replied in kind, his mouth opening over hers. She tasted of lipstick and champagne – a combination he forever associated with her alone. He burned within her, making slow, deliberate thrusts into her contracting center, pausing at the apex of each one to grind against her and feel her shudder with pleasure.
They could not go on standing for long. Buried deep inside of her he stopped, bracing both hands on the wall above her shoulders and peering into her eyes. “Upstairs?” he asked. “There are more – possibilities.”
She gasped and he felt her orgasm, a spasm of the sweet tunnel where his erection resided. He grit his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, controlling his response, preventing the natural reaction of his body to hers. He wanted more, and he didn’t want to have to wait for his flesh to recover.
“Upstairs,” she agreed when she’d regained her composure. He slowly pulled out of her, watching the fleeting expression of loss on her face that told him she was nowhere near satisfied yet. She started up the stairs and he followed, holding up his trousers as he watched the hem of her dress slip back down over her smooth, bare skin.
In his bedroom she pulled her dress off over her head and let it fall to the floor where it was followed by his jacket. She turned and he was removing his cufflinks. Reaching to his neck she unknotted his tie and began on the row of onyx and silver studs fastening his formal shirt. He waited until she had finished, then gave her the cufflinks when she held out her hand. She went to his dresser and dropped them into a leather box there, turning to see him removing his trousers, his shirt already off.
She leaned on the dresser and reached for one of her delicate, strappy shoes.
“No, leave them,” he said, almost pleading. She put her foot back on the floor and walked over to him in a slow, hip-swaying gait.
“Why is it that you like it when I’m just a little bit sluttish, John?” she asked softly, twining her arms around him, feeling the pressure of his arousal against her thighs. He drew her tight against himself, silencing her for a moment with a deep, demanding kiss.
“Because it’s so unlike you, I know that you do it for me and me alone,” he replied at last. Of course he was right – not even for Peter had she ever gone without underwear, or encouraged love making while she was still wearing stocking and garters. She’d been afraid of what he’d think of her. There was no fear with Steed. He did whatever she asked to give her pleasure, and many things that she’d never thought of. And she did the same in return.
“Get in bed,” he commanded removing his arms from around her and nodding toward the bed. She went to it, pausing to pull down the coverlet and sheet, then sitting down and scooting up to lean against the pillows. With a challenging look, she parted her legs and slipped her fingers into herself. Steed climbed onto the foot of the bed on hands and knees, watching her.
“Let me show you what I did on the airplane,” she said, drawing circles on her breast with her other hand while she stroked herself. The heels of her shoes dug into the mattress as she shuddered against her own hand.
“I don’t believe you,” Steed said as he moved closer, caressing her inner thighs and pausing with a hand on each one, holding her open. The nipple beneath her hand was rock hard within her bra.
“I was under a blanket,” she whispered distractedly. Her head lolled back, lips parted, as she drew her wet fingers up across her belly, leaving herself open to him, knowing that he understood the invitation.
His lips were cool on her heated flesh, his tongue gently teasing where she had been rubbing. He kissed and sucked and she came again, eternally grateful for his willingness to lap at her as if she were the only thing that could slake his thirst. He was remarkable in this way, she knew from discrete conversations with her friend Nancy. When she’d abstractly described Steed’s attentions to her Nancy had turned red – not with embarrassment, but with envy.
“You taste like America,” he muttered, nuzzling her belly and crawling up between her legs to loom over her. She peered up at him, wishing that he’d touch her breasts.
“And how does America taste?” she asked, caressing his solid forearms and shoulders.
“Wild and edgy, and erotic,” he replied, pressing his inflamed groin against hers. Leaning his weight on one hand, he slid the other one behind her and expertly unhooked her bra. She moaned as he slipped the strap off her shoulder and bent to nuzzle her breast. She moved her hips against him and in a deft movement he was back inside of her, buried deep and grinding slowly. He held her nipple between his lips and she thought she was going to explode with the combined stimulation to her most erogenous zones.
She moaned again, longer and harder, as he pulled out and thrust, the speed of his movements gradually increasing as he explored her neck and face with his lips. She bucked beneath him, squeezing his forearms and drawing her legs up to encircle his waist. He jerked within her, grinding his pelvis down hard, his back arching. He filled her with liquid fire, his penis throbbing so hard she could feel it, the sensation triggering her own searing orgasm a moment after his
“Shall I take off your shoes?” he asked a while later, when it was possible to think and speak again. He lay on his back and she was on her side wrapped around him.
“Yes, please,” she replied. He gently disentangled himself from her and sat up. She obligingly brought first one foot and then the other within his reach. He dropped her shoes over the side of the bed where she suspected they’d be forgotten until his housekeeper found them and discreetly placed them under the side chair. Then he finished removing her bra and carefully removed her stockings and garter belt. It was a familiar routine, played out many times – sometimes as a step in foreplay, sometimes like this, as a final, generous act before sleep.
“You must be exhausted,” he said abruptly as he crawled off the bed to carry her lingerie to the dresser. She realized as he said it that she was.
“Wake me in a week or so,” she replied, rolling onto her side and lifting her head to adjust the pillows to her liking. He got back into bed and pulled up the covers, putting his arm around her from behind.
“I’m afraid it will have to be sooner than that – you need to catch up on the case,” he whispered between kisses on her shoulder.
“Ummmm,” she sighed sleepily.
“Good night, Love,” he added into her ear. She smiled contentedly, and he rolled away to sleep, as they always did, separately but together.
She was still sound asleep when Steed awakened abruptly as usual. Often when she was in his bed he lay quietly for a long while watching her more gradual awakening, but this morning he could see that she was dreaming, her mind and body still in a time zone several thousand miles further west. He slipped out of bed and into the shower, then, wrapped in his dressing gown, went downstairs.
He got the small stainless steel percolator going, then remembered the milk and went to the front door. The morning paper and a lone bottle – his simple bachelor’s order – stood outside in the cool entry. As he picked it up he noticed a note wrapped around it and secured with an elastic band. He held it up as he walked back to the kitchen.
“Our business is none of yours. Back off.”
One eyebrow raised, he set the bottle with its missive on the counter and opened the refrigerator to find the previous bottle. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the still bubbling pot and used the old milk.
He was still working his way through the paper when Emma came down the stairs dressed in a sleeveless fuchsia cat suit.
“Good morning Mrs. Peel.”
“Good morning Steed – I trust you slept well?” She got a cup and saucer for herself and poured coffee. “You’ve left the milk out.”
“Have a close look at it,” he said, frowning at the newspaper as he spoke.
She picked up the bottle and read the note. “Your milkman is rather hostile.”
“Bloody hell! If this is connected I’ll have someone’s job,” he said jumping up and walking to the telephone mounted on the kitchen wall. Emma put the milk down and opened the refrigerator to find the old bottle just as he had, watching him dial the telephone as she lightened her coffee. As he identified himself and asked to be connected to Operations she stepped to the table to see what had upset him.
A corpse had been found in the basement wall of a building that was being renovated. The basement, the article said, had been constructed three years ago and was being refitted to serve as an underground carpark. Steed spoke first to ministry operations, demanding to know why the press had been allowed to find out about the corpse before he’d been called to investigate. Then he asked to be connected to Dr. Booth. As he spoke to the ministry coroner Emma read the rest of the article.
“Threatening notes and another body,” she said when he hung up, his anger somewhat abated by the doctor’s calm tone.
“And the attention of the press,” he added, returning to his seat at the table. Emma sat down across from him.
“It seems like a good sign – the note – someone is feeling threatened.”
“And what if it’s your friend Lord Freddy?” Steed asked sharply. He was still angry, but she wasn’t sure why. She didn’t meet his gaze, looking instead at the newspaper headline.
“Then I shall be disappointed in him,” she said quietly. And it was true. She would still help in his arrest, but she would be very sad to do it. She looked up at Steed to find that his expression had softened. “Why are you so angry about this article?”
“Let’s say this reporter decides to dig a little deeper and learns of the other bodies. We may find ourselves competing with him for clues. How would it look if he solves the case before we do?”
“Are you feeling a bit frustrated by this one, Steed? Look, why don’t you catch me up and I’ll see what I can do.”
He sighed sharply and took a gulp of coffee, grimacing when he noticed that it had cooled. Emma stood up and got the pot, warming his cup, then pressing a light kiss on his forehead. He looked up at her, a small smile starting to replace his stormy expression. She replaced the pot and sat back down. “It’s obvious what’s needed here is my clear head. Come on, let me hear what you’ve found out.”
Emma opened her apartment door to find Sally standing outside looking decidedly cheerful in a light cotton dress and espadrilles. James hasn’t talked to her yet. But it had been less than twenty-four hours since Emma had delivered her ultimatum, so she couldn’t very well accost him again quite yet. Besides which, after the morning brainstorming on the case with Steed, her afternoon was fully booked: Sally and Nancy were joining her for another dress-shopping expedition, this time in the Bond Street boutiques.
She admitted Sally, waving her to a seat while she returned to her bedroom to find her handbag. When she came back Sally was looking at her incomplete still life.
“What do you think?” Emma asked, genuinely curious.
Sally didn’t answer immediately – she had learned not to with Emma, who would criticize her for making a snap judgment, or not thinking through her response. “I think it’s very sentimental,” she finally said, grinning at Emma’s surprised look. “Well, it’s that teapot – you kept it all this time, and you saved it after the explosion. Now you’re painting it.”
“But what if you didn’t know that?” Emma asked, sounding defensive. Sally shrugged.
“I think it shows in the painting anyway,” she said.
Emma joined her at the easel, pursing her lips at the painting. Before she could decide whether she agreed with Sally her study of the canvas was interrupted by the doorbell.
“Are you ready?” Nancy asked as she entered. “I’m terribly sorry for being late.”
“You aren’t, and we are. Nancy, this is Sally, Sally – meet my old friend Nancy.”
The two women shook hands, Nancy’s gaze far more assessing than Sally’s, although Emma knew that Sally was taking in just as much information. She wanted them both to help with her wedding. Recruiting them for a wedding dress expedition together had seemed like a good way to start.
By the time they entered the third Bond Street boutique she was beginning to have her doubts. Sally was mostly just awed by the prices, and Nancy kept gravitating toward lovely outfits that were her size, and appropriate for cocktail parties, not as wedding attire. She knew neither of her companions meant to be a distraction, but that didn’t make it any easier.
As they approached the women’s formal department an elegantly attired sales woman looked at each of them in turn, her gaze settling on Emma.
“How may I help you, madam?” she asked, then added, “ladies?” to acknowledge Emma’s companions. They’d encountered variations on the same performance in each of the shops, and Sally was still surprised at how these women could identify the principle shopper among them so unerringly.
“I’m getting married,” Emma said. “For the second time.”
The sales woman took another long look at Emma. “So you do not want a long white gown,” she said, nodding with understanding. “But you must have something exquisite. Anything less than perfection will be an affront to your beauty.”
Remarkably the woman’s fawning was delivered so matter-of-factly Emma did not find it offensive.
“Let’s see what you like from our selection. Anything here can be custom tailored, of course.” She directed them toward a selection of dresses displayed on muslin-covered mannequins lacking in heads or limbs.
“Of course,” Emma echoed, walking among the gowns. Sally and Nancy followed, both admiring the folds of fine, exotic fabrics in a dizzying array of colors. Emma’s scrutiny of the gowns was more analytical. She quickly discarded the exotic, the frilly, and the trendy.
“Simple elegance, like this one, would suit you,” the sales lady said, pausing to indicate a long, slim, pale yellow satin gown. Emma nodded, admiring the cut of the dress.
“The wedding is in December,” she said thoughtfully. “Yellow is a bit –.”
“Sunny?” Sally suggested.
“Yes,” Emma agreed.
“Ah,” the sales woman said, abruptly turning away from the rejected dress.
“You should try this one, Emma,” Nancy said, indicating a deep red gown with a fitted bodice and a full skirt.
“Red?” Emma asked skeptically.
“It’s not bright red. Not like you’re in scarlet,” Sally said, making both Nancy and Emma laugh.
The sales woman managed a thin smile. “Perhaps this one?” she suggested, indicating a long emerald green dress topped by a starched white gauze jacket.
“Perhaps I should try them on,” Emma said.
“Certainly,” the sales woman agreed, waving at an assistant who had been hovering nearby.
Within moments Emma was ensconced in an enormous fitting room surrounded by dresses in all shapes and colors. In a hierarchy as rigid as that of an Edwardian household, the assistant paid court to the sales woman, who carefully dressed Emma in one gown after another. Sally and Nancy were relegated to comfortable chairs outside of the fitting room where they repeatedly watched Emma study herself in large mirrors.
“Long, or short?” Sally muttered to Nancy as they waited for Emma to reappear in the next dress.
“Short,” Nancy replied. “Dark or light?”
“I think dark – the navy blue one.”
“That was long. It’ll be that strange rust-colored one the sales woman took in a minute ago.”
“It was orange. Honestly, I don’t know what that sales woman is thinking. She’ll hate it, and it’s a terrible color for her.”
Before Nancy could reply the door to Emma’s fitting room opened and she stepped out in the dark green gown.
“Wow!” Nancy said.
“Oh Emma,” Sally sighed. “That one is perfect.”
“Look at the way the skirt swishes,” Nancy added as Emma walked to the mirrors. The crisp, high collar of the thin white jacket emphasized her long neck, while the deep green of the gown made her auburn hair glow.
“Green,” Emma said thoughtfully.
“For Christmas,” Sally added encouragingly.
Emma slipped off the thin jacket to reveal the cutaway armholes and a sexy, keyhole opening on the upper back of the green dress beneath.
“Double wow,” Nancy said. “You can wear the jacket for the ceremony, then slip it off to dance all night at the reception.”
“I was thinking that,” Emma replied, turning to face her friends. “Do you really like the color?”
“Oh yes,” Sally and Nancy said practically in unison.
Emma made an appointment for a complete fitting, and then the sales woman asked if her companions were to be members of the wedding party.
“Yes,” she said, looking at her friends. Nancy smiled willingly, but Sally’s face turned crimson and she clapped her hands to her mouth.
“Really Emma?” she asked breathlessly.
“Well of course, Sally – I wouldn’t have dragged you along otherwise.”
“I’m so excited!” Sally said, “Yes! Thank you! Oh, I can’t wait!”
Emma and Nancy laughed at the young woman’s exuberance, and even the sales woman had to smile. Emma turned back to her while Sally recovered herself.
“And there’s a third – Sally, I know you haven’t met her, but you’ve talked with Amanda King,” she said. Sally nodded. “She’s American,” Emma added for Nancy and the sales woman’s benefit.
“I see. If you know her general build we can select a style that will be flattering for all three ladies,” the sales woman said.
As Emma described Amanda she realized that her three bridesmaids had very little in common physically. Sally was compact and ever so slightly plump, her complexion was sunny and her long strawberry blond hair fell in generous waves down her back. Nancy was gamine, her cropped dark brown hair fitted closely to her head and her big round eyes shining with lavender. Amanda was closest in appearance to Emma – tall and slender with medium length brown hair and big brown eyes.
“As you are not wearing a traditional gown, perhaps your maids can be attired equally untraditionally,” the sales woman suggested, leading them toward a dress mannequin wearing a sheath dress in blue crepe wool. “This basic style can be lengthened, belted, accessorized with jacket or shawl, or even a collar. And it can be made in many colors.
“And one could wear it for other occasions,” Nancy added, admiring the simple dress. While the others spoke Sally snuck a look at the price tag and gasped. Emma saw her release the tag as if it had burned her fingers. She looked shocked.
“Sally, I’ll buy the dresses,” she said. Sally’s eyes widened and she looked contrite.
“I –,” Sally started.
“Don’t give it another thought. Let’s pick colors and styles and make appointments for fittings for you and Nancy. I’ll call Amanda to discuss her color and style,” she turned to the sales woman, “Do you have a catalog with a photograph of the dress? I’d like to send it to her.”
A photograph was quickly produced and calendars were checked and the three companions soon exited the boutique feeling relieved.
“Shall we pop in somewhere for a celebratory drink and talk about the bridal shower?” Nancy suggested.
Emma glanced at her wristwatch and shook her head. The afternoon was shifting into evening. “I’m afraid I can’t. I promised Steed I’d come by. We have to work out the guest list for the engagement party.”
Nancy grinned happily, “Bravo! A party to make it official at last! When is it?”
“A month Friday – I hope you’re both free,” Emma looked from Nancy, who nodded enthusiastically, to Sally, who shrugged.
