Dearly Beloved

This story copyright © 2003 Mia McCroskey

The characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.

Steed plans a surprise

Emma flirts with danger

Chapter 1

“Phillip, darling, I knew we could resolve this,” Emma purred into the telephone. “All right, I’d like that.” As she turned the page on her desk calendar and ran her finger down a column a movement at her office door caught her eye. Steed was standing there, one eyebrow arched over his pale eyes. She reached for a note pad and tore off a sheet of paper. “Thursday evening would be perfect for a drink,” she said into the receiver, crumpling the paper into a ball. “Oh, I’m afraid not next week. I’m in the middle of so many things just now,” she tossed the paper at Steed, who had advanced a few steps into her office, his face quite stormy. “Yes! I’ll look forward to it. Good bye,” she nearly laughed her farewell as Steed batted away the paper. But it had served its purpose – he was distracted enough that his expression had lightened.

“What was that about?” he grumbled as he leaned on the back of one of her guest chairs.

“Phillip Ellis, Ellis Electronics Supply. He wanted to raise our cost on transistors by a penny a dozen. His people wouldn’t discuss it with our people.”

“So you had to resort to accepting a date?”

Emma reached for her pad and started to tear off another sheet. Steed straightened and held both hands up in front of himself.

“Honestly, Steed. Do you have any concept of how much flattering you do in front of me – of other women, I mean? It is not a date. It is drinks with a business associate.” Steed forced a smile and dropped his hands to the back of the chair again. “Why are you here interrupting my day?” she went on, genuinely annoyed with his attitude. For the month since their engagement party she had spent most of her time at the house overseeing the renovations. She had set aside today to take care of Knight business and her time was precious.

“I wanted to invite you to lunch at my club. To discuss a business matter,” he said, sounding chastised.

“Your business?”

“Yes. Something I’d like your opinion on, that’s all. No breaking and entering, or running off on missions. I promise.”

“Just lunch?”

“Well, not just lunch. I’ve pre-ordered something rather special, actually.”

“I have an eleven o’clock meeting. Would half twelve be all right? I’ll meet you there?”

“That would be perfect,” he stepped toward the door. “I’ll see you then.”

“Steed?” he stopped at the doorway. “What would you have done if I’d refused – if I had another lunch date?” she asked, intentionally using the word date.

“Why, I’d have invited Mrs. Emerson,” Steed replied flippantly before disappearing through the door.

Emma stared after him for a moment. In some ways their open relationship was a bother. In the old days he never would have expressed jealousy over her conversation with Phillip Ellis. He would have concealed it behind a witty comment and moved on. She sighed, checked her watch, and picked up her telephone. She had just enough time to speak to Harry Hill before her meeting.

“No. No dessert,” Emma declared firmly when the waiter offered her a card listing the day’s offerings. The waiter glanced at Steed, who shook his head, and melted away.

“Mrs. Peel, you are as physically perfect as you can possibly be. I ought to know,” Steed said quietly as Emma pushed the sugar bowl away from her and sipped her black coffee.

“Nonetheless, the dress has cutaway arm holes and I want my shoulders and upper arms to be as attractive as possible,” she said firmly.

“You’ll wither away.”

“I just ate a lobster!”

“You hardly touched the drawn butter.”

“I won’t evaporate from a bit of slimming, Steed. Now, your pretense to get me here was something you wanted my opinion on, wasn’t it? I have a two-thirty meeting.”

“Yes,” Steed reached into his breast pocket and removed several folded sheets of paper. He passed them to her and waited while she examined them.

“Forgeries?” she asked at last.

“What do you think?”

She pursed her lips and compared two of the documents. They were both deeds – very old deeds – to property in the West Country. The third document was a letter asserting a claim on the property based on the deeds in the name of one Friedrich Gott, descendent of the deed holder.

“What’s on this land today?”

“One is right in the middle of Bath. Extremely valuable property. The other is immediately adjacent to a military installation in the same area. It’s a hush, hush research facility.”

“You think these are the product of the same forger who created the documents we destroyed years ago in Venice?”

“We never caught him – or her.”

“Well, they have the same look, don’t they? Too bad we couldn’t save any of the earlier specimens.”

“That’s why I wanted your opinion. You and I were the only ones who saw them. I’m sure that these are forgeries, but if we can’t prove it this Friedrich Gott will have a solid case. The current owners of the property in Bath are fighting him in court. But he’s already practically claimed the country land – the only reason I’m looking into this is because of its proximity to the facility. Funny thing is, if this had gone to anyone else they would have rubber stamped it. But if this is the work of that same forger, then I want to get him, or her, this time.”

“Yes. Enough lives were lost over that first batch of forged documents,” Emma nodded, looking closely at the ancient looking wax seal on the bottoms of the deeds. Watching her, Steed smiled. She glanced up and caught him. “Oh no. I’m not getting involved,” she said, shoving the papers back across the table. He gathered them up and put them away.

“But you’re curious.”

“As I said to Phillip Ellis earlier, I have enough going on right now. You go track down your forger and tell me how it goes. Just be sure that you’re at the church on December 24th.”

“Are you saying that you don’t care whether I’m about or not for the next three months?” he asked, sounding hurt.

Emma sighed, realizing how she must have sounded. She leaned forward and reached across the table, taking his hand.

“I’m sorry darling. Of course I want you around. I need you around. But I simply can’t throw myself into helping you with a case, not if we’re going to have a house to host the reception in. Please don’t tempt me.”

“But you are tempted,” he said. It was really a question.

“Of course I’m tempted,” she almost laughed. “I wouldn’t be putting up such a fight if I weren’t.”

Steed smiled and she realized that this was probably not the end of it. He’d be back for more “opinions.” She realized as she picked up her bag and started to rise that she hoped he would. Because next week, or the week after, if he was still working on this case, she might feel differently about her schedule.

“I really must get back,” she said apologetically as he got to his feet too.

“I’ll have Marcus get you a taxi,” he said, waving at the host in the ladies dining room. Steed’s club was rather progressive in admitting female guests for dining, albeit only in the one room and never, ever upstairs into the gentlemen’s precincts. And apparently creating a segregated toilet for female guests had been a huge controversy. As a female executive Emma didn’t particularly appreciate the old boy mens’ clubs, but she was not interested in trying to effect change. She had managed throughout her career at Knight to make the connections and negotiate the deals she needed to without forcing her way past the closed doors of these facilities. She realized that her association with Steed and her frequent presence at his club was an advantage. She didn’t approve, but she was not intimidated. And when the need had occasionally arisen, she had always managed to make the men come to her.

As if by magic a taxi materialized outside as she and Steed descended the steps to the sidewalk. He handed her in and waved farewell before turning to walk the short distance to the ministry’s Whitehall headquarters. The taxi carried her back to Knight Headquarters. Her building, given that she was the majority shareholder.

The background check Steed had requested on Friedrich Gott was on his desk when he got back to his office. He tucked it under his arm and headed for his apartment where he preferred to work.

If Emma had pressed, he would have admitted that getting her opinion on the documents was just a pretense. He had wanted to entice her to help him. As he read through the background check he struggled to dismiss his disappointment that she had not readily agreed. In the old days she would have come back with him to read this report and brainstorm, or rushed off to Bath to look at the property, or thought of some other useful way to begin investigating. Dropping the file on his desk he silently chastised himself for being selfish. In those days she was not the CEO of Knight, and she was not planning their wedding and overseeing work on their house.

Suddenly feeling terribly guilty for adding to the pressures she was already under, he reached for the telephone. He would apologize and beg her to stay in town tonight with him. The telephone rang as he touched it, and he jerked his hand back in surprise. It rang again and he smiled at himself and picked up the receiver.

“John Steed,” he answered.

“This is Major Susanna Dunn at Section Seventy Stroke Zed. I have a message to contact you regarding a security matter,” a smooth, educated woman’s voice said. Steed’s smile broadened as he recalled the photograph of the major in the file that was somewhere on his desk. Although the military photograph made her look severe, he could tell she was a willowy blond a few years older than him but still tall, and slender. And her voice matched her credentials – she had gone to the best schools, received the highest marks in chemical engineering, and doubtlessly devastated her parents by pursuing a military career. She was a role breaker. Just his type.

She was also, he knew, in charge of the research facility adjacent to the land that Friedrich Gott was trying to get control of.

“Yes Major. Thank you for calling. I am investigating a claim to the land next to your facility. We think it’s spurious, but it might be related to some attempt at breaching your security.”

“I am not aware of any security breaches here Mr. Steed,” the Major replied coolly.

“That’s very good, Major. But our concern is with breaches that you might not be aware of. I would like to come meet with your security staff tomorrow morning.”

“Mr. Steed, we are prepared to cooperate with you in whatever way we must. I am confident that you will find our procedures in order. They are, I believe, better than most, in fact.”

“I sincerely hope so, Major. And I appreciate your cooperation. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Who is this?” Emma held up the photograph of Major Dunn that had been sitting on top of her open file on Steed’s desk. He looked up from his examination of the wine he’d selected and smiled. It wasn’t like him to leave top secret files open. Emma knew it and knew he must have done it on purpose, so she’d made a point of looking at it. Just as he’d expected. It was so convenient when she behaved predictably.

“Major Susanna Dunn of Section Seventy Stroke Zed. I’m going to visit her tomorrow morning. Want to come?”

Emma put down the photograph and strolled across the room toward him, her wry smile assuring him that she’d seen right through his ploy. He worked the cork out of the bottle and sniffed it, eyes on her the whole while.

“Will you buy me lunch in Bath?” she asked, taking the cork from him to sniff it herself. His smile widened. She would come.

“Of course,” he agreed readily, pouring a little wine into a glass and offering it to her to taste. She stuck her nose in the glass and inhaled deeply, then took the wine into her mouth and swished it around, eyes closed as she made an elaborate show of the ritual. He waited patiently. Finally she swallowed and opened her eyes. “Well?” he asked, although if it hadn’t been good she would probably have spit it out.

“Delicious. Dry, but with fresh, fruity highlights. And the slightest hint of oak. American, I think – the wood, not the wine. The wine is definitely French.”

“Care to be more specific?” Steed asked, half teasing. Emma grinned and held up her glass for more.

“Not really. I’m exhausted. I’d rather just enjoy it.”

“As you wish, my lady,” Steed filled his own glass and gestured toward the sofa.

“Now, about supper,” she said, settling in at her end.

“It’s in the kitchen,” Steed replied.

“We’re staying in?”

“Unless you want to go out.”

“No! You’ve read my mind. I want nothing more than to enjoy your company and curl up with my book for a little while, or a game of chess?”

“I’d be delighted to curl up with you. And a chessboard,” he added as if it was an afterthought. She smiled and sipped her wine.

“I suppose you had better fill me in about the Major, Major,” she said, chuckling at her cleverness. “Does she know you’re a Major, by the way?”

“I should think not. And it hardly matters,” he said, hoping she’d take his point and not make an effort to bring it up tomorrow. She nodded slowly and listened as he went on to describe what he knew of the research going at Section Seventy Stroke Zed.

After their lunch Emma had taken a close look at her calendar and decided that she could free up time for Steed’s forged deeds. By the time she got to his apartment she was hoping he’d ask again for her help. If he hadn’t, she might very well have offered.

She insisted on driving across Southern England to the military facility known only as Section 70/z. It encompassed a lot of land, but had few buildings: just a large laboratory facility, an administrative building, and a garage. It seemed that the personnel were housed off site, and the facility offered only a rudimentary canteen for lunches and snacks. Emma pulled up to the guard post at the main gate and Steed opened the passenger door.

“I’ll meet you here in two hours, right Mrs. Peel?” he asked, one leg extended out of the car.

“Two hours,” she agreed with a curt nod. He was all business so she would be too. But then he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She laughed and turned to look into his twinkling eyes. “Two hours,” she repeated firmly. He grinned and got out.

“Good morning Major. Thank you for seeing me,” Steed extended his hand to Major Susanna Dunn, who shook it, studying him as she did so. She was much like what Steed expected: slender and as tall as him, with shiny blond hair tucked into a chignon at the back of her head and round blue eyes that belied a great deal of intelligence.

“Welcome to Stroke Zed, Mr. Steed. I’m happy to assist you with your investigation. You mentioned something about land ownership?”

She gestured for him to have a seat in her office. It was utilitarian, but with touches that told him that she took pride in her environment. There were fresh flowers in a vase on a table between the two windows, and one wall held several framed photographs of her with dignitaries. She had had a successful career so far, and showed no sign of stopping any time soon. In a way, he supposed, she represented the future: a female officer in a role with great responsibility and a certain amount of visibility. Not as publicly visible as Emma, perhaps, but well known within the research community.

Steed took the deed for the adjacent land out of a folder he had brought and handed it across her desk.

“A Mr. Friedrich Gott has filed a claim for the land described in this deed. It would ordinarily be a civil matter, but the proximity to this facility means that our approval is required before the court will rule on the claim.”

He took a map out of the folder and opened it on her desk. “This is the area in question,” he said, pointing to a roughly square area outlined in red. Major Dunn studied it, then rose and went to a similar map on her office wall that included the facility’s buildings. Steed followed her.

“That’s marshland,” she said, locating the area on her map. It was at the far side of the facility from the laboratory and administrative buildings.

“Is there anything related to your work there?” Steed asked.

She studied the map for a moment, tracing lines with her finger.

“The recycling center is over here,” she said, pointing to a square inside the facility’s boundary but not far from the land in question. “It’s tanks and filters, mostly. The filtered water goes into the stream.”

“Which flows into the marshland,” Steed observed, tracing the small blue line that represented moving water.

“Yes, I suppose it does. But what does some used water matter?”

“Indeed,” Steed said thoughtfully. “What more can you tell me about your research here, Major?”

“Why, Mr. Steed, it’s top secret.”

“Yes,” Steed replied expectantly.

“I hardly think that your inquiry into our security requires discussion of the content of our work.”

“You never know, Major,” Steed said, pitching his voice to a flirtatious purr. “I have found criminals within some very reputable organizations.”

“This is the army, Mr. Steed,” she said, raising one eyebrow in inquiry. “Its reputation is beyond repute.”

But something in her tone encouraged him. He smiled, his eyes crinkling warmly. “Of course, Major. Does this facility employ civilians?”

She returned his smile, perhaps just because it was so infectious. But no matter the reason, it forced her to sound pleasant as she replied, “yes. In support roles mainly.”

“Maintenance?”

She nodded. “Grounds keeping, general repairs. They are not involved in our research.”

“But they are exposed to it, Major. That is, they are in and around the facility. You would be surprised at how clever an evil mind can be.”

“But our work –.”

“Is extremely valuable,” he leaned closer to her and adopted a conspiratorial tone. “An overview, Major, will provide me with enough information to develop some theories. I believe that Mr. Gott has a reason to want that land, and it must have something to do with your facility.”

Her big, blue eyes widened ever so slightly as she peered at him from a few inches away. He noticed that she smelled of roses. And he noticed a sparkle in her eyes, behind their stern outward appearance. Years in the military had conditioned her expectations, and he was violating them by standing close to her and speaking softly – by using sex to get what he wanted. It was a calculated risk – she could shut him out. But she didn’t. Seeming to reach a conclusion, she smiled and nodded, then turned back to her desk. He followed, staying close to reinforce the connection. She opened a drawer and withdrew a folder, glancing at the label on it, then turning back to him. She did not flinch at his proximity and for a moment he thought he might have gone too far. But she raised the folder up between them, tipping it toward him.

“An overview,” she said softly, and he realized that he really had gone too far. Only her military professionalism had kept her from responding to his subtle advance. He took the folder and moved half a step back to relieve the tension. But he dared not completely disengage for fear of offending her. He glanced down at the folder in his hands and then back at her, allowing a wistful smile to cross his face. Then he turned on his professionalism.

“I would still like to meet with your head of security,” he said formally. “Standard procedure,” he added, and then he winked.

“Yes. Of course. I told Captain Sands to expect you,” she was flustered. Steed watched her fumble for the telephone, her eyes locked with his. Finally she looked down at the desk and put her hand on the receiver. She called for Captain Sands and escorted Steed to the door with an awkward gesture.

“Thank you so much, Major,” he said placidly, “I will return this in a few days at the latest.”

“I’ll look forward to it. That is, that will be fine, Mr. Steed,” she said, taking a deep breath and stepping away from him. He tipped his hat to her as he put it on his head and stepped out of her office.

Emma pulled onto the shoulder of the road and stopped her Lotus. She picked up the map again and compared her surroundings to the features it included. It was a geologic survey map, showing detailed elevations and types of vegetation. The plot of land that Mr. Gott was after was, she had realized when she’d studied this map, a marsh. The road where she had stopped was at the edge of the property. Looking out across it she could see that it was, indeed, a wet, overgrown swamp.

She had stopped in the nearest town and gone into a little café for a coffee and some information. For the price of the coffee, which was not very good, she’d learned that all of the land in this area was owned by a local farmer. A scone, which was good, bought her directions to his house where he lived alone since his wife had died and his children had grow up and moved away.

Deciding that the marsh was not going to tell her much, she got back in the car and headed for the farmer’s house.

“So do you use that particular plot of land for anything, Mr. Wilson? Woops!” she grabbed the side of the tractor seat as it bounced over a rut.

“Nah, it’s darn near useless,” he said.

“So it wouldn’t matter to you if the court ruled in Mr. Gott’s favor?” she asked.

“Hell yes it would matter!” he cried, slamming his fist on the rim of the tractor’s steering wheel. Emma had caught him plowing a field not far from his house, turning the remains of the harvest under the soil to let it lie fallow until the spring, he’d explained. And he’d refused to stop and speak to her. So she’d climbed up on the tractor with him, standing on the running board because there was only the one seat. She’d thought he might stop then, but he hadn’t. She resisted the urge to grab the wheel during his angry outburst. Scowling, he put both hands back on it and sent the tractor into a hairpin turn to start on the next row. Emma flexed her knees and held on. It was actually rather fun.

“You don’t want to give up your property?” she asked sympathetically when they were back on track.

“He’s up to something, that’s what I say,” Wilson replied. “Sneaky Germans. The war’s not over for them, you know. He’s got designs on good English land – better ‘en what they’ve got down there in Germany. Leading an invasion, probably.”

“Have you ever met Mr. Gott?” she asked, not at all surprised at his prejudice.

“Saw ‘im. In court the one time. All dressed up he was in his fancy suit and gold what ‘cha call it. Tie tack thing. He was a dandy all right. What’s he want with my bit of swamp anyway?”

“That’s an excellent question, Mr. Wilson.”

“This is the other property, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said gesturing out the window at one of Bath’s beautiful crescent-shaped rows of townhouses.

“The deed pre-dates the houses, doesn’t it?” she asked.

“My about fifty years,” Steed acknowledged. “But no court will grant Mr. Gott back rent for that long – certainly not for this sort of property. If it were a single dwelling still in the same family, that might be different.”

“I’ll bet some of those houses have been in the same family since then,” Emma said.

“But they all have excellent representation. Mr. Gott is unlikely to win his case here.”

“So why bother? It’s an expensive case to pursue.”

“Distraction?” Steed suggested.

“We look over here while he gets the land over there?” Emma gestured with her head in the general direction of Section Seventy Stroke Zed.

Steed nodded thoughtfully. “And farmer Wilson hasn’t the cash to defend his property.”

“But, to quote farmer Wilson, ‘what’s he want with my bit of swamp, anyway?’” Emma adopted the farmer’s rural accent. Steed smiled at her and shrugged, then patted the file in his lap.

“I’m hoping this will give us some insight, Mrs. Peel,” he said.

But lunch together was so pleasant neither of them wanted to open the file and continue working. Afterwards Emma put the Lotus on the road toward home and reached over to take Steed’s hand. He asked her about the house and she launched into a lengthy description of all the work that was under way. Since she’d moved there a few weeks after the engagement party he’d spent only weekends. She spent most of her time there, finding that being present was the best way to quickly resolve minor issues and keep the work moving along. She went to her office at Knight Industries once or twice a week, and when she did she stayed with him in town. It was a transitional time and they both knew it. He was slowly preparing to move to the house, although that did not mean giving up the apartment so it was not all that obvious. Emma was feathering their nest, and he found her devotion to it intensely attractive.

“Will you stay?” he asked when she braked to a stop in front of his apartment. “I have a dinner to go to – stodgy politicians I’m afraid – but I suspect they’d appreciate your company if I phoned and said you were coming.”

She appeared to consider for a moment, then shook her head. “I shouldn’t. The plasterer is coming back tomorrow morning and I want to be there.”

“Have I told you today how much I appreciate what you’re doing in the house?” he asked.

“No, not today. Thank you,” she said frankly. It was a great deal of work, and although she enjoyed it she also enjoyed knowing that he realized it.

“Shall I come out tomorrow afternoon? I could bring this,” he held up the file.

“Actually, we have that meeting with the minister the day after,” she reminded him. “In Oxford?”

“Ah, right.”

“So I thought I’d come back here tomorrow evening. All right?”

“Of course!” He leaned over and kissed her. “I’ll call you later.”

“See that you do,” she replied with a smile as he got out of her car.

Emma smoothed her very short, very bright green skirt and crossed her legs tightly. She looked up and caught Steed, who was standing by the receptionist’s desk, watching her with an altogether inappropriate expression on his face. She cleared her throat, startling him, and looked toward the doorway where Miss Landon had just reappeared. She was petite and pixyish, the sort of girl Emma always felt as if she were towering over.

“Mr. Steed, Miss Knight – he can see you now,” she said, her voice remarkably lacking in inflection. They followed her along a short corridor and into an office filled with books, candles, crucifixes, and a singularly tall man dressed in black slacks and shirt.

As they entered he set a book on a desk already heaving under the weight of stacks of them and extended his hand at the end of an exceptionally long arm. Emma noticed, however, that his sleeve was long enough – he must have his shirts made.

“Miss Knight. Mr. Steed, welcome. I am father Michaels, dean of the divinity school, as I suspect you know. Please, have a seat.”

He gestured toward two chairs – the only clear horizontal surfaces in the room. Emma and Steed followed instructions and sat down. Father Michaels remained standing, leaning against the edge of his desk, arms folded over his narrow chest.

“I have to admit that you’ve come with a rather unorthodox request,” he said, peering along his beak-like nose at them. Steed leaned back as if the stiff chair were the most comfortable he’d ever occupied and smiled charmingly. But it was Emma who responded.

“We know that it’s a busy date, father. But it’s very important to us. We’ve contacted several churches in the area where we’re buying our home and received the same answer from each one.”

Father Michaels nodded with apparent understanding. “You are unlikely to find a minister assigned to a parish church that can be available to officiate on Christmas Eve,” he said.

“Which is why we’re here,” Steed put in. “We realized that we would be imposing on any parish we went to. But you, Father, or someone on your staff, might have fewer commitments that day.”

“We have found a church that does not have an afternoon service. The minister will be helping with a service on the other side of the county,” Emma explained. She decided not to mention the generous contribution she had made for use of the sanctuary.

Abruptly Father Michaels straightened and walked around his desk, dragging the chair out from behind it so he could join them.

“Tell me about yourselves. Why are you getting married?”

Emma frowned. She was about to ask the minister if that meant he would do it when Steed leaned forward, reaching out to take her hand. She looked at him, as did Father Michaels.

“Emma and I have known one another for a number of years,” he said. “Our relationship has been complicated by circumstances beyond our control. We have finally eliminated the obstacles, and we both want nothing more than to be together.”

“What do you do, Mr. Steed? What is your profession?”

Emma watched Steed closely but he didn’t miss a beat, “I’m a civil servant – a government functionary, really. It’s not exciting, but it’s a solid career. Emma has all of the excitement.”

“Oh?” Father Michaels looked enquiringly at her.

“I run my family business,” she replied simply.

“I would imagine that keeps you quite busy. Marriage is as much a career as what you do for a living. Do you both feel that you have the necessary time to spend with one another?”

“I have curtailed my role at Knight,” Emma replied, feeling Steed squeeze her hand. “I work half time, at most. I fully intend to devote the rest of my time to my husband.”

“And you Mr. Steed?”

“My schedule is rather flexible, Father. I am very much looking forward to long rides across my property with my wife,” Steed replied, looking pointedly at Emma. She read his thoughts like a trashy novel, knowing he was thinking of a sort of riding experiment she had suggested a few months ago. She hoped he could read her as well. Not in front of a priest, for God’s sakes, Steed!

Father Michaels smiled pleasantly, clearly oblivious to the subtext. “Well, I can see that you share a deep commitment. Have you discussed your plans for the future?”

“You mean children?” Steed asked.

“Perhaps – is that what you’ve discussed?”

“Yes,” Emma put in. “We seem to be stalled on the question of how many.”

“Well, that sort of thing tends to sort itself out,” the priest said.

“Father, I’m sorry if this sounds blunt, but I am rather known for my directness,” Emma said. “Why are you asking these questions? Is there any hope of your performing the ceremony for us?”

“I had a telephone call this morning. It was the sort of call we don’t often receive around here – in fact I was called out of a lecture to take it.”

Emma frowned, anxious to hear how this answered her question. Steed leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other, still holding her hand.

“The Archbishop,” Father Michaels went on, “he was calling to tell me that I will not be needed as a celebrant at the cathedral for Christmas Eve. That should some other need arise, I was free to step in. I thought it was a very odd message. Until now.”

Emma looked at Steed. His expression remained impassive, but his eyes were sparkling with amusement.

“I will want to see you several more times before the wedding. Miss Landon can make the appointments,” Father Michaels said, rising. Steed and Emma rose as well, shaking the priest’s hand once more.

“Thank you, Father,” Emma said sincerely.

“Yes, thank you,” Steed added, putting on his hat.

“Yes, well, I’m accustomed to receiving directions from on high, but rarely so specifically.”

“You,” Emma said as she put her Lotus in gear and backed out of the parking space, “pulled strings.”

“Strictly speaking I expressed our mutual frustration in the presence of someone else who may possibly have pulled strings,” Steed replied. Emma braked the car and put it into first gear, easing it forward more gently than usual as she tried to remember who Steed had said he was having dinner with the other night. Suddenly it hit her.

“You didn’t!” she cried, glancing at him. He looked extremely pleased with himself. “We won’t have to invite him to the wedding now, will we?”

