This story copyright © 2004 Mia McCroskey
Characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.
Steed looks for the true cross,
Emma paints a swath
“Steed?” Emma Peel shut the front door to her partner’s apartment and surveyed the sitting room from the top of the stairs. She was bold to come in without being invited, but he had given her a key, and she felt that their partnership – admit it, Emma, you’re in a full-blown relationship with the man – was at a point where they could enjoy free access to one another’s spaces. Besides, he might be in trouble and need her help. That’s a convenient justification she smirked at herself.
There was evidence of a guest in the sitting room – glasses on the coffee table, a dessert plate with a fork and some crumbs. Out of habit she gathered them to carry with her into the kitchen.
He was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of steaming coffee in front of him and a section of the morning paper in his hands. He was wearing his rich, deep red silk dressing gown over his equally rich dark blue silk pajamas. It was one o’clock in the afternoon.
“Good afternoon Mrs. Peel,” he said pleasantly as she set the glasses and plate in the sink and poured herself a cup of coffee.
“So you do realize it’s after noon, then?” she asked pointedly. “Honestly, Steed, carousing all night and sleeping until noon — at your age!”
He cocked one eyebrow at her abusive words, although they had been delivered without malice in a chiding tone, as she pulled out the other chair and sat down.
“I have been up since eight o’clock this morning, Mrs. Peel,” he said haughtily as he passed her a section of the newspaper folded with the crossword puzzle on top. She smiled warmly at him, teasing forgotten in the face of his thoughtfulness. How amazing that he knows me so well. She could not imagine Peter, her deceased husband, ever saving out the crossword for her – and Steed hadn’t even been expecting her. He’d just done it because she might turn up – or perhaps because he hoped she would. As she looked across at him she felt a familiar rush of warmth beneath her stomach. The notion of his hard body loosely sheathed in the soft fabric of his pajamas and robe was intensely erotic. Everything about him as he relaxed at his kitchen table spoke of bed, of indolence, and of carnal pleasure. In the middle of a Thursday afternoon.
“I was awakened by the telephone,” he added meaningfully, passing her a pencil.
“Oh?” she asked, averting her eyes from him as she set the pencil aside and opened her small handbag to remove a ballpoint pen. Don’t think about his body.
“Show-off,” he said, watching her pick up the crossword holding the pen ready. She cast him her best self-satisfied smile and filled in the answer to one across. “It was an invitation of sorts,” he went on. “I hope you are available for the next few days.”
“In fact, I’m not,” she replied, disappointed that she had to deny him even if she tried not to show it, and annoyed with herself for placing his business so high in her priorities that she regretted missing it.
“But Mrs. Peel,” he began to argue. She raised one eyebrow at him and he stopped.
“I stopped by to tell you: I have an invitation too,” she explained. “A weekend junket.”
“You too?” she asked, filling in six down before allowing herself to look at him again. She fought a random urge to get up and run her fingers through his uncombed hair by forcing herself to wonder why if he was awakened at eight a.m. he had not dressed himself by one.
“A cruise on Sir Hamilton Jones’s private yacht,” he said, watching her reaction. Her rueful smile confirmed his hope. For her part, Emma was not surprised at the coincidence. In her experience with Steed she had learned that there were no coincidences.
“And did you arrange for my invitation too?” she asked, although she’d received hers two days ago. He shook his head and from his expression she knew he had not.
“We received a tip last night,” he said. “There is going to be an assassination on board Sir Hamilton’s yacht this weekend.”
“Is he the target?”
“We don’t know.”
“Why not have him cancel the cruise?”
“We want the assassin.”
“More than you want to protect the victim?”
“Last year in Hungary an Sionnach – ‘the fox’ — killed three cabinet ministers. He killed a Mexican senator two years ago and the Argentine minister for trade four years before that. An Sionnach is a master of disguise. Witnesses have described him as tall, medium height, fat, thin, balding, a redhead, bearded, and cleanshaven. Just about the only description not in the file is that of a woman. What we do know for sure is that he has a tattoo of a celtic cross on the inside of his left wrist. If he is successful this time, even if his target is a lesser personage, it will not reflect well on the ministry.”
Emma looked back at her puzzle. “There are to be several notable guests,” she said and he knew she did not include herself among them, although she probably should. He also knew that he could count on her assistance. He watched her concentrating on the crossword, or appearing to. Her milk and honey complexion glowed; her glossy auburn hair fell forward in a shimmering sheet from her slightly lowered head. She was avoiding his gaze and he hoped he knew why. They had been apart, both busy with their separate lives, for several days. He’d felt the tug of desire when he’d first heard her call his name. It was why he’d stayed in the kitchen and waited for her to find him – if he’d met her at the door he would have had to struggle with his impulse to guide her right into the bedroom.