“I hope so,” she said, “you never know with – well, you know,” she said, eyes darting to Nancy.
“Nancy, Sally is in a training program for the same sort of work Steed does,” Emma said. “Don’t press her about it, she can’t tell you anything. Sally, I can assure you that you will not have any conflicts – at least from that quarter – the night of our engagement party.”
“I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m being favored,” Sally said and Emma nodded understandingly.
“Any string pulling will be handled discretely.”
“Thank you Emma – for understanding.”
“That you don’t want anyone to know that you know me?” Emma laughed. “I could be offended. – No, I’m just kidding. I do understand,” she silenced Sally’s protest, but wondered if Sally had encountered references to WWEPD yet. She hoped not, although she knew it was inevitable.
“Well, off you go then, Em. But don’t to anything I wouldn’t do,” Nancy winked broadly then turned to Sally, “Shall we get that drink? We can just plan her shower without her.”
“Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be done anyway?” Sally asked.
“Yes, but consider who we’re dealing with here,” Nancy replied, hooking her arm through Sally’s and leading her down the street. Sally sent Emma a surprised look over her shoulder, but Emma just smiled and waved farewell.
Emma slammed the Lotus into gear and mashed the accelerator to the floor so hard the little car’s tyres squealed on the pavement in front of St. Mary’s. She hoped she had disturbed the penitent inside the sanctuary.
It was the third church she’d visited after a half dozen unsuccessful telephone calls, made before she decided that the in-person approach would be more effective. It wasn’t. Not a single member of the clergy within a fifty-mile radius of the new house was available to officiate at their wedding. Just because it’s Christmas Eve – surely not every minister has to preach that day!
She glanced at the pad she’d tossed onto the passenger seat. There was one more church on her list: All Saints. It was the closest to the house, as she intended to stop in there before heading back to London. She was tempted to skip it, but as it happened her route to the house took her right by, so at the last possible moment she wrenched the steering wheel to the right, cutting close in front of an oncoming car that honked angrily, and parked in the church’s small car park.
It was larger than she’d expected, with a wide porch across the front and smaller entrances flanking the big, double doors set into a decorative arch. She couldn’t place the architectural style and assumed that it had been constructed a few hundred years ago and renovated more than once since. In any case it had a sense of history about it, without looking shabby.
The doors were unlocked, so she stepped into the dim narthex, which smelt of candle wax and incense. She went on into the church, pausing to absorb a sense of the space. The center aisle was very large and bright, with the late afternoon sunshine streaming in through clerestory windows. Two rows of columns separated the narrow side aisles, which might have been quite dark except for the rows of stained glass windows framed by the columns. As she walked up the aisle the colored windows led her eye toward a lovely rose window behind the altar. The altar itself was surprisingly simple. Definitely not original, she thought as she neared it, the sound of her shoes echoing on the worn tiles beneath her feet.
“May I help you madam?” a weedy voice asked from behind her. She stopped and turned to face a short, round man in minister’s vestments.
“Yes,” she replied, extending her hand, “I am Miss Emma Knight. My fiancé and I have just purchased a home in the area and we are seeking a location for our wedding.”
“Oh!” his hands came together in an apparently habitual, joyful praying gesture, then his eyes widened as he noticed her hand and he reached out to shake it. “I am Father Melvin. Come in to my office so that we may discuss it,” he piped.
“Would you consider changing the date, my dear? I fear that you will have the same difficulty at every parish,” Father Melvin suggested, his tone dripping with regret.
“I’m beginning to think we may have to, father. But it means so much to us that I hate to give up quite yet.”
“I do admire determination,” the minister said, looking again at his calendar, which lay open on his desk. “But I am already committed to the morning service here and to a mid-afternoon service at St. James’s. I’m afraid that I –.”
“You will be on the other side of the parish that afternoon?” Emma interrupted.
The minister looked momentarily puzzled, then nodded. “Yes. All Saints will celebrate Christmas in the morning. We have no need for more than one service. But St. James has experienced a joyful growth and requires some assistance with its afternoon service.”
Emma studied the priest for a moment as he nodded solemnly. Cleric at a shrinking church was not a comfortable position to be in. She opened her bag and withdrew her checkbook.
“I’m sure that a diminished parish means fewer tithes,” she said. “May I make a contribution to All Saints?”
Father Melvin’s eyes widened again, and Emma recognized the glint within them.
“Miss Knight, no priest is capable of refusing such a request,” he said.
“It seems, Father Melvin,” Emma said as she opened her checkbook and withdrew the slim gold pen tucked inside, “that your church will be unoccupied on the afternoon of December 24th.” She held the pen poised above a check and looked at the priest. His eyes were on the check, but they drifted up to her face when she didn’t begin writing.
“Ah, yes, it does appear so,” he said, swallowing.
“So it might be possible to schedule a wedding here for that timeframe?”
“But you see, Miss, as I have said, I cannot be here.”
“Yes, I understand,” Emma’s pen had not moved. “But if the facility is available, and another priest could be found . . .”
“Oh I see,” Father Melvin nodded. “Yes, I see. You still face the difficulty of finding someone who is not already otherwise committed to officiate . . .”
“One step at a time, father. May we use your church?”
“It would be my pleasure to provide this facility for your nuptials, my dear.”
Emma wrote out a check for five thousand pounds, tore it off, and handed it to Father Melvin. He glanced at it, then looked again as if counting the zeroes.
“This is most generous, Miss Knight,” he said, rising from his chair.
“My fiancé and I are pleased to help support your parish, Father Melvin,” Emma said, rising as well.
“I will instruct the parish secretary to block out the afternoon of Christmas eve for your wedding. If you can visit us a few weeks prior we will finalize the arrangements then.”
“Thank you, Father Melvin. I know that All Saints will be a perfect setting for our wedding.”
“Yes ma’am, the wiring’s as bad as your fiancé thinks.”
Emma stood in the entry hall of her new house with the electrical inspector. He had been in the building for most of the day hooking his instruments to the various circuits, unscrewing switch plates and outlets, and in a few discrete places knocking holes in the walls to see the wiring hidden behind it. Steed had come out to get him started while Emma toured the countryside visiting Churches. Apparently he’d shared his concerns about the wiring with him.
“You need to add at least three circuits if you plan to use lamps in every room and a few appliances. To do that you’ll need to upgrade the line from the main. Mr. Steed also had me spec out wiring to the stable – it doesn’t have any power now. And there are some rough spots – some stretches of wiring that will have to be replaced.”
Emma sighed and looked at the ornate plasterwork on the ceiling of the entry hall. She had already grown very fond of this house. Steed had surprised her that morning with the letterhead that he’d had designed, further sealing her belief that it was perfect for them. But hearing how much it was going to cost to make it safe and comfortable for her and Steed and their future family was painful.
“How much?” she asked at last.
“About eight thousand, give or take.”
“Which would you prefer first Steed? The good news or the bad news?” Emma asked. She was stretched out on her rented sofa, attired in her black leather cat suit – one of several garments that had survived the destruction of her apartment by virtue of being at the cleaners. It had taken some time to recover them since the claim ticket had been destroyed, but she’d persevered. She held the telephone receiver cradled against her shoulder.
“I’ll take the good first, Mrs. Peel,” Steed replied, sitting down in the chair beside his own telephone.
“The good news is I’ve found us a church for our wedding.”
“Bravo!” he replied, “That is a major accomplishment. I’d been growing convinced that we were going to have to change the date.”
“Before you get too carried away, when I say a church, I mean just that – a church, but not a minister. All Saints is available that afternoon, but its minister is not.”
“Ah, I see. So we’re half way there. We’re going to have to get creative, I think.”
“I’ve already been creative – with my checkbook. And if I’d had the second piece of news before that I would have been less creative by half.”
“And the other piece of news?”
“The electrical inspection.”
“What did he say?”
“We need more power. For the house as well as for your little addition on the stable – yes, he mentioned that. We have some bad wiring, too. He said it was about eight thousand pounds worth.”
Steed whistled appreciatively. “I can’t say I’m surprised. And how much did you donate to the church?”
“Cost of doing business, I suppose you’d say, hum?”
“Say, why are you there and me here?”
“I don’t know about you, but I live here.”
“Very well, then I’ll just have to come there.”
“Steed, I was about to –.” Emma stopped speaking as the connection clicked off. “—go to Apex Construction,” she finished to the dead phone line. Smirking, she hung up the telephone.
Steed stepped past her as she opened the door, then stopped, turned, and looked at her attire.
“Well, I thought this was long lost,” he purred, reaching up to draw his finger along one of the angled zippers at her throat. She inclined her head and raised one eyebrow at his forwardness and he dropped his hand. Still, there was no question what was on his mind, and the cat suit didn’t discourage him.
“I started to tell you that I was about to go do a little ‘research’ at Apex Construction. Now you can drive me,” she said. He moved on into the sitting room and plopped down on the sofa.
“I hardly think the Bentley is a proper get-away car,” he observed, settling in. She picked up her keys and tossed them at him.
“We’ll take mine,” she said. “Come on.”
With a mocking groan he caught the keys and got up to follow her out, pausing to pick up a thick book from a side table near the door.
Steed put on the handbrake and dug into his pocket for a small torch to read with. Emma opened her door, then looked at the book he’d brought. “A bit of light reading?” she asked archly. Only then did Steed look at the book as well. It was a collection of essays on modern art.
“I prefer to be well informed on many subjects, Mrs. Peel. You know that,” he said defensively. She grinned and got out, leaning down before closing the door to blow him a kiss.
He opened the book and skimmed the table of contents, smiling when he spotted an essay by Emma in the middle of the book. He turned to it and started to read. He had thought of offering to accompany her into the construction company’s offices, but she hadn’t pressed, and she was extremely good at finding and photographing information without his help. He further justified his indolence by thinking of himself as back-up. If the police came screaming around the corner in response to an alarm, he would leap into action.
An hour later the passenger door opened and Emma got in. Steed was either reading intently or asleep, she decided. And she assigned equal odds to either.
“Ahem,” she said pointedly. He closed the book and turned off his torch, smiling at her.
“You were rather hard on the new modernists, don’t you think?” he asked. She was immensely pleased that he’d read her article, and amused that he’d apparently also read some that disagreed with her.
“Only those who insist on using ephemeral, non-traditional materials. One can create all manner of things out of Vaseline, and when it melts you get to start over. It encourages sloppiness and poor attention to detail.”
“But isn’t that a form of expression? Think of native American sand paintings – they are designed to be transient,” Steed countered, and Emma realized her error. Steed did not share her interest in modern art, but that did not mean he was incapable of engaging a discussion of it, and he’d just spent an hour reading and contemplating this argument.
“Darling, I will gladly debate the relative merit of artists’ materials. But not here and now. Please may we go home?” It was a carefully crafted request – she knew he’d never bring up modern art again unless she prompted him, and he was probably more interested in getting her home and in bed now than he’d been earlier in the evening.
Without another word he started the engine and headed them for her apartment.
“Did you find a project list?” he asked as he drove.
“Yes, and locations and dates – it did take some digging. And I think my camera’s giving out. Will you get me a nice new one from your gadget people?”
“For a wedding present, perhaps?”
“Don’t you dare!”
“Brenford’s client list is at my place. We can develop your film and compare them in the morning,” Steed said as he followed Emma into her apartment. During the rest of the ride home she’d allowed herself to relax and enjoy the prospect of his attentions. It was easy now that the evening’s work was done, and she’d broken the news about the costs on the house. She had decided, by the time they were safely in her temporary home, to take the upper hand.
“Unzip me,” she said, facing him with her hands on her hips. He stepped close to her, their faces an inch apart, his breath tickling her cheeks. But he didn’t reach for the twin zippers that would open the front of her cat suit as she expected. Instead, he crossed his arms in front of himself and seized the sides of his own polo shirt. He pulled it off over his head and dropped it over the arm of the sofa, only breaking eye contact with her for a second. His hair was tousled, but she resisted reaching up to slip her fingers into it, waiting instead for his next move. He took her jaw between fingers and thumb and pressed a rock-hard kiss on her mouth. It was filled with urgency and passion, and the scratch of his slight stubble of beard only added to the fire it stirred in her. Her hands came up to his shoulders and slid down his back of their own accord, savoring the feel of smooth skin stretched over solid muscle. Her whole body tingled with anticipation and she heard herself moan as he kissed her hard again.
Then he let go of her face and reached down, bringing first one foot up and then the other to pull off his shoes and socks and drop them where they stood. When that was done she tucked her fingers into the waistband of his slacks and backed toward her bedroom door, tugging him along. He came willingly, smoldering eyes once again locked with hers.
She led him unerringly into her bedroom, glad that there was nothing on the floor to trip over as she walked backwards. When she stopped by the bed he immediately unfastened his trousers, ignoring her fingers at his waist as he let them drop. She tucked her fingers into his briefs and pulled them down too, freeing his genitals, his penis solidly erect, his balls hanging engorged below it. Compulsively she cupped them, enjoying their weight and heat and the attendant surge of desire they sent rippling through her.
A little smile curled the corners of his lips in answer to hers, acknowledging that by virtue of her hold on him she had taken the upper hand.
“Unzip me,” she repeated, reaching up with her free hand to run her fingers through his curly hair. He took hold of one zipper and drew it downward, his hand brushing over her breast as it descended. She inhaled a long, heavy breath and he brushed his thumb over her nipple as her chest expanded. She resisted the urge to close her eyes and focus on the sparks coursing through her, instead maintaining their locked gaze. Ever so slowly he used his other hand to lower the other zipper in the same way and the front of her cat suit fell away to expose her breasts nestled in her bra. Hands still on either side of her chest, he lowered his face to place light kisses on her warm, soft skin. Each touch sent prickles of delight shivering through her and she wound her fingers in his hair, still holding his warm, full balls with her other hand. Kissing the sensitive flesh of her throat, he slid his hands under the fabric of her cat suit at the shoulders and drew it down her arms. She released him to pull them free of it as he transferred his kisses back to her face, his hands caressing all of her upper body. She finally let herself go, exploring his naked body with her own hands and matching his increasingly hungry kisses. She was barely aware of him removing her bra and pushing her cat suit further down her body until the triangle of auburn curls beneath her belly was exposed.
She ached to be touched all over, and he was determined to comply, one moment cupping her ass to pull her tight against his hard penis, the next caressing her back and shoulders while placing trails of kisses along her jaw and behind her ears. She replied in kind, digging strong fingers into the creases between muscles on his back and shoulders and drawing his ear between her lips before nuzzling the sensitive spot at the base of his neck so that he moaned with pleasure.
She drew him down onto the bed so that she could embrace him with her legs as well as her arms, but found herself still confined by her cat suit. He shoved it further down her legs, but then paused to slip two fingers through her curls and into her. She groaned with surprise and intense pleasure and he bent his head to squeeze a nipple between teeth sheathed behind his lips. Her hips bucked against his hand and her vagina filled with her hot juices. She writhed beneath him and he slid his fingers in deeper, wiggling and stroking in rhythm with her until her whole body contracted. She curled around him, clutching his shoulders and gasping with hot energy. The orgasm passed and she relaxed back on the bed panting. But he kept stroking her, a satisfied grin on his face as it hovered above her.
“More?” he asked. She swallowed and nodded, unable to speak, but desperate to reach that place he’d just taken her again and again. He withdrew his fingers from her and finished removing her cat suit, unzipping her boots and letting it all fall to the floor. Then he caressed her inner thighs, slowly bringing his hand back to slip his fingers inside. He sucked at one nipple until it was more solid and enlarged than she’d ever seen it before, then he switched to the other one, sucking it in rhythm with gentle strokes on her vulva. A long, contented sigh transitioned to a moan as his pace increased. His tongue darted out, teasing her erect nipple, and then transferring to her mouth, plunging between her lips just as his fingers sank deep inside of her. She roared into his mouth, her pelvis dancing against his hand, her groin exploding in fiery heat. Lights flickered behind her closed eyelids as she pressed to extend the moment of blissful release as long as she could. Steed kept rubbing at her clitoris, watching her face as she rode the orgasm. Finally her grip on his shoulders eased and her hips settled back onto the bed. He withdrew his fingers as she sucked in a long breath.
“You don’t mind me dropping by, then?” he whispered with a sly smile.
“Shut up,” she replied, opening her eyes as she caressed his chest. He chuckled and lightly kissed her lips.
“Embarrassed, darling? You thought you had me, but it turned out I had you all along,” he gloated.