Chapter 2

“Coatings for extra terrestrial exploration vehicles and extreme environmental conditions,” Emma said, turning the page, “for submarines, and snow vehicles, and tanks going into the desert.”

“Paint,” Steed nodded, leaning away from the cabinet that he was looking through in order to see her on the sofa.

“Using a wide range of substances,” Emma stood up and walked toward him still reading through the file. “The local chalky soil, lead,” her eyebrows rose, “copper, bauxite, gold, platinum.”

“Valuable paint,” Steed said.

“Valuable supplies being shipped into the facility,” Emma added.

“Nothing’s missing,” Steed said, and Emma looked into the cabinet. He followed her gaze and shook his head. “Not here. There,” he glanced at the file. “Their supplies are carefully inventoried. I came away quite satisfied.”

“About the inventory,” Emma said, looking speculative. His brows knit as he looked at her curiously. “How did your meeting with Major Dunn go? You never said.”

Steed felt a tingle of warning. Her tone was altogether too casual.

“Productive,” he said cautiously. “The Major was completely cooperative.”

“Ah,” she replied with a cheerful smile, turning on her heel so that her hair flipped around her shoulders. Steed watched her retreating back appreciatively as she returned to the couch.

He closed the cabinet doors, having forgotten what he was looking for, and followed her. He wasn’t sure what to expect. Emma expressing jealousy was completely new. But he wasn’t even sure whether she actually had. He felt it was his duty to let her, if she wanted to. After all, he’d been rather touchy the other day when she was flirting with her business associate.

“Gold. And Platinum,” she said thoughtfully as he sat down on the couch. Apparently the Major was forgotten. He let one eyebrow drift upward as he watched her reading from the file. It was nearly impossible to keep up with her mind, sometimes. “What business did the background check say Friedrich Gott is in?”

“Jewelry. He owns a firm that designs and manufacturers jewelry. But, as I said, the facility’s inventory is well managed.”

“Inventory,” she repeated, turning to the map of the facility.

“Mrs. Peel, would you mind enlightening me? I’m going back to Bath tomorrow to meet with Gott.”

Emma closed the file and set it on the table behind the couch, turning toward him as she did.

“What about the recycler – the filters and tanks that clean the water before it flows into the swamp on Gott’s land?”

“First, it’s not yet Gott’s land. And second,” he paused, thinking about what she was driving at, “I think I need to find out who’s in charge of the recycler when I’m there tomorrow.”

Emma smiled and nodded as if he were a student who’d just caught on to her lecture. “So you’re going back to Section Seventy Stroke Zed, hum?” She added, reaching out to run a finger over his thigh.

“I promised to return that file,” he said absently, already thinking about the best way to approach the maintenance staff. Suddenly his head snapped around to meet her amused, slightly smug grin.

“Give my regards to the Major,” she said wickedly.

“Herr Gott? Herr Friedrich Gott?” Steed stood with his hat and umbrella in hand, smiling amiably at the gentleman seated at a table in the hotel café. The desk clerk had described him as distinguished and bearded, and Steed had had no difficulty identifying him amid the casually dressed tourists.

Ja? I am Gott,” the man said, looking up from his newspaper with a curious expression.

“Steed. John Steed. May I?” Steed gestured at the chair opposite Gott. The German nodded curtly. Steed set his hat on the table and pulled out the chair, hanging his umbrella on its back as he sat. A waiter appeared with a cup of coffee and set it in front of Steed – he’d ordered it before approaching Gott. Gott looked on as Steed took his time dropping in two lumps of sugar and stirring.

“You said you wished to speak to me about my deeds,” Gott said at last, a hint of impatience in his tone. Steed finished stirring, set the spoon down, and picked up the cup to sip the coffee. He closed his eyes and savored it for a moment, then set it down and looked pointedly at Gott.

“Yes. How did you come by them?”

Gott leaned back in his chair and stared at Steed for a moment. But Steed had provided his credentials – an investigator of the court confirming the details of Gott’s case. Fortunately, that such a role didn’t exist in the English court system seemed to have escaped Gott’s notice.

“They were a part of my inheritance from my great uncle,” Gott said. “I do not believe that he knew he had them. I found them mit other papers in his safe.”

“I see. Fortunate for you. Do you have other holdings in Britain?”

Nein – no. My family property is all in Germany. These two deeds are very old –.”

“Yes. Very old.” Steed took another sip of coffee, favoring Gott with a speculative look. “I hope I don’t insult you to ask if you work, Mr. Gott?”

“No, you do not insult me. I manage my father-in-law’s ceramics distribution organization.”

“I see. So the property here in Bath would be a significant asset for you?”

Ja, it would for anyone, I should think. I can hardly hold these deeds and not act upon them. It would be wasteful.”

“Indeed,” Steed gulped down the last of his coffee and picked up his hat. “I’ll leave you to your breakfast, Herr Gott,” he said, rising. Gott watched him, puzzlement at his abruptness showing in his face.

“Mr. Steed, is your investigation satisfied?” he asked as Steed retrieved his umbrella.

“Oh very, Herr Gott. Very satisfied indeed.”

Steed felt like he was making a tour of cafés as he opened the door to the one in the village near the research facility. He’d called at the Major’s office and been told she was out to lunch. It had been child’s play to wheedle her location out of the Lieutenant who acted as her assistant.

He spotted her at a table in the pleasant little café, a basket of bread and a glass of water on the table in front of her. She was reading a paperback book. Steed hung his hat and umbrella on a rack near the door and strolled over to her wearing a delighted grin.

“Major?” he asked when he was close to her table. Her head snapped up, her expression surprised at first. Then it turned into a warm smile. She slipped the book out of sight under the table.

“Mr. Steed!”

“I came to return that file, but they said you were at lunch. I hated to just leave it without seeing you so I thought I’d call again later. But here you are!”

“Here I am,” she said, looking a little overwhelmed. “Would you care to join me? I’ve only just ordered.”

“Delighted!” Steed seated himself on her left. “Do you come here often?”

She chuckled and nodded. “It’s the only place nearby, other than our canteen. And sometimes I simply have to get out of the office.”

“I understand completely,” Steed shifted, half turning away from her to study the menu, which was written on a chalkboard on the wall. “What do you recommend?”

“I’m just having the soup today. But the pork chops are always good here,” she said.

“Onion soup,” Steed read. “My favorite. I think I’ll join you.” He turned back toward her and met with a flattered smile.

“I was going to have a glass of wine, too,” she said in a conspiratorial tone. “I hope you won’t mention it to anyone.”

“Only if you’ll allow me to join you in that, too,” he said.

The waitress came with the Major’s wine and took Steed’s order. He continued to engage his companion in light conversation until their two crocks of steaming soup, cheese melted all over the top, were delivered. Once sustenance was before them he steered the conversation around to the facility’s recycling plant.

“Our testing simulates years, even decades of normal wear on the coatings we create. Water is used to simulate rain, snow, the sea, and to wash away other test media such as sand and ash. If we did not filter it, the elements in the coatings would contaminate the ground water.”

“And the stream running into the marsh.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“So how does it work? Do you run the water through a series of filters until it’s clean? What becomes of the material that’s filtered out?”

“No, it’s not that simple. The various materials require different types of filters. So the runoff from each of our testing labs is directed to the appropriate part of the recycling facility.”

“And when you say recycling . . .?”

“Yes, we recycle as much as we can. As I’m sure you read in that file, we use some very valuable materials in our coatings. They are worn off in the tests and carried away in the water. The plant recaptures eighty-nine percent of the gold and platinum – those are the most obviously valuable materials.”

“So when you’ve used a great deal of, say, platinum, in a paint, the waste water from that test lab is sent through a filter specifically for platinum?”

“Yes, and whatever other filters are appropriate. We place priority on reclaiming the most valuable elements, though. Our budget is generous, but not open ended.”

“And tell me, Major, what happens if the filters get clogged, or removed from the recycler?”

“That would not happen, Mr. Steed. Our maintenance staff monitors the system constantly.”

“Your civilian maintenance staff.”

She eyed him narrowly. He returned the look.

“I’d like to have a look at the recycler, Major.”

“You think this Friedrich Gott is after our waste materials?”

“That’s exactly what I think. But I need your help to prove it.”

“Steed?” Emma allowed herself to clump loudly down the basement stairs from the kitchen, two bottles of beer in hand. She marveled at how cool the basement was compared to the heat outside. She hoped that the warm autumn signaled an equally late winter, for the sake of the wedding guests. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked around. The basement under the kitchen wing was almost all one big room, while under the main house and the library wing it had been subdivided into a warren of small storage spaces.

“Here,” Steed called out from across the large, dim space. At first she thought he’d donned one of the workmen’s coveralls, then she realized that his brown slacks and cardigan were covered in dust. He seemed to have been shifting junk out of a large alcove that was roughly under the butler pantry and silver room.

“Taking inventory?” she asked, looking at the pile of broken furniture, empty boxes, and other junk he’d moved. He crossed the large space to meet her near the bottom of the stairs. She held out a bottle of beer and he took it, indulging in a long gulp.

“Thank you,” he said. “You know we can lay down a few hundred wine bottles here – the temperature is perfect,” he said, turning back toward the corner he’d cleared. “Some oak shelving, perhaps a decorative locking gate – for appearances of course,” he went on, enthusiasm growing. “And a humidor!”

“That’s cigars, Steed, not wine,” she pointed out dryly.

“Yes. Why not?” he said, clearly pleased with his inspiration. Emma only saw a damp, unfinished basement and considerable expense to install wine racks, iron gates, and a sealed humidor. With everything else they were doing on the house, the cost suddenly seemed rather overwhelming.

“Just how much money do you have, Steed?” she asked, sitting on the steps with her elbows on her knees.

“Mrs. Peel, how very gauche,” Steed brushed his hands together to remove dust.

Emma sat up straight and eyed him speculatively, “I’m trying to decide whether we need a prenuptial agreement to protect ourselves from one another,” she said. He grinned and squeezed in beside her.

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, eh?” he asked.

“That’s fair,” she nodded, suspecting that he probably had a good idea of her assets already.

“All right. But I do mean show you – I don’t have it all in my head.”

“That vast, eh?” she teased. He arched one eyebrow, then kissed her lightly.

“Just diverse,” he said. “But you should be careful, or I’ll begin to think you’re marrying me for my money. Now, do you think we’ll need room for more than three hundred bottles?”

Terrance squeezed back into his seat at the end of the shabby sofa in Sally’s shared flat. He leaned back and put his arm around Sally, handing her one of the cold bottles of Coke he’d gotten up to retrieve. Sally’s three flatmates and assorted friends were all squeezed in around the television set to watch yet another American film full of car chases and shooting. It had become a Friday evening tradition since Channel 4 had started showing them, replacing the weekly Saturday parties that they had all grown bored with.

Sally sipped her Coke and let her left hand slide across Terrance’s thigh. It was the end of a long, hard week that had included studying Russian, learning to taste the difference between cheap gin, quality gin, and gin laced with various drugs, and Judo. Endless hours of Judo. Terrance’s quiet, affectionate companionship was exactly what she craved.

She’d seen James on Wednesday for an amazing dinner at a tiny restaurant in St. James’s that she had walked past hundreds of times and never noticed. They had moved on to his penthouse for a nightcap, sliding comfortably into bed so late that she’d had to sprint to get to the ministry on time in the morning. It wouldn’t do to use James as an excuse for tardiness.

Tonight, she knew, her roommate Meg would go off to work tending bar at a late-night club half way through the movie. Terrance would get up to use the toilet and Sally would find an excuse, verbalized or not, to go to her room. Those friends who noticed would not be fooled, and they would not come near her room for the duration.

Sally knew that she could never bring James into this environment. In fact, she never wanted him to see this poverty level flat inhabited by four girls struggling to make ends meet. But Terrance was a part of it. He accepted it, and her, for what they were, or at least what he thought she was. As his hand drifted down over her shoulder to brush across her breast she felt a tingle of arousal along with another far less pleasant tingle: She was living a dual life and deceiving two men. Both cared for the Sally they knew, and she cared deeply for both of them. She knew that it was a formula for disaster, but she could not bring herself to end things with either one of them.

Terrance filled her normal, young woman’s life with fun: movies, long rambles along the Serpentine, video games, bike rides, and intense, almost fervid love making when they could find privacy at one of their crowded flats. James transported her to another world that was also becoming hers – the rarefied air of his penthouse, fine food and wine, billiards and the symphony, and friends like Emma and Steed. Much as she craved the fine life he shared with her, when she was tired at the end of a long week she wanted nothing more than Terrance’s familiar touch.

Someone, she frequently told herself, is going to get hurt. Probably me, and possibly both of them. But as the weeks went on she took no action to prevent the inevitable. And the longer it went on, the harder it was to believe that it could all come crumbling down.

The movie, which was not as bad as some they’d endured, broke for commercials and Meg climbed to her feet.

“I’m off,” she said, stepping between legs and over a pile of cushions. “Tell me how it ends.”

“They crash, but survive. The main character – I forget his name – shoots the bad guy, but it turns out his partner is in with the villains and he has to shoot him too,” Ruthie, one of Sally’s roommates recited.

“Are you suggesting we watch too many of these films?” someone asked with a laugh.

Meg was barely out the door, the commercials still playing on the TV, when Terrance got up and headed for the hall that lead to both the bathroom and Sally’s bedroom. Nobody said anything, but Sally felt sure that everyone’s attention was focused on her. She closed her eyes, trying to decide whether she could bring herself to break the pattern. No, the burning beneath her belly demanded attention. She wanted Terrance, and knowing that he was waiting only made it stronger. As the movie restarted, distracting some of her companions, she rose and made for the hall.

He was already stretched out naked on her bed, his hands behind his head, his body exhibiting all the signs of anticipation of her arrival. She closed and locked the door and leaned against it, looking at him in the dim light filtering in through the window.

“What if someone else had come in?” she asked curiously. Terrance was generally rather shy and usually modest. His expression grew tense and he raised himself up on his elbows. Sally stepped into the room, unbuttoning her blouse. “Meg might have come back for something and walked in on you like that.”

His erection softened a little and she immediately felt guilty for mentioning his sister.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, his voice dry. Sally stepped closer to the bed and reached up under her skirt, pulling down her panties. Her legs and feet were already bare. His erection solidified again as he watched her pull her blouse out of her skirt.

“Reach under my skirt,” she requested, her voice husky, as she reached behind herself to unhook her bra.

Terrance’s hand touched the inside of her knee and slipped upward. She felt herself gasp as his fingers brushed the curls between her thighs. Out in the sitting room the gunfight commenced. She placed one knee on the bed beside him, opening herself to him. His fingers slid into her and he stroked her firmly, fingers demanding what other parts of his body clearly craved. She reached down and ran her finger over the tip of his penis. He stopped stroking her, so she removed her hand. His eyes popped open, looking disappointed.

“Make me come,” she said, unzipping her skirt.

His expression turned to concern, “I’m not sure how,” he said.

“Yes you are, Terrance. Touch me.” Sometimes his tentativeness still frustrated her. They had been lovers for several months now. She pulled her skirt off over her head and let it drop onto the floor. Naked, she climbed onto the bed and stretched out beside him. He half sat, returning his fingers to their task. And then his mouth was on her, kissing her lips and her breasts. And then, to her utter surprise, he was parting her legs and pressing his lips there. She came in a sweet little spurt and he pulled back in surprise.

“Sorry,” she murmured, not meaning it.

“Don’t be,” he grinned, crawling up her body to nuzzle her breasts and nestle his erection against her. “It thought that might be what you wanted,” he said proudly, shifting his hips so that the tip of his penis found its goal. He slid easily into her and they both sighed at the sensation. He might not be the most sophisticated lover, but she found his enthusiasm terribly erotic.

“I was almost wet for you, sitting out there,” he muttered into her ear as he shifted in her. The thought of him containing his desire in the room full of people inflamed her again and she pressed against him, brushing her fingers over his nipples. He pressed back, burying himself deeper within her.

She’d had a consultation with the ministry doctors after an extensive physical, including a gynecological examination. The gynecologist had asked her in clinical terms about her sexual activity. She had admitted to it in vague terms and been handed a prescription for birth control pills. It was, she learned, virtually required of female agents. Sally had filled the prescription without commenting on the ministry’s ability to dictate its agents’ reproductive rights. It suited her lifestyle just now.

And since then she’d discovered a new dimension in her relationships with Terrance and James. She had not realized that the ritual of applying a condom was inhibiting until it became unnecessary. Now she felt positively wanton, paying little attention in the heat of passion to whether her lover was using his fingers, his tongue, or his lovely, bare penis to drive her over the edge.

James, who had anticipated the change, was pleased by her new enthusiasm. When she told Terrance that she’d decided to use the pill he hadn’t understood what that meant. Until she took away the condom he started to unwrap. Her newfound freedom had infected him. That evening had been the first time he’d moved down her body to try kissing her in new places.

Now he rocked within her and she rolled against him and they let their hunger take over. In the sitting room American style sirens wailed and she pressed her lips near his ear, wailing herself as her body vibrated with his. He reared up and ground against her so hard she slid up the bed. He followed, driving into her again, his body trembling with orgasm. He moaned, unable to contain his bliss, and dropped his head to her shoulder. She wrapped her arms around him as her body shivered through its final, deep, shuddering contractions.

“Sally,” he whispered, lying on his side with his arms loosely around her. She stroked the arm that lay across her chest and turned her face to his. “I love you, Sally,” he said softly, his green eyes searching hers.

She felt herself smile, heard herself speak equally softly. “I love you too, Terrance.”

Chapter 3

“They’re very old,” Steed said as he turned the Bentley onto a private drive.

“I won’t hold it against them,” Emma replied. They had driven up to his sister’s house the previous afternoon and this morning had come across the valley – the Steed valley, Emma reminded herself, although it wasn’t actually called that – to the Steed family home. She was about to visit the house where he grew up and where now his two elderly aunts lived. He owned the house and half of the valley. His sister Caroline owned the other half. His aunts inhabited the house at his expense, another testament to his innate generosity. Emma had opened up the Knight country home to her paternal cousins when it no longer suited her, but unlike Steed, she had asked them to contribute to expenses, which they did. She was a fair landlady, taking no profit from her relatives, but sustaining no ongoing loss either.

But Steed’s arrangement was different. His foresighted grandfather had established a trust to support the house, so Steed’s only real expense on his aunts’ behalf was for water and power. The ladies each had a pension that provided them with food, clothes, and spending money. And they were not, according to Caroline, inclined to excess.

Steed had disclosed these financial arrangements to Emma along with the rest of his assets, as promised, one evening when they were in his apartment. He had served her a lovely dinner, then presented her with a sizeable stack of documents. He’d gone through them with her, reviewing the statements from accounts in several countries, some in private banks, some just numbered accounts. There were inventories of valuables tucked away in bank vaults, and deeds to property – the family property that she had already known about as well as several other plots of land all over England. And there were stock portfolios, one with his substantial shares of Knight Industries. As he’d once told her, the purchase date on most of the shares was years ago, just after they had first met.

“You’ve never shown all of this to anyone, have you?” she asked as he placed the last document back on the pile. Her head was swimming from calculating the value of it all.

“No,” he replied. “I would not trust anyone else. Not with all of it.”

“But not because of the value,” she said, understanding his true meaning.

“No. Because some of it’s my safety net. Our safety net now. Some of these accounts are in countries where it’s nearly impossible to get money over the border now. If I go there, I have assets in place.”

Emma nodded. There had been times in remote places where they’d traveled in pursuit of a villain that he’d vanished for a few hours and returned with cash. She’d never asked where he got it. Now she knew.

She’d returned the favor a few days later, and contrary to her friend Nancy’s advice she’d shown him everything. The deeds to her property, inventory of valuable art and jewelry, her stock portfolio, and her bank accounts, which were fewer than Steed’s, but just as full. Their fortunes, it turned out to their shared amusement, were very nearly matched.

“Shall we open a joint bank account, do you think?” she’d asked as they finished their bottle of wine, the financial papers stowed away again. He’d laughed, but the next day he’d presented her with forms for just such an account. She’d been surprised at the surge of happiness the simple gesture inspired in her. Partners. We should share this, too. And when the account was in place she’d arranged to have her salary from Knight deposited to it. When she next checked the balance she was delighted to see that Steed’s salary from the ministry was there as well.

“Aunt Helen, Aunt Jessica, this is Emma. Remember I telephoned about her?”

An aging butler in an even more aging uniform had guided them through the great, slightly shabby house into a cheerful dayroom filled with potted ferns and palms. Steed’s two aunts were planted amid the greenery, Helen on a white wicker divan with a bright floral cushion, Jessica in a wicker armchair. Helen wore a dress that Emma was sure had been designed at least seventy-five years ago, while Jessica was wearing a prim crepe wool suit. Emma imagined them each selecting what they thought of as appropriate attire to meet their nephew’s fiancé.

“It’s lovely to meet you,” she said, extending her hand to Jessica, who was closest, and then stepping over to Helen to shake her hand as well.

“Strong grip,” Helen said, her piercing grey gaze sweeping over Emma. “Sharp dresser, although a bit outré.”

Emma had dressed with care in a beige dress with wide white bands for trim. It was not even that short, for her. She glanced at Steed and saw his lips quivering. She arched one brow at him and he schooled his features, diverting himself by relocating two more wicker chairs and offering one to Emma.

“You’ve been at Caro’s,” Jessica said. “Did little Sara want to come along?”

“In fact, she did,” Steed said with a nod. His fourteen-year-old niece had begged until her mother scolded her for being a pest.

“She absolutely adores our spare closet,” Helen told Emma. Steed had already explained that his aunts were in possession of the wardrobes of countless deceased relatives and ancestors, which they referred to collectively as their spare closet. Sara had played dress-up there as a little girl, and now loved to select costumes for plays and parties. Emma forced herself to refrain from asking to see their collection herself.

“So our John has convinced you to marry him,” Jessica said abruptly.

“Perhaps it’s the other way ‘round,” Helen suggested and Emma chuckled.

“It’s a mutual decision, my dears,” Steed said. “Emma and I have known one another for several years, but only now have managed to get it right”

“Get it right?” Jessica repeated quizzically.

“I am recently divorced,” Emma put in, thinking it would help.

“They had an illicit affair!” Helen barked, sounding more amused than shocked. Emma saw Steed grimace.

“No!” she tried.

“My dear, did you leave your husband for our John?”

“How daring!”

“Aunt Helen!” Steed’s powerful voice silenced them all. “Emma’s husband was lost in an airplane accident when we met. He was presumed dead. We did not, as you so blithely put it, have an illicit affair.”

“Oh,” Helen sounded disappointed.

Didn’t we? Emma thought with an inward smile.

“Emma’s husband, it turned out, had been lost but not killed. He returned to England and she to him.”

“Poor John,” Jessica said. “Caro told us, you know.”

“What?” Emma said. The aunts had been acting as if they knew nothing of her. But clearly they knew something.

“Caro told us that the woman he loved left him and he was heartbroken, but that we mustn’t say a thing about it. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“Dear lord,” Steed muttered, putting his head on his hand and closing his eyes. But Emma took a deep breath and managed a smile at his aunts.

“It was me,” she said. “But it was an unfortunate choice. I divorced my husband. I am very lucky that Steed had me back, don’t you think?”

“Is he kind to you, my dear?” Jessica asked.

“Of course he is,” Helen replied before Emma could speak. “These young women don’t put up with nonsense from the men any more. She just told us she divorced the first one.”

“Steed has always treated me wonderfully,” Emma said, but the aunts were not listening.

“Do you have any siblings?” Jessica was already asking.

“No,” Emma said before Helen could try to respond for her.

“An only child,” Jessica said.

“Only children are spoiled,” Helen put in.

“Nonsense,” Jessica said. “Our John is dreadfully spoiled, and yet there’s dear Caroline across the valley.”

“I am sitting right here,” Steed put in, raising his head to look at them once more. Emma felt sorry for him. At least she had the detachment of not being related. Not yet, anyway.

“But he is kind to women,” Helen said as if finishing her earlier thought.

“Comes of being raised by so many strong ones,” Jessica added.

“I don’t know,” Steed muttered, “one might think I’d expect all women to be daft.”

“What’s that, nephew?” Helen asked, although Emma suspected the old woman had heard him quite clearly.

Steed flashed her a flirtatious smile and said more clearly, “I wonder if you feel a draft?”

Helen’s wry little smile was a feminine version of Steed’s own, Emma noticed. “No, dear. We’re all quite comfortable here. Would you prefer to go in to the library? All of your books are still there. We can occupy ourselves quite famously, I’m sure.”

Steed’s eyes narrowed at his aunt, but she maintained a placid smile. Jessica studied her hands innocently. Emma winked at him, urging him to go on. She was desperately curious to know why his aunts wanted to speak to her alone.

With a pained sigh Steed heaved himself out of his chair. He made curt little bows to all three women, then strode out of the room.

“Much better,” Jessica said when he was gone. Helen picked up a small silver bell and rang it, smiling at Emma. Instantly the aged butler appeared with a tray of tea things.

“Oh don’t worry about your beau, dear. He’ll be into the scotch by now,” Jessica said, seeing Emma’s expression.

“Which is only proper,” Helen agreed, watching the butler arrange the tea on a small table between them. “It’s his scotch, after all.”

Both aunts chuckled, but there was nothing malicious or greedy in their tones. Emma had the sense of a pair of jolly good friends sharing a peculiar view of the world. For a moment she wished that she had such a companion, until she realized that she had – he’d just been evicted from the room.

“Now,” Jessica said when they each had a properly prepared cup of tea in hand, “reassure us that our John is not coercing you in any way.”

“Coercing me!” Emma repeated, trying not to laugh. “Good heavens no.”

“We know that he’s been on his own for a long time. Set in his ways, one might say. And you are, clearly, a bit younger than he.”

“Yes dear, how much younger are you?”

Emma took a sip of her tea. It always surprised her when people brought this up. As if she were so young that Steed was robbing the cradle.

“I am twelve years younger than Steed,” she said at last, preferring to let them do the age calculation, if they could.

“Excellent!” Helen crowed. Obviously her math skills were still sharp. Emma’s brows arched in discrete surprise. Jessica recognized the expression.