But now that pleasantries had been exchanged, that a plan for the next few days was laid, no matter how vague, he could allow himself to follow his body’s whim. He hoped he was right that she shared his growing arousal.
He stood up and came around the table, reaching down to pull her to her feet as well. How can he read me so well? She wondered as she placed her hands on his warm, firm chest, making a show of resistance although her entire being wanted to melt into his arms.
“I have plans for the afternoon,” she said, hearing how breathless she sounded and knowing there was no conviction in her protest. His hands slipped to her waist and he leaned close, his lips just brushing the delicate skin of her neck. “The dry cleaners. The framers,” she said, all the while allowing her hands to slip around to his back and caress the hard muscles there. “The bank,” she went on as his hands slid up her sides beneath the short, loose jacket she wore over her silk blouse, pausing tantalizingly near her breasts. “The chemists,” she added, barely a whisper as she felt a familiar, delicious nudge against her belly.
“Finished?” he asked, his breath in her ear fanning the flames in her loins.
“Yes,” she sighed. His eyes met hers, showing her his own desire coupled with amusement at her inability to resist. He tangled his fingers with hers and led her to the bedroom.
Having given in, she easily surrendered to her basest desires, opening his pajama top to stroke and kiss his warm flesh. He undressed her with equal enthusiasm, dropping her shed garments to the floor in a tangle with his own so that soon they were gloriously naked, limbs intertwined beneath the sheets of his previously unmade bed. They reveled in the illicitness of their mid-day encounter, gasping with pleasure as fingers, lips, and even toes incited sparks of excitement that coursed through their bodies. Their joining was as indolent as Steed’s appearance in the kitchen had seemed to Emma. They enticed each other slowly from warm, burning need to a conflagration of desire. Rolling across the bed, first one on top, then the other, they consumed each other, filled each other, and, ultimately, became one magnificent, blazing being for a moment before sliding into mindless, sated repose.
“You’re an addiction,” Emma said after a while. She lay molded to him, one of her legs between his, her thigh draped across his beginning to cut off his circulation, although he didn’t care. One of her arms lay possessively across his chest, the other was folded under herself. She lowered her face to press a kiss to his chest, then looked into his serene grey eyes. He smiled, stroking the delicious curve of her lower back with one hand and playing with a lock of her hair with the other. He felt content, whole, at peace with the world with her there in his arms. It was a delicious sensation he’d only known since becoming her lover. He was still not accustomed to it. It made him feel like the luckiest man alive.
“One could develop worse bad habits,” he said. She scooted up his body a few inches – just enough to kiss his lips. He kissed back, cupping the back of her head, his fingers tangling in her hair. He felt himself smiling against her mouth: she wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon, not, in any case, before they made love again.
“You had company last night,” she said, abruptly distracting him from his plans for the next hour or so. He peered at her through hooded eyes, wondering if she could possibly think he’d been with another woman. No, she would not be in my bed now if she did. They had never spoken of monogamy, but that didn’t make it any less expected. It was another sensation he had never known before – such fulfillment with her that he rarely desired another woman and easily ignored it when he did simply by comparing the other woman to his glowing mental image of Emma.
“An old friend – Kevin Wykoff. He’s with the Foreign Service posted to Egypt. He’s only in London for a few days,” he explained, realizing that he sounded like he was making excuses.
“You enjoyed catching up,” she said, guessing that at least some of his good mood had to do with the previous evening. He closed his eyes and pictured his old friend, his long, animated arms and legs leading his whole body in gestures and imitations as he related his tales of life in the Middle East. Kevin had a unique ability to draw Steed out, and he’d learned more about Steed’s feelings for Emma than anyone else had – including the lady in question — since the partnership had begun. Steed was selfishly glad that Kevin was going back to Egypt this evening.
“Yes,” he said, realizing that much as he preferred to conceal his feelings toward Emma – for his safety and hers – he had enjoyed sharing just a little bit about them with someone he could trust.
“Reminiscing? Remembering wild days and nights abroad?” she prodded. He opened his eyes to look into hers, surprised at her persistence. She’s jealous at having been left out, he realized with a start. It was too tempting to let lie.