“I think we have one another, darling,” she replied, her fingers slipping around his solid member. She smiled sweetly at his slightly surprised expression. Then he happily surrendered and thrust against her, closing his eyes at the pleasurable sensation. “I know where this belongs,” she said, guiding him into her warm, wet center. He felt enormous compared to his fingers, filling her need so completely that she contracted around him with a surge of pleasure. Her powerful internal muscles drew him deeper and she smiled at the mindlessly ecstatic expression on his face. When he was fully sheathed within her she drew up her legs, tipping her pelvis to pull him in even more. He planted his hands on either side of her head and lifted up, grinding against her. She writhed beneath him, squeezing his upper arms, then reaching up to hold his strong shoulders. They both reveled for a moment in their total union, both knowing unequivocally that this was how they belonged, that their bodies were meant for one another and that this was the purest expression of their love.
He began to move slowly within her, the tip of his penis repeatedly touching her cervix with little flashes of fire that made her shiver.
“Oh John,” she moaned, turning her head to plant her mouth on his wrist. She sucked it, touching his pulse with the tip of her tongue. He sucked in a sharp breath and thrust into her, hard and fast several times, provoking an orgasm that made her bite him as she moaned.
He dropped his head between his arms, panting, oblivious to the sting of her bite, lifting his hips to thrust again. His hands balled into fists, twisting the fabric of the coverlet as he ground himself into her, his groin seared by the lava flowing through enlarged veins. She clung to his shoulders; her legs sprawled wide, giving herself to him. He howled as his loins began to erupt, shooting his essence into her. She ground against him, milking him as his conscious mind released the animal within. He kept thrusting, prolonging his orgasm as she had until there was nothing left, but he thrust some more, unwilling to concede that the moment must end. At last he lowered himself to his elbows as he shrank within her, covering her face with kisses and muttering, over and over, “I love you Emma, more than anything.”
“I left a mark,” Emma whispered, tracing her finger over the indentation of her teeth on Steed’s wrist. He held up his arm to peer at it.
“It’s not the first time,” he said wistfully, replacing his arm around her. It was morning. The previous night they had crawled under the covers, sated and exhausted, to sleep long and well with their backs pressed against one another in her small bed. Steed had awakened and rolled over to embrace her, and in her sleep she had turned toward him. She’d gradually awakened in his arms, wrapping hers around him and pressing chaste little kisses onto his face.
“I love waking up with you, Steed,” she whispered.
“And you shall do so most mornings for the rest of our lives,” he replied. She lay silently for a time, the memory of her parting words to James the other night playing through her mind. Steed must have seen the unhappiness of the thought on her face.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” he said.
“Nothing,” she lied. But he cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Not nothing,” he said firmly.
“Nothing that can be helped,” she elaborated. But he didn’t relent and she closed her eyes to summon the best way to explain.
“No matter how lucky you are, one day it is possible that you will go out in the morning and not come back,” she said. “Most of the time I’m able to not think about it, but it is there, and sometimes it demands to be acknowledged.”
“Tell me that you want me to stop,” he said. “There are plenty of jobs I can do out of the field.”
“No. I will not tell you to do that. We both know you would be miserable. Eventually you would resent me. Yes you would.” He was shaking his head in denial but she wouldn’t accept it. “I know you better than you know yourself, John Steed. You will not leave the field until you’re good and ready. And I shall continue to count on your luck and good sense to keep you safe. And you shall do the same for me.”
“So you’re not ready to retire yet either, hum?” he asked.
“Not by a long shot, darling. Why do you think I put up with you?”
“I had thought it was my fashion sense and scintillating wit. Do you mean to say you’re in love with my security clearance?”
Emma smiled and held him tighter, prompting him to tighten his hold on her. “I am in love with the entire package, John. And my eyes are wide open.”
Neither Steed nor Emma was surprised to discover that Apex Construction’s projects included each of the buildings where bodies had been discovered. When they correlated the Apex list with Brenford’s client list, they found matches for two building projects. Both companies specialized in alternative energy, and both building projects were recently contracted. It could be coincidence, or it could be that Brenford was recommending Apex to his energy clients, or perhaps executives at the energy companies had been replaced and were using Apex on Brenford’s instructions. But there was nothing in what Emma had found at Apex that connected any member of the construction company’s management with the replaced executives. For all they knew, Brenford, and possibly Leighton, were simply using Apex’s construction sites for disposal because they were familiar with them.
Steed took the information to the ministry, asking the researchers to check the executive staff at the two energy companies for men with no relatives and few friends who could be, or could have been, easily replaced. Meanwhile Emma arrived mid-morning at Knight to spend the rest of the day filling in her staff on the events of her trip and the final terms of the research arrangement with the Americans. Throughout the afternoon she turned over the facts of the case of the imposter energy executives in the back of her mind.
“Oh God,” Sally groaned, stretching out on the hot tile of the sauna. “I think I’m one giant bruise.”
Purdey grasped her big toe between two fingers and twisted her foot to the side, “I don’t see one on your right ankle. Otherwise, you’re right.”
“Oh God. How do you manage to dodge him so easily?”
“Years dodging randy boys at football matches,” Purdey quipped, but when Sally opened one eye and glared at her she relented. “Ballet,” she said. “decades – it feels like – of ballet. Makes one very agile.”
“Do you think this fellow Spence will be doing all of our self defense training?”
“Dunno. I don’t think he’s the fencing master Hemming was speaking to, though. Spence is a regular trainer here, the fencing master’s coming in special.”
“I can’t wait.”
“So do you want to get a pint? I think the others are planning on it when they’re through with torture.”
“Much as I would like to, I have a prior engagement,” Sally said, swinging her feet to the floor to sit up.
“Oh, well. Excuse me!” Purdey joked. Although they had only been training for a few weeks, the dozen trainees had grown quite close. Declining the evening beer would make Sally the subject of much discussion.
“I have a date,” Sally said. “I hardly saw Terrance over the weekend.”
“But do you want to see him?”
“Of course I do. He’s my boyfriend. What a silly question.”
“It’s just that sometimes you seem less than enamored of him.”
Sally sighed and leaned back against the tile. “Terrance has his good points and his not-so-good points, that’s all,” she said. “I’m very fond of him. He makes me laugh. We have loads of things in common to talk about.”
“But is he a good kisser?”
Sally sucked in a gasp and stared at Purdey – more because the other woman had struck so close to home than because of any embarrassment.
“Ah huh!” Purdey declared. “He’s not so successful in that department, then.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You just have to teach him.”
“I’ve tried.” Sally crossed her arms and slumped her shoulders, allowing her disappointment to show at last. “He just doesn’t get it. I mean, he tries and all, but when it comes right down to it, he just does what he wants to do.”
“You’re talking about more than kissing.”
“Well, if he’s too slow to learn, and you’re not happy, move on.”
Sally thought about the man she wanted to move on to – or focus on. Where is he now? It’s been days – is he off on a case? Wouldn’t he have said good-bye?
“I think Terrance is good for me, right now,” she said fitfully. Purdey’s eyes narrowed as she studied her, perhaps guessing more than she let on.
“Well, if you want you can bring him along with the gang to the pub. They’ll tell you whether he’s a keeper or not.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that!” Sally’s eyes widened in horror.
“Why ever not? We don’t bite!”
“He doesn’t know about you. He doesn’t know what I’m doing. He thinks I still work for – where I worked when I met him.”
Purdey studied her for a moment, then smiled slyly. “You’re already full of secrets, aren’t you Sally? Where did you work, before starting the program?”
“What did you do, before?” Sally countered.
“Ballet. The Royal Ballet.”
“Yes. Until they kicked me out for being too tall.”
“Yes. And you?”
Sally realized that the odds of Purdey making the connection between Knight Industries and the Emma Peel who was held up as a paragon of amateur spydom were slim to none. “I worked at Knight Industries.”
“The big corporation? How did you find your way here?”
Sally hadn’t anticipated that question. She swallowed hard and thought fast. “The company was part of a ministry investigation. I caught the attention of the agents – I am very good at gathering details and they wanted to know everything. They suggested I give it a try.”
Purdey nodded, seeming to accept her story.
“I’d better get a move on – I’m meeting Terrance at six,” Sally said, deciding it would be best to end the conversation quickly.
She’d had to suppress a bout of giggles the first time she’d come across the acronym WWEPD, used by a trainer on the firing range to describe a particularly flashy rolling and firing maneuver. One of the other trainees had asked what he meant and he’d looked a bit sheepish and spelled out the acronym: “What Would Emma Peel Do?”
By that time – the end of her second week, Sally had encountered several references to John Steed’s method of doing this or that. But this was the first time Emma had been mentioned. In addition to surprising her, since Emma had explained to her long ago that she was never an official agent, it made her re-evaluate her understanding of her friend. The moves that were considered WWEPD were extremely athletic, frightfully aggressive, and fundamentally lethal. She knew Emma was fit, but she had not realized the extent of her physical capabilities. But, she supposed, keeping up with Steed required an especially strong physique. Sally had, at that point in her stream of thoughts, habitually suppressed the flash of envy she always felt toward Emma, and deeply buried her imaginings of what Steed was like in an intimate situation.
It had not helped when, on Saturday, Emma’s friend Nancy had veered onto the topic of their friend’s fiancée. Apparently Nancy had known Steed before Peter Peel’s return. Well into her second drink she began mentioning intimacies that Emma had shared with her, both in the past and more recently. Mostly Sally had wanted to clap her hands over her ears and cry out “I’m not listening,” but one part of her wanted very much to hear how Emma described her lover. Fortunately, Emma was very discrete and the few hints she’d dropped mostly suggested that Steed was as accomplished in bed as in any of his other undertakings.
That was no surprise. But it had left Sally wondering how James was and whether he would call her. She had last seen him in the evening after he’d been in the sauna with the trainees. She’d joined her classmates for their usual pints, then gone directly to James’s. To her delight, he’d had a light supper waiting. He’d allowed her to vent about how much harder training was than she’d expected, nodding sympathetically but never saying anything that suggested he thought the program was too difficult or the skills unnecessary. When she finally wound down and looked into his smiling eyes across the table she’d realized that he was not going to take her side.
“You need to master everything they’re teaching you. And a great deal more if you’re to survive in this business,” he’d said simply. She’d sighed and finished her wine. And he’d risen and come around the table to stand behind her. He’d put his hands on her shoulders and bent to place his head beside hers.
“Let’s test your mastery of some of the things I’ve been teaching you, shall we?” he’d muttered into her ear, his lips touching her neck lightly.
She’d spent the night, forgetting all about her promised telephone call to Terrance, and arriving at the ministry in the morning feeling ready to face the next round of challenges.
But that was the last she’d seen or heard from James in days, and this past weekend had been the first one the he hadn’t called her. She didn’t dare ask Emma if she knew anything about his whereabouts – the older woman’s disapproval had been clear and complete. Which hardly seemed fair. She has Steed. Why can’t she let me enjoy James?
“Seriously, Hemming, how often will we have to defend ourselves by fencing?” Matthew asked as he tugged at the heavy, white jacket.
“You would be surprised,” the trainer replied. “But even if you never pick up a sword in defense, fencing is an art that will serve you in many other ways. It hones your balance, keeps you fit, and teaches you how to handle yourself in other forms of combat.”
“And it’s lovely to watch,” Purdey put in. Hemming glanced at her and nodded, then looked toward the door leading to the locker rooms. A tall, slender figure dressed in whites with a mask in place had stepped through them. She, for it was clearly a woman, strode across the gymnasium toward the trainees and Hemming, a practice foil like the ones they’d been issued carried point down at her side.
“Lovely indeed,” Hemming said, gesturing for the newcomer to join him in front of the group. “Your instructor has arrived. May I introduce Miss Emma Knight.”
Emma lifted her mask so that the face mesh sat on top of her head. She whipped her foil into a vertical position in front of her and nodded in salute at the trainees.
Sally was extremely grateful that Emma did not make eye contact with her. She might have warned me, she thought irritably as Emma began her lesson.
“Steed, Mother is ready to see you now,” Watkin, Mother’s last line of defense when he was in his office, rose and opened the door for Steed. Steed went through into Mother’s office and heard the latch click behind him. Mother was at his desk, which was bare except for five telephones in various colors. Rhonda hovered in the shadows behind him, and there was a single chair in front of the desk. But otherwise the office was bare. Steed sat down.
“You’re here with a report on the replaced people, I expect,” Mother said. Steed nodded.
“Among other things,” he said. “We’ve connected the replaced executives through a consulting firm that has all of their companies on its client list. The consultants also have as a client the construction company that built all of the buildings where the remains have been found so far.”
“So bring in the consultants.”
Steed shook his head and winced, as if such heavy-handed tactics were painful to consider. “We think there’s someone else behind it: The firm that stands the most to benefit from the failure of the ones with the replaced executive. We’re sure there’s a criminal mastermind behind it all. Furthermore, one of the partners in the consulting firm is a very old friend of Mrs. Peel. No –,” he shook his head sharply to silence Mother’s obvious comment, “She is not compromised by it. If he is involved, she’ll arrest him. But I’m not convinced that he is. His partner seems to be the shady one. If anything, we can exploit her connection to get closer to them.” Even as Steed said it he began to seriously consider it for the first time. He wouldn’t get anything out of Leighton, but Emma probably could.
“Very well. So you are making progress. I know that you are employing numerous research personnel,” Mother said. Steed was used to being reprimanded for squandering ministry resources. Such comments rolled right off of him and Mother knew it. “So what are the ‘other things’ you’re here to discuss?”
“Mrs. Peel and I are getting married.”
Mother stared at him blankly for a moment, then his tight little mouth split in a toothy smile. He emitted a sharp laugh. Then, as Steed’s expression remained complacent, his eyes widened and he leaned forward to stare at him.
“You aren’t joking, are you?” he asked.
“Certainly not, Mother. Invitations to the engagement party will go out this week, but we thought it wise to tell you now. As you might imagine, her engagement will garner the interest of the press. There will be inquiries into who I am and what I do.”
“Yes, of course. We have means of deflecting such inquiries. You will be provided with a proper response. But you know that. That’s not why you’re here, Steed. You’re here because you do not want me to change your status.”
“I have no intention of giving up field work, if that’s what you mean.”
“You know it’s highly irregular.”
“Well, she, of all women, knows the risks.” Mother sighed and studied Steed for a moment, then he raised one hand, flexing two fingers. There was movement behind him and Rhonda materialized with two crystal highball glasses and a decanter. She poured two shots and came around the desk to set Steed’s in front of him. Then she melted back into the shadows.
“I have one thing to say, Steed – one thing above all else, anyway,” Mother raised his glass. “It’s about time.”
Steed’s brows shot up, but he picked up his glass and sipped Mother’s very good single malt scotch.
“You and she have danced around one another for years,” Mother explained after taking a generous gulp. Then he added, almost to himself, “It’s fortunate that you didn’t reach this juncture earlier. We would have had to handle things differently.”
Steed frowned now, not sure that he’d heard correctly. He opened his mouth to ask Mother to repeat himself, but before he could speak his superior went on.
“When’s the date then? I suppose you intend to neglect your duties for weeks on end before and after.”
“December 24th. And we intend to go away for a month.”
“Christmas eve? That’s typically brash of you, Steed. Still, I’m sure no one will want to miss it. You are having an actual wedding? Not some dreary civil ceremony, I hope.”
“Apparently, yes. We seem to be arranging flowers and dresses and caterers for hoards of guests.”
“And security, I trust. I suspect a substantial portion of our intelligence community, not to mention the management of Knight Industries, will be there.”
“Security,” Steed repeated, realizing that he had not considered the significance of their guest list. “Yes. I’ll see to it. I assume you’ll want your usual?”
Mother had a handpicked, lethal squad that accompanied him whenever he ventured outside of his normal routine, in addition to Rhonda.
“So I’m to be invited?”
Steed offered him a withering glance and stood up. “I’ll have to check the guest list, but I believe so, yes,” he retorted. “And you too, Rhonda,” he added, peering into the shadows. Rhonda came forward enough to be seen in the light around the desk. To Steed’s surprise, she was smiling.
“Good day, Mother,” he said, nodding to the man behind the desk, then turning and crossing to the door.
“This might well signal the beginning of the end for our best agent in the field,” Mother said when Steed was gone.
“He has been in love with her for years. Why should marriage make any difference?”
“True enough. But somehow it always does, Rhonda. Somehow it does.”
Steed glanced through the glass pane in the gymnasium door and smiled. A white-clad figure that could only be Emma was fencing with a student. Emma’s moves were graceful and efficient. The student – another woman, but not Sally, who was seated watching – was also tall and graceful. But it was clear she did not know much about fencing.