“We have been despairing of a proper heir,” she explained. “Please tell us you want to have children.”

“We do,” Emma said simply.

“Hooray!” Jessica balanced her teacup on her lap and clapped her hands together.

“I hope you have a wild little boy. It will serve Johnny right,” Helen said cheerfully. “He was impossible.”

“Really?” Emma drawled, hoping to get some information out of them for a change. It worked. She soon had them recounting Steed’s childhood exploits, from unauthorized tree climbing at four to taking his father’s favorite hunter point-to-pointing when he was eleven. He had fallen and sprained his wrist, Jessica explained, so his father had barred him from the stable for a month. Emma observed that that must have been particularly harsh punishment for Steed.

“Oh it was,” Helen agreed. “That evening Johnny marched downstairs from his room and dumped a whole box full of rosettes on his father’s dinner plate. He had been racing the horse all season, you see. He would have been top of his class if not for the fall in that last event.”

Emma joined the aunts in chuckling at the young Steed’s cheek. “What did his father do?” she finally asked.

“Asked for a new plate,” Jessica said. “John was still barred from the stable. He knew he was fortunate that his father didn’t extend the penalty.”

Emma felt a pang of sorrow for Steed. Could his father really have been that harsh? Helen must have seen it in her face, for she said, “John knew his father was proud of his riding. The rosettes were added to the display case in the library. And the day the month was up a van pulled up and unloaded a gorgeous hunter. His father had selected it for him.”

“John did win his class the next season,” Jessica concluded.

Discipline, Emma thought. And recognition. It had built Steed’s character and checked his wild tendencies. She filed that away, not for the man she loved, but possibly for the children he would father.

Jessica and Helen went on taking turns telling stories on their nephew until the butler wandered in holding a big old alarm clock with bells on top.

“Time for our rest, dear,” Helen explained.

“Forbes always brings the clock to prove his point,” Jessica added. Emma rose with the women and followed as they made their slow way through the house. In the hall Jessica turned to her, “The library is just through there, dear,” she said, indicating a set of double doors at the end.

“Thank you,” Emma said. She was unclear about whether they were expected to wait while the aunts napped, but she assumed Steed would know.

“So,” Steed was standing by a library table that held a cardboard box. The room was lined with shelves much like the one in their new house. But these shelves were packed with volumes, some so crammed the shelves showed signs of warping. “What were my aunts so desperate to speak to you about?”

“Oh, children,” Emma said, to see how he’d react. He dropped the book he was holding into the box and faced her.

“They didn’t ask if you’re –?”

“No! Honestly Steed!”

“Well, they seemed to believe you must be acting under duress,” he grumbled, turning to fish the book back out of the box.

“They were just teasing you and you know it. They’re very fond of you.”

“So Caro tells me,” he said, pulling another book out of the box and examining its spine.

“Steed, what will you do with this house when your aunts –?”

“Pass on?” he suggested. She nodded. “Helen had a daughter, but she was killed in the war. Perhaps Ted would like to live here,” he said, referring to his sister’s oldest son. “Or perhaps, by then, we’ll want to hold on to it for someone else.”

Emma felt a warm glow behind her face that made her smile. A son of theirs would be heir to the Steed estate.

“What are these?” She asked, moving beside him to peer at the books. “Black Beauty, Treasure Island,” she read the titles.

“My books,” he said with a fond smile. He set down Black Beauty and opened Treasure Island to the title page.

“It’s a first edition,” she said with admiration. “Is this what they meant, when they said your books were still here?”

“Yes of course,” he put both volumes in the box and turned back to the shelf he was emptying. “I haven’t actually lived here since I was a boy.”

She laughed. “So you all knew that you weren’t coming in here to read,” she said.

“Of course not. They wanted me to go away. I decided to behave like a gentleman, seeing as you were there.” He examined a large, thin volume and put it in the box. It had a picture of a stuffed rabbit on the front. Emma reached in and took it out.

“And what are you doing now?” she asked, opening the book. It was intended for a very young reader. Steed looked at the book in her hands, then up at her face. Their eyes met and he shrugged, a little embarrassed.

“I thought we might want these. Eventually.” He said. She closed the book, set it in the box, and stepped close to him.

“I hope we will,” she said, caressing the side of his face. He leaned into her hand, his arms slipping around her. “I like your aunts, Steed. After hearing about them – well, all of the miscellaneous ones you’re always mentioning – it’s lovely to finally meet them.”

“They’ve gone for their naps?” he asked.

“Yes. I wasn’t sure what was expected.”

“Let’s pack these up and go back to Caro’s. They won’t expect us to stay.”

“But they didn’t even say good-bye to you.”

“Time’s different for them, darling. Next time I come they’ll think it’s part of the same visit. I’ll telephone them later and they won’t remember I was here.”

“Really? They seem so alert, so alive,” she frowned.

“They are, when you’re here with them. But they fade. To be honest, it’s very difficult to watch. I remember them as younger women, so vivacious and happy. I’m glad you got to see them at their best. Caro will be glad, too. She was worried about this meeting.”

“I had no idea.”

“No, we were all hoping for the best and it came true. But let’s not tempt fate.”

They finished packing Steed’s childhood library into three boxes and placed them in the car. As they rode back across the valley Emma regretted not saying good-bye to the aunts.

“I don’t suppose we can expect them to travel to the wedding, can we?” she asked after a while.

“We must invite them, and they will probably accept,” he replied. “But Caro will have to let us know if they will really come. If she thinks they’re up to it she’ll arrange for a car.”

“I hope they can come,” Emma said, and Steed reached out to take her hand.

“Be careful what you wish for, darling,” he said with a grin.

“Miss Knight? This is Wilson. You asked me to call you if that Gott came around here,” the farmer’s voice was rather muffled, as if he were holding the phone under a blanket. It got Emma’s full attention, as she hoped he was not in any danger.

“Yes Mr. Wilson. Is he there now?”

“No ma’am. My boy – hired hand helps me out now and then – was out in the pastures near that swamp. Says he saw that German drove up in a truck. He unloaded something, carried it right out there into the muck.”

“Something he could carry himself? Alone?” Emma asked, wanting to get a sense of the scope of Gott’s project, whatever it was.

“Boy said he watched him make a lot of trips carrying bits and bobs out there. But he was alone.”

“All right, Mr. Wilson. My associate and I will come out right away. Did Mr. Gott leave again when he finished unloading?”

“Yes ma’am. But he left it out there, whatever it is.”

“Good. We’ll come see to it. And Mr. Wilson?”

“Yes ma’am?”

“Please stay away from it, or him, if he comes back.”

“We’ll see, ma’am. If he’s up to something that’ll hurt my land . . .”

“Please, Mr. Wilson. I’m sure we can be there before he can do any damage.”

“I saw how it works, Mrs. Peel. The filters are changed daily when they’re in use. The system has sensors to signal if a filter is missing or clogged.” Picking up on her sense of urgency when she phoned, Steed had met her on the sidewalk outside of the ministry and climbed immediately into the passenger seat of her car.

“So in order for water laden with gold or platinum to bypass the filters, someone in control of the system would have to be aware of it,” she said, accelerating as she turned onto the highway heading west.

“Precisely.”

“And the staff who control the system?”

“All passed standard background checks for the facility. But as we well know, no one is above suspicion.”

“Even Major Dunn?” Emma asked, flashing him a sly smile.

“The fact that Gott did not mention to me that he’s a jeweler was enough for me to believe he’s after the facility’s gold and platinum-laden run off. But I have been unable to link anyone who works inside to him,” Steed said, unwilling to rise to her bait.

“Well, I don’t suppose that’s as important as catching him catching the gold. If we don’t, he’ll have access to half a million pounds worth, tax free, every year.”

“I wonder how he plans to get it to his plant in Germany.”

“Ceramics distribution?”

Steed thought about that for a while as the little Lotus sped toward Section Seventy Stroke Zed. Gott had not lied about being involved with his father-in-law’s ceramics business: he did handle certain aspects of their distribution. But he had omitted his own jewelry company when he spoke with Steed. Could he possibly hide gold and platinum dust inside ceramics and move them across the border?

“Raw clay,” he said after a while.

“Excuse me?” Emma said.

“The information we got about his father-in-law’s business said something about their importing clay from England.”

“Maybe very valuable clay,” Emma nodded.

“He’ll collect the gold and platinum and take it to wherever the clay is packaged. Wet clay is heavy, right?”

“Very heavy, and very dense,” she nodded again. “It’s a very clever method.”

“Much safer than swallowing it,” Steed mussed.

“Ummm. Extraction is much more pleasant,” Emma grimaced. “So we’re back to our initial puzzle.”

“Where did he get the deeds?”

“Mr. Steed, how pleasant to see you again,” Major Dunn rose and extended her hand to Steed. As he shook it the Major’s eyes rose over his shoulder and widened. Emma had been overseeing installation of closet fixtures in the master bedroom suite when farmer Wilson called. She’d left immediately, still wearing her dark blue catsuit with cutouts in various strategic places and a low belt that emphasized the swing of her hips as she walked. She had grabbed the matching jacket, but carried it now over her shoulder.

“Ah, this is Miss Emma Knight,” Steed said, releasing the Major’s hand and half turning to include Emma.

“Major,” she said, her tone just a few degrees above freezing.

“Miss Knight,” the Major replied, cooler still.

How is it possible, Steed wondered, for the Major to intuit our relationship just from a look, and from Emma’s tone? Steed glanced at Emma and realized just how seductive she looked compared to the uniformed major. Best to diffuse this quickly.

“Major, we would like to pay another visit to your recycling facility. We suspect that someone has, or will shortly, disable the gold and platinum filters.”

“Very well,” the Major said, eyes darting between Steed’s and Emma and settling hopefully on Steed. “Both of you?”

“Yes,” Emma said.

“This is the monitoring station. See – the gold and platinum filtration systems are up and running,” the Major said, pointing to a series of green lights on one of several panels. Two technicians were seated in the monitoring room, but the facility was otherwise untended. Emma stepped up close to the panel and ran her fingers along its edge. Without warning she gave it a yank and it swung open on a hinge.

“Hey!” one of the technicians jumped up and came toward them, then he stopped and looked to the Major for guidance. She had planted her hands on her hips and was glaring at Emma. But Emma had poked her head inside the device, oblivious to her would-be rival.

“Mr. Steed, this is unacceptable!” the Major growled.

Steed smiled comfortingly, “don’t worry, Major, she’s really very knowledgeable.”

Something inside the device clicked and Emma shut the panel. The row of green lights had turned red and Emma held up a small box with wires hanging out of it.

“It’s a simple override,” she said. “The system could be flooded and these lights would never have gone red.”

“Tyler!” the Major snapped, turning toward the technician. He turned pale, but stood his ground as she faced him. Steed glanced at Emma, who was wearing a smug smile. He gave her a scolding look and took the device from her.

Emma glanced around the room and located something she’d noticed when they entered, a row of high rubber boots against one wall. She picked up two pairs, glancing at the sizes printed on the bottoms.

Meanwhile the Major was berating the technician, his head drooping lower and lower with each sentence. Emma caught Steed’s eye and he nodded. He set the override device on a counter and followed Emma out.

“If we want to scale the fence, the shortest route is to follow the stream,” she said.

“Fence climbing. Again,” he sighed, but he followed her.

They reached the fence in ten minutes. Emma poked the narrow toes of her boots into the chain link and scaled it easily, although getting over the barbed wire at the top required careful maneuvering. Steed tossed the boots over one by one and she collected them while he climbed.

“Ooph!” he hissed as he was straddling the top.

“Steed?” she whispered loudly. He got himself over the top and dropped most of the way down.

“Snagged my trousers is all,” he said reassuringly.

“Thank goodness,” she replied wryly. He glanced at her sharply, then bent to remove his shoes and put on the boots.

The fence was constructed on solid ground. Steed and Emma continued to follow the stream, which flowed under the fence through a grate that prevented anyone from swimming upstream into the facility. Within a hundred feet the ground had grown soft and reeds and other marshland vegetation grew tall. Steed stopped Emma and cocked his head, listening.

There was a rhythmic, gushing sound coming from within the reeds. Steed stepped into the stream, which still had defined banks here, although it would probably become indistinguishable from the rest of the marsh within the reeds. Emma followed, feeling the icy chill of the water through the rubber boots. They waded through the thick reeds toward the strange sound.

“Gott! What are you up to?”

“That’s Wilson,” Emma whispered to Steed. He glanced at her, then pressed on through the reeds into a small, wet clearing.

“Herr Wilson,” Gott said. He was standing beside a device that was sitting in the water.

“This is still my land. You’re trespassing,” Wilson said. Now Steed spotted him standing on higher ground amid the reeds. He was aiming a shotgun at Gott.

“Mr. Wilson!” Emma said, moving toward the farmer. He swung the gun toward her then raised his head to look at her. “I told you we would come,” she said.

Gott chose that moment to lunge at Steed, who had inched toward him and his device.

“Watch out, Miss,” Wilson shouted, re-aiming his gun.

“No!” Emma cried, but Wilson had already fired. Steed and Gott fell into the cold, dirty water and she had no idea who Wilson had hit. “Steed!” she plunged after them, dragging indiscriminately at wet clothes and hoping Wilson was through shooting. The water was turning crimson.

Then Steed’s head surfaced and he got to his feet knee deep in the marsh, pulling Gott up with him. There was a blossom of red across Gott’s back and a trickle between his lips. He coughed up red foam and Emma grimaced, a tinge in her own chest bringing back frightening memories.

“Herr Gott,” Steed said, supporting the injured man. “Where did you get the deeds?”

“I told you,” Gott groaned, “inherited them.”

“No you did not,” Steed said. “We know they’re forgeries. Whom did you get them from?”

Gott coughed again and drew in a ragged breath. Steed was supporting his full weight now.

“Torcello,” Gott groaned, his eyes opening wide to stare at Steed. Then his head rolled to the side and Steed lowered him into the water, leaning him against his machine.

Steed and Emma both looked up at Wilson, who was still standing on the high ground. He had lowered his shotgun and looked rather shaken.

“He was trespassing,” he said thinly.

“Indeed,” Emma replied coolly.

“Who knows what he was up to?”

“He was up to stealing gold and platinum from the research facility,” Steed said quietly. “Not your land, or your crops. Just some gold. For his jewelry.”

“Gold? There’s gold here?”

Emma climbed out of the water and took the shotgun from Wilson, who gave it up without a word. “Gold?” he repeated, still staring at Gott. Emma looked down at Steed, who was studying the device. He reached out and turned a handle on the far side. Water gushed out the back. Steed lifted the top and looked inside.

“Well?” Emma asked.

“Filters,” Steed said. “Covered in gold dust.”

Wilson started to step down into the water to get a closer look, but Emma clamped her arm around his chest to stop him.

“Come on, Mr. Wilson, let’s go back to your house. I need to use the telephone. I’ll explain on the way.” She looked down at Steed, who looked back, nodding. “Get out of the water, Steed,” she added. “Or you’ll catch your death.”

“Wouldn’t want that, Mrs. Peel,” he said, his mood brightening. She smiled at him, then turned Wilson and got him moving back through the marsh.

“The heat’s up as high as it goes,” Emma said, glancing at Steed’s stocking covered feet.

“I’m quite comfortable, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said. She’d returned from Wilson’s house with blankets, then gone to get her car and bring it as close as she could to the marsh. By the time that was done the authorities had arrived to collect Gott’s body and his gold filtering device. Then they’d gone to Wilson’s house to discuss the shooting with him. He’d stood by his claim of protecting his property, and when Emma and Steed didn’t contradict him the authorities left him at home.

“I really thought about saying that Wilson didn’t need to shoot him,” Emma said after a while.

“Why didn’t you?”

She stared ahead into the gathering dusk for a few minutes. “He’s worked hard all his life on that farm. Survived the war, and the loss of his wife. In his mind, Gott was a serious threat to his livelihood. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy his life by testifying against him for it. Gott is dead. It wouldn’t bring him back. What about you? You could have said something. He might have hit you instead.”

“I was wondering if you were going to come to that,” Steed said, sounding just a little hurt that it had not been her primary motivator.

“Well, then the situation would have been entirely different,” she said, struggling to maintain her perspective. “Because I would have taken his gun and shot him.”

“In cold blood?”

“Oh, my blood would have been far from cold, Steed.”

He chuckled, then reached over to the steering wheel and took her left hand from it. “I wonder if the Major will identify who installed that override?” he said, stroking her fingers.

“Yes. Perhaps I should call her and find out,” Emma replied, darting a quick smile at him.

“All in a day’s work, Mrs. Peel,” he said, bringing her fingers to his lips. She grinned happily at the road ahead as he kissed them one by one.

Chapter 4

“Miss Knight, you say that fell in love with Mr. Steed soon after meeting him,” Father Michaels said, his sonorous voice making it easier for Emma to accept the inevitably personal question that must be coming. “Has there ever been a time when your feelings have changed?”

“You mean, have I ever stopped loving him? No. But somewhere along the line my feelings did go from being in love, the superficial infatuation that one first feels, to deep love.”

“And when your first husband came back? How did you feel about him?”

“I don’t see what that has to do –,” Steed interrupted. Father Michaels cut him off.

“You had grieved for your husband, buried him, and then he returned. Was your love for him renewed by his return?”

“No. My love for Peter had died before him,” Emma shifted in her chair. The minister’s gentle tone was no longer enough to ward off the discomfort. “When he returned, I went back to him out of duty.”

“And you, Mr. Steed. How did Miss Knight’s return to her husband affect your feelings toward her?”

Now Steed squirmed. “My feelings for Mrs. Peel did not change,” he said simply. Father Michaels eyes narrowed and he re-crossed his long legs. “You were not hurt by her departure? You didn’t miss her?”

“Yes, of course. But my feelings were unchanged.”

To Emma’s surprise, the minister nodded his head understandingly. She felt it was unfair that he would accept Steed’s stubborn answer after he had probed her for more.

“I want each of you to think about this further,” he said. “Consider, in your own hearts, whether there has been a time when your devotion to the other has wavered. And then think about what restored it. That’s what I’m trying to get at. Because there will be times in the future when you will have doubts, and you will need to draw upon whatever has helped you in the past.”

 “Tell me something, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said quietly, almost tentatively. They had both felt drained after their interview with Father Michaels. Steed had driven them back into the city and they’d subsided onto the sofa, Steed uncharacteristically pulling Emma into his arms rather than allowing her to sit at the opposite end from him. She raised her head to look at his face. He never called her that when they were alone and not working – it seemed to distance them and she wondered if that was his intention now.

“Yes?” she asked. He looked almost frightened, an expression so rarely seen on him it was hard to identify.

“In the weeks before your husband reappeared, were you thinking of leaving me?”

She stared at him in shocked silence, wanting to turn away, to escape his solemn gaze so that she could think how to respond. But he held her with his eyes, searching for his answer in the emotions that played across her face.

“Yes,” she whispered, knowing he would see it even if she didn’t say it. He closed his eyes, the pain in his features causing her eyes to fill with tears. She lowered her head to his shoulder and let them overflow. “I never thought you noticed,” she added.

“I suspected,” he said. “And in retrospect, after you were gone, I realized that I had known.”

She swallowed hard and sniffed and he brought his hand to her face to wipe the tears off her cheek.

“I never cry,” she said out of habit.

“Sometimes you do, Emma,” he replied. She took a deep breath and felt a sharp wave of grief wash over her. The memory of her turmoil in those days, how she’d loved him madly, but had come to realize that even the deepest, purest love wasn’t enough, was excruciating. She couldn’t stop the flood of tears that followed, and he held her through them, whispering softly into her hair. “Sometimes you do, and I’m glad that you can, with me. That you trust me enough.”

“I always trusted you,” she whimpered. “And I always loved you. But I had come to a place where I thought it wasn’t enough.”

“I know,” he stroked her hair, wishing now that he’d never asked, although the notion had been burning at the back of his mind for months. Father Michaels’s questions had brought it to the fore. He had been attending the meetings out of duty – a chore that must be done in order for the wedding to proceed. But today he had finally come to understand their value. There was still plenty for them to discuss to be completely at ease with one another about their pasts, and their future.

“Sally guessed at it once,” she went on. “She said that we had to be apart for a time to understand how much we need one another.”

“But if you’d gone – if Sir Peter hadn’t returned when he did and you’d decided it was time to move on, would you have ever come back?”

“I don’t know. It may have been impossible, once the choice was made. Would you have tried to stop me?”

“Yes.”

“Would you have succeeded?”

“You mean, would I have offered you what you wanted?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure that I could have understood then that it’s what I want, too.”

“Are you sure that it is?”

He was silent for a long while, and Emma didn’t dare raise her head to look at his face. She had handed it to him, the chance to walk away from the changes that she was causing in his life. The chance to break her heart as she had his.

“I want everything we’ve talked about, Emma,” he finally said. His voice had an edge that made her rear up and look at him. “Never doubt me.” His eyes pierced hers with an undeniable hint of anger. She nodded slowly, knowing that she trusted him now as much as she always had, and that the future they were shaping together was truly a joint vision.

“You’re sure you can’t come with me?” Emma allowed her disappointment to come through in her voice.

“Believe me, Mrs. Peel, I’m as disappointed as you are. My mouth is already watering for croissants in bed,” he replied.

“Well if that’s all you want, I know a baker in the City who’d be happy to supply us with some,” Emma retorted, thinking of an apprentice baker that they’d met on a case years ago. Then she sighed and accepted his decision, “Heigh-ho, I’ll just have to enjoy Paris on my own then.”

“Somehow I suspect you’ll manage,” he chuckled. “But I will miss you. You’re sure it’s just two days?”

“Positive. Our Paris office has scheduled all of the meetings for tomorrow and Friday. I will be back just in time for the Spanish Embassy party that night. I promise.”

Emma stepped into the vestibule and pressed the buzzer on the inner doorframe. There was a click and she pushed on the door. It was Thursday evening and she’d called ahead to confirm this meeting, slotted in between her consultation with the head of Knight’s Paris office and dinner with the head of a French computer software firm and his wife. She trotted up the inner stairs and stepped into an office furnished with three desks. Tara King stepped through the doorway of an inner office and approached her, her hand extended.

“How nice of you to drop by, Emma,” she said.

“Thank you for seeing me,” Emma replied, shaking Tara’s hand.

Tara led her into her office. Emma was pleased to see that it showed new signs of affluence – the walls had been painted a warm grey, there were lovely curtains concealing the government-issue shades, and the scuffed old desk had been replaced with a very sleek, modern model. Emma had last been in Tara’s office almost a year ago when Steed had been kidnapped outside of Paris and Emma had needed help. Then it had been grimly stark. She hoped the decorative additions meant Tara’s work here was going well.

“You said it wasn’t business,” Tara prompted her, unlocking a drawer in a credenza behind her and taking out a bottle of brandy and two glasses. Emma smiled and nodded at Tara’s inquiring glance.

“Not ministry business,” Emma clarified. “I’m here to ask for your help with my wedding.”

Tara froze for a moment, nearly overfilling one of the glasses. “Your wedding,” she said tightly, setting the bottle down. “To Steed.” She raised her face to Emma’s, big blue eyes showing tension that Emma hadn’t expected. Then she looked back down, picked up a glass, and downed the brandy in one gulp. She stared into the empty glass for a moment, then set it down, refilled it, and handed Emma the other glass.

“How can I help?” she asked.

“Tara, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Emma said, setting the glass on the edge of the desk.

“Of course not,” Tara said, full of false cheerfulness. “I just hadn’t – expected you to ask.”

“I’m not,” Emma began, then paused to think about how to say it, “I don’t think it would be appropriate to ask you to be part of the bridal party. That’s not what I meant.”

Tara took another gulp of brandy and seemed to relax. “Oh,” she said, then closed her mouth as if trying to contain any further comments.

“I would like you to help with logistics. We’ll have houseguests and regular wedding guests, and security – Mother is coming, for heaven’s sake – and neither Steed nor I will be able to concentrate on seeing that everyone is where they should be. We need you, Tara.”

Tara stared at Emma, her eyes narrowing, then widening. She yanked open a drawer in her elegant glass and chrome desk and pulled out a pack of Gauloises. Emma shook her head when Tara held them out to her. Tara took one out and lit it with a lighter from the drawer. She sucked in a long draught, blew it out to the side, and set the cigarette in an ashtray on her desk.

“I’ll get there a couple days early,” she said. “Shall I arrange security, or has Steed?”

“I don’t think he’s begun,” Emma replied, startled by Tara’s quick decision.

“I’ll need a guest list, with who’s to be where when, and what vehicles we have available,” Tara picked up a pencil and started making notes. She glanced up at Emma, who was smiling with delight. “Tell me you aren’t using the Bentley.”

“What’s wrong with the old girl?” Emma asked, then grinned at Tara’s grimace.

“Please, Emma.”

Emma laughed and sipped her brandy. “No. I’m hiring a carriage to take me to the church and bring us both back to the house. But Steed will need to get to the church – that’ll be part of the logistics.”

“Where will he be?” Tara asked, realizing that Emma had implied that he would not be with her at their house.

“He’s spending the night before the wedding in London, at his apartment. James is already assigned to get him to the church.”

Tara tapped her pencil on her pad and looked at the notes she’d made. “You trust James to do that?”

“I trust Steed to be there.”

Emma had a knack for arriving fashionably late for diplomatic functions. She enjoyed making an entrance and was accustomed to being noticed when she paused in the doorway to survey the room. She knew she looked haughty, as if sorting the rest of the guests into those she wished to associate with and those she would ignore. She had long ago discarded any concern about presenting herself this way. Let them think it, and let them hope to be in the right group. She often toned down her outward attitude when she was with Steed. Sometimes he needed her to be understated, sometimes – usually! — he needed to be the peacock, and she did not mind playing the unobtrusive, if attractive, companion. But when she was alone, she preferred to shine.

Actually, she was surprised that she didn’t see Steed in the crowded ballroom when she paused in the wide doorway an hour after the start time on the invitation. She quickly identified many familiar faces, including a particular Spanish dignitary who she had long suspected was attracted to her. She had not seen him since her divorce and as she strolled toward him she wondered if the news of her engagement to Steed had reached the Spanish embassy.

“Senora Knight!” he said cheerfully when he caught sight of her. She returned his broad smile, offering her hand to be kissed.