“And in school, yes. We had some good times, Kevin and I,” he mussed, adopting a singularly pleased smile that he knew would drive her mad with curiosity. But his strategy backfired as she prompted him for first one story, then another, until he became enthusiastic about telling them. Before he knew it another hour had passed and she was stretching her feet toward the floor where her clothing lay. He reached for her, never intending to give up making love in favor of telling stories.
“The dry cleaners, Steed,” she said, sounding far more determined now than she had earlier. “The bank, and the framers.”
She was on her feet, bending to gather up her clothes and his pajamas. He flopped back with a disappointed sigh, watching her sort out her clothes from his.
“What time shall I pick you up to meet the boat?” he asked.
“I think my date might object,” she said.
“Your date?” He pulled himself up in bed, his expression growing remarkably stormy all of a sudden.
“Sir Hamilton,” she said, watching him closely. She knew that once his initial annoyance at being jilted a second time for the same weekend passed he would see the advantages to the arrangement. Often enough they had to work at finding separate routes to infiltrate an organization. “He likes my paintings,” she added, just to irritate her lover. Steed’s annoyed expression turned into a smirk and he lay back again. Having laid her clothes over her arm and left his on the bed, she turned toward the bathroom.
“That’s hardly enough to build a friendship on,” he called out as she shut the bathroom door.
When she came out fully dressed she found him at his writing desk wrapped in his dressing gown studying a file with Sir Hamilton’s picture clipped to it. He had combed his hair, but she supposed he was waiting to shower before finally getting dressed. Sensing he was still a bit out of sorts, no matter how misplaced his emotional response was, she placed her hands on his shoulders and put her face next to his.
“It is, you know – enough to build a friendship on. But you and I are far more than friends, Steed. For what we have one must start with a great deal more than similar tastes in art. In fact, that doesn’t seem to be necessary at all!”
He grinned, turning his head to press his lips to her cheek. He was, after all, her resilient John Steed.
“I’ll see you on the boat,” she said, returning his kiss, then making her escape before he could try again to convince her to stay.
That Emma had accepted Sir Hamilton’s invitation before she knew that the weekend trip would become a case was a fact that Steed struggled to ignore as he packed and confirmed certain arrangements with ministry staff. She is not yours to govern. What young woman would not want to spend a long weekend aboard a rich man’s yacht in the company of interesting people? But he could not shake off the lingering disappointment that she had been so eager to go she had not even consulted with him. What if I had been planning something for us? Sir Hamilton’s invitation came darned late. Only I should be able to propose a getaway that spur-of-the-moment. He snapped his case shut and stared down at it. Listen to yourself! You’re thinking like a Neanderthal. Emma’s independence is the very thing you love about her. Well, that, and her hair. And her mind – such a brilliant mind… Steed’s thoughts degenerated into pleasant abstraction as he carried his case to the door and turned for a final look around his apartment.
Emma had been proud of herself for sticking to her plan and telling Steed that she could not help him with his case. But when it turned out his case was also her junket, she’d felt a rush of excitement at the prospect of working with him over the weekend after all. Riding in Sir Hamilton’s limousine the following afternoon to the marina on the Thames downstream from London she reminded herself that she was his guest. She must pretend not to know Steed for the sake of the investigation. She felt herself smile as she thought of the inevitable late night rendezvous they would have in order to compare notes.
“Looking forward to this, my dear?” Sir Hamilton asked, having seen her secretive little smile.
“Very much, Ham,” she replied, broadening her smile to less sensual proportions for his benefit. “Although I’ll have you know I’m a sailor since childhood – I’m not so sure about powerboats, even fabulously big fancy ones.”
He chuckled politely, obviously familiar with the rivalry between sail and power that had begun with the first installation of a steam engine on a boat. “I have a catboat at my house outside of Nice,” he said. “But I’m a terrible sailor. Perhaps you’d come give me lessons some time?”
“I’d be delighted,” she replied without conviction. She was accustomed to such invitations. They were rarely sincere, and even when they were the gentleman rarely followed up and she never did. Before her marriage she’d been too busy with Knight Industries for European holidays. And by the time she’d finished mourning after Peter’s death she had met Steed. Long before they’d become lovers she’d developed a loyalty to him that prohibited her considering such offers from other gentlemen. Besides, his wild lifestyle kept her very suitably entertained – she didn’t need to give sailing lessons in the South of France for fun.