In an aggressive movement that Steed thought was a little harsh to inflict on a beginner, Emma slipped through the girl’s weak defenses and touched her heart, her foil bending with the pressure of the hit. Emma stepped back and saluted the student, who shakily returned the salute, then pulled off her mask and looked appealingly at Hemming. She was an attractive blond who looked terribly disappointed at her performance. Steed felt sorry for her. While Hemming reviewed the student’s errors, Steed slipped into the gym and walked quietly toward Emma, whose back was turned.
Not quietly enough, perhaps, or maybe it was the way Sally was watching him come across the big room. In any case, when he was a few feet away Emma spun around, sword raised in an en garde stance. The padded tip of her foil was six inches from Steed’s throat. He grinned at her.
“Good afternoon!” he said, tipping his hat, and then removing it, tossing it aside. Her foil didn’t move. The blond student sat down and Hemming folded his arms across his barrel chest, watching. The students followed his lead, clearly intrigued. Steed was pleased with himself for having given in to whimsy that morning when he’d picked up his sword umbrella. He adjusted his grip on the handle, which was not as easy to hold as a real foil, and wrapped his other hand around the collar just below it. He rotated the collar to unlatch it, then slid the umbrella off of the sword in a smooth movement. The umbrella landed near his hat. The sword came up to engage her foil.
She stepped back to salute him and he returned the honor. Behind her, Hemming took the mask from the blond student and tossed it to him. He caught it and put it on, and then Emma attacked. She drove him across the gym with a series of lunges. He parried, but gave ground with each stroke. Then he abandoned the rules of formal competition and spun away to the side. He darted under a set of parallel bars and vaulted over a horse, spinning around to spot his pursuer. Emma had avoided the gymnastics equipment, charging to the wall instead where she’d climbed up a few rungs on a ladder and taken hold of a climbing rope that was fastened there. She came swinging at him, feet first, sword arm free to strike. He stepped aside and reached out with one arm, catching her in the middle. But her momentum threw him off and they both fell to the floor. They rolled away from one another and scrambled to their feet with equal speed. Then Steed took the offensive, driving Emma back across the room as she had done him. She, however, stuck to the rules, and gradually pushed him back with a series of perfectly legal attacks.
In the end it was his umbrella that fouled him up. He tripped over it, not falling, but leaving himself open long enough for Emma to move inside of his guard and plant the tip of her foil against his heart just as she’d done to the student earlier. He spread his arms wide in defeat.
Emma pulled off her mask and smiled victoriously at him. He saluted her and she returned it as Hemming led a round of applause from the trainees.
“You do never know when someone will come at you with a sword,” Emma said, stepping around Steed to address the trainees. Steed bent to retrieve his hat and umbrella, handing the borrowed mask to the nearest trainee. He started to sheath his sword in the umbrella, but paused, turning back to Emma, who was talking about the differences in styles that they had just used. His eyes locked with Sally’s as he raised his bare blade and whapped the flat of it across Emma’s behind. She spun around, her face ablaze with surprise and annoyance. But his playful grin topped by adoring grey eyes stopped her in her tracks. She stared at him for a moment, then one eyebrow rose.
“Not in front of the children, darling,” she whispered, then turned her back to him to continue addressing the trainees. Looking over her shoulder, he winked at Sally, then turned and hurried out of the gym.
“Why did John Steed wink at you, Sal?” Purdey asked. It was obviously the question that all of the trainees wanted to ask. Sally looked into her half empty pint glass but found no courage there. It was inevitable they’d find out about her relationship with Steed and Emma eventually.
“Steed recruited me,” she said, inspiration striking out of the blue. “He was working on a case that involved the firm where I worked. That’s how I met him.”
“Knight Industries,” Purdey said quietly, and Sally realized that the connection had been made. Why did Emma have to teach us fencing?
“But that’s Miss Knight’s company,” Matthew said.
“Yes,” Purdey added. “I think our Sally is very well connected indeed.”
“They’re just friends,” Sally said lamely.
Most of the trainees within hearing around the several tables they’d appropriated at their usual pub stared at her. Purdey looked disgusted.
“Nobody is ‘just friends’ with two of the best agents in the country. How could you not tell us that you know the infamous Emma Peel?”
“That’s why,” Sally said with a shrug. “I knew you’d all say something like that. I have as much to learn as anybody. More than most of you. My friendship with Steed and Emma has nothing to do with it.” She did not think it the right moment to point out that Emma was not an agent.
“But you could have told us she was going to teach us fencing!” Millicent said. She had not done very well in Emma’s class.
“I didn’t know,” Sally nearly wailed. “Really, she never told me.”
Terrance was at her flat when she got home from drinks. It was evident that he’d been there for a while chatting with his sister Meg, who was also her roommate. She felt guilty, although she had no reason to and he said nothing to imply that he was upset. Meg went off to work a night shift in the restaurant where she waited tables, and Terrance followed Sally into her room and shut the door.
“Everything all right at work?” he asked, watching her tuck her tote bag into her closet. He was accustomed to her keeping long hours – she had usually done so at Knight. He didn’t question her continuing to do so since he didn’t know she wasn’t still working there. She had never encouraged him to call her at the office, although she did suppose he would eventually do so and then she’d have to explain when they told him she didn’t work there anymore.
“Yes, fine,” she said. “How about you?”
“I turned in a feature on a small grocer in my neighborhood who’s being squeezed out by the chains,” he sat down on her bed and scooted back until he was leaning against the wall.
“Yes? Did they like it?”
“They spiked it.”
Sally frowned in the middle of taking off her shoes and looked up at him.
“That’s journalism talk. It means they killed it – stuck it on the spike on the managing editor’s desk.”
“I’m so sorry, Terrance. Did they say why?”
“Sure. The chain grocer is an advertiser, the little guy isn’t.”
Sally kicked her shoes aside and climbed up onto the bed beside him. He looked so sad she allowed herself to lean close and kiss him. His arms came up to enfold her and she felt a powerful urge to hold him too. She gave in to it, slipping her arms around him and laying her forehead on his shoulder.
“That’s awful, Terrance,” she said. “Do you have any chance of getting a job with a real newspaper? One that will publish the stories you want to write?”
She felt him shrug, felt his hands stroking her back, felt her own hands caressing him. In a flash she wondered if something was wrong with her the way she craved James one moment and Terrance the next. All along knowing that Terrance would not satisfy her and she’d want James all the more.
But James still had not called her, and Terrance was here, now, pressing his lips to the side of her neck and letting his hands inch around to her front to brush over her breasts. His touch sent little shivers of heat through her body and she turned her face to capture his mouth.
“I feel like I should buy you dinner at least,” he said between kisses, his hands sliding up her chest to cup her face.
“I’m not for sale, Terrance, not even for payment with dinner. If I make love with you it’s because it pleases me.” She brought her own hand around to his chest to find and caress a small nipple. “Let’s do this, and then go get something to eat,” she added.
He wasted no time unbuttoning her blouse and tucking his face between her breasts, kissing them lightly so that her skin tingled. He brushed his fingers over her bra and paused to look at the result: her nipples standing up hard against the fabric. He smiled and bent to rub his nose against one and then the other, reaching around under her shirt to unhook her bra.
She lay back and enjoyed his kisses on her breasts and her throat and face. He had grown more skilled since their first nervous time, and Sally realized as he blew gently into her ear that he had paid attention to what she liked and didn’t like. He no longer nibbled her shoulder in the way he had thought was so erotic and she’d found irritating. And he paid closer attention to the sensitive skin below her ears and at the back of her neck. She’d been ready to classify him a lost cause, but perhaps she’d been hasty. And comparing him to James really wasn’t fair.
She slipped her hands under his loose shirt and slid them up to caress his small nipples, feeling them stiffen as he sighed against her neck.
“That feels so good,” he whispered, returning the favor with a caress of one of her taut nipples. Sally interrupted him to pull his shirt off over his head and bent her head to tease one of his nipples with her tongue. It hardened even more and he shifted his hips impatiently. She obligingly reached down to stroke the bulge at his crotch. Maybe it’s time, she thought as her fingers worked at the button on his trousers. She carefully lowered the zipper of his fly and reached in with her fingers to stroke him through his underwear. His erection was warm and solid and the feel of it made her own loins pulse with surprisingly strong anticipation. She hoped he had learned some control.
He raised himself on his elbows and watched her push down his pants and underwear to free his genitals. She kept one hand on his chest, one finger lightly touching a nipple. It was as if that tiny touch restrained him, for he watched intently but did not move as she bent her head and licked the tip of his penis.
He drew in a sharp breath and held it and she knew he was praying that she would go on. The feeling of power it gave her was intoxicating. She lowered her lips around the head of his shaft and sucked. He tasted earthy and salty, and to her amazement it made her want him all the more. His pelvis jerked and she tasted a stronger flavor. Automatically she withdrew her mouth and pressed on his nipple with her finger.
“Hold on, Terrance,” she commanded, looking at his tense face. She could see that he was trying.
“It feels so amazing,” he said through his clenched jaw. She drew him into her mouth again, deeper this time until his penis touched the back of her throat and she had to fight the gag reflex. Then she drew her lips off slowly and licked him again, running her tongue down, and up, and back down again, feeling his flesh quiver and wondering what it felt like. She knew she was pushing him far beyond where they’d been before, demanding more control than he had ever exercised. Meanwhile her own control was waning, as the craving between her legs for his touch grew stronger. She stretched out beside him and he rolled onto his side, caressing her bare breast with one hand as he kissed her enthusiastically. She was glad when his hand wandered down her stomach and under the waistband of her skirt. But the garment was too tight for him to reach his goal that way. Still kissing her as if to distract her, he raised himself up over her and reached further down to pull up the hem of her skirt. His mouth drifted down to her nipple as his fingers found the top of her tights and panties and drew them down over her belly. He used both hands to remove the garments, leaving her in her skirt and her unbuttoned blouse and loose bra. She found this state of half-dress searingly erotic. She spread her thighs as he ran his hands up from her knees. He knelt between her legs lightly touching her inner thighs as he looked down at her. Then he saw her tiny frown.
“I just wanted to look. You know. To see you,” he said with a shy shrug.
“I don’t mind you looking. But I wish you’d touch, too,” she said, shifting her hips in what she hoped was an enticing manner. “Please?”
He ran tentative fingers over her labia, then over her vulva. All at once she came in a little spurt that christened his hands. “More. Please more,” she groaned. He stroked her again, this time running a finger over her clitoris and on into her. “Rub there,” she hissed, drawing her knees up. He rubbed, slowly at first and then faster and harder as she moved against him.
She came again so powerfully that she dug her heels into the mattress and thrust her pelvis against his hand. He moved his fingers within her, mesmerized at the sight and feel of her ejaculation. She felt him move over her as she steadied her breath. Her eyes popped open to peer into his. He bent to kiss her and she felt his penis touch her.
She planted both hands on his chest, her eyes opening wide.
“Get a condom,” she said, turning her head toward the bedside table. His eyes widened and he rose off of her.
“I forgot,” he said, looking and sounding frightened. She realized that her tone must have been very harsh. He reached over and opened the drawer, extracting a square package.
“Let me,” she said, forcing herself to sound calm. She opened the package and reached down between them. He sighed as she put it on him, enjoying her touch. Then, to reassure him, she rubbed his sheathed member against her clitoris. The sensation made her groan and her hips thrust up against him of their own volition. She pulled her hands out from between them and he took over, pressing down to meet her.
They moved together, slowly building one another’s fires, gradually increasing the pace, the depth, and the movement until the bed was protesting in constant, high-pitched squeaks. Sally shut her eyes, gripped his ass with both hands, and let herself go as her climax shot through her. She felt a surge of release in her loins, then felt Terrance stiffen, his hips grinding with hers. She opened her eyes to see him throw his head back in a silent cry, then drop it between his arms, his hair falling over her face. She brought her hands up to stroke the back of his neck, and he slowly lowered himself to his elbows, pressing his face against the side of her neck.
Their hearts slowed together, their breathing calmed. And Terrance shifted to one side, then grabbed some tissues from her night table and removed the condom. He lay back down and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tight against him.
“You came, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” she said.
“It was the first time – you never did before.”
Sally stared into his eyes for a moment. He looked content and sincere.
“I didn’t know what to do – to make you. I felt bad. Will you tell me what I did right this time?”
Sally closed her eyes and found his lips with hers, drawing him into a long, contented kiss.
“Everything, Terrance. You did everything right.”
“Your operation is attracting attention, Brenford. Something must be done.”
“You mean the break-ins? Random thievery,” Guy Brenford waved away the concern.
“I might be willing to believe that if anything had been stolen,” James Mallory replied. He was a bulky, square jawed man with a strong brow line and close cropped black hair. His tone was almost always accusatory, as if he didn’t know any other mode of expression. Brenford, who had the small, wiry build of a jockey, had a hard time not feeling threatened, even during the most mundane discussions.
“I’ve already taken action. I believe it’s a friend of my partner’s who has official connections. I’ve sent him a warning.”
“What do you mean by ‘official connections’?”
“He’s in intelligence, according to my sources. According to my research, Freddy has known him for years. Maybe Freddy has gotten suspicious and talked to him.”
“Maybe you had better find out and take care of it.”
“Freddy has his uses . . .”
“Not if he’s a threat to the operation. Not after all these years of effort.”
Anthony Cruz got into his dark blue Range Rover and allowed his subconscious mind to take over the driving. As he started the engine and navigated onto the highway he thought through the meeting he’d just had with Frank Harris, the vice president of Knight’s nuclear power research division. He had approached the meeting with considerable trepidation after having delayed it for as long as he reasonably could. As the new General Manager of Knight Industries he had been meeting with all of the senior staff – usually accompanied by Miss Knight or other members of the management team. It had taken some finesse to schedule this meeting alone – especially since it was out of town at the nuclear research facility near Calder Hall. Normally there would be someone who needed to visit there who would have wanted to ride along. But it had been imperative for his first meeting with Frank to be one-on-one.
When he shook Frank’s hand he’d been glad to find that the spark of chemistry between them was gone. But when he looked the other man in the eye he realized that more than that had changed. Frank showed absolutely no sign of recognition. He might have labeled it good acting in front of the facilities manager and the head of atomic research and development, except that when they were finally alone in Frank’s office, nothing changed.
Feeling amazingly hurt, Anthony had dropped the subtlest of hints – references to shared experiences that he hoped would let Frank know that the subject was not taboo. If they could discuss it openly, then they would have a much easier working relationship. Anthony was not looking to rekindle anything, but he did feel that sweeping things under the rug, at least between the two of them, would lead to disaster. But his hints went unanswered, and he stopped before he had to resort to more overt comments.
By the time he reached the outskirts of London he’d come to a very disturbing conclusion. Frank Harris – the Frank Harris he’d just met with – was not the Frank Harris he’d had an affair with six years ago. He looked the same, and acted very similarly, but he was definitely not the same man.
And now he had to find a way to tell Miss Knight without explaining why he was so certain. He prayed that she would accept his advice without probing too deeply.
“I had the most remarkable conversation with Anthony this afternoon,” Emma told Steed. She was stretched out on his sofa watching him open a bottle of claret.
“He insists that Frank Harris is an imposter.”
Steed paused to stare at her, cork half way out of the bottle.
“And who is Frank Harris?”
Emma cleared her throat and peered at the ceiling. “Vice President of Knight Nuclear – that’s the short name for our atomic energy research facility – the one that moved closer to Calder Hall.”
Steed finished pulling the cork and poured a taste into a waiting glass. He picked up the glass to peer at the wine, and said, “Did Mr. Cruz say how he knows Mr. Harris is an imposter?”
“He said that he met him several years ago, socially, and that our Frank Harris clearly had no recollection of it. I did ask him if he was certain that Mr. Harris would recall – had they gotten to know one another enough for him to be certain. He said he was positive.”
Steed tasted the wine while she spoke and smiled, then poured a glass for her and filled his own. He brought hers to her and took up his accustomed position at the other end of the sofa.
“You do know that Anthony Cruz is a homosexual?” Steed asked.
Emma’s astonished stare was answer enough. She recovered herself quite quickly, however, and took a sip of wine.
“No. It didn’t come up in my negotiations with him for the job. I hate to ask how you know.”
“Background check,” Steed shrugged. Emma’s eyes narrowed at him. “We’ve checked all of Knight’s senior management over the last six months – you know that. Cruz’s check came through with a bright red flag on it. You know the psychologists insist that homosexuality is a high security risk.”
“Highly susceptible to blackmail,” she nodded, but he could see she didn’t particularly agree. “So why didn’t the ministry veto his employment for security reasons?”