Hola Senior Garcia,” she replied, exercising her lisping Castilian accent.

“It grieved me to hear of your difficulties last spring,” he said formally. “I hope you received my note?”

“Yes, Senior. I was touched by your kindness,” she replied. Garcia’s note had been one of many wishing her a speedy recovery after a member of Knight’s board of directors had shot her.

“And now I have heard rumors,” he went on, and she found herself smiling. “So it’s true? That rascal Steed has finally come to his senses?”

“It is, Senior.”

Bueno,” he said firmly, and to her surprise he looked genuinely pleased. “But he is not here?”

“Not yet,” Emma glanced toward the door, but there was no sign of Steed.

“Then perhaps you will dance with me, just until your fiancé arrives?”

Emma felt herself smiling again and she offered her hand to him. “I would be delighted, Senior,” she said. He swirled her onto the dance floor and lead her into the waltz amid a crowd of dancing couples. Garcia was a good dancer if a bit mechanical. He navigated them easily amid couples that were moving with less expertise. His right hand remained discretely on her waist and his left held her hand delicately. Although he exuded the typical warm sensuality of a Spaniard, he was equally respectful of her engaged state. They had made two circuits of the dance floor when Emma saw Garcia’s eyes flick up over her shoulder. He smiled and nodded, turned her, and stepped away as Steed gracefully took his place. She was instantly pulled closer to him than she’d been to Garcia, and her left hand moved of its own accord up to the back of his neck. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Garcia half bow, still smiling cordially, and move away through the dancers.

She gazed happily into Steed’s eyes and he smiled back, clearly resisting the urge to kiss her. He was perfectly groomed, dressed in black tie, and emanating the powerful mixture of rich cologne and absolute maleness that never failed to make her tingle all over. She was quickly lost in the waltz, his feline grace carrying them effortlessly amid the other dancers. He guided her outside through open French doors, took a turn around the terrace, then went back in through a different door. Emma saw the surprised expressions of guests standing near the doors as they waltzed by. She grinned at Steed. They circled the floor again and, as the waltz was coming to an end, went back out through the doors. The music ended and they parted, clapping lightly along with the rest of the dancers inside, eyes still locked with one another. As the sound of voices in conversation rose from inside, Steed grasped her hand and led her across the terrace to the low wall at its edge. There were a few other guests outside in the chilly November air. They easily found privacy near the wall.

“How was Paris?” Steed asked, still holding her hand.

“Productive,” she said.

“I didn’t mean your work. How was our city?” he nearly purred, his thumb stroking the back of her hand.

She felt herself melting. Our city.

“Empty without you, darling,” she said, placing the hand he wasn’t holding on his lapel. “Where have you been?”

“Last minute breakthrough,” he said, drawing the hand he was holding to his lips.

“Oh?”

“Torcello,” he said simply. She thought for a moment, then smiled with recognition. He watched as she remembered Gott’s last word, then nodded. “It’s an island in the Venice Lagoon. It’s not very populated, but there’s a religious community there.”

“So you think our forger is a monk?”

He shrugged. “Or a whole community of them,” he suggested with a smile. “We’ll look into it.”

“You’re not thinking of running off to Venice!” she said with sudden alarm. “Not with the wedding six weeks away!”

“You just ran off to Paris,” he pointed out.

“That was business!”

“This is business.”

“But I don’t get shot at in my business,” she said, then watched his one eyebrow arch. He waited and she chuckled at herself, pressing her free hand to her lips. His eyes lit with amusement. “Well, just that once,” she added wryly.

“In any case, we’re sending in one of or local people,” he said. “It’s a small, closed community. So it will take some time to infiltrate. Perhaps after the wedding we can check in there.”

“So you want to go there for our honeymoon?” she asked, considering it. She had not yet given much thought to their honeymoon – booking travel at the last minute had never troubled her. But his speculative expression worried her.

“No, that would be work. I have a better plan for our honeymoon,” he said, turning the hand he was still holding to kiss the palm. Now she arched one eyebrow and waited. “Let me take care of everything,” he added.

“What’s your plan?”

“Oh no, let me take care of it.” He kissed the inside of her wrist. Warm little waves emanated from the place where his lips touched her skin.

“Without even telling me?”

“Yes.” His breath caressed her as he pressed his lips to the inside of her elbow.

“How will I know what to pack?”

“I’ll give you a list. We can always buy anything else you need.”

“Steed –.”

“Emma, don’t you trust me to plan a little trip?” He raised his head to look into her eyes.

She let a little frown flick across her face, then thought about what he’d asked. Of course she did. This was Steed, not a travel agent, or florist, or wedding photographer who had to be checked and double-checked.

“I trust you to plan a wonderful honeymoon, darling,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m just so wrapped up in planning everything else, it’s hard to let go.”

“Tara will take a bit of the burden off,” he said, looking smug. Emma gave him a crooked smile.

“She called you?”

“Yes. I was surprised, at first. Pretty nervy of you to ask her. But she was all business.”

“She was the only person I could think of who could handle the more – sensitive – aspects of security. Other than you, and I don’t want you to be distracted by all of that on our wedding day.”

“I’m glad you found a way to include her. You are quite remarkable, have I mentioned that recently?”

“Not in so many words, no.”

“We’ll put yer compost here below the stables,” Mr. Howard said, gesturing at an area adjacent to the woods. Emma nodded as they continued to stroll around the grounds near the house. “It’ll be convenient for yer gardener, and he can mix in manure from the stable when he wants it.”

“Are you sure I can’t convince you to come take care of this place, Mr. Howard?” Emma asked again. Sally’s father had been the gardener and handyman at the Peel estate until it opened as an inn and conference center a few months ago. Emma had initiated the conversion of the estate, so she felt responsible for his loss of the job there.

He shook his head, “Nah, Lady Emma, the drive’s too far. The missus wouldn’t like it one bit.”

Emma couldn’t fault him for devotion to his wife and family. But she sighed heavily just the same to express her regret.

“Now about this maze,” he went on as they approached the ten-foot hedges. Emma listened happily to his plan for pruning and re-growth. She could tell that he shared her fondness for the maze. She was certain that she could count on him to take responsibility for its rehabilitation, if not the rest of the garden.

Eventually they approached the house, entering the pool yard through the gate in the privacy hedge. He stopped and looked around, hands on hips and mouth open as if tasting the air in the enclosed garden.

“Pitty the pool doesn’t get more sun,” he said at last, “but I suppose in summer it’s a bit better. Now these should be relocated,” he headed for a row of bare trees along the side of the house. He looked from the trees to the pool, which was full of clear blue water. The faint sound of the pump could be heard. It resided in a small pool house that also housed a shower, changing rooms, and a wet bar. “I’ll bet that pool gets full of leaves in the fall.”

Emma nodded, “it was awash in them, and no water. We had the estate agent fill it and test the equipment. The service should come by to shut it down for the winter soon.”

“Well evergreen’s what you want around here, not these leafy things. We’ll move ‘em out there,” he gestured toward the larger grounds. “Maybe put in a nice gazebo and put ‘em around it? Nice shady place to read a good book, say?”

Emma smiled and tried not to think about the cost. Every farthing that they’d saved from her negotiation of the purchase price had already been spent twice over on repairs. They could afford it, but it still hurt, especially when Steed was just as capable as Mr. Howard of finding new things to add to the list.

She had moved to the house as soon the major electrical and plumbing repairs were complete. The master bedroom had been next, relocating the door of the next bedroom to make it a walk-in closet, then painting and refinishing everything. Emma had finally moved her things into it yesterday, allowing the painters to move on to the room down the hall that she’d been using.

There was still finishing work going on all over the house: plastering, painting, refinishing, tiling, and glazing were all in the works in various rooms. Down in the basement the ironsmiths had just finished installing Steed’s decorative gates on the wine cellar, and the plumbers had installed the three-staged photo washing sink in the photography lab that she had added to the list. After all, Steed had his humidor. She was looking forward to learning to develop color film.

Eventually she guided Mr. Howard into the front parlor, which was one of the few finished rooms in the house. She poured him a glass of whiskey and herself a glass of claret and they reviewed his notes. One by one the various workmen poked their heads in to say good night as they left for the weekend. The house had grown quiet and they were sketching out the gazebo – why not, what’s another thousand pounds? when they heard the unmistakable rumble of Steed’s Bentley outside.

“In here, Steed,” she called out when she heard the front door open. We must lubricate that hinge. Sally stepped into the parlor followed by Steed.

“Hello papa,” Sally said. She bent down to kiss Mr. Howard on the top of the head, then sat down beside him on the divan. Steed paused to look at the sketches on the coffee table, cocking one eyebrow at Emma out of Mr. Howard’s line of sight before sitting down in the other armchair.

“We were discussing moving the trees along the library wing,” Emma said. “they drop leaves into the pool.”

“Ah,” Steed said, an amused expression on his face.

“How are you, Sally?” Emma asked, seeing that Steed wasn’t going to render an opinion on the garden.

“Well enough, Emma,” Sally said, glancing at Steed. Then she leaned back on the divan and sighed heavily. “Exhausted, actually,” she admitted.

“That’s the idea,” Steed said brightly. “Learn to manage the stress, work under pressure, stay awake at all costs –.”

“You’ve got the weekend off?” Emma interrupted, smirking at Steed.

“Thank heavens, yes,” Sally said, then she looked at Steed again, fear creeping across her face, “haven’t I?” she asked.

“Yes, yes. No tricks. The instructors need time to write up some assessments,” he replied.

“Including me?” Emma asked, surprised. She had been teaching the trainees fencing once a week.

“I think Hemming will do an overall assessment,” Steed replied. 

“Good. Sally, I think you could use a drink,” Emma rose to get it. “Steed?”

At Emma’s prompting Mr. Howard described his suggestions for the garden to Steed and Sally. Sally smiled indulgently at his enthusiasm, but Emma could tell Steed was preoccupied. When their drinks were nearly gone it was Sally who suggested that it was time she and her father got home.

Steed and Emma escorted them to the front door and waved farewell as they drove off in Mr. Howard’s rattling utility van. Emma shut the squeaky front door and turned around to face Steed, who stood behind her. She peered into his eyes, trying to guess what was on his mind. As his hands settled on her waist and he stepped closer to her it became immediately obvious.

“Would it be inappropriate for me to seduce you right now?” he asked huskily.

“Yes. But I hope that doesn’t stop you,” she replied, sliding her hands up over the lapels of his suit coat and around his neck. He chuckled and pulled her tight against himself, his lips taking hers enthusiastically.

They managed to reach the master bedroom with all of their clothes still in hand, if not on. Once there Emma let the sweater that Steed had pulled over her head fall from her arm and giggled as his day’s growth of beard tickled the skin of her stomach. He was playfully nibbling around the elastic of her bra. She shivered as his tongue traced the scar below her breast. His hands were everywhere, opening the fly of her slacks, unhooking her bra, caressing the flesh in between, then twining into her hair and holding her head so that he could look into her eyes before kissing her again.

“I’m seduced,” she murmured against his neck as he placed kisses along her shoulder. Abruptly he reached around her and lifted her up, carrying her the rest of the way to the bed and laying her across it. He straightened and finished removing his jacket, waistcoat, and shirt while she watched. As he reached for his own fly she lifted one foot and waggled it at him. She was wearing ankle-high boots. She lay back on her elbows as he meticulously removed it, then held her foot next to his groin as he stroked her calf through her trousers. She obligingly wiggled her toes where he had placed them, feeling the expected response within his trousers.

He switched feet, and when that boot was off returned to his own fly. Emma wiggled out of her trousers and panties and rolled over to pull down the coverlet, revealing the fresh sheets beneath. She rolled back over and Steed was there, kissing his way from her waist to her face, hands all over her again. She reveled in his attentions, arching her back as he caressed her breasts and throwing her legs open to cradle his pelvis against hers. Her body yearned for contact with his – as much contact as possible, as close as possible.

He bent his head to kiss her breasts, humming something that sounded like Mozart as his lips closed around her nipple. She gasped as the vibration of his humming resonated through her. With a leering grin, he inched down her body to press his mouth between her thighs, humming with renewed gusto. The sensation sent her over the edge and she cried out at the intensity of her orgasm as the sound resonated through her body. He kissed and licked her steadily, drawing out her climax for as long as he could until she lay breathless and boneless. He crawled up beside her, lying on his side, his head on one hand, the other on her stomach, caressing her gently while she recovered.

“There are devices that deliver that sensation,” he said at last.

“I know,” she replied, her smile mysterious. Steed’s hand slowly circled on her stomach, but he was lost in thought.

“What is it darling?” She asked.

He frowned, still thinking, then swallowed and spoke, “When I captured Peter Peel, he said some very ungentlemanly things,” he said, his eyes moved from his own hand on her stomach up to her face. She made a little encouraging nod and he went on. “He waved a beer bottle at me and asked if I had discovered your ‘favorite move.’”

Emma stared at him for a moment, the shock of her ex-husband’s crudity sinking in slowly. She had come to regard him with contempt, but still she had never thought him capable of commenting on her sexual preferences to Steed. And clearly Steed had been quite affronted by it. She wanted to ask if anyone else – Lee or Amanda perhaps – had heard it, but that wasn’t the response Steed needed now.

“It had nothing to do with bottles,” she said and when he nodded she realized why he’d thought of Peter Peel’s parting words just now. He had finally guessed at the meaning of the words. That made it easier. “Peter is not very well endowed,” she said, and gave Steed high marks for not looking amused. “When he came back, when we were first back together living as husband as wife, he was not able to – I wasn’t used to his technique. It was so different from you.”

Steed was deeply torn between asking her not to go on — he could not stand thinking of her in another man’s bed, even her ex-husband’s — and hearing just where this had led.

“He realized it, eventually,” she went on. “And one day he came home with a device. It was a big and solid as you. He didn’t know about us, but I’m sure he suspected. He had intended to insult me, to make me feel cheap. But I liked it. I thought, why not, if it feels good? He got angry. We stopped having sex at all then, and I used it occasionally.”

“By yourself?” Steed breathed, the disturbing image of her with Peel replaced by the much more inflammatory one of her touching herself. He felt his erection, which had faded, surge to life between them. She felt it too and smiled. “Do you still have it?”

“Yes, it’s – Oh! No, it was in my apartment.”

“Had you used it recently?” he asked, a little alarmed. She grinned at him, reaching down to stroke his now solid member.

“I hadn’t had the urge,” she said. “But I can imagine it might be amusing. I’m sorry it’s gone.”

“Me too,” he replied thoughtfully.

She soon distracted him with her gentle, persistent strokes up and down his penis. He moaned with renewed need and rose up over her. He parted her with his fingers, covering first one nipple and then the other with is lips as he stroked her labia to hard wetness. She moaned too, bending one leg up and around his waist to push his groin toward hers. He released her nipple and smiled at her.

“You want me,” he said huskily, slipping one finger inside of her, but holding his hips firmly above hers. She emitted a wry little laugh, squeezing with the fingers that were wrapped around his erection.

“You want me,” she whispered back, passing her thumb over the tip of his penis. He shuddered and sucked in a thick gasp.

“I always want you,” he replied simply, as if it were too obvious to be worthy of comment. He stroked her clitoris, adding another finger as she closed her eyes and pressed her head back into the pillows. Her pelvis rose under his hand and he bent his head back to her breasts, humming as he sucked her nipple into a solid rosy mound. Her hand slid from his penis up and around to hold his ass. As he felt her orgasm coming he removed his fingers and drove into her with his whole body. She exploded around him, waves of heat and passion drawing him in, inflaming and melting him into her until they were one surging creature writhing together as each new wave of ecstasy washed over them and finally faded away.

Steed lifted his head to look at her still, contented face. He pressed his lips to her throat and lifted himself up. He’d collapsed on her, although she showed no sign of discomfort. He had no idea how long they’d been lying like that. As cool air rushed in between them she rolled her head and bent one knee, shifting her whole body slightly toward him as he moved to her side. He wrapped his top arm back around her and she nestled against him, regaining the contact that he’d taken away by moving. She subsided back into the half sleep, half post-coital stupor she’d been in. He shut his eyes and let himself do the same.

The bedroom was dark when Emma opened her eyes. Steed was holding her close with one arm, the other folded beneath him. She kissed his forehead and shifted against him, needing to be free. Not really awake, he obligingly rolled onto his back. It was not like them to sleep – really sleep – tangled together, so she knew they could not have been that way for very long. One of them would have pulled away to seek space and solitary comfort. She sat up and peered at the lighted bedside clock. Her eyes widened in surprise. They had tumbled into bed four hours ago. We must both be exhausted, she thought as she walked across the room into the freshly retiled bathroom.

She thought back over their love making and smiled. It had been particularly good, perhaps spurred by their discussion of the vibrator she no longer possessed. She wondered as she slipped back into bed if she dared visit the sort of shops where such a thing might be procured.

“Hungry,” Steed muttered as she cuddled back in against him, one arm stretched across his chest, her head on his shoulder. He caressed her back with that arm.

“Is that a question or a statement?” she asked.

“Both.”

“I vaguely recall laying in some provisions,” she said. “But that was ages ago, before your rather extreme seduction.”

“Washed it clean out of your memory, hum?” he chuckled, turning his head to press his lips against her hair.

“Something like that,” she sighed, caressing his chest and habitually pausing to stroke a small, hard nipple.

“Ummmm,” he sighed. Encouraged, she lifted her head and sought his other nipple with her lips. He sighed again as she stroked it with her tongue.

“I thought you were hungry,” she muttered against his flesh as she kissed a scar on his belly. Her hand went to his thigh and he let his legs sprawl open, encouraging her caresses. She put her ear to his stomach. “Not grumbling yet,” she said and he chuckled.

“No, but something else is demanding your attention,” he said.

She raised her head and flicked her tongue over the tip of his half erect penis. It surged to full stature at her touch and she smiled. Who needs supper?

She sucked him first, lightly caressing his balls, barely touching more than the hairs there until he shook his head from side to side and begged her to stop, or to take him, but not to go on driving him mad. So she took him, engulfing him within herself, straddling him and bearing down until the hot tip of his penis pushed against her insides. She savored the sharp little ache, rode upon it until she couldn’t stand it any longer, then lifted and plunged again, shifting her hips so that his shaft brushed against different sensitive spots.

He moved with her, holding her thighs, then letting his hands slip toward her opening to tickle her so that she cried out and bore down on him. He arched his back, driving upward against her, feeling his orgasm building and checking it, willing his eager flesh to wait for her. She bent down, put her hands on his shoulders and wiggled her hips to press his solid erection against her throbbing clitoris. She gasped, eyes squeezed shut, fingers digging painfully into the muscles of his shoulders. He wrapped his hands around her hips and pressed her downward against his upward thrust. She cried out and he did it again, raising and lowering her, pumping into her with his surging, demanding loins.

“Don’t stop,” she cried as he pumped them again, and then again, going faster as his orgasm thundered through him out of control. She was also out of control, bouncing on him, twisting and rubbing, fingers pinching his nipples just as he came so that he cried out as well and dug bruising fingers into her ass.

She panted above him, stiff arms holding her up until he reached up to her shoulders and pulled her to him. He stroked her back, then rolled from one side to the other so that she could straighten first one leg and then the other. Eventually he rolled onto his side, still holding her tight.

“Shall we spend the whole weekend this way?” she whispered after a while.

“It will take you a long way toward your slimming goal,” he replied with a chuckle.

“Don’t laugh. One can burn a lot of calories having sex.”

“Then by all means let’s keep at it,” he said.

“In any case, I have no interest in going all the way to the kitchen to make supper right now,” she said, wanting to be sure they were in agreement.

“I have no intention of going further than that bathroom,” he replied, loosening his hold on her to indicate that he meant to go there soon.

“We can have a long, leisurely breakfast tomorrow,” she suggested, rolling onto her back to let him go.

He came back a while later feeling damp and smelling fresh.

“You showered,” she said sleepily as he kissed her and pulled up the covers.

“I wanted to try our bathroom. It was my first time, you know.”

“I know. I wanted to share it with you.”

“Oh dear. Shall I go again and you can come in?”

“Not now. We’ll just pretend it’s your first time. In the morning,” she was nearly asleep. He smiled, kissing the tip of her shoulder as she settled in with her back to him.

“Sleep well love,” he whispered, happy that he could at last say it to her while she was awake enough to hear him. At least he thought she was.

“I love you too, Steed,” she murmured and he settled down and closed his own eyes.

Chapter 5

“Lee and Amanda and their family will arrive on Thursday afternoon and you’ll meet them at the airport,” Emma said, studying her clipboard at the little breakfast table in Steed’s London apartment. The wedding was two weeks away. Steed glanced up from the morning paper, half listening.

“They won’t all fit in the Bentley,” he said absently.

“They’re renting a car. You’re to welcome them, and take one or two in the Bentley so they aren’t on top of their luggage in their car.”

“Lee Stetson does not need a welcoming committee,” he said, paying more attention.

“No, but it’s the proper thing to do for Amanda’s mother and sons.”

He sighed and nodded, resisting the urge to return to the paper as he watched her move to the next item on her list. He was beginning to sympathize with those employees at Knight Industries who were known to call her “the matriarch.” Known, that is, by everyone but her.

“Sally’s picking up Tara a couple hours before that. And Nancy is due to arrive here about the same time as them. They’ve blocked out three hours of my time on Friday, midday. They think they’re going to surprise me with a shower.”

“But it isn’t a surprise, apparently,” he said.

“I wish I could prevent it from happening. It’s so silly. We don’t need anything – at least not the sorts of things one gets at showers.”

Steed let a sneaky smile cross his face and her eyes narrowed at him.

“What are you thinking?” she asked suspiciously.

He shrugged as innocently as he could, but she held him with her demanding gaze.

“That it may not be that sort of shower, from what I hear. I think we – I – may very much want the gifts they’re bringing.”

Her expression broke. He laughed outright at her bafflement.

“What on earth are you laughing at?” she asked.

“You! My dear, from what I’ve heard, it’s what they call a lingerie shower.”

“What!” Emma nearly dropped her clipboard on the table. “They wouldn’t!”

“You have made it clear to them that we don’t need anything. But I’ve heard through confidential sources,” he put up a hand for emphasis and she closed her mouth without asking who, “that they would not simply discard tradition, so they decided to shower you with distinctly non-household gifts.”

“Gifts for you,” she said, a smirk growing into a genuine laugh. “I shall be mortified!”

“Please darling, it will only be the women. Surely you can accept their presents without too much embarrassment,” he said and his slightly pleading tone made her laugh again.

“You’re awfully optimistic about their taste, darling,” she said.

“Surely there will be something appealing in the lot,” he said, “Something lacy and sleek, with lots of interesting straps and things. . .” his voice trailed off as he stared into space thoughtfully. She watched him for a moment, grinning in spite of herself.

“You are dear old letch,” she finally said as the little smile on his face turned into a leer.

“And just what aspect of that do you dislike?” he asked, brows raised in inquiry. She stood up and went around to him, pressing herself into the narrow space between him and the table. She settled onto his lap with her arms around his neck.

“Actually,” she whispered into his ear, her lips just brushing it as they moved, “I can’t think of any aspect of it that I dislike.” She ran her fingers into his hair and planted a lush kiss on his lips. He returned it enthusiastically. She broke it off with a teasing smile and said, “so I’ll endure their embarrassing shower, just for you, if you’ll endure greeting Lee and Amanda’s family at the airport.”

“Deal,” he nodded sharply, the corners of his eyes wrinkled with mirth. “Do you really have to go to the office?”

“Absolutely,” she said firmly, getting to her feet to prevent any further distractions. “And I’m going directly out to the house this afternoon to meet with the caterer. If you don’t make it, I’m picking all my favorite starters.”

“I’ll be there. Although I’m sure your favorites are, for the most part, also mine,” he said, picking his paper back up as if to emphasize his confidence in her choices. She sighed, picking up her clipboard.

“You know that isn’t the point. A girl likes to have support in these things.”

“I see,” he said, looking pointedly at the paper and not her. “I feel compelled to point out that you are a far cry from what I would call ‘a girl.’”

“I could take that the wrong way,” she retorted, actually trying to decide whether to do so. He lowered the paper and looked at her, his eyes flashing with a familiar cross between affection and animal desire.

“No, you couldn’t,” he said simply. He watched her nostrils flare as she considered whether to engage or concede. Then the edges of her mouth curled and she leaned over to kiss him on the forehead, clipboard clutched to her breasts like armor.

“Just be there. Please,” she said.

“I will,” he assured her as she strode out of the kitchen. He was a little surprised at himself that he actually understood. She was perfectly capable of making all of the decisions about their wedding, but she did not want to. He appreciated her wish to include him, and even though he really did trust her to make the day absolutely perfect, he wouldn’t fail her when she said she needed him.

“Well?” James called out when he saw Sally come through the gate into St. James’s Square. He’d sent her on a secret mission and her frown and the shake of her head told him she’d failed well before she reached the bench he was sitting on. She sat down beside him, turning to face him.

“Nothing,” she said. “Either he hasn’t used anyone at the ministry to book it, or he’s got them completely sewn up.”

“Probably the former,” James said.

“Are you sure you shouldn’t have a go at them?”

James smiled and scanned the empty park. The surrounding buildings were decorated for Christmas, but the park itself had an abandoned feel. The weather had turned cold overnight, and the ministry meteorologists were predicting snow flurries before midnight.

“I already have. I thought you’d have better luck,” he admitted, thinking that he could not tell Sally the lengths he’d gone to with Fiona in travel, only to be assured that Steed had not come to her to book the honeymoon.

“Well then,” Sally said, eyeing him for a moment, then looking away, “he must have gone outside. It doesn’t surprise me, actually. He knows we’d try to find out.” And you’ve used every one of your talents, haven’t you James? She was dying to know just how far he’d gone with the female logistics and travel staff. But in a way it was irrelevant. It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last. He had never even remotely hinted at exclusivity, and she wasn’t sure she would want it. But none of that eased the sting of knowing that those other women had been recently favored with his kisses, and his touch, and –. She forced herself to stop thinking about it.

“Come on,” James stood up and grabbed her hand. She let him pull her to her feet and head her toward one of the park gates.

“Where?” she asked, her breath white puffs in the chilly air.