This weekend was different, although she had not told Steed, at least not directly. Sir Hamilton did indeed like her paintings – enough, in fact, to buy one from the gallery managed by her friend Nancy. Only she knew that he planned to unveil it this weekend in a place of honor on board his yacht. So turning down his invitation would have been bad form and detrimental to her nascent artistic career.
“Your stateroom sir,” the young, uniformed steward set Steed’s bag on a rack in the small, wood paneled cabin to which he’d been assigned. “The guests are gathering in the aft lounge on this deck – shall I return in a few minutes to show you?”
“No need, I’m sure I can find my way.”
“Very well sir. My name is Ethan. Please call on me if you need anything during the cruise by pressing this buzzer.” The steward pointed to a button mounted near the door, then gave him a half bow and left. Steed popped open his case and took out his shaving kit, heading for the adjoining head. He had no reason to suspect surveillance, but he took out his electric shaver anyway and switched it on. He waved it around the head compartment watching the red power light. Satisfied, he moved back into the stateroom and passed the shaver near likely bug locations. Nothing. Returning to the head he glanced in the mirror and leaned over the sink to run the shaver over his face before putting it away. Then he patted a dash of after-shave on his cheeks and returned to the stateroom to change into casual yachting attire.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Sir Hamilton,” Steed said shaking his host’s hand. The cruise guests were gathered, as Ethan the steward had said, in the aft lounge. Steed had taken the long way ‘round from his cabin, poking his head into the galley on the lower deck to exchange a quick nod with Patrick Green, a chef and occasional agent he’d had placed there. Then he’d ventured up two levels to “stumble” onto the bridge and make apologies to the skipper and two other crew members who were preparing to get the yacht underway. He’d knocked on the doors of each of the twelve staterooms, dodging Steward Ethan more than once as he poked his head into each empty one. By the time he reached the aft lounge the rest of the cruise guests were already there. He’d easily identified his host as the tall, bearded man with chiseled features and jet black hair who was sticking very close to Emma. He’d moved in to introduce himself as fast as possible.
“The pleasure is mine, Mr. Steed. Welcome aboard. Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Emma Peel,” Sir Hamilton lightly touched Emma’s upper arm.
“Mr. Steed,” Emma said, her crooked little smile communicating far more than her formal greeting.
“Mrs. Peel – the artist?” Steed asked, his face all innocent inquiry.
“Very good Mr. Steed!” Sir Hamilton said. “And absolutely appropriate,” he raised his voice to draw the attention of all of the guests, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Wave Princess. We will be departing the dock momentarily. The galley crew is busy preparing a wonderful dinner for us all, and after dinner I would like to invite you all back here for a special ceremony,” he turned toward a wood-trimmed fireplace, drawing their eyes toward an object hanging over the mantel draped in black fabric. “You are all invited to the unveiling of my newest acquisition. You have already met the artist, Mrs. Emma Peel.”
The other nine guests applauded politely. Steed caught Emma’s eye, one eyebrow cocked in surprise. She smiled smugly back at him.
Steed worked the room, acquainting himself with the other guests while Emma stayed near their host. There had not been time to check the backgrounds of all of the crew, let alone the guests. Steed was relying on Patrick to get a look at the wrists of all of the crew members and Emma and himself to examine the guests.
Steed had met Sir Gilbert Alston, MP, and his wife Regina on several occasions. He was a likely target, given that he had recently pushed through anti-crime legislation that toughened punishment for crimes like fraud and extortion. He was obviously desperate to know why Steed, who he knew to be a member of the secret service, was on board. Steed deftly evaded his vague query and moved on.
Edward Moore was, to Steed’s mind, a much less likely target unless whoever had hired the assassin was within government. Few outside of Whitehall knew the extent of Mr. Moore’s authority over the security of Britain’s water supply. Steed knew him by reputation only, as he rarely appeared at state functions.
“Ham’s an old friend – we took our A-levels side by side,” he explained when Steed discretely asked why he had agreed to come on the cruise.
“The old school tie,” Steed said wistfully, noting that Moore’s neckwear was anything but old school. Noting his glance Moore chuckled nervously.
“A gift from my youngest,” he said of the rather garish tie. “I’m sure his mother bought it.” Seeing Steed’s even more puzzled look he went on. “We’re divorced. This would be her style of revenge.”
Steed moved on, feeling grateful that he was free of such complicated entanglements with the fairer sex. Speaking of which, he sighted and made way for a group of three of them who had just accepted glasses of champagne from a passing waiter. Steed took a glass too, glancing at the waiter’s wrist as he did so. The man’s shirtsleeves completely covered his wrists. Damn Sir Hamilton for attiring his crew properly.