“I suppressed the red flag. We’ve got such a tight net around Knight – starting at the top, I might add — that Cruz couldn’t take a misstep without it being detected.”
Emma nodded. Steed was reassuring her that she was trusted implicitly – always nice to hear from a man in his position. He was also referencing other agents that he had placed within Knight. Emma knew of one of them – Alex Harper. It had not occurred to her until just now that there might be others whom she had not detected. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
“So his ‘social meeting’ with Frank Harris was romantic,” she said. “But was Frank Harris’s background check red flagged?”
“No, I don’t believe so. I would have noticed if it were.” Steed said thoughtfully, then he took another sip of wine, indulging in it. “Interesting, hum?”
“How long have you known Mr. Harris?”
“My father hired him so he’s been with Knight for years. But I don’t know him well at all. The man at our research facility could easily be an imposter. So I checked into it.”
“You remember Sir William’s personnel file that you borrowed from Standard Energy?”
“I noticed a drastic shift in his psychological and physical test results from one year to the next, around the time he was replaced. Knight also performs those tests on senior management.”
“Frank Harris’s psychological profile changed dramatically between tests he was given three and a half years ago and those from two and a half years ago.”
“So tell me,” Steed said, holding his glass up to stare into it while he spoke, “what do the psychological profiles say about you? Or are you exempt?”
“Oh, that I’m inquisitive and demanding and stubborn, nothing you don’t already know,” she replied, looking into her own wine as if to find what he was looking for.
He brought his to his lips and took a sip. “Rather young,” he said, then looked at her directly. “The wine, that is.”
She rolled her eyes and took a sip from her own glass.
Sally stopped along Victoria Embankment to look out across the Thames at the south bank. The sun had set hours before she and the other trainees had been released from the ministry. They had forgone their usual pints this evening in order to study for an exam they’d been warned about, but Sally wasn’t quite ready to go home to her crowded flat. Weeks into the training program she still felt as if her life was in turmoil, partially because of the program, and partially because of her confusing feelings about the two men in her life. She was seriously regretting getting involved with either of them while in the training program. But what was done was done, and she had little choice but to press on. Each of them made her happy in different ways. She could not imagine going to a movie or eating take away curry with James. And there was no way she could ever discuss international diplomacy with Terrance. Up until the other night she would have said that James’s romantic skills tipped the balance well over in his favor, but Terrance had demonstrated such dramatic improvement she was loathe now to give up on him as she had been considering.
So she watched a container ship drift by on the outgoing tide and tried to convince herself that James was the mistake. After all, she hadn’t heard from him in a week.
“I have to do it,” she assured herself.
“Do what? Not jump in, I hope. The water’s frightfully polluted and I’d hate to ruin this suit rescuing you.”
She looked over her shoulder at the source of this rather ungallant declaration. James stepped up to the railing beside her.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, looking pointedly at his suit, which was typically elegant, if a bit atypically rumpled.
He noticed her look and smiled, his blue eyes twinkling.
“I’ve been in nearly constant briefings for days,” he said. “I’m going away.”
“On a mission.”
“I thought you might already have.”
“Ah. And not said good-bye.”
“Something like that.”
He brushed her hair away from her face, turning toward her. She turned as well and looked up into his eyes.
“Actually,” he said, brushing the back of his hand along her jaw, “I was warned away from you by your guardian angel.” Seeing her puzzled frown he went on, “Emma has warned me that if I break your heart she’ll do far worse to me.”
“She has no right,” Sally nearly cried and James’s hand came around to her lips.
“Shhh,” he said softly. “She cares about you. Don’t undervalue that – she’s a very powerful ally.”
“Does she think I didn’t know what you’re like?”’
“I don’t have any – expectations, James. I know you’ll go on a mission and I will be the furthest thing from your mind. And you will do what you need to do to succeed.”
“But you won’t like it.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does.”
She frowned again, trying to understand why he was pressing this. She knew that she was in love with him. She knew that he did not return her affections. She had never expected him to. Why does he have to rub it in?
“When you do have to leave?”
“Tonight. I saw you leaving the building and followed you. I wanted to – to be sure you knew I was going.” He didn’t know why he faltered. He had been going to say that he wanted to tell her he cared for her. He wanted to slip his hand around to the back of her neck pull her to him to kiss her. But something in her expression stopped him.
“Thank you, James. I do appreciate that,” she replied.
“I’ll telephone you when I get back. It may be a few weeks,” he said.
“All right. Good luck.”
He peered at her for a moment longer, then turned and strode away. As he walked he took a long breath and blew it out. Perhaps Emma should have warned Sally not to break my heart, he thought caustically.
Sally watched him stride away, forcing herself not to call after him. He didn’t even kiss me good-bye. Terrance would have.
“Excuse me Lord Frederick?”
Freddy Leighton looked up from the letter he was revising at his secretary. “Yes Jacob?”
“Has anyone been using the customer files?” Jacob asked, his crisp tone ever so slightly superior.
“Not that I know of – I haven’t touched them, or asked anyone other than you for anything.” Freddy valued Jacob’s efficiency and only barely tolerated the extremes he carried it to.
“It’s just that the master lists are disordered. As you know, we keep the general client list on top and the secondary lists with contact information beneath it. I’ve just found the last contact list on top and had to hunt through for the general list.”
Freddy quelled his desire to tell Jacob to shut up and deal with it. The fact was, if his secretary thought someone had been in the file, then someone probably had. And every since last Friday Freddy had been growing more and more concerned about the conversation he’d had with John Steed at the Stanton’s party.
“Check to see if anything is missing, and let me see the files you think have been tampered with,” he said.
“Are you sure, my lord? I can easily put them back in order.”
“Yes. Let me see them.”
“Yes my lord.”
Leighton studied the stack of files that Jacob had placed on his desk with a sniff. Standard Energy, Harp Hydro, Atomic Resources, Solar Systems, and Alternative Sources all had an obvious connection. But where did Apex Construction fit in? And the general client list, disordered as Jacob had pointed out. He opened the Standard Energy file and paged through it, skimming his partner’s correspondence and other documents and account ledgers. Standard was one of Guy’s clients. Frowning, Leighton looked again at the other files. They were all Guy’s clients.
Once again Steed’s question at the party Friday ran through his mind. Did he and Guy work together or keep separate clients? Straightening in his chair, he started back at the beginning of the file. An hour later he closed the Apex Construction file and stood up, pacing around behind his chair to stretch his legs and think. He walked back to his desk and removed a business card from one of the files, turning it in his fingers to read the note written on the back.
Nodding to himself as he made a decision, he picked up a page of notes that he’d made, folded it, and put it into an inner pocket. Then he picked up his telephone.
“Emma, it’s Freddy. I need to discuss something with you. Something that’s more up your alley than mine, I believe. I’m at my office. Please call me when you get this.”
Emma rewound the tape and listened again. He hadn’t said what time he called, but it was half three now. She dialed his office number and one of his staff answered. The young woman informed her that she had not seen Lord Frederick since before lunch. She declined to leave a message. Instead she dialed his home number, but there was no answer. Without a second thought, she picked up her bag and headed out to her car.
“What are you up to, Freddy?” Guy Brenford stood in Leighton’s office doorway looking at the files spread across his desk. Startled, Leighton gripped the business card tightly in his fist as he looked up.
“Jacob found some files disordered and I was just – um – having a look.”
“At these files?” Brenford walked over to look at his desk, then flipped the Apex Construction file closed.
“Yes – an odd collection, humm?” Freddy waved at his desk dismissively then looked up at his partner. He had hoped he was convincing, but the gun in Brenford’s hand told him he wasn’t.
“Oh, not as odd as all that. And I think that unfortunately for you, you’ve noticed. Who was it you just called?”
“No Guy. Leave her out of it. She doesn’t know what it’s about. Hell, I don’t really know what’s going on.”
Brenford shook his head, a look of pity in his eyes. “We have had a useful relationship, Freddy, but I’m afraid it will have to end. Let’s go.” He gestured toward the door with his gun.
“Come on, Freddy, don’t be inconvenient.”
“You won’t shoot me, Guy,” Leighton said. “Not with Jacob and the rest of the staff outside.”
“No, not here. But I will incapacitate you if I must, to get you out of here. A little accident with scissors, or a bad fall. It will be much less painful if you come along now.” As he spoke he stepped around the desk to within striking distance, his stance and expression full of menace.
“All right, Guy. All right.” Leighton preceded his partner out of his office and on out of their suite, Brenford concealing the gun in his jacket pocket.
Emma stepped off the lift on the twelfth floor and pushed open the glass door into the offices of Leighton and Brenford consulting. She had been there once or twice before, although most of her meetings with Freddy were at Knight Industries. A receptionist greeted her and called through to Freddy’s office. A moment later Jacob, Freddy’s secretary, appeared.
“This way, Miss Knight,” he said, indicating that she should precede him to Freddy’s office.
“Lord Frederick has come back?” she asked, “I called earlier and was told that he isn’t in.”
“No,” Jacob said, “but he would not want a valuable client such as yourself left standing in the front office.”
“Thank you. Do you know when he is expected back?”
“I’m afraid I don’t, Miss Knight. Which is rather odd, I will admit.” They had reached Jacob’s desk, which was situated in an alcove guarding the door to Freddy’s office. Emma went to the door and looked inside.
“He telephoned me sometime in the last two hours and said he had something important to discuss,” she explained, noting the files spread across Freddy’s desk. Unable to stop herself, she went into the office to get a closer look at the files.
“Miss Knight!” Jacob followed her and began gathering up the files, but not before she had seen the labels on them.
“Did he leave alone?” she asked.
“No. He and Mr. Brenford left together,” Jacob said, clutching the stack of files to his chest and nodding toward the door. She smiled flirtatiously at him and turned on her heel to go. In the doorway she noticed something on the floor. She let her handbag slip off of her shoulder and drop. Jacob stopped short behind her as she bent to pick it up and scoop up the business card at the same time.
“Forgive my clumsiness,” she said, heading down the hall toward the front doors. “Please ask Freddy to telephone me when he comes back,” she added over her shoulder.
In the lift she smoothed out the crumpled business card.
James Mallory, Vice President, Alternative Sources. She compulsively turned the card over. “Use this phone number, don’t call for me at English Petroleum.”
“Nobody is home,” Steed said, leaning in the window of Emma’s Lotus. She had telephoned him from the lobby of Freddy’s office building. He had been closer to Freddy’s house, so had arrived first.
Emma handed him the business card, which she’d described when she called. He studied it for a moment, then straightened and looked up and down the quiet street. Freddy lived in a very prestigious neighborhood of freestanding homes with substantial gardens. It was, Steed supposed, his city house.
“Let’s go see Mr. Malory. I’ll drive. Your car will be fine here.”
Without hesitation Emma secured her car and followed him up the block to where he’d left the Bentley.
“I’m sorry sir, madam, Mr. Malory is not available.” The buxom, platinum haired secretary replied. Her expression suggested anything but regret at having to deliver the news.
“If he’s in a meeting, we can wait,” Emma suggested pleasantly.
“It will only take a moment,” Steed added. “Just some quick questions regarding a marketing project that we are bidding on. Just need to dot some ‘i’s and cross some ‘t’s. You know how it is.”
“Accuracy is critical,” Emma put in. The secretary shrugged and returned to her chair.
“I’m afraid he’s not here. He’s at the project site.”
“That would be the South East England Windmill Project?” Emma asked.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Thank you for your time, Miss Hensley,” Steed said, tipping his hat to her. “We’ll call for Mr. Malory some other time.”
“If you’d care to make an appointment . . .”
“We’ll telephone,” Emma said, following Steed out of the office.
“He’s such a child sometimes,” Emma said to Steed. “Always seeing the good in people and ignoring the bad.”
Steed was racing the Bentley as fast as he dared toward the windmill farm.
“He’s probably been ignoring the clues about Guy Brenford for months.”
Steed looked puzzled. “I thought he was a gossip monger. That’s his stock-in-trade.”
“Yes, but not mean gossip, especially not about his friends. He has never spread unkind rumors. And he doesn’t manipulate people with his knowledge,” she paused, recalling an occasion when he had tried to manipulate her. But he had believed he was doing the right thing at the time, trying to show her the folly of her relationship with Steed. She smiled. He’s still trying to do that.
“The summer after I turned thirteen my father kept me with him in London. My cousins took over the country house. They’re still living there, in fact. My father and I were both grieving for my mother, and neither of us could bear being apart from the other.” She paused and looked at Steed, but he remained silent, listening intently while his eyes remained focused on the road. “I would spend Friday mornings in his office, waiting for him to be able to leave. Then we’d drive to the Solent to sail all weekend.” She paused again, drifting for a moment back to the cockpit of a small, fast sailboat. Steed imagined young Emma stretched out on the couch in her father’s office reading, half listening to him conducting Knight’s business. Her young mind had absorbed more than she knew.
“Some afternoons he’d get away and we’d go riding on the heath. I wonder if you were ever there too?”
“No. When you were thirteen I was not in England.”
She studied him for a moment, clearly wanting to ask, but recognizing that right now it was her turn to finish what she’d started.
“Freddy had taken up polo,” she went on. Steed smiled appreciatively and she regretted not telling him that sooner – it would certainly soften his harsh opinion of her friend. “He’s a good rider, but he was terrible at polo. He fell off a lot.” Steed winced in sympathy and she wondered if any of the scars on his body that she knew so well were from sharp horseshoes rather than enemy weapons. “Finally at one match he actually scored. It was near the end of the match, and his team lost anyway. But he was so happy he galloped over to me, jumped off, and kissed me. Nancy was there with me, and after Freddy took his horse away to groom him she asked what it was like.” Emma chuckled. “I said he was sweaty and smelled of horse. That wasn’t what Nancy wanted to hear.”
“I’ll remember not to kiss you after I’ve been riding hard,” Steed said.
“I hope not. I find you very erotic when you’ve been riding.”
He arched one eyebrow, confused by her contradiction.
She shrugged at him as if he were simple minded. “I am attracted to you. I have never been attracted to Freddy. What’s exciting about you now I just found gross in Freddy when I was thirteen.”
Steed decided not to explore that thought any further. “Go on,” he said gently.
“Freddy tried to kiss me again later when we were picnicking. I put him off. Told him not to ruin our friendship. He was hurt, but he just hugged me instead and called me his best, wisest supporter. I was so grateful that he didn’t make a big deal of it.”
“But,” Steed said rather uncharitably, “he never let it go. Did he?”
She sighed, “I think its just habit now. He’ll behave himself at the wedding. I’m sure of it.”
“We’re inviting him to the wedding?” Steed tried for annoyance but fell short. He ended in a grin that she returned. “All right. He can come. But no kissing the bride.”
She stared at him for a moment and he glanced over in time to see the flash of humor deteriorate into worry. “We have to find him, Steed.” She nearly whispered.
Steed reached over and found her hand, squeezing it reassuringly.
“This must be it,” Emma said, indicating a white sign beside the road. Steed slowed the Bentley and stopped so that her headlights illuminated the sign. It announced the South East England Windmill Project and listed Alternative Sources as the developer and Apex Construction as the builder. These credits were followed by a lengthy description of the benefits of wind power to the local community.
“Think there was local objection?” Emma asked rather caustically. Steed glanced at her, then got out of the car to investigate the gate in the fence behind the sign. Once out of the car he noticed how chilly it had become. The sun had set halfway through their drive, and a windstorm seemed to be brewing. He could just hear an odd humming noise above the sound of the wind rustling the trees along the road. The windmills, he realized.
A chain hung uselessly from the gate. Steed swung it open, choosing not to think about why it wasn’t secured, and returned to the car.
“The weather has turned clear and cold,” he said as he put the Bentley in gear.
“There’s plenty of wind for the mills,” Emma agreed, peering upward out the windscreen at the animated treetops.
“Any idea how this place is laid out?” he asked as he drove along a narrow, unpaved road. “This can’t be the gate they use for construction vehicles.”
“No. I don’t remember coming across any plans in any of the files I’ve looked at.”
“Then we’ll play it by ear,” he said, hitting the breaks and flicking off the lights as they rounded a bend and found themselves staring across an expanse of open land.
“That’s what we’re good at, darling,” Emma said, studying the view.
Row upon row of sleek, modern windmills marched away into the darkness, their four-finned heads all spinning. Their hum was much more pronounced here.
“Well, Don Quixote, where do we begin?” she asked.