“Supper,” he said. “I know for a fact that you really are free for the evening – at least from the trainers,” he paused, facing her. “Unless you have other plans?”

It was an unspoken code. But James knew she tended to see Terrance only Fridays and weekends.

“No, no plans. If you’ll help me with my French,” she said.

Mais oui!” he grinned, turning her and placing his hand on the small of her back. She let him guide her out of the park.

“Miss King?” Sally said, glancing down at the sign she was holding and up at the compact, blue eyed brunette who’d walked up to her from among the passengers from Paris.

“Miss Howard?” the woman replied sharply.

“Yes. Emma sent me to –.”

“Meet me. Yes. Where’s your car?”

Sally blinked, surprised at the woman’s tone as much as the question, “In the car park,” she replied.

“How far away?” Tara said, inhaling an annoyed breath and rolling her eyes as if Sally were a slow child.

“Oh! Not far. I can help you with your bags.”

“Right,” Tara nodded, then turned to enter the stream of passengers walking toward baggage claim. Sally frowned, then dropped the sign to her side and trotted after the other woman.

Miss King’s attitude did not change as Sally lugged a heavy bag ahead of her, guiding her toward the Mini that she’d scrimped and saved to purchase. She dreaded the moment Miss King saw it. She was sure to make a nasty comment. Why did Emma send me? What have I done to her?

But Tara did not comment on Sally’s worn little car. She stood beside the passenger door while Sally heaved her bag into the back, then came round to open the door for her.

“So, have you known Emma long?” Tara asked when Sally had maneuvered the car out of the airport and onto the highway heading toward Steed and Emma’s house.

“About a year and a half,” she replied, surprised that Miss King had deigned to speak to her.

Tara took a pack of cigarettes out of her copious handbag and waved them in Sally’s direction. Sally shook her head, and watched out of the corner of her eye as Tara shook one out and efficiently lit it with a small silver lighter. She might have asked if I mind, Sally thought irritably. Tara blew a long stream of smoke toward the open window. It rushed back in, although she seemed not to notice. As the first rush of nicotine seeped into her system she turned to study Sally.

“I’ve seen your file,” she said at last, causing Sally to inadvertently tap the brakes. The car behind them honked and she accelerated too quickly to compensate.

“Really?” she managed to squeak out.

“I’ve seen all the trainees’ files. Standard procedure. You’ll need to be posted somewhere when you finish. If you finish.”

“I fully intend to finish,” Sally replied through gritted teeth. She was beginning to go from intimidated to angry at Miss King’s haughty attitude.

“Of course you do. Of course you will,” Tara drawled, turning her eyes to the road ahead. Sally risked a glance at her and the smug expression on Miss King’s face confirmed her suspicion.

“I am not riding on Emma, or Steed’s coattails,” she snapped. “I intend to finish because I am smart, and determined, and I love what I’m doing.”

Tara took another long drag on her cigarette, then laughed heartily.

“Good girl!” she said, turning a little in her seat to look at Sally again. “Very good.”

Sally bristled, shooting Tara an angry look. “That was some sort of test?” she asked.

“Sort of. Steed said you had grit, and your file’s solid. But one never knows. Not with Steed.”

“No,” Sally muttered.

“So,” Tara eyed her, took another puff and blew it ineffectively out the window, and eyed her again. “Are you over him yet?”

Sally felt the blood drain from her face. How can she know about James? He can’t have said anything to anyone! I’ll kill him!

“Don’t be embarrassed. It happens to everyone – to every woman he works with, that is. Although I suppose you don’t actually work with him, do you? But just the same, you’ve fallen for him. I can tell from the way you say his name.”

Say his name? I haven’t mentioned James. Oh!

“Well, I –,” she started, trying to decide whether to deny it. Tara was right, after all. “I think I have. Gotten over it, I mean.”

“That’s luck,” Tara said, blowing more smoke toward the window and staring out it. “This wedding is not going to be fun.”

“Wow,” Dorothea West, Amanda King’s mother, got out of the rental car and stared up at Steed and Emma’s house.

“This is awesome,” Phillip said, getting out of the back.

Emma trotted down the front steps and across the gravel drive to embrace Amanda, who had ridden in the Bentley with Steed and the luggage. She was wearing tight fitting, hip hugging denim slacks with a wide red belt and a creamy cashmere turtleneck. Her Cuban heeled boots crunched in the gravel.

“I’m so glad you’re here!” she said, squeezing Amanda, then reaching for Lee.

Amanda introduced her mother and sons to Emma while Steed and Lee carried their luggage into the house.

“It looks so different,” Amanda declared as they stepped inside.

“Gallons of paint, forests of flooring, entire quarries of marble,” Steed said, stopping at the bottom of the stairs with four suitcases in his arms. He looked pointedly at Emma.

“The two bedrooms at the top front, and the boys are upstairs,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind,” she added to Phillip and Jamie, “the third floor bedrooms are servants rooms, but they’re quite cozy,”

“We’re staying in the servant’s quarters?” Jamie asked, his voice full of amazement.

Emma nodded, not sure how to take his tone.

“That’s very cool,” Phillip said. “How do we get there?”

“Follow me,” Steed said, starting up the stairs. Lee, with the rest of their luggage, followed him, the boys and Dotty behind him.

“Sally and Nancy are in the kitchen,” Emma said to Amanda.

“I’ll come say hello,” she said. “I’ll be up in a few minutes, Mother.”

Dotty was already distracted by the décor as she climbed the stairs, so Amanda followed Emma down the hall to the kitchen.

“Mother?” Amanda reached the top of the stairs thirty minutes later.

“She’s in that one, Mom,” Jamie said, coming along the hall with Phillip.

“Thanks. How do you like your rooms?”

“It’s so cool Mom! My window looks out at the backyard – I mean the garden. And you know what’s out there?”

“Um, let’s see. There’s a pool. And a stable. And – ah, you must have seen the maze.”

“Yeah! We’re going out to try it. Hey, there’s a stable?”

“Yes there is, although I don’t know if there are any horses in it yet. You boys be careful where you walk in the gardens – remember it’s winter so you may not realize you’re hurting the dormant plants.”

“We will,” their voices trailed up the stairs from half way down. Amanda tapped on the door Jamie had indicated and opened it. Dottie stood in front of her open suitcase on the bed. Amanda stepped in and looked around, but there was no sign of her bag. She had discussed this with Lee, in private. She would room with her mother; she had taught her sons that sex out of wedlock was not right, and she couldn’t let them think she would contradict her own lesson. Neither they nor her mother knew that she and Lee were secretly married.

“This is so nice,” she said, “When I saw these rooms back in August they were just big dusty spaces.”

“It’s a lovely house – oh, Amanda, is it just a house, or should we call it an estate, or a castle or something?” Dotty paused holding her all purpose black slacks.

“It’s definitely a house mother. The whole property could be an estate, I guess. I’ll have to ask Emma. Where’s my bag?”

Dotty hung her slacks on a hanger in the big wardrobe and turned to her daughter.

“I had Lee take it to his room,” she said. Amanda’s eyes widened. “Amanda, darling, I know that you try hard to present a proper image to the boys and me. But I am no fool. I have no illusions about your relationship with that man. And he is the best thing that’s happened to you in years. You belong with him, not your mother.”

“Mother! What would the boys think? They’d think I’m a hypocrite, telling them it’s wrong and doing it myself.”

“I think you underestimate them, dear. They know you and Lee have a special relationship.”

Amanda shook her head. “I can’t do it, Mother.”

“I won’t share my room with you Amanda. You just go tell our hosts that you need another room,” Dotty took her Christmas sweater out of her bag and turned to the wardrobe, pointedly ignoring her daughter.

Amanda recognized her tone and her tactic. She was not going to bend. She stepped out of the room and considered her options.

“Lee?” Amanda stepped into his room and closed the door. He was shirtless, searching through his bag. Her bag was on the floor by the door. He saw her glance down at it.

“Your mother –,” he started to explain.

“I know. She told me. Lee, I can’t do this,” she walked over to the bed and sat down. Lee gave up on choosing a shirt and sat down beside her.

“Look, Amanda, your mother is right. It’s dishonest to carry on as if we don’t sleep together.”

“It’s wrong to let them see us sleep together if they don’t know we’re married,” Amanda countered. Lee stared at her for a moment, his blue eyes probing her brown ones.

“Let’s tell them,” she said. He nodded. And he was shocked by the intense relief the simple decision brought him. It had been growing harder and harder to live apart from his wife, sneaking nights together whenever they could. At least if her family knew then they could be comfortable together in her home.

“I’ll go tell Steed we need to borrow a room for a family meeting,” he offered. Amanda nodded.

“I’ll round up mother and the boys. They went out to the maze, so it may take a little time to get them out,” she stood up and went to the door. “And Lee,” she said, hand on the handle, “You should put on a shirt.”

He flashed her a lopsided grin and returned to his suitcase.

“You guys are getting married too?” Jamie exclaimed. Beside him his brother elbowed him.

“No, doufus, they already are married,” he said.

“That’s right, Jamie. Lee and I have been married for about two years,” Amanda repeated. Jamie frowned and stood up, his face coloring with anger and hurt.

“What do you mean, two years? How can you have gotten married and not told us? That’s not fair!”

“Jamie,” Lee said gently, but the young man cut him off with an angry glare.

“You’ve been lying to us all this time!” he cried, then stepped over his brother’s legs and went around behind the sofa to pace in the space there. They were in the library, which Emma had furnished to use as an office although she knew that when Steed moved in they would fight over it.

Lee started to rise but Amanda put her hand on his leg and shook her head slightly.

“Well I for one am very glad to hear it,” Dotty said with false cheerfulness, glancing at Jamie. “I won’t say I’m not disappointed, but I’m still glad that I have not been wrong about you two.”

“Disappointed mother?” Amanda dared.

“Well of course, darling. How could you cheat me out of a wedding? It wouldn’t have to have been elaborate.”

“Oh mother,” Amanda felt tears filling her eyes. She wanted to say that she felt cheated herself, but she didn’t dare. She’d been feeling it since Emma had asked for her help, but she did not want it to come to a head now. Not at Emma and Steed’s ceremony.

“It’s my fault,” Lee said. Amanda turned her head to stare at him. This wasn’t part of the explanation they had planned. “I mean, our company is funny about these things. I thought if we kept it a secret from everyone there’d be no chance of them separating us – they don’t allow married couples to work together. But it was wrong to keep it from all of you. And frankly it’s been much harder than I ever expected.”

“Well, that’s a reason I suppose,” Dotty said unconvinced.

“So why can’t Mom and Lee just have a wedding now?” Phillip asked. “Maybe Mr. Steed and Miss Knight would let them have a double ceremony.”

Amanda smiled at her son’s practicality. “I wouldn’t dream of suggesting such a thing, Phillip. Steed and Emma have taken a long time to get to this wedding. I wouldn’t want anything to detract from it.”

“But you know,” Lee said thoughtfully, “It’s a good idea.” He looked at Amanda and she realized what he meant. She felt the tears she’d been holding roll down her cheeks.

“A wedding,” she said. Across from her, Dotty nodded enthusiastically.

“How about it, Mrs. King. Will you marry me again?” Lee asked.

“Of course I will,” she let him pull her into an embrace.

Dottie and Phillip both looked rather satisfied, but Jamie stood in the far corner of the room glowering.

“Are we invited this time?” he asked.

“Jamie, we have apologized, and explained,” Amanda said calmly, pulling out of Lee’s embrace but holding on to his hand. “Please try to understand that we did what we believed was best for all of us. I love Lee, and I want him to be part of our family. I know that you have come to care for him too.”

“Yeah. Right,” Jamie grumbled and strode across the room to the French doors that looked out onto the grounds. Out across a stretch of lawn the hedge maze beckoned. Maybe I can get lost in there, he thought, opening the door.

“Jamie!” his grandmother’s voice had a scolding tone that only spurred him on toward the maze.

“Let him go, mother,” Amanda said. “I’ll speak with him later.”

The sound of cars in front of the house drew Emma’s attention from the wedding presents that she was arranging on tables in the game room, which was opposite the formal parlor at the front of the house. She looked out the window and saw Harry Hill opening the passenger side door of his big old Mercedes just as his wife Caroline got out of their dusty green Rover. The rest of the cars’ doors opened and their six children spilled out.

Emma’s mental state went rapidly from pleasure at seeing them to concern about what they were doing there. They weren’t on her houseguest list, and although there were plenty of rooms, they did not have beds in them. Before she could squelch her concern she heard footsteps out in the entry hall. The front door squeaked open and a moment later she saw Steed approaching his sister. He was quickly enveloped in the younger children, who adored him. Taking a deep breath and hoping for the best, she followed him outside.

“Hello Emma!” Sara cried as she trotted toward the house closely followed by her older brother Ted.

“Hello Sara, Ted,” Emma managed a welcoming tone. “Everyone’s in the kitchen, down the hall to the left. Go on in.”

“Look who’s here, darling,” Steed called as Emma crunched across the gravel toward him.

“Hello Emma,” Caro said, pulling Emma down to kiss her on the cheek.

“Caro, Harry,” Emma greeted them both, then turned to Steed with a quizzical look. She felt a tug on her hand and looked down to see Timothy smiling up at her. She smiled back.

“Harry’s employer was kind enough to give him an extra day off,” Steed said with a grin. “I begged them to come stay and join the party here.”

“That’s lovely, Steed,” Emma said, knowing she sounded downright icy. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Caro’s head snap around. “But we don’t have any more beds.”

“Are you sure?” he asked with a satisfied smile. “Upstairs and to the right, Harry,” he said to his brother-in-law, who had lifted their luggage out of the car. Harry glanced at Emma, but she was glaring at Steed. “Third – no fourth door. The first empty bedroom you come to, and the one after that. And the rest will go upstairs. They’ll have to double up, but the King boys seem to like the servants’ rooms.”

“Steed?” Emma frowned. The rooms he’d described were clean and painted, but there was no furniture them. At least, there hadn’t been when she’d last looked. She tried to recall when that was.

Steed took her arm and guided her toward the house after Caro and Harry and the children.

“Not to worry, Mrs. Peel,” he said pleasantly. “I had beds delivered the other day – when you were in the office. It seemed to me that we should be prepared for contingencies. There’s sure to be the odd guest in need of a place to sleep off the reception.”

Emma scowled at him – she was not envisioning her wedding reception as the sort of party that one had to sleep off. But his amused smile had its usual effect on her and she felt the tension that had blossomed in her dissipate just as quickly. She realized that she was glad of Caro and Harry’s easy-going, down-to-earth presence.

“Thank you for thinking of it, darling,” she said. Then thought of something else. “So, Steed, are there sheets on those beds?”

His brows shot up in a momentary look of alarm, then he grinned and slipped his arm around her. “I did think of that, darling. Yes,” he whispered into her ear, more to enjoy the feel of her hair against his face than because it was confidential.

“Hello, are you one of the Kings?” a clear, English voice called out to Jamie. He had found his way through the maze and climbed up to sit on one of the benches lining the center platform. He looked out at the lawn beyond the hedges. The speaker was a tall, slim girl dressed in a pretty sweater and beige slacks. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail that spread out in wild curls over her back. Jamie scrambled to his feet and leaned over the railing of the platform.

“I’m Jamie King,” he called out. “Who are you?”

“Sara Hill. John Steed is my uncle,” she replied, looking for and finding an entrance to the maze. Jamie watched her walk unerringly through the paths to the center.

“Wow,” he said when she climbed the steps, “you’ve memorized it!”

“No. Well, sort of. Mum was here a while ago and she took a picture from the window up there.” She pointed at the master bedroom window.

“Man,” Jamie sighed, feeling that this was yet another failure on his mother’s part. “My mom was here before, too. I wish she’d taken a picture.”

Sara stared at him for a moment, then turned full circle to look at the view from the platform.

“So are you in the wedding?” she asked after a moment.

“No. My mom is. And Lee.”

“Is Lee your brother?”

“Lee is my mom’s boy–,” Jamie stopped short, his throat closing as his anger resurged.

“Your mum’s boy?” Sara frowned.

“He’s my mother’s husband,” Jamie managed.

“But not your dad,” Sara added with a nod. “There’s a girl in my class who has a stepfather.”

“Lee’s not my stepfather,” Jamie declared.

“Oh.” Sara arched one eyebrow, then turned to look at the house. “Well, I’m to be a junior bridesmaid. Emma brought me the most wonderful dress to wear and I get to go first up the aisle.”

“That’s nice,” Jamie said, slumping back down on a bench. He was not in the mood to discuss weddings.

“Are you all right?” Sara asked.

“I’m just,” he paused, not wanting to explain to this near stranger. “I had a disagreement with my mom.”

“Oh. Family business,” she said knowingly and sat down beside him. “Well, I won’t pry. So how does your mum know Uncle?”

Jamie shrugged. “Work, I guess.”

“Oh,” Sara said, drawing the little word out so that it seemed to have a great deal of meaning. Jamie peered at her curiously.

“They came here on business last year, and afterwards mom kept talking about her new friend Emma Knight. Then Mr. Steed came to Washington a few months ago.”

“I see,” Sara nodded, and Jamie wondered what it was she thought she saw.

“What does Mr. Steed – your uncle do, anyway?” Jamie asked. Sara looked puzzled so he went on, “does he make documentary films like my mom and Lee?”

“No. He works for the government.”

“So I guess Mom and Lee were making a film for the British government.”

“Maybe,” Sara sounded unconvinced. “I mean, I guess Uncle could be involved with that. But I don’t think it’s really his line.”

“Why not? What does he do for your government?”

“Intelligence is what he usually calls it,” she said.

“Like, secrets? Like a secret agent?”

“Well, yes, actually,” Sara paused, looking thoughtful. She had come to realize in the last year that although she and her siblings knew that her uncle was a spy, they had been sheltered from any details. This had come to a head for her a few months ago when she’d asked Emma if she was a spy too. Uncle had jokingly coaxed Emma to admit that she was. But the next day both of her parents had sat her down and warned her that she must never discuss her uncle’s profession. Now Jamie was looking rather surprised and she realized that she had violated her promise. And it had been so easy to forget! She studied Jamie for a moment, wondering if he could possibly be an enemy of her beloved uncle. But no, she had been told the King boys, one of whom was her age, would be here and that their mother was good friends with Emma.

“That’s really cool,” Jamie said, clearly impressed. “But isn’t it a secret?”

“It is, actually,” Sara said, “Please don’t say anything. I shouldn’t have said, although since the wedding will probably be full of them it’s hardly possible for you not to find out. I mean, I think the other guests – the ladies in the kitchen — are spys too.”

“Spys!” he exclaimed, then he laughed. He sat down on the bench opposite her and tried to think about what she had said. He’d been introduced to the other houseguests, but he’d been more interested in exploring the grounds than getting to know them. “So is Miss Knight a spy too?”

“Yes. It’s hard to imagine, sometimes. Emma is so sweet to me,” Sara said, “but she has a black belt in Karate. I’ve read about her in the newspapers and magazines, and they make her sound horribly serious and mean.”

“Why is she in the newspapers?”

“She’s the head of a big company that her father founded. But she’s stopped working so much so that she and Uncle can be together. It’s so romantic,” Sara sighed, then stopped short, realizing that boys usually didn’t want to hear about that stuff.

“So she’s famous?”

“Kind of, I guess,” Sara nodded. “If you pay attention to business news. Or bridge. Or art.”

“Huh?”

“Well, she writes articles about bridge, and plays in tournaments. And she’s an artist, but not famous or anything.”

“No kidding?”

“I guess she does other stuff, too. Writes articles about science. But I haven’t read those.”

“Do you play bridge?”

“With my folks sometimes, and with Uncle and Emma. But they always win.”

Jamie smiled, thinking about games played with his family. “My mom doesn’t let us win, either,” he said.

“Bridge?”

“We usually play gin rummy. But they taught us bridge. It’s hard.”

“Maybe we can play!”

“Not with your uncle and Miss Knight,” Jamie declared and Sara laughed.

“Are you planning to hang about out here all evening?” she asked.

Jamie shrugged, peering at the house again. “I don’t know. I just needed to get away.”

“Because, apparently you were all supposed to be going to the nearest pub for supper. But then Uncle invited us – my five brothers and sisters and my parents – and Emma was upset because we weren’t on her houseguest list and there aren’t enough beds. Except Uncle had bought beds as a surprise –.”

“How could there be extra beds that she didn’t notice?” Jamie interrupted, thinking that Sara was rambling like his mother.

“They’re in the bedrooms that she wasn’t going to use, so I suppose she didn’t even look in them,” Sara explained. Jamie tried to imagine a house so big that you had rooms that you didn’t even look in for days. “She was annoyed with him at first, until he told her about the beds. But now she’s saying there are too many of us to go to the pub, we’ll be like an invasion. I think she’s just really nervous about the wedding and everything. So Uncle said he’s going to go get a lot of pizzas and we’ll all eat here.”

“I was looking forward to the pub,” Jamie said. “I’ve never been in one.”

“I wouldn’t worry. There’s a pub on every corner in Britain. In any case, Uncle and my father have gone off to get the pizzas, so you might want to give up being angry and come inside. Plus, it’s getting cold out here.”

She wrapped her arms around herself as if in illustration. Jamie realized that he was rather chilly. He would have to face his family eventually, and endure whatever lecture Grandma had stored up.

“Let’s go in then,” he said, rising and heading for the steps. Sara hopped up and followed.

Chapter 6

“Em-ahhh,” Steed whispered in her ear. “Em-ahhhh.”

It was the aroma of fresh coffee that really roused her. She cracked one eye open to see the steaming mug that he was holding near her face.

“Hey! Talking coffee,” she said, rolling onto her back to pull herself up in bed. Steed was sitting beside her holding the mug and watching her, wearing a very playful expression. But he was fully dressed. “Oh. It’s you,” she added, taking the mug.

“Sorry, not talking coffee. But I have a better surprise,” he said.

“Oh yes?” she asked, taking a long sip of the rich liquid. It was lightened and sweetened exactly the way she liked it.

“Come over to the window,” he requested, standing up and holding her dressing gown out to her. She set the mug on the night table and lifted the covers to inspect herself. Naked, as she’d thought. They’d both fallen asleep that way after making sweet, gentle love. She took the silky robe from him and pulled it around herself, catching his lecherous little smile as she tied the belt. For very good reason, he was always aroused by the sight of her in a dressing gown. But the smile was the only manifestation of it this morning. He took her arm and drew her with obvious excitement to the window that looked out across the grounds toward the maze.

Dawn, which was at it’s latest in late December, had only just broken and the gardens were shrouded in a chilly looking mist.

“Look there,” Steed pointed to the right, his face lighting in the broadest grin she had ever seen. A darker shadow in the mist solidified into the form of a man leading two horses. Emma felt her mouth opening, but no words came out. The groom led the horses across the lawn and stopped below the window, looking up expectantly. Steed unlatched the windows and swung them inward, letting a gush of cold air fill the bedroom. Emma leaned out beside him despite the cold. One horse was jet black, the other a roan. Both were lively, tugging at the lead ropes attached to their halters. Their coats shone from recent grooming, and, at least from that distance, they appeared to be in excellent condition.

Emma looked again at Steed and realized that he was wearing riding clothes. His grin transformed to the look of deep affection she knew was only for her and his favorite horse. She couldn’t help but return it.

“Do you like your wedding present?” he asked softly, one arm snaking around her while the other remained on the windowsill.

“Which one? Or both?” she asked, finally able to speak.

“I thought the roan for you, and the black for me – they would seem to match,” he said.

“Lovely,” she agreed, looking back out the window. Steed leaned out and waved to the groom.

“Go saddle them,” he called out. “We’ll be out shortly.”

“Yes guvner’” the groom called back, then tsked at the horses to turn them back toward the stable.

“Oh!” Emma sighed, suddenly disappointed, as Steed closed the windows, “my saddle is at the stable in Hempstead,” she said, referring to a very valuable saddle that she’d purchased in Paris. It was fortunate that she’d arranged to leave it at the stable where they most often rode, otherwise it would have been destroyed in her apartment.

Steed turned away from the window and took her arm, guiding her toward the closet. “Actually, it’s here. I took the liberty of retrieving it.”

Overwhelmed by his thoughtfulness and attention to detail even during recent hectic days, Emma stopped him and wrapped her arms around his waist, pulling him into a tight hug. “Thank you darling. They’re a wonderful wedding present.”

Her lavish kiss threatened to develop into more until Steed broke it off forcefully.

“Let’s go riding. We probably won’t have another chance until we get back from the honeymoon,” he said, gripping her upper arms to hold her off.

“Yes, you’re right. Where is that, exactly?” she asked, pulling away from him and heading into the closet.

It had become a regular question to which he supplied a standard answer: “It’s a surprise.”

Two hours later Amanda, Nancy, Sally, Tara, and Caro dragged her off her horse and up to London for the shower. They’d arranged for a private room in a pleasant restaurant. And Emma quickly suspected that they’d invited every woman on the wedding guest list. She was overwhelmed when she was greeted and congratulated by Amelia Peel, her former mother-in-law, and shocked when her paternal aunt Elise stepped up all smiles. There was no love lost between her and Elise, particularly after her aunt had gone back on her word last winter in a business matter. But Emma greeted her graciously and suppressed a flash of concern about what sort of gift might be in the box that she held.

She had invited her paternal aunt and uncle and their families to the wedding out of duty, and been surprised when they had accepted, although they were not bringing their assorted children. Steed, knowing something of her relationship with them, had suggested that they might see it as an opportunity for a meal at her expense. And since they had not sent wedding presents ahead as so many guests had, Emma was beginning to suspect that Steed was correct. She was still trying to recover from her surprise at Elise’s presence at the shower when another surprise guest walked in.

Emma had not seen her mother’s sister in at least five years. This aunt lived in Japan and only rarely returned to England.

“Aunt Emma?” Emma exclaimed, reaching for the other woman as if touching her would prove she was real. Her aunt – tall and stately with hair a shade redder than Emma’s and shining blue eyes – enveloped her in a powerful hug, then took a step back to examine her.

“Everything I’ve heard is true,” she said with jarring finality. Emma cocked an eyebrow at her and she smiled warmly, then turned to bring forward her companion. Eleanor Hubbard had been one of Emma’s parents’ closest friends. “See here, Eleanor,” Emma’s aunt went on, “she does look positively radiant!”