“Good afternoon ladies. A toast to departures, and to each of you,” he said, raising his glass as he insinuated himself into the group of women. They all stared at him for a moment and he enjoyed watching their individual reactions. The curvy blonde with the birth mark on her cheek eyed him speculatively, as if she was shopping for fish and thought he might not be quite fresh. The brunette clearly suspected that he was very fresh indeed. Her luscious brown eyes narrowed at him for a moment before she looked toward the third woman. She was as raven-haired as their host, her curly locks clipped close to her head, emphasizing her long, slender neck and sculpted shoulders.
“I know you,” Steed said, tipping his glass slightly toward her. “Miss Lydia Griffith, competitive swimmer. You crossed the channel recently.”
She smiled, revealing crooked teeth. “Yes that’s right,” she said.
“John Steed. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Mr. Steed,” she acknowledged, then looked back at her brunette friend. “May I introduce Miss Elizabeth Lee, and this is Mrs. Hilary Biggs.”
“Charmed,” Steed favored each of them with his most flirtatious smile. The professional voice deep in his head reminded him that he was working and the assassin was most certainly not one of these women – he could clearly see all of their wrists. Another voice emanated from elsewhere within him, reminding him that Emma was across the room. Practically clinging to Sir Hamilton, who is also not the assassin, he reminded himself before turning to ask the other two women about themselves.
He did not think Miss Griffith was a likely target for assassination despite her habit of beating men’s endurance records in the water. Miss Lee, he soon learned, was engaged to be married to Kenneth Friel, a prominent psychologist and advisor to the PM. Dr. Friel, Steed realized as she told him this, was across the room speaking to a couple and another woman. Steed soon concluded that the lovely Miss Lee was not especially controversial in her own right. Mrs. Biggs was another matter altogether. Steed had recognized her name immediately, but feigned ignorance as she explained that she was a rather well-known mystery writer.
“Don’t take much to fiction myself,” he said apologetically. She seemed unoffended. He asked a few polite questions about her writing, working hard not to let on that he’d read and enjoyed her last book. Then he returned to Miss Lee, expressing interest in her fiancée’s work. She predictably offered to introduce him.
He decided within moments of meeting Dr. Friel that he should leave him to Emma – she was much more tolerant of theorists like him. Dr. Friel introduced him to Frank and Danielle Bliss, a couple who were known primarily for having a great deal of money. Mr. Bliss had inherited his family’s fortune, which included textile and clothing manufacturing plants all over the world. He had expanded, reinvested, and otherwise grown the fortune, created a philanthropic foundation, and then retired. He’d handed management of the companies over to his son by a previous marriage and kept the foundation for his own personal plaything. Danielle was a former French model with legs that didn’t stop and such finely honed features that even middle age had not dulled them. Or perhaps, Steed speculated as he greeted her, she made regular visits to a discrete plastic surgeon.
The fourth member of Dr. Friel’s group was an old acquaintance of Steed’s: Dame Agnes Jordan had graced the stage and screen throughout the war and since. Steed had been introduced to her several years ago by one of her many protégés, Venus Smith. Steed’s relationship with Venus had been reduced to Christmas cards since she moved to Liverpool, and he had therefore not encountered Dame Agnes in several years, but to his delight she remembered him. Her sharp eyed gaze took him in and she nodded approval. As he shook her hand he hoped that she was not the assassin’s target, although she had become a bit of an activist for women’s rights.
“You’ve matured, John Steed,” she said pleasantly. “And I approve.”
“You’re most kind,” he replied with genuine embarrassment. He would be the first to admit – privately — that he’d been rough around the edges when he’d first met her, but he didn’t need it discussed in this company. Miss Lee, whom he had written off as mostly decorative, came to his rescue by asking the group if any of them were familiar with Mrs. Peel’s painting. Steed revised his opinion of the young woman and silently thanked her for bringing him back onto more comfortable ground.
“Mrs. Peel’s work is profoundly abstract,” he offered. “Her palette is amazing – very daring.”
“So she’s a modernist?” Dr. Friel asked. Steed nodded.
“Thoroughly modern,” he agreed.
“But not without a foundation in the classics, I think,” Dame Agnes put in, eyeing Steed in a way that made him think she was aware of his relationship with Emma.
“You know her work?” he asked.
“I find it very interesting,” she nodded. “Her subjects are often difficult to identify, but her ability to capture light is magnificent, approaching the Dutch masters.”