“Over there,” Steed pointed ahead and to the left at a small, box-shaped building with low-wattage security lights on its corners. The lights illuminated the building so that they could see a partially open door. Light showed through the two windows and in the crack of the doorway. “But if I’m Don Quixote, you must be Sancho Panza.”
“I don’t know, I rather fancy casting myself as Rossinante.” Emma opened her door and got out of the car, not closing it, although the drone of the windmills would drown out the sound. Steed got out and followed her across the open ground to the building. They stopped with their backs pressed to it on either side of the door. From her angle Emma could see banks of monitoring consoles inside, but no people. The space was illuminated by overhead lights. There was no sound but the windmills and the wind.
Emma nodded at Steed and he stepped away from the wall, pivoting and lifting his foot to kick the door open. It swung in, smacking against something behind it. Emma reached out and prevented it from slamming back shut and Steed stepped boldly inside, umbrella extended in front of him.
The monitoring station was unoccupied, although someone had been there recently – the remains of a take-away meal sat on a small, cluttered table. Three chairs were around it, but it looked as if only two people had eaten.
“They didn’t feed Freddy,” Emma said quietly. Steed caught her meaning immediately. No need to feed a condemned man.
Outside the wind shifted and for a moment they heard the low growl of a diesel engine. Emma followed Steed back outside and around the building. Far out among the windmills they saw a flash of reflected light.
Despite the wind, the sky was clear. Starlight and a quarter moon made sharp shadows beneath the towering windmills as Emma and Steed ran among them toward the distant light. The humming seemed amplified among the great machines, and Emma fought the urge to duck her head – she knew that the enormous fins sliced through the air far above her.
The ground amid the windmills was an uneven landscape of dips and rises, doubtlessly the product of the excavation when the machines were built. Grass had grown up, concealing countless small stones and depressions. They were forced to slow down or risk their ankles. They finally stopped at the big cement base of an un-constructed windmill. They were in a new section of the windmill farm where the devices had not yet been assembled. A row of bases stretched off into the darkness, and behind it another row of foundation holes had been dug. They could now see that the source of the engine sound was a big, yellow excavator that someone was using to enlarge one of these holes
They darted from one foundation to the next until they were adjacent to the digger. Now they could see two men standing back from the hole watching the digger scoop dirt out and dump it at the side. Even in the darkness they could see that one of the watching men was standing stiffly with his hands behind his back.
“Freddy,” Emma said, her voice covered by the roar of the wind, the windmills, and the digger. She glanced at Steed and he nodded, pointing at the machine.
“You stop him. I’ll take care of Brenford.”
Emma sprinted around to approach the digger from behind, watching its movements, which were very repetitive, as she moved. She was peripherally aware of Steed circling around the hole and the two men. Brenford’s attention was focused on the hole and the excavator’s efforts. Emma vaulted onto the back of the machine when the scoop was down in the hole. It had a small, enclosed cab where the driver sat manipulating the levers that operated the scoop. The cab had a clear plastic door on the side. As the driver pulled back on the lever to raise the scoop Emma opened the door and reached inside the cab with both arms. Her aim was to grab the driver and yank him out, taking him to the ground with her if necessary.
But he was more stubborn than she expected, and he held on to the lever as she dragged at him. The scoop flew into the air showering dirt back into the hole and all over Brenford and Leighton. Brenford stared up at the cab and shouted at the sight of Emma struggling with the driver. His shout became a grunt as he was bowled over from behind by a charging Steed. He raised the handgun he was holding, but his wrist was caught in the hook of Steed’s umbrella. Steed used both hands to twist the umbrella and wrench the gun from Brenford’s grip. With his quarry off balance, Steed released the umbrella and gave Brenford a push with a foot on his chest. Brenford fell into the hole with a thump.
Above him, the scoop swung madly, showering dirt all around. Emma landed several solid blows on the driver, but he was far more tenacious than she’d expected. He kept grabbing for levers with one hand and striking back at her with the other.
Steed grabbed the startled Freddy by one bound arm and pulled him away from the hole just as the scoop slammed down three feet from where he’d been standing. In the cab, Emma got an arm around the driver’s neck and squeezed. The diesel engine roared as he plunged his foot on the accelerator. The great machine jerked forward. Its huge front tyres slipped over the edge of the hole and the articulated arm folded up on itself with an ominous, metallic crunch. Half inside the cab, Emma braced herself as she felt the driver go limp in her stranglehold. The digger slewed sideways into the hole, its rear tyres rising into the air as the edges of the hole collapsed around it.
“Emma!” Leighton screamed as he and Steed watched the dirt half cover the huge machine. Steed glanced at him, then sprinted around the hole to the edge nearest where he’d last seen her. It would never occur to him to call out her name before taking action.
The enormous back tyres still turned slowly even as he heard the engine sputter to a stop beneath the dirt. In its absence the roar of the windmills seemed to increase. He waded into the loose soil and began to dig with his hands next to the cab of the machine. The dirt, he reasoned, had not fallen in with enough force to collapse the glass front window or the plastic side panels. Emma and the driver must have some air space, unless she’d been pulled away from the cab.
Steed felt like a dog, gouging out great handfuls of soil and flinging it away behind him. As he exposed a small portion of the edge of the cab doorframe he realized his error – the cab door had been open, the dirt had filled it. Emma, he allowed himself to scream silently as he accelerated his digging. His hands encountered soft, warm flesh. It moved, three fingers clutching at his. He grabbed the hand, feeling a ring on the third finger as he heaved. She emerged from the dirt like a sapling growing up into the world, shaking her head to scatter loose dirt out of her hair. Even as she scrambled for stability in the loose soil she was turning to dig into the cab.
“He’s unconscious,” she said.
Steed helped her dig, understanding that she did not want the driver to suffocate because she had knocked him out. They found and uncovered his head and Emma slipped two fingers down against his neck, pausing long enough to feel a pulse. Then she sat back on her haunches and looked up at Steed. Their eyes locked, understanding, relief, and the latent excitement of the chase darting between them. She smiled her crooked smile and he allowed a little grin.
“Freddy?” she asked.
“Here,” a voice above them cut through the drone of the windmills.
Emma scrambled up out of the hole and embraced him, then stepped around him to untie his wrists.
“Guy fell in,” he said to nobody in particular as Steed crawled up the solid ground with them.
“Guy was going to put you in,” Emma pointed out as she finished with the knots. He rubbed one wrist with the other hand and stared at her for a moment.
“He really was, wasn’t he?”
“Most assuredly,” Steed said. He was about to add that his umbrella had also fallen in and was now also buried beneath the digger, but Emma’s sharp glance warned him to let it go.
“Where is James Malory?” Emma asked. Freddy shook his head.
“I don’t know. He was here earlier. Then Guy brought me outside, and this man was here digging holes. I don’t know where Malory went.”
“Come on,” Steed said nodding toward in the direction of the driveway where the Bentley was parked. Malory could be long gone, but Steed suspected that if he was behind the plot he would want to see Lord Frederick disposed of.
They had taken just two steps when the crack of a shotgun sliced through the hum of the windmills and Freddy spun jerkily around. Emma caught him and pulled him to the ground beside Steed.
“Are you hit?” she asked him.
“It stings like hell,” Freddy replied, gripping his right shoulder with his left hand. Steed scanned the darkness in the direction where he thought the gunman must be. Emma pried Freddy’s hand away and examined the wound. His suit jacket and shirt were punctured and already saturated with oozing blood. She reached around to his back, but felt nothing.
“The bullet is still in your shoulder. Keep your hand over it and don’t move your right arm,” she said, wrapping his right arm around his waist and pressing it there to emphasize. “See anything?” she added to Steed.
“Only shadows. It must be –,” another shot rang out followed immediately by the clang of a bullet striking the frame of the digger. “– Malory.”
“We’re too exposed here,” Emma said. “Come on,” She started inching backward into the hole, dragging Leighton with her. As Steed followed another shot cracked through the air and a burst of soil erupted just in front of him.
“That was too close,” Steed grumbled. “Malory! James Malory!” he shouted.
“Climb out of there with your hands up,” a deep voice boomed over the windmills. Steed and Emma exchanged a glance and both of them raised their hands and struggled to climb back up over the edge of the hole.
“Wait. You aren’t surrendering, are you?” Freddy said weakly, not rising.
“Stay there,” Steed replied quietly, then he and Emma walked toward the man who had materialized out of the darkness. He stood with his shotgun aimed level with their chests
“That’s far enough. Where are Leighton and Brenford?” Malory raised his head from the gun sight, but did not lower the gun. Steed and Emma kept walking toward him with their hands in the air. “I said stop,” he repeated. His error was not re-sighting along the barrel – both Steed and Emma knew that he was not prepared to shoot them if he didn’t. When they were ten feet from him Steed let his eyes flick from Malory to Emma. As he’d anticipated, she did the same thing at the same moment. With no further communication they separated, dodging to either side. As Malory confusedly swung the barrel of the shotgun first one way, then the other, Emma’s long leg connected with his stomach. A bullet slashed through the air above her head as he stumbled backward into Steed’s arms. He dropped the gun to claw at Steed’s powerful forearm, which was clamped around his neck. Emma bent to retrieve the gun as Steed tightened his grip and Malory went limp. Steed lowered him to the ground and stepped over him to join Emma returning to the hole. She leapt down in and bent over Leighton, feeling for a pulse.
“How bad is his wound, really?” Steed asked, squatting at the edge of the hole.
“The blood flow is not fast enough for it to have hit an artery, but it probably hit bone – there’s no exit wound. He’s fainted – he’s not used to being shot,” she replied and Steed felt a surge of annoyance at her suggestion that he was not as sympathetic as she expected. “He’ll go into shock soon if we don’t get him medical attention.”
“There’s a telephone in the monitoring station,” Steed said, glancing over his shoulder at Malory. “You take care of Lord Freddy, I’ll tie up Malory and call for a team.”
“They’ll take good care of you, Freddy,” Emma said, bending over her friend, who had awakened when two ministry medics shifted him onto a stretcher. They’d bandaged him at the expense of his suit and bundled him in blankets to stave off shock. Now they lifted him into the unmarked ambulance. “I’ll come see you first thing,” she added.
Steed came up behind her as she watched the medics close the ambulance doors. She sensed him there and turned to look into concerned grey eyes.
“They’ll bring in a crane to pull the digger out and find Brenford,” he said. “I’ll have to begin questioning Malory tomorrow.”
Emma understood by the way he’d said it that Mr. Malory could be in unofficial custody for a very long time. It was a side of Steed’s business that he’d rarely involved her in. But she knew from her scant exposure to it in recent months that she wanted no part of it. That, she supposed, was one of the benefits of being an amateur.
“What about the duplicate executives?” she asked, allowing Steed to start her walking and steer her toward the Bentley, which had been moved closer to the monitoring building to make room for the ambulance and other ministry vehicles.
“They’re being collected now – including your Frank Harris. Apparently the real Frank Harris was the body discovered last week in the cellar wall.”
Emma thought about that until Steed had opened the car door and handed her in.
“I wish I could tell Anthony the truth,” she sighed as he settled into the drivers’ seat.
“Mr. Cruz’s involvement with the real Frank Harris ended shortly after it began,” he said and once again Emma was astonished at the extent of his knowledge. “I doubt there is much emotional attachment left. Mr. Harris – the current one – will not come to work tomorrow. His body will be found, and the cause of death will be an accident.”
“And Anthony will never know why his old friend didn’t know him.”
“No. He never will.”
She sighed, knowing he was right. He started the car and steered it onto the drive leading to the road. When he glanced at her he looked concerned.
“It’s a problem, isn’t it, when a case touches Knight Industries?”
“I wish it were not, but yes. Knowledge of the technology that I have been reviewing would be a tremendous asset to Knight’s researchers. I have been sorely tempted, Steed.”
He nodded, but did not reply.
“I have not acted on the temptation,” she added, staring at him in the dark car. His head snapped around, then back at the road, but in that quick glance she’d seen pure surprise.
“Of course not,” he said. Once again she realized that he trusted her implicitly. Of course he did. It was the foundation of their relationship.
They rode in silence for a while, each following their own line of thought while taking comfort from the other’s presence. Finally Emma cleared her throat and looked across at Steed.
“Where were you when I was thirteen and not attracted to Freddy, John Steed?” she asked. He glanced at her and then looked away, staring ahead through the windscreen at nothing in particular, or something that wasn’t there. He was silent for so long she decided he was not going to answer. As disappointment grew she lay her head against her window, trying to accept his silence if he wouldn’t give her his secrets. Then he cleared his throat and spoke.
“Europe mostly. As they say these days, I was trying to ‘find myself.’ I’d defined myself as a military intelligence officer, but suddenly there was no war. I’d gotten out because I couldn’t imagine doing what most of my mates, like Kevin Wycoff, did – coming home and manning a desk.”
“No,” she whispered, almost afraid to speak and break the spell of his confidence. “Not you.”
“I smuggled arms,” he said, which startled her enough to raise her head and look at his face. But he was still staring straight ahead.
“And then I assassinated the Russian crime lord that I delivered them to. I crept around Polish ghettos collecting people and information and brought them back out to the west. I delivered what I gathered to various organizations – former French resistance, the Americans, the British. Whoever was buying, so long as their interest did not conflict with those of Great Britain. I spent a fair amount of time investigating those who wished to employ me. I exposed several groups that were actually backed by the soviets.”
“You made a lot of money,” she said.
“But finally you came home.”
His gaze did not waver. He was watching something on the road ahead. Something in his past that he was not yet ready to speak about.
“Why did you come home?”
“I missed it,” he said quickly, lying. She wanted to press him for the truth. She knew there was more – much more. She knew he’d been imprisoned in China, captured and tortured more than once. But she was certain that what he’d said so far was more than he’d ever told anyone else. So she simply nodded, sincerely grateful for the morsel he’d given her, and knowing that it had been given willingly by a man who had guarded it within himself for more than a decade.
“This business of yours is nothing like what I expected, Emma,” Freddy Leighton said, gripping her hand with his left hand. “And you, when you’re doing it, are magnificent.”
“Hardly, Freddy,” she shrugged. The ministry medics had brought Freddy to a secure clinic not far from the windmill farm – one of many such locations throughout the country. She had driven out this morning when Steed had ominously announced that he was needed at the ministry. By the time she’d arrived at the clinic Freddy had already been debriefed and left to rest.
“Emma. You’re cool, you’re efficient, and, much as I hate to admit it, you and he are a perfect team.”
Emma allowed herself a small smile of acknowledgement when she really wanted to cry out with joy at his admission. The tension of his disapproval of Steed had begun to wear on her.
“I need to ask you some questions, Freddy,” she said.
“I already told them everything, Em,” he said, not complaining, but certainly resistant.
“I know. But this is how Steed and I work. The ministry debriefers don’t know all of the details of the case – only we do. You can help me tie up the lose ends only Steed and I know are dangling.”
Leighton sighed, looking into her eyes with interest. “You really are very good, aren’t you? I mean, they wouldn’t have accepted you back into the fold after everything with Sir Peter if you weren’t, would they?”
“You know me, Freddy, I can’t leave any stone unturned. Help me flip a few back into place, won’t you?”
“Fine. Ask away,” he sighed again.
Sensing that he was already drained of energy from the first questioning, Emma did her best to be concise. Freddy did not really know much about what had been going on, but his analysis of Brenford’s client files had turned up several pertinent details. Mysterious payments from Alternative Sources to Brenford had occurred around the times that they had determined certain of the executives had been replaced. The full schedule of payments could be compared to Apex Construction’s projects to see if there were any other foundations that might include bodies.
“So Alternative Sources contracted Guy to get rid of executives at their competitors in order to drive them out of business?” Freddy asked. Emma was not at liberty to explain the substitutions to him, so she nodded.
“Except that we don’t think it’s Alternative Sources that’s meant to succeed. It’s their parent company, English Petroleum. Alternative Sources has won quite a few contracts over their competitors, but they’ve consistently failed to meet their commitments. So one alternative energy project after another has been scrapped.”
“And petroleum has been used instead,” Freddy concluded.
“That’s right. The UK is using up its North Sea oil resources much faster than projected. But hopefully by putting a stop to the sabotage we’ve closed the spigot just a little.”
Emma opened the door to Steed’s ministry office and poked her head inside. He was seated at his desk, pen poised over paper, head resting on his other hand. He lifted his head and smiled warmly when he saw her.
She grinned and entered, sauntering across the spacious room to settle into one of the leather upholstered wingback guest chairs.
“I just finished a session with Hemming. I thought you might be here,” she said looking pointedly at the document in front of him.
“Yes, it’s my case report.”