“Aunt Emma, we didn’t know you were coming! You are coming tomorrow, aren’t you?” Emma asked, mentally recalculating seating plans and wondering how to break it to the caterer.

“Actually, Emma,” Sally was by her elbow nodding a greeting at her aunt, “we did know.”

“I called Eleanor here, and she called your friend Nancy –.”

“And Nancy told me, and I told Steed,” Sally took it up happily. Steed had enthusiastically helped with the reception seating assignments. Contemplating social pairings had definitely appealed to his manipulative nature. Emma just shook her head and reached out to hug her aunt.

“I can’t believe you came all this way,” she said.

“I came for the holidays, my dear. I’m staying with your cousins. I know you haven’t time for me now, but I hope that some time soon we can have a good long chat. Eleanor here tells me that your little coup at Knight was somewhat more dramatic than the press reported.”

Emma peered at Eleanor, a stately, elderly woman with perfectly styled grey hair, a keen sense of fun, and a failing memory.

“I have my sources, Emma dear,” Eleanor said with a wink. Emma’s mind flashed to her gossipmonger friend Freddy Leighton. No, she can’t possibly know him!

The ordeal of the lingerie shower was not nearly as unbearable as Emma had feared. To her utter amazement, even the elderly ladies like Eleanor joined into the spirit of the thing, clapping with admiration as Emma unwrapped filmy negligees and undergarments of satin and silk that were definitely intended more for the groom’s pleasure than the bride’s. Even Elise’s gift was not too frightful – a canary yellow negligee trimmed with a perfectly dyed feather boa. The color was a bit lurid, but it did rather suit Emma’s more flamboyant side. The food Nancy had arranged was a perfect buffet selection, and the free-flowing wine helped the party go on well into the afternoon.

“You know, Johnny told us that he’d deliver you bodily to this shower if you resisted,” Caro said as she helped Emma and the bridesmaids pack the gifts into carrier bags. Emma saw Sally’s head snap up at Steed’s sister’s use of the name Johnny.

“Well, I was afraid it might be rather – uncomfortable,” Emma admitted, glancing around to be sure that only her closest friends remained. “I mean, I wouldn’t say that Steed and I make our personal relationship a secret any more, but still. This is so overt!”

“Yes, it’s difficult for us stoic Brits to admit to having sex,” Caro nodded, gathering up the handles of several bags in her big, capable hands. “But you know, somehow the race survives, so we must go at it somewhere along the line!”

“Caro!” Emma scolded, but her future sister-in-law just laughed and hefted the bags.

“Come on, Emma, let’s get on to the next chapter in this epic.”

Chapter 7

“Good evening everyone,” Lee Stetson stood at his place tapping a knife gently on a water glass. The rehearsal dinner guests quieted, turning their attention to him. “I don’t want to interrupt your dessert for long, but I’ve been asked to say a few words about our host and hostess. I think I speak for most of us here when I say that I would not have missed this remarkable event for anything. Some said it would never happen, a lot are saying now that it’s about time,” he paused for a round of laughter and a few claps. “Tomorrow Emma will marry John. But more to the point, Steed and Mrs. Peel will finally admit to being more than just good friends.” Now the guests really did laugh. Lee grinned around the room and down at Steed and Emma, whose smiles seemed genuine.

“In the last year I have had the privilege of seeing what John Steed and Emma Knight really mean to one another. Of course I can’t reveal the details as I was sworn to secrecy,” he paused as all of the guests chuckled, most of them knowingly. “But I assure you that their bond, their love for one another, is the most powerful I have ever seen between two people. Not that I’m an expert,” he paused, smiling down at Amanda.

“And no two people deserve one another more,” he smiled at the couple again, but his expression was starting to look devious. Emma’s eyes widened in mock alarm. “Steed is known for his gentlemanly wit and panache — until you cross him. Emma has a reputation as a hardheaded businesswoman who you don’t want to cross at all. They both carry fashion sense to a new level, and quite honestly, I don’t think any one else could keep up with them.”

Lee turned back toward the rest of the guests, holding his glass high. “To John and Emma, because we’re all safer with them together.”

“To John and Emma,” the rest of the guests echoed.

“Hardheaded?” Emma purred as Lee sat down.

“Certainly darling,” Steed put in quickly to deflect her planned attack of his best man. “It’s a compliment.”

Emma eyed him suspiciously, then looked at Lee. “I think I see what you mean, about the rest of you being safe now,” she said, her apparent annoyance disappearing.

“Are you sure I couldn’t just slip back to the house with you, darling?” Steed whispered into her ear as they reached the door of the restaurant. “I can be quiet as a mouse. No one will be the wiser but you and me.” She smiled indulgently. She had expected this.

“Quite sure, Steed,” she replied as she stepped outside. “It just wouldn’t be right, the bride and groom spending the night before the wedding together. Besides which, it would completely disrupt Tara’s logistics. And aren’t James the other men supposed to be taking you out for a final night on the town?”

Steed sighed, standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders. “You know where I prefer to spend my nights,” he said. “But for the sake of Tara’s logistics I’ll go. I’ll be desperate for you all night and won’t sleep well at all.”

“And we both know that you can find a way to deal with your desperation, if you really need to,” she replied quietly, turning her head to look at his face. He grimaced and she chuckled. He had once told her that he did not like serving his own needs, that he found it lonely and depressing. But she knew that since they’d been together – intimately together – for the last several nights, he could probably manage to get to sleep tonight without needing that sort of release, no matter what he said now.

“All right,” he sighed again. “But turn around, let me give you a proper send-off home.”

She obliged, even though many of the dinner guests were still gathered on the sidewalk awaiting their cars from the valet, or waiting for Steed and Emma to be ready to go. Steed pulled her into an embrace and his lips found hers. She let him draw her into a delicious kiss that was far more intense than she would ordinarily be comfortable with in public. The novelty of Steed instigating it made it worth the spectacle, along with the warm buzz it started in her nether regions. Finally he released her, planting a final peck on her nose as he lowered his arms from around her.

“I’ll meet you at the altar,” he said mischievously.

“Don’t be late,” she replied, already regretting sending him to spend the night at his apartment. But it really wouldn’t be right, she reminded herself.

“Stetson,” Steed said, facing the other agent with a stern expression, “where do you get off calling my bride ‘hardheaded’?”

James had brought Steed and the rest of the men in the wedding party from the rehearsal dinner to his own club where a number of agents and Steed’s friends had already gathered. Some seemed to have been celebrating Steed’s nuptials for rather a long time already.

Lee’s eyes widened, then he shrugged and put on a tense grin, “It was a joke, Steed.”

One of Steed’s eyebrows arched. “I see. Because I should think ‘unrelentingly stubborn’ would be more accurate,” he said. Lee’s concern melted and he laughed along with Steed.

“John my friend, that woman’s stubbornness is exactly what’s needed to keep you in line,” Harry said, clapping Steed on the back with his usual bearishness.

“And who’s to keep her in line?” James asked, handing Steed a glass containing ice and caramel colored liquor.

“Do you think she needs keeping in line, Bond?” Steed asked, eying the other agent speculatively over the rim of his glass. James looked slightly discomfited, then shrugged and sipped his own drink. “Throughout our long relationship Mrs. Peel has always behaved like a lady – even when I have been less than a gentleman. I believe that I am quite the most fortunate fellow around – at least among those of us who’ve found ourselves ensnared by the wiles of the so-called weaker sex.”

“And there’s an epithet I’ve never agreed with,” Harry said. “I defy anyone to convince me that Caro is weak – or your Emma. Or your Amanda, for that matter,” he nodded at Lee.

“I’d say Emma is in a class by herself when it comes to strength, and determination,” Lee said.

“I’ll drink to that,” James put in, raising his glass to Lee’s.

“Yes,” Steed drawled lasciviously, drawing their eyes. He shrugged and looked around at them, “Well, she does find many ways to put her – strength – to good use,” he said. Lee’s eyes widened and Harry guffawed.

“Well, that sets the tone of the gathering, I think,” James said. “Come on Steed, we have a few things planned.” He took Steed’s arm and guided him toward the bar.

“Ready?” Amanda asked, reaching up to straighten the high, delicate collar that so beautifully emphasized Emma’s graceful neck.

Emma nodded, taking one last look at herself in the full-length mirror on the door of the choir robbing room. She’d had a hairdresser put her hair up so that a few wisps curled around her face. She’d also had her makeup done by a professional, so now she was desperate not to ruin it by touching her face or crying. She looked, she realized, just as romantic and elegant as she had planned. She smiled at herself, smoothed her dress over her flat abdomen to keep from touching her hair. As she turned to face the door it opened and Sara stepped in. The pealing of bells from the tower above was much louder with the door open.

“Uncle is at the altar,” she said excitedly. Emma smiled. He’s at the altar. He’s waiting for me. A thrill of joy coursed through her, making her flush with warm elation.

“Emma?” Amanda said, concern in her voice.

“Don’t worry, backing out is the last thing on my mind,” Emma said. “It’s just amazing to think of it. After everything, we’re really getting married. This isn’t a dream is it? I’m not going to wake up and find –,” she paused, looking at young Sara. She’d about to say, myself in bed next to Peter, but that didn’t seem appropriate, “—find that none of this is real, am I?”

“Oh it’s real, Emma,” Sara said in a very grown up, reassuring way.

“You’ve both waited a long time, Emma,” Sally said from beside the door.

Nancy stepped up on Emma’s other side, opposite Amanda. “Let’s go. I can’t wait for the party.”

“Right,” Emma said, determination coming easily. “Let’s go.”

Sara opened the door and stepped out, practicing her measured pace as she crossed the narthex to the center doors into the sanctuary. Nancy, Sally, and Amanda followed her, and Emma, taking a deep breath to slow her fluttering heart, went last.

As soon as Sara appeared in the doorway the organist segued from the Bach fugue he’d been playing to the Ave Maria, which Steed and Emma had selected for the processional. At a nod from Emma, Sara set out up the aisle. Each of the others followed at the planned intervals until Emma found herself framed by the doors. She felt herself smiling as the surge of happiness rushed back over her. The congregation was standing, all heads turned to watch her. This was, she realized, the most important entrance she would ever make. Steed stood by the altar watching for her, his black morning coat offset by an unorthodox crimson waistcoat. His face lit up at the sight of her in her green satin gown, the gauzy white jacket framing her hair and face and discretely covering her toned shoulders. He smiled and she wanted to run to him. But that wouldn’t do. I once believed it could never be, but here I am, and there he is. Just a few minutes more, and I’ll be his and he mine. Don’t rush it. It’s like the best sex – you have to let it build slowly. Better, in fact, because it will last forever. Good Lord I hope no one can read my mind!

Although various male friends and relatives had made subtle offers to escort her up the aisle Emma walked unaccompanied. When she’d mentioned to Steed that she did not intend to have someone give her away he had looked surprised – surprised that the notion had ever crossed anyone’s mind. She was giving herself to him. It was her right and no one else’s. When she was close enough she sought his eyes and saw a compelling mix of devotion, affection, and excitement. He was as joyful as she was and his gaze drew her to him so powerfully she hardly realized that she had traveled the last twenty feet. And then she was facing him, her love, her hero. Her best friend. Neither was aware of how long they stood looking at one another, their eyes communicating volumes.

Then Emma felt a touch on her shoulder and Father Michaels cleared his throat ever so quietly. Emma turned to the touch and Amanda reached for her bouquet of yellow roses and holly.

“Ready?” Father Michaels asked quietly.

“Absolutely, Father,” Steed replied, still watching Emma.

Along with Father Michaels they had elected to use the traditional Anglican service without any special vows of their own, which was becoming popular.

“Dearly beloved. . .” he began speaking, his somber tone easily filling the church. Emma was glad that she had arranged for the ceremony to be tape recorded, because as he went on she realized that his words were flying right through her consciousness.

“… If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or else for ever hold your peace.”

Father Michaels paused and for a brief instant Emma feared that someone – Freddy Leighton, or Edmond Stanton perhaps – might succumb to the urge to voice the disapproval they’d both expressed to her repeatedly. But the hush in the church conveyed the support of the guests. Perhaps seeing the strain on Emma’s face, Father Michaels smiled encouragingly and went on speaking directly to her.

“Emma Elizabeth Reade Knight, will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage?  Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?”

Emma’s throat felt tight. She swallowed and turned her eyes to Steed and saw the private little smile that she knew was only for her. It spoke of passion and devotion, trust, and strength. “I will,” she said easily.

“John Wickham Gascoyne Berresford Steed will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage?  Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”

“I will,” he replied quite quickly, as if impatient to be wed. Emma smiled at that. Once he had made a decision, he wanted the matter closed.

Father Michaels looked between them out at the congregation and went on, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”

From behind them Emma and Steed could pick out the individual voices of their family and friends amid the general reply of “We will.”

Once again the minister’s words flowed over Emma. She and Steed had selected the prayers and gospel passages during their meetings with him, but standing there at the altar she had no recollection of their choices. Caroline rose to read from the gospel, her bell-like voice adding a lighter tone to the ceremony. Edmond Stanton also read, softly at first, but quickly sensing the acoustics and increasing his volume so that his voice echoed from the far corners of the church.

Then Father Michaels spoke again of how the struggle to be together had defined and strengthened their relationship. He predicted that they were well equipped to face the challenges of marriage together. And that their powerful trust and devotion would bring them many years of joy together. Before Emma knew it he had finished and was gesturing for them to face one another.

“Take her right hand,” he instructed Steed, who did so with obvious eagerness. Before Father Michaels could prompt him, he recited the traditional vow, Emma smiling all the while with pleasure that he had memorized it.

“In the Name of God, I, John, take you, Emma, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”

He released her hand and she took his right hand between both of hers. She had also committed the vow to memory.

“In the Name of God, I, Emma, take you, John, to be my husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

“The rings?” Father Michaels asked. Behind Steed, Lee reached into his pocket and produced two simple gold wedding bands. Father Michaels took them and held them up to bless them. Then he handed the smaller ring to Steed.

Steed took Emma’s left hand and paused, realizing only then that she was wearing long white gloves. His eyes sought hers and met an amused, challenging look. If you want me, you’ll have to undress me, they said. It was a challenge that Steed had never failed to rise to. As if it were perfectly ordinary procedure at the altar, he slowly, sensuously eased the glove down her forearm and off of her hand. There were murmurs throughout the church, but his gaze remained locked on her. He held the glove along with her hand in his left hand and slipped the ring onto her finger with is right.

“Emma, I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he recited, his voice nearly cracking with contained emotion.

Emma turned to Father Michaels, who seemed unfazed by her prank, and took the other ring. She took Steed’s hand and recited the same vow as she slipped it onto his finger. She knew he would not wear it much, not when his work so often required that he exercise his charms on women. But it would always be there on his finger in his heart. And for today, and at least the next month, it would be proudly displayed on his hand.

Father Michaels joined their hands and said, “Now that John and Emma have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.”

Someone in the congregation clapped a few times, and most murmured “Amen,” although there were a few more secular comments.

Father Michaels went on with his blessing of their marriage, gesturing for them to kneel as he completed the ceremony. “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully with his favor look upon you, and fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace; that you may faithfully live together in this life, and in the age to come have life everlasting.  Amen.”

He gestured for them to rise and concluded, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” And as the congregation responded, “And also with you,” Emma and Steed came together in a long, tender kiss. They parted as the first strains of Hallelujah filled the church. Steed gripped Emma’s bare left hand, her glove tucked into his pocket, and walked with her back down the aisle. They both nodded greetings at the guests as they passed, their smiles spreading in waves across the church.

They stopped when they had passed through the doors into the narthex and Steed turned Emma to the right to lead her into the choir room. Once inside he spun her into his arms and restarted the kiss that he felt they’d cut short at the altar. The rest of the wedding party squeezed in after them to wait for the guests to leave. Then they would pose for photographs.

“May I have my glove back?” Emma asked when Steed finally released her lips. They were oblivious to their friends all around them.

“No,” he replied with a determined smile. “I don’t want to have to take it off again later.”

“Ahem,” Amanda’s voice bore a mix of amusement and scolding. Emma let her eyes dart to her friend, and Amanda pointedly looked over at Sara. The girl was watching her uncle and new aunt intently. Emma forced herself to remove her hands from the back of Steed’s neck and put some space between them.

“Congratulations,” Bond said, stepping up beside them and extending his hand to Steed. Steed released Emma to shake it, and on their other side Amanda took the opportunity to embrace her. The rest of the bridal party moved in to congratulate each of them.

Chapter 8

“She told me he is. She said it’s a big secret. Heck, I don’t know why I’m telling you,” Jamie shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and stared across the churchyard at the remaining parked cars and men in dark coats standing around looking serious.

“She was just trying to impress you. She likes you,” Phillip said, standing with his arms crossed. It was chilly outside, but not as cold as Christmas Eve might have been.

“So why are those guys standing out there? They sure look like government security to me,” Jamie countered.

“Sure, security for the wedding guests. There are important people at this wedding.”

“They’re spies, I tell you. Sara said they both are, so are half the guests.”

Phillip shook his head. He didn’t really believe it, but then, until yesterday he’d thought his mother would never keep a secret from them. And all along she’d been keeping the biggest secret of them all. He still couldn’t get over that. This was too much to think about. He pivoted around to watch the church door open. Tara King stepped out, reaching into her handbag as she crossed the porch. She stopped at the top of the steps and lit a cigarette, then scanned the churchyard much as Jamie had as she took a long drag. Her eyes fell on the boys as she blew smoke in a thin stream.

“They’re taking pictures,” she said as she stepped down to their step. She looked again at the men in the yard, then murmured something about staying focused and strode the rest of the way down the steps. The boys watched her cross the yard and speak to one of the men. He straightened his shoulders and nodded curtly, somehow managing not to appear to be looking down at her even though he was several inches taller.

As she strode back toward the church she took a final drag on her cigarette and dropped it, pausing to smash it into the gravel.

“I told him he’d better mind his post. He was lucky to be brought over for this,” she said as she climbed the steps.

“That man?” Jamie asked.

“Yes. Security isn’t exactly a plum assignment, but he wanted it. Wanted to be at the wedding of the decade,” she said. “Bragging rights, I suppose.”

“Isn’t this a lot of security for a wedding?” Jamie asked, trying to sound knowledgeable. Tara eyed him for a moment and he was afraid she was going to tell him it was none of his business. But instead she shrugged and glanced at the church door.

“It’s not for the bride and groom, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “It’s so the guests can relax and enjoy themselves.”

“See,” Phillip said victoriously. “Told you so.”

Jamie frowned at him, but didn’t respond to his taunt.

“Look,” Tara said, “they’re going to be taking pictures for a while and most of the guests have already gone to the house. Why don’t you ride with me? Your folks are going to be here for a while.”

Phillip and Jamie exchanged a delighted grin.

“We’ll have to let someone know,” Phillip said.

“I’ll go tell Grandma,” Jamie offered. Tara nodded approval and he trotted up the steps and into the church.

“So this is your first visit to Britain?” she asked when they were settled in Sally’s little car.

“Yup,” Phillip, seated next to her, replied. “Our mom and Lee have been here a few times.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Tara said almost sarcastically. Leaning forward between the front seats, Jamie nudged Phillip on the shoulder. His older brother just frowned at him.

“Lee’s mother was English,” Jamie said.

“Oh yeah,” Phillip said, annoyed that he hadn’t remembered that.

“Well, I know that Lee Stetson has worked with Steed a few times in the past.” Tara turned the Mini onto the road toward the house.  “But I think your mom’s first case here was last year. . .”

She trailed off, catching Jamie’s shocked expression in the rearview mirror. She glanced at Phillip and saw that he looked similarly surprised.

“Mom and Lee came over on business last fall,” he said. “That’s when she met Miss Knight – Mrs. Steed.”

“Ummm. Probably true,” Tara said thoughtfully. It simply hadn’t occurred to her that Amanda King’s sons did not know she was a spy. Well, now they do, she thought. And I’d better do some damage control. “That’s when I met your mom. She broke the case, actually.”

“Mom?” Jamie nearly squeaked.

“She’s a clever woman, your mom. Her approach is very different from any that I’d use, or Emma. But she’s effective, I’ll give her that,” Tara went on.

“I guess I never thought of it that way,” Phillip said knowledgeably. In the back seat Jamie snorted.

Tara was very glad that the church was not that far from the house. She punched the accelerator and let the Mini drift through the turns to get there as fast as possible.

An area of the vast, thinly treed front lawn had been designated for parking, but Tara drove past it with a wave at the dark coated man who appeared to be there to direct traffic. She parked the Mini behind Steed’s Bentley, which was under the carport attached to the garage.

“They won’t let us touch the reception food or bar until Steed and Emma get here,” she said as they walked toward the house. “But I know where Steed’s private stash is hidden in the refrigerator.”

She led them past yet another guard at the front door with another wave and headed straight for the kitchen. The catering company had brought their own mobile kitchen, set up in a marquis attached to the one set up for the reception outside of the dining room, so the real kitchen was mostly being used for storage. Tara yanked open the big refrigerator door and extracted three bottles of beer from behind a huge goose.

“Here,” she handed one to each of the boys. “You look like you could use this.”

“Um,” Phillip looked at the cool bottle in his hand, then glanced at Jamie.

“We don’t actually drink,” the younger boy said.

“We’re not old enough, in the States.”

Tara inserted her bottle into an old wall-mounted opener and popped the cap off.

“You’re not in the States. And you need a drink,” she said firmly. Then she took their bottles, removed the caps, and handed them back. Phillip and Jamie exchanged another anxious glance, then Phillip grinned and took a long gulp. Jamie’s eyes widened at his older brother’s decision, but he wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. He took a gulp too. Tara pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table, so the boys joined her.

“So you worked with our mom?” Jamie asked, managing a conversational tone although the beer was already making his tongue feel fat.

“Just briefly,” Tara said. “I was called in to help with the clean-up.”

“Clean-up,” Phillip repeated, nodding knowledgeably. Tara watched him for a moment and took another sip of her beer.

“Miss King?” one of the security men was standing in the kitchen doorway. This one had removed his coat to reveal an equally dark suit.

“Yes Cord?”

“There’s a man out front with no invitation. He says his wife is already here and that his daughter is in the wedding.”

“So did you ask him what his wife — ?” Tara started to snap. Cord looked startled and she stood up. “Oh never mind. I’ll come talk to him. It’s probably Sally’s father.” Her hard shoes clacked on the tile floor as she preceded the guard down the hall.

Jamie took another sip of beer and looked at his brother. “Clean-up,” he said very seriously. Then he burst out laughing. Phillip grinned, then laughed too.

“What the heck is ‘clean-up’?” Jamie asked.

Phillip shrugged, finishing his beer in another long gulp. “I don’t know. Arresting the bad guys?” he said. “Burying the bodies?” he stood up and went to the refrigerator. Without asking his brother he took out too more bottles of beer and opened them.

Jamie struggled to finish his first one and took the second.

“Our mother is a spy,” he said, staring at the bottle.

“Our mother’s boyfr — husband — is a spy,” Phillip added. Then he laughed again. “The spy family,” he said, his laughter nearly out of control.

“Do you think Grandma knows?” Jamie suddenly asked. Phillip’s eyes widened, then he shook his head.

“No way. She’d never be able to keep it a secret.”

“Heck, I can’t believe Mom has kept it a secret. At least, I wouldn’t have thought so before yesterday. Do you think Dad knows?”

The limousine carrying the wedding party arrived well ahead of the carriage Steed and Emma rode in. The bridesmaids and groomsmen hurried to round up as many guests they could and supply them with handfuls of shining red, green, and gold confetti. They arranged them into two lines flanking the front door.

The carriage drawn by four white horses crunched to a stop in the gravel of the drive and the coachman climbed down to open the door. Steed climbed out and reached in to assist Emma.

As they walked arm-in-arm between the rows of guests the younger children shouted and danced around them. Bride, groom, and children were all showered with the glistening confetti tossed by the adult guests, who laughed and clapped and greeted them cheerfully.

“Thank you all,” Steed said, mounting the stairs in the entry with Emma. “If you’ll just excuse us for a few minutes, we’ll join you shortly and the festivities will begin.”

A few minutes later Emma was seated at her dressing table, the white jacket removed to reveal the cutout armholes and keyhole in the back of her dress. She had unpinned her hair and brushed it out, and was just touching up her makeup when Steed came up behind her. He had changed out of his morning suit and into a sleek black suit over a white shirt. He’d retained his distinctive crimson waistcoat, however.

Placing his hands on her bare shoulders he leaned close and kissed her neck below her ear. She shivered with pleasure and he kissed her again. Then he looked into the mirror at their combined reflection.

“I have a beautiful wife,” he said, as if trying out the words.

Emma smiled, looking up at him.

“I have a wife,” he said again, slipping his hand beneath her hair to finger the hooks at the top of her dress. “And she’s the love of my life.” He smiled proudly, skillful fingers unfastening the hooks.

“Stop!” she commanded, reaching behind her neck to refasten them.

“Already refusing to perform your wifely duties?” he allowed himself to pout.

“We have a house full of guests,” she replied, resettling her hair.

“Surely they’ll be indulgent, I mean, after all . . .”

“They’ve already been indulgent by coming here on Christmas Eve,” she scolded, rising and slipping her arms around his waist. He wrapped his arms comfortably around her and smiled amiably. He was about to kiss her, fresh lipstick be damned, when there was a knock on the door.

“Emma, Steed?” Amanda’s voice came muted through the heavy panels.

“Coming,” Emma called out, smiling wryly at Steed as she pulled out of his arms.

“Hello Miss Sally, we were just, um, looking,” Timothy Hill jumped to his feet with his hands behind his back.

“Really?” Sally asked with mock innocence, “Because when I was your age I used to crawl around under the Christmas tree rattling all of the gifts with my name on them.”

“We would never do that!” ten-year-old Linney assured her. Sally had caught the four youngest Hill children doing exactly that in the big family room where Emma and Steed had placed their lush Christmas Tree. The houseguests had helped them decorate it on Thursday evening, draping it with tinsel and hanging antique ornaments from Emma’s family and Steed’s diverse collection. Tonight the room had been closed to the wedding reception guests, but it was late now, nearly midnight, and most of them had gone home to their own Christmas celebrations.