Steed struggled not to frown. Emma had coaxed him into sitting for several paintings, always assuring him that they were just “studies.” But for all he knew she’d put some of them in the gallery and even sold one to Sir Hamilton. Surely she would have told me, he thought, glancing across the room at her. Could Dame Agnes have recognized him in one of Emma’s paintings?
“Well, I’m desperate to freshen up before dinner,” Miss Lee announced. Dr. Friel immediately took her arm and the couple said their farewells for the moment. As the other guests also began drifting out of the lounge Steed did a mental headcount and was satisfied that he had met all of the guests. He made his way over to Sir Hamilton, who was still standing near the fireplace and Emma.
“May I have a quick word with you, Sir Hamilton?” he asked, nodding politely at Emma.
“Certainly Mr. Steed. Will you excuse us Mrs. Peel?”
“I’ll go prepare for dinner,” she said brightly, smiling with equal warmth at both of them before leaving them.
They were alone in the lounge now, and Steed half turned to look up at the shrouded painting over the fireplace.
“Have you got any clues?” Sir Hamilton asked, following his gaze.
“Most of your guests are possible targets, Sir Hamilton,” Steed said. “Do you know them all well enough to know that they are genuine?”
“Yes, except for you, Mr. Steed.”
Steed grimaced and Sir Hamilton shrugged. “But you do fit the description I was given,” he added. “How do you propose to prevent an assassination when you don’t even know who the target or the killer are?”
“By being everywhere at once, Sir Hamilton,” Steed replied with a smirk, then strode out of the lounge.
Steed had begun his arrangements to be everywhere at once on his way to the lounge, tucking discrete little listening devices on the bridge and in the galley and inside each of the staterooms. Now he completed his tour, placing his little devices in the forward lounge on the upper deck and in the radio room just aft of the bridge. He paused to admire the passing scenery as the yacht made way down the Thames on the outgoing tide, then hurried back to his stateroom.
He checked reception on each of his bugs using the receiver built into his suitcase, and left it on, cycling through each of them automatically while he showered and dressed for dinner. Listening in on his fellow guests he learned the plot of Mrs. Biggs next mystery as she dictated it into a tape recorder. Mr. Moore talked to himself, working out both sides of an intense argument about problems at a north London water treatment plant. Steed made a note to report this habit to internal security – if he could so easily plant a listening device, so could someone who was less ethical. He turned down the volume on the receiver and checked that there was plenty of tape left on the reel in the attached tape recorder before leaving for dinner.
The meal was grand. Course after course emerged from the galley borne on massive silver trays carried by uniformed waiters. During the first course Steed made a point of catching Emma’s eye as he slurped a raw oyster from its shell. She raised one eyebrow a fraction of an inch and ate one from her own plate.
“Delicious, aren’t they my dear?” Sir Hamilton asked her, leaning close. Caught in her illicit little indulgence with her partner down the table she straightened and turned to him with a smile.
“Perfect,” she said, taking another. When she allowed herself to look back toward Steed she was partially relieved to see that he was laughing gaily with Dame Agnes and Mr. and Mrs. Bliss.
Patrick Green set the last plate of tossed salad on the last giant silver tray and watched the waiter carry it away. With a groan he leaned back against the galley counter and reached into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes.
“Green!” Margaret, the sous chef snapped. “No smoking!”
This was his second warning and he knew if there were another he’d be out on his ear, or whatever the nautical equivalent – he hoped it wasn’t walking the plank. He had worked in some very good kitchens under some very demanding sous chefs, but Margaret was the queen. The Chef de Cuisine, he had already learned, was not sailing with them this weekend. He was, according to Donald the pastry chef, hiking somewhere in the Cotswold’s. Patrick was a bit disappointed, as Sir Hamilton’s chef was well known and he’d looked forward to working under him. As it was, this little assignment for Steed was just turning into a hellish weekend. At least as chef de garde manger his work was done. He’d plated all of the cold dishes from oysters to cheese and salad. The dessert and coffee would be handled by others. As he inched toward the corridor door trying to avoid Margaret’s notice he looked around at all the other galley crew, trying to decide whether he’d seen all of their wrists.
Margaret, who was most certainly female and too good at running the kitchen not to be genuine, had had her arms in everything up to the elbow. There was no tattoo on her wrist. Donald had conveniently rolled up his sleeves to reveal unmarked arms, as had both of the line cooks. The waiters were another matter, and he hoped that this crew was like every other restaurant crew he’d ever worked with and enjoyed a casual drink after work. The waiters would shed their uniforms. If any didn’t he’d report them to Steed as a possible assassin.