“Rather unusually efficient for you, darling,” she said with an impish smile. He set down his pen and leaning back in his chair.
“Yes, well, I’m turning over a new leaf,” he said. “Except that I’m stalled out at the stem. I don’t suppose –?”
“Get up,” she sighed, standing up and coming around the desk. Steed swiftly vacated his chair so that she could take it. As she took up his pen to finish the report, he went to the decanter on a shelf and poured two glasses of clear liquor. He set one in front of Emma, but she ignored it. He settled in one of the guest chairs and waited, sipping his.
“How many times did Malory fire?” she asked after a while.
“Three?” he suggested tentatively.
She pursed her lips and stared at the report. “If what I put here doesn’t match the ballistics someone will start asking questions. They’ll never accept simple lapse of memory – not from you.”
“It was three,” he said more firmly.
“Three,” she repeated, resuming her writing.
Steed watched her finish the report, content to admire the way her hair fell over her shoulders as she bent her head. At last she sat up and set the pen down.
“This should satisfy them,” she said. Steed reached across the desk and took the several sheets of carefully written notes. He skimmed them and nodded.
“I’ll take them to be typed. Won’t be a moment,” he said. Emma nodded, reaching for her untouched glass.
Steed stepped into the ministry typing pool where several clerks clattered away at typewriters. An attractive middle-aged woman approached him, an amused smile on her face.
“Report, Steed?” she asked, holding out her hand. He gave her the report with a nod.
“Yes, Mrs. Mathers. For the case I closed last week.”
“Oh my!” she placed her hand over her heart as if in shock. Then she chuckled and looked at the report, flipping through the pages. “Good, Miss Knight wrote most of it. Her handwriting is much clearer than yours. We’ll have this for you in the morning.”
“Thank you Mrs. Mathers,” he said, choosing to ignore her humor at his expense.
His thoughts returned to Emma ensconced at his desk as he walked back through the halls. The feel of her glossy hair, the scent of fine soap lingering on her skin after her shower, the taste of her lips: he suddenly felt rather mischievous. In the week since they’d closed the case he’d spent long unpleasant hours questioning Malory and the duplicate executives, while Emma had spent equally long hours at their house, supervising repairs. They had seen far too little of one another for his liking. Hers too, he reasoned, which was why she’d come looking for him. He stepped into his office and closed the door, sliding the bolt to lock it. She looked up quizzically.
He went around the desk to stand beside her in his chair. She watched him come, sensing his changed mood long before he reached out to slip his fingers into her hair. She stood up and his hand went around to the back of her neck, the other one seeking the familiarity of her lower back. He drew her to himself and found her lips eager for his kiss.
“You’re thinking rather naughty thoughts, Steed,” she said after a while. The evidence of his intentions was pressed against her thighs, causing a shiver of pleasure to course through her. She had no objection to a bit of bad behavior in his office, but it surprised her that Steed, the model of discretion when it came to his professional activities, was initiating it. He really is turning over a new leaf.
“It’s a big desk,” he replied, his lips brushing down her neck.
“Indeed,” she replied, glancing at the collection of objects on it, which, she had noticed earlier, included a photograph of her. Steed followed her glance and released her, turning to move penholder, photograph, glasses, and files into a drawer. Only the green desk blotter remained.
He turned back to her, his fingers curling under the hem of her short skirt and drawing it upwards. She watched his face fall as his fingertips did not find the tops of her hose on her thighs.
“Sorry, darling, I didn’t dress for the occasion,” she said with a teasing smile. He arched one eyebrow. “Panty hose, Steed. They’re much more practical,” she chuckled as his hands slipped around to her buttocks, encountering only slick nylon.
“I don’t like them,” he said firmly, his thumbs hooking into the waistband at her back.
“So take them off,” she suggested, pressing her open mouth against his. He took her advice, pulling the pantyhose and her panties down together as she kissed him hungrily. While she kissed him she brought her hands to his waist, unbuckling his belt and unbuttoning his fly, then running her hands over his solid penis within his briefs. He pressed against her hands, abandoning her lingerie to stroke her bare ass. She freed his engorged genitals from his briefs, caressing his balls as she slid her tongue deep into his mouth.
“Up here,” he groaned, lifting her to sit on the edge of the desk. She leaned back on her hands and he pulled her pantyhose down over her feet. She lifted her legs, putting her feet on the edge of the desk to push herself further onto it.
Steed ran his hands over her thighs, caressing her already wet labia with his thumbs.
“Oh yes,” she moaned, surprised at how fast her arousal had turned to desperate need. He ran his hands on up her torso to her breasts, pinching the hard mounds of her nipples through her blouse and bra. She sucked in a sharp breath and arched her back, her head falling back. Steed planted his knee on the edge of the desk and climbed up over her. He pressed his lips to her throat as he guided his erection into her, thrusting so that she moaned again. She lowered her back to the desk and wrapped her arms and legs around him.
“Take me Steed, hard and fast,” she urged, her fingers scrabbling for purchase on the fine fabric of his suit jacket. He thrust again, deeper this time, and she gasped with pleasure. She moved beneath him and he thrust with her, grunting as each stroke came faster and deeper. He felt her come around him, heard her snarl his name, felt her fingernails scrape across the back of his neck. His loins were on fire, the friction of her flesh against his driving him to need more and more. He ground his pelvis against her, sheathed in her, filling her with his hungry, throbbing flesh. The curls of auburn hair between her thighs tickled his super-sensitive skin and he ground deeper, sucking in a great gasping breath. His mind surrendered to the demands of his body and he growled his ecstasy as he gave her what they both wanted above all else. He filled her, his loins pumping his essence into her in long, deep throbs, over and over until he had nothing more to give.
He lowered himself to her side, unable to rest comfortably, but also unable to move. Beside him Emma panted, her breasts heaving with each deep breath. He pressed his face to her shoulder, rubbing her stomach with one hand as he listened to his own heartbeat slowing. She ran her fingers into his hair and he looked at her face. She was smiling at him, her eyes reflecting his own profound fulfillment.
As soon as he could, he lifted himself off the desk, then took her hand and helped her sit up and then stand. He opened a low drawer and withdrew a box of tissues, taking several and handing it to her.
“The blotter is ruined,” she said, bending to pick up her lingerie.
“I’ll requisition a new one,” he said dismissively and she smiled. “There’s a form,” he added. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing –?”
“No, Steed, I won’t fill out the form,” she interrupted, sitting on the edge of the desk to put on her pantyhose. He grinned at her, securing his fly and buckling his belt.
“Let’s go get a drink,” he said.
“I’m meeting Sally for one, actually,” she said.
“No you aren’t,” he said and she frowned at him, standing up to smooth her skirt over her restored pantyhose.
“The trainees are being taken out to the training course this afternoon. They’ll be there all weekend – surprise test.”
“So they don’t know?”
“No. That’s part of the test – dealing with sudden change, inconvenience, you know what that’s like.”
“Oh I certainly do. Well then, I suppose I shall have to settle for you.”
“Settle for me?” he tried to sound indignant.
“Yes, it’s a sad state of affairs,” she nodded, caressing the side of his face. “But I shall persevere. I’m sure we can manage to have a pleasant evening.”
“Come in Steed,” Emma said as she opened the door to her apartment and stepped aside for him to enter. He took in her black velvet dress and upswept hair and smiled appreciatively. Her makeup subtly emphasized her fine bone structure and beautiful eyes.
“You’re radiant,” he said, taking her hand to kiss it. Then his eyes alighted on the one ornament that she’d allowed herself. He raised his hand to her throat to touch one of the three deep red rubies set in platinum. “You still have this,” he said wondrously. His eyes flicked to hers and saw that she was pleased he’d noticed.
“I put in my box at the bank when Peter came back. I couldn’t wear it. He would have asked where it came from,” she said.
“I’m glad that it wasn’t lost in the explosion,” he said, his finger tracing the chain across her throat. “And I’m glad you’re wearing it tonight.”
“I thought when you gave it to me that it was such an extravagant gift,” she said, inclining her head a little and looking into his eyes. He smiled and slipped his hand to the back of her neck.
“I had a lot of competition – all those flowers from the other agents,” he said and she leaned into his hand and laughed.
“Yes, I’m sure you were threatened by their attentions to me,” she said with more than a hint of sarcasm.
“There were a lot of flowers,” he said.
“Which were completely irrelevant and you knew it,” she said. “But I did enjoy that weekend, and this necklace. I’m glad it wasn’t lost, too.”
He leaned close and placed a light kiss on her lips, being careful not to smudge her lipstick.
“Come on, Mrs. Peel, let’s go announce our engagement.”
James Bond finished his martini and set the glass back on the bar. So much for liquid courage, he thought as he checked his appearance in the mirror behind the bar. He was still anxious about seeing Sally at Steed and Emma’s engagement party. Would she bring Terrance? Would he be able to keep himself from strangling the young man?
He’d come back from his mission four days ago and found the invitation in his mail. He’d phoned immediately, apologizing for the late response. Steed had been typically gracious. Now that he was here in the restaurant he was having second thoughts. He knew that all of the inevitable, tedious comparisons between him and Steed would be made, and countless self-proclaimed wits would ask him when he would admit that there was a woman for him somewhere. They all conveniently forgot that there had once been, and that he’d learned the cruelest lesson years ago. He sincerely hoped that neither Steed nor Emma would ever have to learn it too.
With a resigned sigh he headed for the steps to the private party room upstairs. He’d watched quite a few people – both familiar faces and strangers – ascend them while he sipped his martini in a dim corner of the bar. He’d been quite startled when Mother himself had wheeled in with his four-man escort. The hand picked bodyguards had carried the invalid up the stairs so discretely no one else in the bar had noticed. Rhonda however, climbing up behind Mother, had looked directly at James and nodded. Now there was a woman who noticed everything.
Sally checked her makeup one last time before putting on her coat and picking up the sweet little evening bag that Purdey had loaned her. News of Steed and Emma’s engagement had spread through the ministry faster than the daily security codes. She had seen little purpose in denying that she was invited to the engagement party, although she had not told any of the other trainees that she was in the wedding party.
She’d been puzzled by some of the gossip she’d heard. Many long-time ministry employees spoke knowingly about the couple, claiming that they’d been sure all along that it would happen. But it was the others, both men and women, who smirked and observed that Steed, or Emma, was very lucky indeed. Sally had a sense that they were speaking of intimate matters. She knew Steed’s reputation as a lady’s man was deserved, but she could not understand how anyone could claim intimate knowledge of Emma, who Sally was positive had never pursued romantic relationships beyond Steed, and her former husband. But Sally hadn’t yet heard anyone making such comments who she knew well enough to question about it.
Her shoes, borrowed from Meg, were too tight. Sitting on the underground she lifted her heels out of them to ease the pressure on her toes. She had debated inviting Terrance – she knew he would have been welcome – but she would have had to explain who Steed and Emma were, and it was likely that the Knight employees at the party would mention her departure from the firm. So she’d decided to tell him it was a work function and go alone. As for James, well, as far as she knew he was still on assignment. She had schooled herself not to think about him over the last three weeks.
She pulled open the door to the restaurant and stepped into the warmth generated by bodies and cooking. A young woman her age took her coat and handed her a claim check. The hostess directed her toward a staircase behind the bar. As she reached the bottom step a man in a suit emerged from among those clustered around the bar. He apologized to a woman whom he had just squeezed past, then turned toward the stairs and Sally.
All of her forbearance evaporated under his singular glance.
“James,” she said, almost a whisper.
“Sally,” he replied, equally softly. Someone in the crowd behind him jostled him and he was pushed so close to her she had to look up to maintain their stare. She could smell his scent, aftershave and shampoo and clean clothes, and the subtle, sensuous muskiness that was more a sensation than an actual smell. She swallowed hard and resisted the urge to reach up and caress his face.
He stared at her a moment longer, then glanced behind her and frowned.
“Are you alone?” he asked abruptly.
The familiar twinkle in his eyes made her heart race. The memories she’d repressed of his hands on her, the feel of him inside of her, crashed through the thin barriers in her mind and she swallowed again.
“Not anymore,” she said, hearing hopefulness in her voice. “Are you?”
To her delight, he smiled happily and turned to climb the stairs, placing a hand on the small of her back.
“Not anymore,” he agreed, his face so close to her ear she shivered with hopeful anticipation.
“Who is that attractive couple?” Amanda asked Emma. American agents Lee Stetson and Amanda King had surprised Steed by accepting the engagement party invitation and flying to London for a few days. They had all agreed not to tell Emma. They’d appeared in the restaurant to Emma’s complete surprise and Steed’s amusement. She was already plotting out everything that she needed Amanda to do during the four days that her American friend would be in town. She followed Amanda’s glance and frowned, unable to identify the couple Amanda meant.
“Where?” she asked.
“The man with the dark hair and perfect smile, and the young woman with the long, strawberry blond hair? She’s a bit younger than him, I suppose, but they look very happy,” Amanda replied. Emma’s gaze fell on the two people Amanda was describing.
“I’ll kill him,” she growled.
“My former assistant. She’s in the ministry training program now. And he is James Bond.”
“The agent? I’ve heard of him,” Amanda nodded.
“He seems very attentive to her. What’s the problem?”
“He’s very attentive to whatever woman is handy.”
“Does she know that?”
“Everyone knows that.”
“And you’re feeling protective. But shouldn’t you let her make her own decisions? Don’t you think she needs to learn to if she’s going to become an agent herself?”
“I don’t want her to be hurt. If it weren’t for me she’d be safe with her family in her village, not here in a room full of operatives.”
Amanda studied Emma for a moment, then looked back at Sally and James. “It’s not about them, is it?” she asked. Emma frowned at her. “Steed lives a dangerous life and so do you. It’s terrifying to commit to someone whose work is deadly. If you are having second thoughts, walk away, but don’t project your fears onto Sally.”
“I am not having second thoughts about Steed,” Emma snapped, and Amanda smiled. It was the response she’d expected.
“So you must accept that Sally’s choices are not your responsibility, Emma. In fact, as you have so correctly pointed out to me in the past, her personal life is none of your business,” Amanda said as gently as she could.
“What’s none of Mrs. Peel’s business?” Steed asked, stepping up on Emma’s right and handing her a glass full of ice and clear liquid. “Soda,” he added quietly.
She took a sip and gave Steed an appraising look. “That James has seduced Sally,” she said. Amanda’s eyes widened and Emma realized that she had not understood the extent of James and Sally’s relationship.
“Ah, that,” Steed said, smiling mildly at her own surprised look.
“How long have you known?” she asked rather too sharply.
“I have suspected since the night he returned your father’s painting to you. There was something between them then.”
Emma stared at him, once again amazed at how much he noticed and how little he discussed.
“Amanda is correct. It is not your business, darling. Sally is capable of managing her own affairs.”
“Sally should not be having affairs,” Emma retorted, turning back toward where Sally and James had been standing. To her embarrassed surprise, Sally had vanished and James was approaching them. She schooled her expression as best she could, but she could tell from the look James gave her that her anger was evident.
“Welcome back, James. We’re very glad you could join us,” Steed said, shaking James’s outstretched hand. “Allow me to introduce Mrs. Amanda King.”
To Emma’s consternation, Amanda, greeted James pleasantly and accepted his habitual flattery. Amanda’s opinions on sex were very conservative, so Emma had expected an ally.
“Emma,” James raised her hand to his lips, then looked into her eyes appealingly. “I met Sally on the way in,” he said, “but she was called away by someone just now. She has developed quite a circle of friends among this crowd.”
Emma nodded, eyeing James carefully. His message was clear – he had not arrived with Sally, and despite Amanda’s supposition, he was not here as her date. He had, apparently, acceded to her wishes.
“We really are glad you got back in time to come, James,” she said graciously. She saw relief suffuse his face. Then she saw Sally coming toward them with Nancy in tow.
“Here she is,” Steed said cheerfully, watching them as well. When the two women reached them Steed performed the introductions. Sally greeted Amanda, with whom she’d spoken over the phone, warmly. Nancy greeted Amanda politely but with her usual assessing look. She also studied James with interest until she saw James smile at Sally. Emma saw it too – a look that reminded her of one Steed reserved for her — full of promise and joy. Sally, she saw, returned it with her own open, endearing smile.
Nancy, clearly on a mission, quickly maneuvered Amanda and Sally away to discuss “wedding business,” James’s eyes followed them before turning back to his hosts and meeting Emma’s calculating expression. But Steed had been observing all of them. He wasted no time leaning close to James.
“Be careful, my friend. It’s addicting when one gets through to you,” he said so quietly Emma almost couldn’t hear him.