Sally sat down on a comfortable sofa and picked up a book from the adjacent coffee table.

“Would you like to hear,” she paused and looked at the title, “t’was the Night Before Christmas?” she asked.

“Yes please!” Timothy crouched for a moment to put down the gift he’d been hiding behind his back and came across the room to her. The others followed, settling in on either side of her as she opened the book.

“This is a poem written by an American,” she explained. “It’s always been one of my favorite Christmas stories.”

She turned to the first page and let Timothy on her left and Beth on her right see the illustration. Then she began to read.

St. Nicholas was coming down the chimney when a shadow filled the doorway. Sally glanced up without pausing in her narrative to see James come in – she could recite most of the poem without the aid of the book. On either side of her Timothy and Beth were looking very drowsey. Linney and Arthur were still alert.

James was touched by the sight of Sally surrounded by the children. It seemed terribly incongruous, but he reminded himself that she had several younger siblings who were probably missing her right now. Her parents had been at the wedding, but he’d been a coward and avoided any contact with them. He didn’t see the advantage to pressing himself into that part of her life, and she must not have either, for she had not tried to introduce them to him. They had left the reception rather early, drawing Sally off of the dance floor to say good night.

He went on into the room and hefted a good-sized log onto the smoldering fire in the hearth. Some judicious poking and a few blasts from a bellows got a merry blaze going and he set the fire screen back in place.

“. . . Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night,” Sally concluded, gently closing the book so as not to disturb Beth, who was snoring lightly. James rose and went to the couch, hitching one hip up onto an arm and smiling down at Sally.

“Shall I go find their parents?” he asked.

“I suppose,” she said tentatively.

“Miss Sally?” Timothy had lifted his head to look up at her.

“Yes Timothy?”

“Is Father Christmas going to bring Uncle a baby for Christmas?”

James stifled a snort of laughter, but Sally managed to keep a straight face.

“You never know, Timothy. Do you think he might?”

“Maybe,” Timothy considered it quite seriously.

“Do you think he would like that?” she asked.

“Uncle loves us, so I think he would like to have a baby,” Linney put in. Sally looked around at her.

“Would you like it if your uncle had a baby?”

“Oh yes!” Timothy said. “We could take care of it!”

“I think your new aunt Emma will want that pleasure, Timothy my boy,” Caro said with a smile as she approached the couch. Harry was right behind her.

“Come on you four. It’s way past your bedtime, even on Christmas Eve,” he said fondly.

“But we haven’t opened our ‘night before’ gifts!” Linney protested.

“Your father and I have a surprise for you this year, Linney girl,” Caro said, wrapping her arms around Beth to lift her up. “Extra special Christmas Eve presents. They’re in your beds already.”

“Special?” Linney said, scrambling to her feet.

“Extra special,” Harry said, lifting Timothy up and putting a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go see to them.”

They Hills straggled out of the room and James slipped in beside Sally, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close to him.

 “I don’t think he understands the process required for getting a baby,” he said.

“No. And I didn’t want to suggest that even if Father Christmas does bring them one, they won’t actually have it for a while.”

“You think she is?”

“No. I have no idea. I know she wants to. Soon.”

“And him?”

She shrugged, enjoying the feel of his solid chest and his arms around her. “I think he wants whatever she wants. What about you? Is fatherhood really so frightening to you hard boiled agents?”

“Are you offering?”

“No. Not just now, anyway,” Sally tried to remain glib, but the suggestion started a wave of warmth in her that threatened to turn her bright pink. Would she be the mother of James’s children, if he asked? She couldn’t even imagine it.

“You have other plans for the immediate future?”

“Absolutely. Mastering Russian, and Judo. And remembering the name of the town on the border of Turkey and Iraq, for starters.”

“Cigli,” James said.

“That’s it,” Sally nodded, frustrated that she couldn’t seem to remember it. It had been the site of an assassination last year that they’d recently studied because it had been perfectly planned and executed. “How can you remember things like that?”

“I’ve been there,” he said. The trainees hadn’t been told who had planned and executed the assassination. She peered at the fire. She didn’t want to think of him as an assassin, capable of killing on orders. But she knew he was.

“So how’s your Russian coming,” he asked, as if to break her silence.

“Abysmally.”

He chuckled and muttered something in her ear. She twisted her head to look at his face. “You’d like to kiss my hands?” she asked, struggling to translate his Russian.

He nodded and spoke again, letting his hands wander over her very suggestively.

“I don’t think they’re teaching us that sort of vocabulary,” she said, because she had not understood him at all. He pressed his lips to her throat.

“I asked if you would let me hold you all night long,” he said.

“Ah. Lovely. Try another,” she looked back into the fire and he cleared his throat and said another phrase.

“That’s not Russian,” a female voice said from near the doorway. Sally started, but James held her tight as they both looked toward the source of the voice.

Tara King strolled across the room and sat down in an armchair across from them, her eyes never leaving them.

“This is cozy,” she said.

“It’s not what you think,” Sally tried, but James pressed his lips to her temple.

“Good evening, Tara,” he said.

“What do I think?” she asked, ignoring him. Sally pictured what Tara saw, what she must think, and sighed.

“Oh never mind,” she said, leaning her head back on James’s shoulder. It was just too hard. If Tara thought she was sleeping her way through training, then there was nothing she could do about it. And maybe, on some level, it was true.

Tara looked amused as she turned in her chair to admire the Christmas tree.

“What language was it, anyway?” Sally asked James quietly. But Tara heard.

“Turkish,” she said, not looking at them. “He asked if you would let him kiss your toes.”

Now Sally did blush under James’s mischievous grin.

“Oh!” another voice at the door drew their attention. “We didn’t know anyone was in here,” Amanda and Lee, followed by her sons and Sara and Ted, came in. The youngsters made a beeline for the Christmas tree while Lee went to the fire. Amanda sat down on a footstool by the hearth while he took up a poker and adjusted the burning logs.

“Do all men feel compelled to play with fire?” Tara asked sardonically. Sally, who had pointedly straightened a bit on the sofa so that she wasn’t completely reclining in James’s arms, could not help laughing. Tara’s head swiveled toward her and they shared a grin, both surprised at their shared amusement.

“I believe so,” Amanda said, and the other women realized that she’d picked up on Tara’s meaning too. Lee and James seemed to be pointedly ignoring the women.

“My dad’s always playing with the fire at home,” Sara put in innocently. All of the adults laughed at that, and she exchanged a puzzled look with Jamie. He rolled his eyes. Grown-ups. Who knows why they think things are funny.

“I told you everyone would end up here,” Steed’s voice filled the quiet room. He stood with Emma in the doorway. Both were still wearing blissful smiles, along with their wedding regalia. They had said farewell to the last of the guests, and seen that the caterers, musicians, photographer, minister, and assorted help had been properly thanked and compensated. The party, which had been a profound success, had wound down to this intimate group and it made both of them desperately happy to know that their friends and family were there with them.

“Uncle, mum said we could open one gift tonight. You know we always do,” Ted said. He was leaning on a large, brightly wrapped box by the Christmas tree.

“Wow, really?” Jamie chimed in, looking toward Amanda for approval.

Steed and Emma advanced into the room, Emma glancing at Sally and James. She had come to terms with what was apparently a solid relationship, but she still feared for Sally and did not trust James. Steed guided her to the settee that they’d found at a local estate sale and fallen in love with. It was about a hundred and fifty years old, but its lines could easily be from the height of the art deco period. Emma had had it recovered in a wide black and white stripe. She sat down on it with Steed and he drew her into his arms just as James was holding Sally. She considered protesting it as inappropriate, but when she glanced around the room she realized nobody seemed to have noticed. I’m sitting in my husband’s arms, in a room full of friends and family. There is no need to be formal. I’m with my husband. The concept – that Steed was finally and truly hers – kept roiling around in her head. I’m exhausted, she finally admitted.

“They do, you know,” she said, smiling at the youngsters and imaging her own being equally determined one day.

“This is sort of a special occasion, isn’t it mom?” Jamie asked. “I mean, we won’t be celebrating Christmas in England again.”

Amanda looked at Lee, who shrugged and grinned. “I have to admit that I’d be making the same argument, if I were Jamie,” he said. “In fact, I might make the same argument for myself.”

“Why? Do you have a present for me that you want me to open tonight?” Amanda asked pointedly. Jamie and Phillip both laughed.

“There will be no gift opening!” Caroline declared from the door.

“Mother!” Sara protested.

“Until your father and I are both here,” Caroline added.

“What about the others?” Ted asked.

“Ah, that’s my fair minded Ted,” Caroline said fondly, coming in and finding a seat on another footstool near the tree. “They were provided with Christmas Eve gifts in bed.”

“So can we open a gift Mom?” Jamie persisted.

“Yes, Jamie. You and Phillip may participate in this Hill family tradition,” Amanda said. “But you may not open your gifts from your grandmother, since she’s gone to bed.”

“All right!” Jamie turned back to the presents to make his selection. Fortunately for him, Harry Hill joined them just then, striding across the room and dropping to the floor at his wife’s feet.

“Would you like to open a present?” James whispered to Sally. Everyone else’s attention was focused on the young people under the tree.

“Is that a lewd suggestion, James?” Sally whispered back. He grinned and winked as if considering the notion, then removed one of his arms from around her to reach into his breast pocket. Like Steed, the other men in the wedding party had changed from their morning suits to black suits for the reception. He drew out a long, narrow black box. Sally knew instantly that it contained jewelry. He handed it to her with a light kiss.

“Merry Christmas Sally,” he said softly, still not attracting anyone’s attention. She held the box and looked into his smiling blue eyes.

“I didn’t bring – I mean, I don’t have something for you,” she said, feeling guilt and embarrassment.

He shook his head dismissively. “Go ahead, open it,” he said. She looked at the fine little box. It’s a bracelet, she thought. She hoped it was beautiful and sparkly. Then she hoped it was a simple chain, for she could hardly accept something too valuable. Eyes flicking to James’s face and back to the box, she opened it.

It was not a bracelet. It was a watch and it was glittering with diamonds around the face and on the band. She gasped and closed the box.

“James!” she whispered, glancing around the room. Tara was watching her with interest, but the others were paying attention to the youngsters opening gifts one by one. “I can’t. It’s too much.”

“It’s not what you think,” he said, taking the box and opening it back up. He lifted the watch out and held it up. “It’s a camera,” he said, pressing the stem. “The stem is the shutter release and the lens is at six o’clock. It takes twelve frames. I’m afraid you’ll have to get the film from the ministry labs, and they’ll develop it, or I can.”

“So they aren’t real diamonds,” she said with relief, taking the watch from him and studying the face.

“Oh,” he said, taking it back and wrapping it around her wrist, “they’re real.”

She looked at the watch on her wrist, and then at his face. She wanted to kiss him long and hard, but she knew that Tara was still watching. And then it occurred to her that Tara was her roommate, and James was not even one of the houseguests. He would be leaving and she would be sleeping in the same room with Tara. Suddenly the prospect was terribly depressing. As if reading her thoughts, James shifted behind her, drawing her to her feet.

“Come on,” he whispered, guiding her out of the room. Only Tara and Emma saw them go. The two women noticed each other watching them and exchanged a glance – Tara’s curious, Emma’s disturbed. But she was immediately distracted by Sara, who came over to show her the gift that she had opened – a new riding hat covered in rich black velvet.

James led Sally toward the rear stairs.

“I asked Steed if there wasn’t a corner somewhere that I could spend the night in,” he said as they climbed.

“Oh?”

“And he said that as a matter of fact, there was.”

“Oh!” Good thing you didn’t ask Emma.

“Thanks Mom,” Jamie said, peeling the last of the wrapping paper off of a box containing a telephoto lens for his camera. Reading the outside of the box he got to his feet and walked over to her. He gave her a quick hug, then dug his fingers under the flap of the box to open it.

“Jamie,” Amanda said, drawing his attention back to her. “You know Lee picked that out for you.”

Jamie looked back down at the lens and then up at Lee, who was sitting on the high brick hearth next to his mother. Lee was smiling at him, which made it that much harder to remain angry about their secret marriage. He’d been thinking about it all day – about how nice Lee was to him and Phillip, and how he helped them with homework and played ball and was interested in some of the same things as them. It seemed like in the three or four years that Lee had been around he’d spent more time with them than their real father had their entire lives. Jamie loved his father, but as he looked at the camera lens that he had been secretly hoping for he realized that he also loved the man who had known him well enough to select it for him. He impulsively reached out and put his arms around Lee.

“Thanks Lee.”

Over Jamie’s shoulder Lee and Amanda’s eyes met. Amanda’s heart soared at the pride, love, and happiness in her husband’s face. She smiled back at him as Jamie pulled away and tore into the box with even greater enthusiasm.

“If you want, tomorrow we can go out and take some practice shots,” Lee suggested.

“And you’re welcome to use the darkroom,” Emma said from across the room.

Jamie’s eyes lit up as he turned to look at her. “You have a darkroom?”

“In the basement,” Emma replied. She caught Lee’s delighted expression and knew that their equipment would be put to good use.

“That is so cool,” Jamie said, holding the lens up to his eye and peering at his brother. Phillip made a face. He was clutching the sophisticated calculator that he’d unwrapped a few minutes earlier. It was a mixed sort of gift – he’d told his mother that he could do much better in trigonometry if he had the right calculator.

“Hey, maybe Lee can teach you how to spy on the neighbors and take long-distance pictures,” he said, reaching for the lens to inspect it.

Jamie reluctantly let him take it, forever the younger brother. Then he noticed how quiet the room had gotten.

“Phillip, why would you say that?” Amanda asked, clearly anxious to hear the answer.

“Oh dear,” Sara muttered, focusing her attention on her new riding hat.

Phillip visibly squirmed under his mother’s intense gaze. Then he looked at Jamie, who was staring at him with an accusatory look on his face. Phillip frowned at him, feeling betrayed. He handed the lens back and shrugged.

“Because he’s a spy. Heck, half the people at this wedding were spies,” he said as casually as he could, looking over at Sara for support. But she was studiously not looking at him.

“Why do you think that?” Amanda asked.

Tara, who had begun to feel out of place amid the three families and gotten up to go before Phillip’s unfortunate slip, stopped near the door and turned.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know that they didn’t know,” she said to Amanda. “I mean, who would think you hadn’t told your sons what you do?”

Amanda’s face drained of color and she turned to Lee. He cleared his throat as he straightened his posture and rubbed his hands along his thighs.

“And just what did you tell them?” he asked.

“I didn’t tell them anything,” Tara said, coming back into the room. She could see that Jamie and Phillip were watching her hopefully. She knew that she had to help them out, after the trouble she’d gotten them into. “They acted as if they knew.”

“We did?” Jamie said, clearly surprised that he had pulled it off. Tara had to smile, although Amanda and Lee looked very serious. “For about a minute,” she added.

“And why did you boys seem to know?” Amanda asked, looking from Jamie to Phillip.

“Come on, Mom,” Phillip protested, “All those security guards outside the church? They were a dead giveaway!”

“There were some important people at the wedding –,” Amanda started, although as she heard herself she realized that arguing with her son was a big mistake.

“I overheard two of the guests,” Jamie said quickly, glancing at Sara, who met his gaze with a look of relief. He turned to his mother and went on, “they were talking about a case, and someone, um, stealing military secrets,” he paused, looking to Phillip for support.

“Yeah, and he told me,” Phillip put in.

“I should like to know just who you overheard, young man,” Steed said, sounding extremely stern. Emma shot him a surprised look and he turned his head and winked at her. Jamie’s story was very weak, and they both wondered just who he was covering for.

Tara could tell that Jamie was genuinely frightened as he turned to Steed. He was too polite to ignore his elder’s question, but he obviously didn’t have an answer.

“Me again,” she said impulsively, and was rewarded with grateful smiles from Jamie, Phillip, and, to her surprise, Sara. “I think. You overheard me speaking to Nelson, didn’t you boys?”

“Nelson?” Phillip asked and Tara realized that he was not quite as quick as his younger brother.

“I’m sorry, Miss King,” Jamie said, darting a look at Phillip. “I didn’t meant to get you into trouble.”

“Don’t worry, Jamie,” she drawled, looking at Steed. “I can work my way out of it. After all, my superior is about to leave on his honeymoon.”

“So when Miss King spoke to you about the agents at the wedding you didn’t stop her,” Amanda said. She had followed the interplay among her sons, Tara, and young Sara. Whether or not Jamie was lying about overhearing Tara was not really important. If Sara had told him her uncle was a spy, it was to his credit that he wanted to protect her from Steed’s possible wrath. They could talk through all that later. For the moment, she wanted to focus on what really mattered – that her sons had learned her and Lee’s second huge secret. And apparently they weren’t anywhere near as upset about it as they’d been about the secret marriage.

“No,” Jamie said. “I – we – were really curious. I mean, well, you’re a spy too, right?”

Amanda looked to Lee for support, but he had finally broken. He and Steed were sharing a big grin that was rubbing off on Emma. Caro and Harry, who also suspected that their daughter was involved, looked relieved. For a moment Amanda thought maybe Lee and Steed were going to try to laugh the whole thing off and claim that the boys had misunderstood. She had no doubt that between them they could improvise a plausible explanation, and that Tara and Emma would play along. That, she decided, would not do. She didn’t want to lie about this to the boys anymore.

 “Yes, Jamie,” she said. “Lee works for a secret government agency. I met him by accident and he recruited me to work with him. At first we kept it a secret because I was helping him with something where the criminal didn’t know I was involved. After that I just thought your grandmother would never understand, and Dean.”

“Oh yeah,” Phillip, said thoughtfully, “Dean. I forgot about him.”

“You were a spy then, when you were dating Dean?” Jamie asked.

“That’s when it started,” Amanda nodded.

“And that’s why you broke up with Dean. Because of Lee?”

Amanda looked at Lee. His grin had turned into a warm smile, but he looked particularly interested in her next answer. She reached out and took his hand.

“Lee was a factor, yes,” she said.

“You never told me that,” he said.

“Well, we weren’t exactly in a place where I would have, then,” she replied awkwardly, glancing around the room. “Can we discuss this later?”

“So Mom,” Phillip interrupted. Amanda turned to him, silently thanking him, “can you, like, shoot a gun and stuff?”

“Yes Phillip, although I prefer not to.”

“I’m with you, Amanda,” Steed said, rising and drawing Emma to her feet with him. “I think that you four have a lot to talk about. While Mrs. Peel and I have other business to attend to. We’ll bid you all good night.”

“And merry Christmas,” Emma added.

Still holding Emma’s hand, Steed stepped close to Tara and whispered, “I was unaware of any stolen military secrets, Tara.”

Her eyes widened, and then she caught the twinkle in his and released the breath she’d sucked in.

“I didn’t want to bother you with it, with the wedding and all,” she said casually. Steed snorted, then led Emma from the room amid a chorus of good nights and merry Christmasses from the others.

They were just barely still within earshot when they heard Phillip ask, “Why did Mr. Steed call her ‘Mrs. Peel’?”

Chapter 9

James knew that Sally was wearing interesting lingerie – he had felt it through her dress while they were dancing. He’d been imagining what it must look like all evening – a bustier, he thought, holding her breasts high. Imagining her rosebud nipples peeking over the top of a confining white garment excited him so much he nearly dragged her into the small attic bedroom Steed had shown him earlier. It was supposed to be a servant’s room, Steed had pointed out, although that was obvious by its size and location at the top of the house. Steed had also pointed out that the youngsters – the King boys and the older Hill children – were the other occupants of the third floor. Bond had understood the unspoken warning. But right now all of them were still downstairs, too far away to hear Sally’s giggle as he tried an experimental tickle at her waist.

I want to undress you, he said in Russian, letting his lips brush along her bare shoulder. She’d worn a matching Bolero jacket for the ceremony, but it had come off after her first dance at the reception, revealing her creamy shoulders dotted with freckles. She turned around and dragged her long hair over her shoulder, presenting the zipper on the back of her dress. He lowered it, smiling as it parted to reveal shimmering black satin. Black, not white, he thought, happily revising his mental image of her breasts even though he would see them in a moment. He bent to kiss the nape of her neck, sliding the dress off of her with both hands.

“Ooohh,” she sighed as his arms encircled her waist and he pressed himself against her. His face was buried in her hair as his hands slid up over the bustier, exploring it with eager fingers. As he’d imagined, it held her round breasts up as if presenting them to him, the nipples concealed just inside, the rosy tops of her aureoles peeking out. He caressed them, feeling gooseflesh rise under his touch. Her legs were covered in shimmering stockings held up by a garter belt beneath silky black panties. He slipped one hand inside the panties to run his fingers through her moist curls. His loins throbbed, desperate to be touched.

Undress me, he said in Russian, hearing a hint of begging in his tone. She turned around in his arms and reached for his tie. He had to relax his hold on her to give her room to work, but watching her nimble fingers make quick work of his waistcoat and shirt made up for it. She had learned well the ways to entice him, to tease him, and ultimately to satisfy him. In such moments he allowed himself to think she was only his, his student, his protégée. Still, knowing that there was someone else in her life spurred his competitive nature, adding an exciting edge to their relationship. And it was also a safety net: the knowledge that if he had to leave her she would not be alone.

She pushed off his jacket and waistcoat, then reached for his hand, kissing his palm so languidly he shivered and clutched at her shoulder with the other one. She unfastened his cuff, handing him the cufflink, then took his other hand from her shoulder and did the same. He dropped the cufflinks into his trouser pocket and reached for his own belt, but her hands were there first. She gave him a scolding look and slowly unbuckled him, sliding her hand down the front of his trousers and smiling wickedly as she gently squeezed his erection. She unzipped his trousers and let them fall around his ankles. His penis poked through the slit in his dark blue satin boxers. She smiled and stroked it and a wave of fire roared through him. He wrapped his arms around her and carried her to the bed. She struggled against him, giggling, and gasped as he dropped her across the bed and bent over her, urgent kisses covering her mouth and stilling her giggles.

He pried one of his shoes off with the other, letting them both drop to the floor. The bustier had lacing at the top between her breasts – for show, he realized, but still intriguing to undo with his teeth. She sighed at the feel of his breath between her breasts as he pulled the thin black ribbon out of its holes. His chin brushed her breast and the nipple rose, slipping out of the top of the bustier. He caught it with his lips and sucked hard.

“James,” she gasped, tangling her fingers in his hair. He kept sucking in strong little waves and slid his fingers back inside her panties. She rocked against him, a quiet moan peaking with each thrust of her hips. She was hot and wet already, and then his hand was drenched in warmth as she gripped his neck and let out a long, low moan. When she loosened her hold on him he removed her panties, then his boxers and his socks. He returned his fingers to her, starting all over with light, teasing strokes. She spread her legs and he moved between them, still stroking her while he teased her other nipple out of the bustier and drew it into his mouth.

“Oh yes,” she breathed as he sucked and stroked her, slowly penetrating with one finger, then two. She was panting, her hands stroking his back, gradually settling for longer periods on his ass as if wanting to press him into her. She was wide open to him, hot and wet, her musky scent filling the small room. He wanted to plunge into her, but he. held her open with his fingers and entered her slowly, continuing to caress her labia as his penis filled her. “Yes,” she breathed again, thrusting her chest toward him, “It feels so good.”

He wanted to go on forever, to extend himself into her until she was filled with him and engulfed him. She would contain him and nurture him and he would fill the hollow spaces within her. He let his mind go, let himself be safe and warm, cradled within her. His mouth sought hers, completing the chain of their bodies, taking her probing tongue and grasping lips.

And then they began to move. Slowly at first, rocking together, creating a hot little frission that spread quickly along tingling nerves. He withdrew a little and plunged deeper and she groaned with pleasure. So he did it again, covering her breast with his hand so that his palm pinched the nipple.

“Oh God,” she cried, her hips rising beneath him. He pressed them down, rearing up to grind into her, conscious again of his own body, and hers. He began thrusting, and twisting, hard and fast, both hands on the mattress on either side of her head. Her legs wrapped around his waist kept him from pulling out too far, but even so she moaned each time he did, squeezing his ass to bring him back in. The jolt of ecstasy took him by surprise. He’d barely felt it coming, so lost was he in the sensation of her beneath him. His back arched and he raised his head, gasping for air as his loins throbbed within her. She was gasping as well, her hands running up his back to hold onto his shoulders as she pulled herself against him in a long blissful shudder.

He lowered himself to his elbows and pressed his lips to hers. She was still panting and he chuckled as he kissed her cheeks and her neck, and she chuckled too at the sheer pleasure of their joining.

“Are you going to show me your shower gifts?” Steed asked when they were on the stairs.

“I’ve already packed the best of them. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until we get – where are we going again?”

Steed gave her a sidelong glance, but did not respond. She smirked back.

“You packed everything?” Steed asked as they approached their bedroom door.

“No, not everything darling. In fact, your sister specified that I must use her gift tonight.” Emma opened the door and they went inside. The lights were low, set with dimmers that Emma had had installed. She wished she could have orchestrated a fire in the hearth, but she hadn’t known when they’d finally come to bed.

“Really?” Steed drawled, shutting the door and looking her up and down as if trying to guess what his sister might have given her and whether she was wearing it already. Emma had drawn the line on the wedding traditions after throwing the bouquet and feeding Steed a piece of cake. She had flatly refused to allow Steed to remove a garter and toss it to the unmarried men. He hadn’t minded – he thought it a crass tradition too – but there had been certain disappointment among the male guests. In any case, could Caro have given her a fancy garter? “Shall I try to guess what it is? Are you wearing it?”

Emma chuckled at him, stepping close to loosen his tie and begin on the buttons of his suit coat. His arms came up around her out of habit and he distracted her by capturing her lips in an urgent little kiss. She started on his scarlet waistcoat and he started on her throat with hot kisses that made her tilt her head back and moan with pleasure.

“I’m not wearing it,” she finally said, removing her hands from his chest rather than starting on the buttons of his shirt. He lifted his head to look at her face. “I think I should go and change, or I’ll end up going back on my promise to Caro.”

Steed emitted a sigh that suggested long suffering at the hands of his older sister. But he let Emma go and turned toward the dresser to continue removing his own clothes.