Patrick slipped out of the galley and made for the side deck where he could have a quick cigarette before returning to help clean up. As he lit his cigarette the flash of the lighter illuminated a swathe of white nearby. It was the dishwasher, an enormous fellow robed in an equally enormous white apron. His unnaturally thin legs looked like unfortunate saplings supporting his bloated belly. As Patrick turned to say hello he raised a hand covered in a long yellow rubber glove and flicked his own cigarette overboard. Then he squeezed past Patrick without a word, turning sideways to go in through the door Patrick had come out of. Patrick grunted from being jammed against the railing and thought again of being forced to walk the plank. He looked down at the water rushing past and the reflection of lights from portals reflecting on it like a string of jewels. Steed’s going to owe me.
Steed avoided Emma’s eyes for the rest of the meal and enjoyed their host’s excellent wines and the gourmet menu. When the last of the floating islands had been consumed and the last drop of sweet Muscat wine was gone Sir Hamilton invited them all back to the aft lounge for the unveiling.
He guided them with Emma on his arm, positioning her next to him beside the mantel while the others filed in and gathered around.
“I recently came across the most exciting new artist I have seen in years. Her work is freshly abstract, provocative, and joyful. I hope that this piece will be the first of many that come into my possession, and I shall regard myself as lucky for every opportunity I have to view her work. Mrs. Peel – Emma – will you do the honors?”
He handed Emma a thin black cord that was attached to the black drapery. “Just tug it gently,” he murmured, bringing his lips so close to her ear that his breath raised the fine hairs on her neck. She pulled the cord and the black fabric fell away to reveal the framed painting. The guests, including Steed, clapped politely. He might not admire Emma’s paintings, but he understood that they were considered quite good by critics who mattered. He felt an undeserved sense of pride at her success as the other guests shook her hand and muttered platitudes about the painting. And when he looked at the image he recognized it – he’d watched her working on it six months ago. She had captured the watery winter light that filled her penthouse on January mornings, and for a moment Steed felt robbed. That light was his to share with her when they’d get up on a Sunday morning and lounge around reading the newspaper over coffee and croissants. Sir Hamilton could not possibly appreciate it. But he forced himself to see the painting and not the memory it conjured and realized that for all that it was entirely Emma’s, he did not particularly like it. Sir Hamilton was welcome to it. After all, Steed had the artist herself.
The party went on late into the evening fueled by Sir Hamilton’s excellent liquors and amusing stories from several of the guests. Steed watched Mr. Moore fidgeting in a corner, clearly not comfortable in company but too polite to excuse himself. Why did he accept the invitation? Steed wondered again – he was not satisfied with the man’s answer earlier. Emma managed to free herself from Sir Hamilton and make the rounds of the guests, finally coming to stand beside Steed.
“Congratulations my dear,” he said, nodding at the painting, which seemed to glow under a carefully placed spotlight.
“Thank you Steed. How are you doing?”
“No mishaps yet, as you know. But the night will be the most dangerous time.”
“Do you plan to sleep?”
“Poor darling. I – .” She was cut short by Danielle Bliss, who begged her to come stand in front of her painting and explain her technique. She cast an apologetic look at Steed and allowed herself to be dragged away. Steed smiled, knowing that Mrs. Bliss would be subjected to Emma’s latest philanthropic interest and would doubtlessly not leave the yacht without making a generous donation.
Steed stepped into his stateroom and shut the door, eyes locked on the bed where Emma, wrapped in her luxurious white dressing gown, lay reading by the light of a single lamp. She looked up and smiled and he felt the familiar rush of pleasure at the prospect of a few minutes alone with her.
“Good evening Mrs. Peel, I’m sorry I was out. Have you been waiting long?”
“It’s all right Steed, after all, you didn’t know I was coming.”
“On the contrary, I was sure you would. And I would have come to you if you hadn’t. But what if Sir Hamilton drops by your stateroom while you’re out?”
“He wouldn’t, Steed. It would not be appropriate.”
“Certain? He seems rather taken with you.” Steed immediately regretted this mild expression of jealousy. He tried to deemphasize it by sitting down on the end of the bed and reaching out to stroke her bare foot. She watched him, a sly smile gracing her lips.