“I know,” James replied, and Steed looked embarrassed.
“Forgive me,” he said, regretting stirring painful memories.
James sucked in a quick breath and forced a smile at Steed and then Emma before glancing at their mostly full glasses.
“I need a drink,” he said, nodding curtly and striding away.
“Addicting, did you say?” Emma asked. Steed’s hand pressed against the small of her back and he smiled pleasantly at her.
“I prefer intoxicating, actually,” he said and she couldn’t help responding to his private little leer with a smirk. “I may be wrong,” he went on, “but I think our Sally has the tiger by the tail, so to speak.”
“It never occurred to me that he might be seriously interested in her,” Emma admitted. “He might have said so.”
“And you might have minded your own business, darling.”
“Perhaps you should find a different intoxicant this evening,” she retorted, one eyebrow arched meaningfully.
“Forgive me,” he quickly replied, a mocking smile showing he recognized that the phrase was becoming a habit. She simply couldn’t stay annoyed with him. She raised one hand to his face, thinking to steal a discrete little kiss, just as a burst of activity erupted at the top of the stairs.
“My sister has arrived,” Steed said without looking at the source of the disturbance.
“Then I’ll save this for later,” Emma replied, moving away from him toward the stairs to greet the Hills.
“If I may have your attention,” Steed rose from his seat beside Emma at the head of the u-shaped table. The dinner guests quieted, and waiters began making their way around topping off champagne glasses.
“We have invited you all here to make an announcement that some people have been heard to say is long in coming,” Steed went on, letting his gaze stop on some of the people in question. “I, for one, have to agree.” This brought a ripple of chuckles and murmurs from the guests. “Second chances are rare, but when Mrs. Peel re-entered my life a year ago, she offered me one. Quite suddenly the sacrifices that I had been so loathe to make three years before were as nothing in comparison to the joy of her companionship.” He looked down at her, taking her hand in his and smiling into her eyes. He faced the guests again and raised his glass. “To Emma Knight, who, to my great relief, has consented to be my wife.”
A chorus of “To Emma” and “here, here,” echoed around the room as the guests sipped their champagne. Steed squeezed her hand and Emma rose beside him.
“Your turn,” he whispered into her ear.
She picked up her glass and looked into Steed’s eyes, basking in the affection she found there and buffered by the humor. The guests hushed again expectantly.
“John Steed,” she said, slowly turning to look out across the table, “is a very difficult man to pin down.”
Most of the guests laughed outright and Steed ducked his head in acquiescence.
“Some time shortly after he dragged me into his unsavory business, I realized that I wanted him, and his mad life, to be a part of mine.” She looked back at Steed, her expression growing serious. “For a time I thought it could never be,” she paused, drawing her lower lip between her teeth. Steed nodded encouragement and she blinked. He was amazed to see that she was fighting tears.
“But my father taught me to make my opportunities, and never to accept an unacceptable situation. So I took the necessary action and cast my lot in with this man again. There are those,” she glanced around the table, finding Freddy Leighton sitting with Nancy, his right arm still strapped across his waist. “Who have attempted to show me the folly of my choice,” her gaze paused again, this time on Edmond Stanton. “But you don’t know John Steed the way I know him. Every moment that we have together is worth the struggle. He is everything to me. To John Steed, who will soon be my husband and has long been my love.”
There were several sniffles in the room as the guests joined in her toast. Emma set her glass down and faced Steed.
“I think this is an appropriate moment to kiss, darling,” she said, putting her hands on his upper arms. He nodded and put his hands on her waist, then pressed his lips to hers in a kiss that was somewhere between chaste and deeply romantic, and hinted at the passion they shared. There was scattered applause among the guests.
“I knew it!” some one called out, “they were more than just good friends!” This generated another ripple of laughter and Emma turned toward the general direction of the anonymous speaker.
“But that has always been true, we are good friends,” she said. “The best of friends, in fact.”
“How are you getting home,” James leaned close to Sally’s ear to ask. She set down her coffee cup and turned her head to face him. She’d been thinking the very same thing. His hand had been on her thigh for the past fifteen minutes, encouraged by the caress of her toes on his ankle. She would never admit that she’d taken her shoes of because her feet were aching in them.
“I hadn’t planned,” she said truthfully, although she had taxi money in her bag. The ministry training program compensated the candidates at about the same rate as her entry-level job at Knight, so taxi fare was an extravagance and she’d hoped to find a less expensive but equally safe mode of transport. But she knew very well that accepting a ride with James would not take her home, but to his penthouse.
“I’ll take you,” he said, and as if reading her mind he added, “to your flat.” She felt herself blush. She’d miscalculated. James was a gentleman at heart and would never force her to sleep with him if she chose not to.
“Will you take me to yours?” she asked. His eyes sparkled above a delighted smile and the hand on her thigh squeezed lightly.
“We’ll meet you at your hotel tomorrow at ten, then,” Emma said to Lee and Amanda. “We’ll all have lunch at the restaurant in the village – I’ll call ahead.”
“I can’t wait,” Amanda said.
“Would you mind more company on this expedition?” Steed asked, stepping up with his sister and brother-in-law.
“We would like to come see the house too,” Caroline explained. Emma nodded enthusiastically.
“That would be delightful,” she said, glancing at Steed as he slipped his hand into hers. He wore a happy, almost absent smile. He was, she realized completely worn out from the stress of playing host to friends, colleagues, and family. She squeezed his hand encouragingly, hoping to lend him strength as he so often did her.
“Apparently we’re staying in the same hotel,” Caroline added, looking at Lee and Amanda. “Do you think John was thinking ahead when he suggested it?”
Steed’s smile brightened. “It did occur to me that Mrs. Peel would want to show off the house to all of you,” he said.
“Really John, when are you going to stop calling her that?” Caroline scolded. Emma studied him with a particularly curious expression while the other three looked rather shocked at Steed’s sister’s forwardness. For his part, Steed just looked surprised.
“Why, never,” he said with a little shrug. Emma’s face turned affectionate and she slipped her arm around his waist.
“It’s all right, Caro. I’m quite used to it. From Steed it’s more like an endearment than a name.”
Caroline shook her head ruefully. “Well, I’m for my bed. It’s been lovely, you two. As you know, we fall into the ‘it’s about time’ category of your guests,” she said. Then she leaned close to kiss both Emma and Steed on the cheek. Harry did the same, winking at Emma as he followed his wife toward the stairs.
“Us too, I think,” Lee said, watching them go. Looking around he realized that he and Amanda were the last of the guests.
Walking with the other couple toward the stairs Emma tried to remember whether she’d seen James and Sally leave, and if they’d gone together. The she looked at the back of Amanda’s head and forced herself to stop thinking about it. They’re right. It is none of my business.
Sally lay on her back, one hand under her head, the other on her bare stomach, staring at the closed bathroom door where James had disappeared. Her body was completely sated, her nostrils filled with their combined erotic scents, her groin warm and moist from their lovemaking. She bent one knee up to ease her lower back and closed her eyes. For the first time since that first time with James, tears rose unbidden to her eyes. Damn him. I’ll never get over him at this rate.
Then he was back beside her, stretching out on his side, head on hand, looking down at her. His other hand covered hers on her stomach. She turned her head to look at him and was surprised that his contented expression had been replaced with concern.
“Am I sick, James? I want you, but when I’m with him I want him,” she said. He smiled, understanding displacing the concern.
“You’re a normal, healthy young woman, Sally,” he said gently. “Being involved with two men is not so bad,” he added, but he didn’t sound so assured.
“I don’t know what to do,” she sighed, willing herself to stop talking. At least stop talking to the cause of her turmoil.
“Tell me how you feel about me,” he said. Her eyes widened in surprise, but he looked completely serious, almost anxious again.
“Oh no,” she shook her head, forcing herself to smile at him, to make light of it all. She desperately wanted to achieve the suave detachment that he was known for. “Emma’s right. If I give you my heart, you’ll break it,” she said.
He stared into her eyes for a moment and she felt apprehension growing. She could not imagine what he was thinking and it frightened her.
“If you don’t give me your heart, you may very well break mine,” he finally said. And now she stared at him for a long while before slowly taking her hand out from under her head and reaching for him. She rolled onto her side to face him and ran her fingers into his hair.
“Should I believe you?” she asked, desperate to let go. She wanted to let herself feel the joy that was welling up within, but months of training, both before and after entering the ministry’s program, had taught her to guard herself carefully. James wrapped his arms around her, pulling her to him, but not kissing her. He held his face back from hers in order to speak. But the feel of his body against hers was so distracting she could barely concentrate on his words.
“You aren’t an enemy agent, so I think it’s fair to assume I don’t have an ulterior motive,” he said. “How do you feel about me, Sally?”
“I’m crazy about you, James. And you know it,” she confessed, amazed at how easy it was to say. Probably because it wasn’t the real words, not the three little words.
“Good, because I’m rather overly fond of you,” he replied, and suddenly she felt empty. She thought of Emma’s stories of her earlier life with Steed, of the endless circling around their feelings. It all seemed so exhausting.
“James,” she said. He paused, his lips nearly touching hers. He pulled back a little to look into her eyes again. “What I meant to say,” she cleared her throat, “is, I’m in love with you.”
For a moment he seemed frozen and the emptiness spread. He didn’t want that. He doesn’t love me, and it’s too much, too real. She broke his stare, looking instead at his mouth. Then it opened and he spoke.
“I love you too, Sally,” he whispered. “God help me, I do.”
“Ummmm, what time is it darling?” Emma put her hand over Steed’s on the thatch of reddish brown curls between her thighs. His fingers were tickling between the lips of her labia and she didn’t really want to resist. But they had people to meet, places to go.
“Early,” he muttered into her ear, his words like feathery tickles that made her tingle all over. Or maybe it was his fingers.
They’d fallen into his bed after separate showers last night, both too exhausted to do more than kiss one another good night. Emma had long ago come to understand that sex after a rest was better than sex after a tiring social event. She’d drifted off fantasizing about what they’d do in the morning. But now it was morning and she did not want to be late meeting the Stetsons and the Hills. But if Steed says it’s early, she sighed, parting her legs to his fingers and enjoying the pressure of his erection against her ass. He was kissing her back and shoulders, his fingers leaving her genitals to caress her breast. She reached back to run her hand up and down his flank, then carefully search for his hard penis. He moaned and pinched her nipple when her fingers found it. She smiled as he compulsively pressed against her. Sensing that he was more ready than she was, she brought her other hand to her vagina, slipping two fingers in to take up where he’d left off, timing light strokes with his kisses and pinches on her breast.
“What are you doing,” he whispered between kisses at the back of her neck, his hand sliding down as if to catch her in the act, which he did. She felt his penis throb against her and she smiled again. “Let me,” he demanded and she understood that his ego was bruised.
“I like what you were doing,” she pointed out. “It felt good, both at once.”
“Are you suggesting that I don’t have enough hands to satisfy you?” he chuckled, lifting his torso to free his other arm, then snaking it around under her chest and bending his elbow sharply so that his fingers just touched her nipple.
“Try it the other way round,” she suggested, not rolling to face him, but directing his hands to assume opposite posts. She fell silent as his fingers plunged into her with demanding strokes. His other hand, damp from her own early ejaculations, caressed her breasts again. In an instant she had overtaken his level of arousal. She scratched at his flank, her leg wrapped back around his, drawing his genitals tight against her. He rolled her onto her stomach and lifted her hips beneath him, rearing up to position himself behind her. She reached between her legs with one hand, balancing on the other, and guided his massive erection into her, pressing it upward against herself as he thrust slowly, endlessly into her. Deep within her the tip of his penis made her ache and she cried out. He withdrew a little and she wailed, “No, come back.” Even though she could not see him she knew he was grinning with carnal pleasure as he thrust back in, hard and fast, making her ache with his sharp jabs.
“I can never go deep enough for you,” he said, but his tone was satisfied, not accusatory. He wiggled within her and she came, closing her eyes as white flashes filled them. He felt her orgasm, rode it with several hard thrusts as hot fluids gushed around him. Now everything was slick and fast and he pounded himself into her, feeling her come again, less this time, but squeezing him so hard he cried out her name and came in a great, surprising flash.
“Up and at ‘em, darling. We’ll be late,” Steed whispered into Emma’s ear. He smelled fresh and damp. She cracked open one eye and took in his freshly showered form.
“I fell back to sleep,” she said dreamily. Then realization hit and she rolled over and sat up. “What time is it?”
“Nine-thirty,” he said, heading for the walk-in closet. Emma removed her hands from her face, which she had been rubbing to wakefulness and frowned at him.
“How long have I been asleep?” she demanded, extending one long, bare leg to the floor.
“Only about ten minutes,” his muffled reply came from the closet. Now she scowled at him. She stood up and stretched.
“Perhaps we should discuss your definition of ‘early,’” she grumbled, knowing he hadn’t heard her. Then she stretched again, enjoying the warm sensation still lingering in her loins. It was worth it. The Stetsons and the Hills will wait, she decided, heading for the bathroom.
“The house suits you,” Caro declared when the three couples were settled at a table in the Swan, a restaurant near their new house that they’d already visited often enough to be known as regulars. They’d been twenty minutes late arriving at the hotel, but Caro and Harry had been running late too. Emma had not allowed herself to contemplate if they had the same excuse.
They’d toured the house, free of workmen on a Sunday morning although the evidence of their labor was everywhere. Amanda had unabashedly exhibited her surprise at the size of the place and Lee had been openly appreciative, but Emma wondered if he wasn’t hiding a pang of envy. It had not been her intention to belittle their American friends, but it seemed like Lee regretted not being able to provide such a home to Amanda. But he was silly if he did – this house had been bought with family money, not intelligence service salaries.
Caroline and Harry had been less surprised at the size of the house and grounds and had focused on the place’s potential. It seemed not to affect either of them that this place dwarfed their sprawling farmhouse. Emma was glad that she knew why – that they lived in their ramshackle house by choice, not out of financial constraint. Nevertheless, that line of thinking had brought her to a loose end that she’d been meaning to tie up for weeks. So she’d contrived to be alone for a few minutes with Harry.
“Harry, I’ve been wanting to thank you for being so understanding,” she said. The big redhead had studied her with a benign smile. Emma had all but promised him a lucrative job with Knight Industries, but she’d had to renege on the offer when Knight’s finances were failing.
“I will admit I was disappointed, Emma,” he said, “but I definitely understood. How are things now?”
“Actually, I have been revisiting our situation. There are some new futures markets opening up that Knight could benefit from involvement in. How do you feel about expanding your areas of expertise?”
Harry was a very talented futures trader, but his experience was almost entirely with copper. Knight had had to reduce its holdings in minerals, so it had less need for his talents. But energy futures – that was a different story.
“I would not want to make false promises,” he said tentatively, but she could see he was interested. “But the concepts are much the same across all markets. I’d have to depend on your experts at first – is that feasible?”
Emma thought for a moment of Frank Harris. His “death” had caused a ripple of shock throughout the company, and then senior management he begun searching for a replacement. Too bad, she thought, that Harry’s not the man for that.
“Certainly, Harry,” she said, then heard footsteps approaching the master suite where they were standing. “May I telephone you during the week to discuss it further?”
“I’ll look forward to it,” he replied, eyes twinkling. Then he turned toward the door and their conversation was set aside. Emma knew that he wouldn’t bring it up again in front of the others.
Lunch lingered on well into the afternoon until the wait staff had reset all of the other tables for dinner and were eyeing them with veiled annoyance. Finally Lee checked his watch pointedly and Steed signaled for the check.
“I actually have a meeting this evening,” Lee said apologetically and Emma noticed Amanda’s surprised look.
“Good!” she said, “Because I could use Amanda’s company for a while and I would hate to leave you at loose ends, Lee.”
“What about me?” Steed asked plaintively. She smirked at him and he grinned.
“You could go with Lee,” she suggested mischievously.
“Come on, Steed, we’re staying in town tonight. Why don’t you join us for dinner?” Harry said.
“I wouldn’t want to be a third wheel,” he said, taking the check from a waiter and holding it close to his chest as both Lee and Harry made to reach for it.
“Come on, Steed, let us get this,” Lee said.
“Not a chance,” Steed replied.
“After last night? It’s hardly fair not to let us reciprocate,” Harry put in.
Steed smiled, studying the check and taking out his wallet. Harry and Lee exchanged a glance.
“So it’s settled,” Caro said, “John buys lunch and we buy him dinner, Harry.”
Emma couldn’t help grinning as Steed counted out bills. She suddenly felt very lucky to become a part of the Steed family.