Emma went into their dressing room and removed her green gown and associated undergarments. If she’d worn stockings and a garter belt she would have let Steed remove them. But she had opted for the simplicity of pantyhose, which she knew he wasn’t fond of. She wiggled into the glossy red satin shift that Caro had given her. It stopped a third of the way down her thighs. She donned the matching dressing gown, which was a little longer. The outfit was not terribly daring, not compared to the leather bustier that Nancy had given her, or even Sally’s lacy white bra and panties, that she had noticed but not pointed out to the rest of the shower guests were crotchless. They had made her wonder just how far James’s education of her former assistant had gone. She’d set them aside to wear tomorrow.

Steed came out of the bathroom, stark naked, just as she came out of the dressing room. His smiled enthusiastically when he saw her, so she affected a hip swaying walk as she crossed the room to meet him in front of the cold hearth.

“Fortunately for you, I’m not a blushing bride,” she said, looking him up and down with unabashed interest.

“Indeed,” he said, reaching out to untie the belt of her dressing gown. “Very fortunate. What’s under here?” As he reached up to slip the gown off her shoulders she felt herself smiling at how short a time it had lasted. She twined the fingers of one hand into his hair as he slipped his fingers beneath one of the spaghetti straps on the shift and drew it down her shoulder. Then he lowered his head to kiss her collarbone and her throat, his hand tracing the underside of her breast through the cool, slippery fabric. Her nipples were on fire and her groin pulsed with heat as he wrapped his other arm around her waist to pull her tight against his lower body.

“Fill me,” she moaned, suddenly desperate for him. His erect member thrust between her thighs and she shivered with barely contained desire.

With a passionate little growl he pressed her down to the thick oriental carpet she’d selected for the space in front of the bedroom hearth. Her heart thumped at the impulsiveness of it – of being so desperate they could not even walk the few steps to the bed. Then his mouth demanded her full attention, sucking her lips and tongue and on down her throat to tease her breast through the fabric of her shift. He held himself on one hand and with the other drew the hem up her belly to expose the triangle of reddish curls between her thighs. He slid his fingers easily into her moist center, parting her, stroking her, and suddenly filling her with the length of his solid penis.

“Oh yes,” she purred, drawing her knees up as he rocked within her, then wrapping her legs around his waist. “Like that. Just like that.”

Steed rode the edge of control, stirring himself within her, pressing against waves of contractions that felt as if they’d never stop. She wailed softly, repeating his name over and over as she squeezed her thighs tightly around him and scratched her carefully manicured nails across his back. He pulled away from her and pushed back in finding a hotter, deeper center with each thrust.

They were one. Joined now in the eyes of their friends and the church. And joined in this moment in a long-shared passion that neither had ever been able to explain nor wanted to deny. All of his being was centered in that part of him that she held secure within herself. All of her held him, cradled him, drove him to bury himself even deeper. And then she was contracting around him so tightly he could hardly stay within her. Her loins filled with hot, rushing fluid and she moaned wordlessly, gasping as she pressed her face against his neck. His body responded and he could no more stop it than a freight train. He cried out too, her name and then a wordless, animal sound that made her shudder with fulfillment once more.

He pressed his face to her shoulder and shivered all over, his skin suddenly chilled as the heat of passion dissipated. She lowered her legs and pressed her lips to his ear.

“Husband,” she whispered, and he raised his head to look into her eyes.

“That’s me,” he replied, lips quivering with contained delight. She touched her lips to his.

“I love you more than I thought I could, John Steed,” she said. “I love your mind, and your smile, and your eyes, and your gentle nature, and your hard edge, and your talented hands,” she paused and he grinned, slowly rising above her on both hands, slowly withdrawing from her. She sat up. “But I have the distinct impression that maybe, just maybe, you’re a spy!”

“I hope you won’t hold it against me,” he laughed, climbing to his feet and offering her his hand. She took it and stood up.

“Do you think Lee and Amanda will get any sleep tonight?” she asked as he lead her to their bed and drew back the covers. She climbed in with him, reaching out to touch the switch that turned off the lights.

“I wish I could be there to hear how she explains it to her mother,” he said in the darkness, wrapping his arms around Emma. She snuggled against him, caressing his warm, solid chest.

“So do you think Sara told the boys?” she asked sleepily.

“I don’t see how Sara could have known about Lee and Amanda,” Steed said thoughtfully. Emma realized that he was considering it seriously. “But she may have told them about me – about us.”

“I think she likes young Jamie.”

“You’re just wrapped up in romance, darling,” he chuckled. “You want to see lovers everywhere.”

“And you’re immune to that particular disorder?”

“I didn’t say that. But I’m being pragmatic.”

“I thought I was the pragmatic one. You’re the romantic.”

Steed laughed, holding her tighter and finding her lips with his own. “My darling Emma,” he sighed after a while. “I love you more than I thought I ever could too. You’re everything to me.”

“That’s a very frightening responsibility,” she said, reaching up to stroke his face.

“Nonetheless,” he shrugged in her arms. “You’ve borne it well for a long, long time.”

Sally slipped through the door and closed it gently, then reached behind herself to unzip her dress. She let it drop, then picked it up and laid it over the back of the chair that her bag was sitting on. The dress cost a month’s salary, and I don’t even have a hangar for it. She had left her underwear in James’s room to be collected later. She took a jersey nightshirt from her bag and slipped it over her head, then walked softly over to her bed, pulled back the covers, and slipped in.

“What’s he like?” Tara’s asked. Sally raised her head and looked toward her roommate in the darkness. It was about four a.m. She couldn’t believe that she’d awakened the woman coming in. But Tara sounded genuinely curious not jealous or hurtful.

“Strong, gentle, competent,” she said, staring at the ceiling.

“I’ve heard a lot of rumors. Some say that he’s amazing, and other that he’s all charm and no substance –.”

“No, that’s not true,” Sally interrupted. “He’s taught me so much. . .”

“Like Steed did me,” Tara said quietly. Sally raised herself on one elbow and looked across the room. She saw Tara’s eyes glint in the thin moonlight shining in the window.

“You and Steed?” she asked.

Tara laughed, a dry, bitter sound. “I was there for the rebound. Helped him pick up the pieces,” she said.

“When she left,” Sally added thoughtfully. Much as she was attracted to Steed, she didn’t think she could have been there then.

“I was excited at the assignment. To work with him – it was every trainee’s dream. But nobody told me he was in love with her. She nearly killed him.” Now Tara sounded angry. Sally felt herself bristle on Emma’s behalf.

“She was devastated too,” she said.

“For months he drank himself to sleep every night. Every morning I came and dragged him back to consciousness,” Tara went on, ignoring Sally’s defense of Emma. “One day he actually noticed me there making him coffee and being sure nobody tried to meet with him before noon.”

She fell silent and Sally could not think of anything to say. Telling her that Emma had been miserable with Peter Peel would just sound empty.

“What’s he like?” she finally whispered, knowing it was inappropriate, but justified since Tara had asked first.

“I don’t know,” Tara replied.

“But –.”

“The John Steed I slept with is not the man who married Emma today, or the man whose heart she broke four years ago. With me he went through the motions – they were very good motions, don’t mistake me. But with her, he’s amazing.”

“How do you know? How can you know that he’s different with her?”

Now Tara lifted herself up and looked across at Sally. So it really has been taken out of circulation, she thought. “There was a tape recording,” she said. “Last spring her office was bugged. The agents investigating Peter Peel had done it, and Steed didn’t know. One night they made love on the couch there.”

“In her office?”

“Yes. Usually that sort of thing gets erased when it doesn’t pertain to the investigation. But the communications operator thought he would make some points by sharing it. There were several copies and a lot of people heard it.”

Sally stared at the ceiling and thought about that. People at the ministry had heard a recording of Steed and Emma making love. It made sense. It explained the comments about Emma that she’d heard people making after their engagement had become public. Sly little comments that hinted at intimate knowledge.

“I couldn’t stop myself from listening to it,” Tara was saying, “It was compelling, and it was dreadful, at the end, when they told each other that they loved each other. I’d known it, but to hear the emotion, and the honesty, that I had never had a chance of sharing with him. . .” her voice faded and she drew in a deep, damp breath.

Sally could not think of anything to say. She couldn’t imagine how Tara must feel, thinking she had a chance with Steed, then realizing she didn’t, and then, after coming to terms with it having it hammered home by the recording. Or had she come to terms with it?

“What happened to the recording?” she asked. Tara snorted, guessing that Sally was curious, perhaps hopeful that she might get a hold of a copy.

“I burned the tape that found its way to Paris. I heard that Mother himself saw to it that the rest were destroyed. There was a rumor that Emma got one from someone, but I don’t know. And I guess if she did it was destroyed in her apartment.”

“Emma found out about it?” Sally rose back up to stare at Tara again.

“I told her.”

Sally’s eyes narrowed, trying to guess at Tara’s motive for such an act. Tara seemed to guess what she was thinking.

“Not to hurt her, Sally. After I listened to it, all I could think of was how Steed would feel about people hearing him tell her his deepest feelings. But I couldn’t very well speak to him about it. So I called her.”

Sally lay back down, stifling a compulsive yawn. “I’m sorry I woke you,” she said. “I was trying to be quiet.”

“You didn’t wake me.”

“Oh.”

“I’ve been thinking. Remember I asked you the other day if you were over him? That was catty of me, by the way. I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay –.”

“Well, I think, after yesterday, that I’m finally over him myself. I’ve seen them together a few times in the last year, but these last two days I’ve finally allowed myself to accept what other people have always commented on. They belong together, and neither of them would be complete with someone else. It’s scary, really, to think that maybe there’s someone out there like that for me, but I’ll never find him.”

“I know. But I just think they’re both incredibly lucky,” Sally replied. “We can’t all expect to find the perfect match.”

Chapter 10

“Happy Christmas wife,” Steed whispered into Emma’s ear. She had just snuggled back into bed after visiting the bathroom and he’d wrapped his arms around her.

“Happy Christmas husband,” she replied, turning her face to touch her lips to his. “The first of many.”

“Ummm,” he returned her little kiss with a more determined one of his own. She ran her tongue over his lips, then slipped it into his mouth to caress his. He sucked it gently, his hands wandering over her body on top of the satin shift. She rolled toward him, drawing her top leg up over his and pressing close so that the tip of his hard penis nestled against her belly.

There was a knock at the door.

“Have they no respect for the newly wed?” Steed groaned against her mouth.

The knock was repeated, and a distinctive voice called out, “I just want to give you some breakfast.”

“Amanda,” Steed and Emma said in unison. Emma slipped out of the bed and headed for the door, stooping to pick up her discarded dressing gown and put it on.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Amanda was saying as she opened the door. “But I thought you would like these.” She held out a tray bearing a bowl of sliced strawberries and a bowl of whipped cream. “You need to leave for the airport in five hours.”

“How thoughtful of you, Amanda,” Emma said, her lips curling into a wry smile as she took the tray.

“Enjoy,” Amanda said with a sly grin and backed away from the door. Emma carried the tray back to the bed where Steed had pulled himself up to a sitting position. She set the tray on the bed near the foot and dropped her dressing gown to the floor before climbing in beside him.

“What did she bring us?” he asked, leaning forward to see the tray.

“Lie down,” Emma commanded, kneeling to reach for a strawberry.

Puzzled, Steed scooted back down. Emma reached over and drew the covers off of him, then she placed a half strawberry over one of his nipples.

“Emma?” he looked curiously at the bright red berry. It was cool against his skin. She smiled enigmatically at him, then dipped a half berry into the whipped cream and took a slow bite. She dipped another one and pressed it against his lips. He bit it, beginning to get the idea. She fed him the rest, then placed another half berry on his other nipple. She worked her way down his body, strategically placing berries in sensitive spots. He sighed as she stroked one up his penis, so she dipped her finger into the whipped cream and smeared it over the tip, then balanced the strawberry on top.

Satisfied with her work, she returned to his face with a berry in her lips. She fed it to him, then began working her way back down his body, sumptuously eating each of the berries off of him.

“Put another one there,” he sighed after she’d eaten both of those on his nipples.

“This is my breakfast, Steed,” she said mischievously. “I’ll eat it from where I want.”

“Have seconds,” he pleaded. She chuckled, slurping the berry from his bellybutton, then moving down to the ones on his thighs. She worked her way down one thigh to his knee, then up the other one, placing herself between his sprawled legs. He sucked in an anticipatory breath as she took the berries off of his balls with her tongue. Then he exhaled it in surprise as she pulled away. She smiled teasingly at him as she reached back and dipped her finger into the whipped cream.

“Oh my,” he said as she ate the berry and slathered more whipped cream all over his shaft. “Oh don’t stop.”

She started at the base and licked upward over and over, the musky taste of his semen mixing with the sweet cream at the top. He raised himself on his elbows to watch her, shivering at the feel of her hair brushing his thighs with each long, slow lick.

At last the cream was mostly gone and she took him into her mouth, sucking the last of it off as he dropped back down onto the mattress and moaned at the pressure building in his loins. His pelvis rose to her and she took him again, sucking harder as she caressed his thighs and hips.

“Come for me,” she said, dropping her mouth over him again. He pushed deeper into her throat and she swallowed, suppressing the gag reflex to take his entire length. He moaned again at the exciting sensation of unfamiliar textures and pressures, thrusting sharply into her, filling her throat with his hot, salty cum. She held him tight with her lips, swallowing him down as he writhed beneath her, his moan turning into a wail.

“Let go,” he gasped as he softened in her mouth. She released him, swallowing the last of his sour, musky essence and pressing kisses into the curly hairs at the based of his genitals then onto the soft skin of his flat belly. He lay panting, running one hand through his own hair, the other still clutching the sheets at his side.

She moved up beside him, kissing his chest and his collar, his Adam’s apple, and finally his lips. She rested her head on his shoulder and they breathed together for a while, Emma’s fingers tracing vague patterns on his chest at is rose and fell.

“Your turn,” he said at last, his eyes popping open to twinkle at her. She obligingly sat up and pulled the shift off over her head. Dropping it on the floor, she stretched out on the bed.

Steed made slow work of placing the rest of the strawberries on her body, each one on a thick cushion of whipped cream.

“You realize the cream isn’t nearly as good for you as the berries,” she observed as he drew a white line between her breasts and down her stomach.

“I’m about to work off the ill effects,” he replied, stroking her inner thighs until she spread her legs. He dipped up more whipped cream and slathered it over her vulva, then he lowered his face to lick her clean.

She shivered beneath him, but tried to hold still and not dislodge any of the berries. He slid his tongue into her and out, caressing her clitoris until it hardened. Her vagina flooded with warm fluid and he licked her more, teasing her with his tongue until she came again.

“Oh John,” she groaned as he put his tongue on the line of cream on her stomach and began to lick his way up. He paused to slurp up the berries on her ribs. When he took the ones covering her hard nipples she couldn’t hold still. Her back arched toward him as he sucked and nipped and kissed her breasts, then moved up to her throat, and finally her face.

“Roll over,” he said, holding himself above her, his lips caressing her ear. She rolled beneath him and he reached down to press his hand between her thighs, pressing his thumb into her, forcing her legs apart. He knelt between them and lifted her hips. She drew up her knees, rising to him and turning her face in the pillows. She clutched at them in anticipation of his entry into her.

He hesitated and she looked back over her shoulder to see him smearing more cream on himself. He caught her eye and grinned and she shook her head ruefully. He parted her with his fingers, stroking her from behind in a way that always drove her quickly to frenzied arousal. She moaned into the pillows. He penetrated her, slick and cool at first, then hot and solid, forcing in deeper, nudging against her cervix so that she cried out little yelps of pleasure. They incited him, driving him to sharper, harder strokes until she wiggled her ass, breaking his rhythm and sending him over the edge. She moaned as she came in long, surging contractions that he matched with squirming, pulsing thrusts until he was drained once again.

“Emma,” he moaned as he slipped out of her, reaching around her to stroke the fronts of her thighs, then up her torso, bending over her to cup her breasts. She stretched her legs out beneath him and he slipped to the side, holding her from behind.

They lay spooned together for a long while, their hearts pounding in a syncopated rhythm as their breathing gradually calmed. Finally Emma rolled away so that she could face him. He freed his arm from under her and brushed a lock of hair off of her face.

“Amanda might not appreciate what we did to her breakfast,” he said with a contented smile. Emma chuckled, catching his hand in hers to kiss his palm.

“On the contrary, darling, it’s what she intended,” she said. “And she said we have five hours – closer to four now. Shall we go celebrate Christmas with our guests?”

He ran his fingers into her hair, then pulled her close to kiss her. She indulged him for a moment, her lips parting under his as he stroked her jaw. Then she pulled away, smiling affectionately as she climbed off of the bed and stood up.

When she’d closed the bathroom door Steed sat up and reached to the foot of the bed, pulling the tray toward him. Now he saw that there was a note tucked under the strawberry bowl.

My dear Emma and John, I know you can find many ways to put these to good use. Merry Christmas! – Amanda.

Emma stepped lightly down the back stairs into the kitchen. The big room was filled with cheery light and the smell of coffee and roasting goose. It pleased her to know that her friends and family had made themselves comfortable in her home, and that Nancy had overseen the start of Christmas dinner as planned.

“Good morning!” Dottie West rose from the kitchen table where she was sitting with Caro. She crossed to the counter where mugs had been set out near the coffee pot.

“Good morning ladies,” Emma said, movement outside catching her eye. She peered through the window. Caro followed her look.

“They’re playing American football,” she explained.

“Cream, right? And sugar?” Dottie asked, holding up the coffee pot.

“Yes, two please,” Emma replied, crossing the room to get a better look outside. The Stetsons – all four of them – were split up in teams with Sally, Sara, Ted, and – to Emma’s astonishment – Tara. Nancy stood on the sidelines with the younger Hill children.

“Phillip brought the football,” Dotty explained as she handed Emma a steaming mug. “Caro and I have just been discussing the business that you all are in – well, not you so much, I understand,” she went on. Emma’s gaze snapped to the older woman.

“Has Amanda –?” she paused, afraid of committing the same error as Tara had yesterday.

“Told me that she’s a government agent? Yes.” Dottie returned to her seat at the table and Emma looked toward Caro. Her sister-in-law smiled and nodded a little. Emma pulled out a chair and sat down.

“And you aren’t upset?” Emma asked.

“I was upset about their secret marriage,” Dottie said, “this explains that, and a lot of other things. There have been times in the last few years I thought my daughter had gone off her rocker. Now it turns out she was chasing criminals all along.”

“I know for a fact that keeping it a secret has troubled her for a long while,” Emma said. “But she felt she had to, for your safety, and the boys.”

“So she said. And I think I understand that. But still, it’s not as if I can’t keep a secret.”

The sound of a car horn at the front of the house made all three women look in that direction. Frowning, Emma rose and headed down the hall toward the sound.

Steed met her in the entry, tying his tie as he came down the stairs. Emma opened the big front door, then reached out and pulled Steed over to look outside.

Two frail forms were emerging from a big black car, helped by a liveried driver.

“CAROLINE!” Steed bellowed, looking back along the hall toward the kitchen.

“She said they had forgotten the wedding,” Emma said, watching the two women as they looked up at the house.

“Apparently they didn’t – except for the date. Caro!” Steed called again, and Harry appeared on the landing above them.

“What is it?” he asked. At the same time footsteps in the hall signaled Caro’s arrival in the entry.

“Aunt Helen and Aunt Jessica have just arrived,” Steed said, gesturing out the open door, which Emma had just passed through.

“What?” Caro came to stand beside him and look out. “We didn’t arrange the car – and certainly not for today,” she said, glancing up at Harry who was coming down the stairs shaking his head.

“So help me, if they delay us getting on our flight –,” Steed buttoned his waistcoat and stepped out the door to greet his aunts.

“Yesterday, we know,” Helen was saying to Emma as he approached. “Good morning John! Congratulations!”

“Aunts,” Steed said, kissing each one on an offered cheek.

“We were just explaining to Emma that we knew you would be too busy for us yesterday, so we came for a visit today,” Jessica said proudly.

“I see,” Steed said, remarkably calmly, Emma thought. “Come inside. You must be tired after your long ride. What time did you leave home?” He gestured toward the house, escorting the ladies inside. He directed them into the formal sitting room where they seated themselves on the stiff sofa. Caro joined them after exchanging a quick word with Harry, who disappeared toward the kitchen.

“We left at three,” Helen said.

“We thought we should arrive before brunch. There is a wedding brunch, isn’t there?”

The blissful sense of contentment Steed had been reveling in was beginning to evaporate until he saw Emma’s expression. She was barely containing her mirth as she settled into an armchair as if she had all the time in the world for his aunts. I’m the luckiest man on earth. Most women would be looking for a gun right now, or a lawyer.

“It’s just family and friends this morning, Aunts,” he explained. “Emma and I are leaving soon.”

“Leaving?” Jessica asked with a frown.

“On our honeymoon, Aunt Jessica,” Emma explained.

“Oh, yes, of course. We didn’t consider that, Helen.”

“Will you have some tea, Aunts?” Caro asked. “Harry’s just getting it for us all.”

“I’d like tea,” Jessica said, “But Helen is off of it. Have you any mulled wine?”

“Aunt Helen?” Steed turned to her, concern in his voice, “have you been drinking mulled wine?”

“Only in the morning, nephew,” Helen assured him. He exchanged a helpless glance with Caro, who shrugged.

“You must be very tired, Aunts,” Steed said hopefully.

“Not at all!” Helen replied. “We want to hear all about the wedding. Do you have pictures?”

“Aunt Helen, the wedding was just yesterday,” Emma said, “We won’t get the pictures for several weeks. Perhaps we could come visit you and bring them for you to see.”

“Well yes, I suppose that will have to do,” Jessica said, clearly disappointed. “Oh! Helen, what has become of our gifts?” she looked around the room urgently, then at her sister.

“I believe they’re still in the car, Jessica,” Helen said. “John, go out and ask driver for the gifts.”

Cocking one eyebrow, Steed glanced at Emma as he left the room. She was still smiling serenely, remarkably tolerant of his eccentric relatives.

“Where are the children, Caroline?” Helen asked.

“Outside playing. Harry will call them in to say hello when he’s finished with the tea.”

“We have presents for all of them, of course,” Jessica said. From Caroline’s expression Emma could see that this was by no means good news. She felt a wave of apprehension about the nature of the gifts.

Harry’s arrival with the tea coincided with Steed’s return laden with a stack of boxes in both arms and carrier bags hanging from his hands. Emma jumped up to relieve him of some of his burden. The Hill children soon trooped in, followed by the Kings and the other houseguests all looking flushed from their game.

Tea and gifts were distributed, Steed standing over Emma in her chair as she opened one of the boxes. It contained a large, ornate silver tureen. She set it the box on the floor and rose to kiss each aunt. As she returned to her seat she noticed Steed’s amused expression and thinking him ungrateful gave him a quizzical look. He leaned close to her ear and whispered, “It’s a Steed family heirloom. Technically, it’s already mine.”

The aunts presided over their great nieces and nephews opening gifts that were somewhat hit-or-miss. Emma noticed that all of the children thanked the aunts graciously, then slipped away one-by-one, their parents making no move to stop them. Sara gestured at Jamie and Phillip King to come with her as she left and they followed her. The King adults and other guests also drifted away under Emma’s approving nods, and soon the smells of Christmas dinner were drifting in from the hall.

The Hills, Steed, and Emma had recounted most of the wedding when Sally reappeared in the doorway.

“Dinner is ready, the table is laid,” she said. “Steed, Emma, you should be going in about two hours.”

“Then let’s eat. Aunts?” Steed rose, reaching for Emma’s hand.

“Oh no, don’t let us intrude!” Jessica declared, pushing herself to her feet too.

“You won’t join us for dinner?” Emma asked, finally allowing herself to be astonished by Steed’s aunts’ behavior.

“No, no dear. You go take care of your guests. We’ll just go on home. It’s been a lovely visit.”

Steed squeezed Emma’s hand and she closed her mouth around her renewed protest. Caro and Harry were rising to help the aunts toward the door and Steed leaned close to Emma’s ear.

“It’s no use arguing, Mrs. Peel,” he murmured.

“But they said they came for brunch!”

“They got what they really came for, darling.” They followed the Hills and the aunts into the entry hall.

“How do you manage it, Steed?” Emma asked.

“I did tell you it was difficult,” he reminded her. “Let’s say good-bye and get to our guests and our dinner.”

“Here we are, British Airways,” Lee said, half turning in the driver’s seat to look back at Steed and Emma. “I don’t suppose you’d care to tell us now where you’re going?”

Steed smiled and shook his head. “When you get back to the house, look for the large atlas in the library. You will find our complete itinerary inside. Please share it with Caro and Harry.”

“But I’m still not to know?” Emma asked, “Even now?”

“Soon, darling,” Steed replied, opening the door to get out of the car. Lee and Amanda helped them line up their bags – one large one and one small one for each of them – on the curb. A porter hurried to assist them and Emma turned to their friends to exchange farewell hugs. Steed shook Lee’s hand and kissed Amanda on the cheek.

“Have a wonderful time,” Amanda waved out the window as Lee guided the car back into the airport terminal traffic.

“Steed, I refuse to go any further without knowing our direction of travel,” Emma said, her hand on the cart on which the porter had loaded their luggage. The porter shot a puzzled look at each of them, but waited patiently. Without a word, Steed’s teasing grey eyes holding hers, he took a travel portfolio out of his inner coat pocket and handed it to Emma. She cocked an eyebrow at him as she opened it and scanned the top ticket. She couldn’t find words to express her surprise, so she simply handed the tickets back and nodded to the porter. She slipped her arm through Steed’s and walked with him into the terminal, the porter following with their luggage. They headed for the first class check-in line, where there were two others ahead of them.

“You remembered,” she said as last, still astonished at his thoughtfulness and memory. Steed smiled and shrugged.

“You gave me a very short list of the things you’d never done,” he said. “We did the other one, so that left this.”

“And how do you know I haven’t been to Australia since then?” she asked, sliding her hands around his neck in an excessive public display. He grinned mischievously at her.

“I had immigration check your passport,” he said. Her brows shot up and she laughed. He chuckled too. “Sometimes it’s helpful to be a spy,” he added, leaning in to press a quick, almost shy kiss on her lips.