“Even so, he is a gentleman,” she said. He noted that she hadn’t denied that the man was attracted to her. He was trying to decide whether she was also suggesting that he was less a gentleman than their host when she pulled her feet away and sat up. She placed her chin on his shoulder and gave him a smile that lit up her face and warmed his heart.
He resisted the urge to wrap his arms around her and lay her back down. Business first, and in this situation pleasure would probably have to be deferred.
“Seen any crosses?” he asked.
She lifted her head, her expression turning serious as she turned her thoughts to the case.
“Not a one,” she said, putting her hands on either side of her on the bed and staring at the floor. “But there are so many crew members we’re not likely to see – the engine room crew, for example, and the galley crew.”
She lifted one hand and pressed it to her abdomen.
“Feeling all right, Mrs. Peel?”
“Not really,” she admitted. “Speaking of the galley crew.”
“I hope that’s all it is – you feel all right?”
“Fit as a fiddle. Perhaps you had a bad oyster.”
Emma drew in a deep breath and exhaled it, but the discomfort in her abdomen did not pass.
“I doubt that it’s poison. I have a man in the galley.”
“Do you? Well that’s reassuring. May I use your head, Steed?”
“Of course my dear,” he gestured at the head door. Emma rose and disappeared through it.
Steed picked up her book and was about to start reading it when there was a knock on the door. Rising, he glanced at the head door. Emma had closed it behind herself. Adopting an amiable smile he opened the cabin door expecting Ethan the steward. Lydia Griffith pushed into the cabin pressing a small revolver into his stomach as she came. He stepped back, arms spread wide to indicate compliance. She slammed the cabin door with her foot and he winced at the loud sound.
“Who hired you?” she demanded, her voice loud and thin. Steed tried to read her face while keeping his attention on the gun in her shaking hand.
“Hired me, Miss Griffith?” he asked calmly.
“You’re some sort of private investigator – Agnes told me. Who hired you? The Minister? Or was it Sammy? That bastard has been trying to get me barred for months.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Miss Griffith,” Steed replied, which was true. He looked pointedly at the gun. “Why don’t you put that away so that we can talk. I so hate guns.”
“Just tell me who – ooph!”
She stopped short as Steed grabbed her wrist with one hand and her shoulder with the other, using his superior weight to rotate her and press her against the bulkhead beside the door. He extracted the gun from her weakened hand and stepped back. Miss Griffith spun back around as he opened his suitcase, tossed in the gun, and closed it, then sat on top of it on the bed.
“Give it back!” Miss Griffith hissed, her expression going from panic to anger.
“I wouldn’t,” Emma said from the head doorway. “After all, she might actually try to use it. Imagine the furor that would cause.”
“Indeed Mrs. Peel,” Steed replied, keeping his gaze on Miss Griffith.
“What are you doing here?” Miss Griffith snapped at Emma. Emma smiled and strolled the few steps to the bed to stand ever so slightly too close to Steed’s uninvited guest.
“Using the head – something in our dinner disagreed with me. How about you?”
“I’m fine,” Miss Griffith said, her voice thin again. Steed noticed that she was shaking even more now than she had when she was holding the gun. But at least Emma’s presence had deflated her rage.
“Now tell us, Miss Griffith, just what do you think the Minister, or – Sammy was it? – yes, Sammy hired me to do?” Steed asked.
Miss Griffith looked from him to Emma, taking in his use of the word “us.”
“They suspect me of using drugs,” she said weakly. Her eyes focused on Emma, whose athletic figure was mostly concealed by her gauzy white dressing gown. “They can’t believe that I’m as strong as I am.
“Everywhere I go there are watchers – other female athletes in the changing rooms, hotel staff, coaching assistants. All of them looking for pills or watching to catch me having an injection.”
Steed looked at Emma, who shrugged and stepped around the bed to pick up her book.
“I thought sure when Agnes told me you were a detective that they sent you this time,” Miss Griffith went on.
“Dame Agnes was wrong, Miss Griffith,” Steed said gently. “I am not a private detective. I’m afraid you shall have to look elsewhere for spies this time.”
Miss Griffith stared at him for a long moment, then glanced at Emma who stood by the bed with her book in her hands.
“She was certain,” she said, confused.
“She was mistaken, my dear,” Steed stood up and gently guided her toward the door. She moved under his light touch on her upper arm and allowed him to send her out into the corridor with a smile and a nod.
“You think she’ll be back for her gun?” Emma wondered when he had closed and locked the door. He stepped close to her and took the book out of her hand. Tossing it on the bed behind her he slipped his arms around her and smiled as she responded in kind.
“You’re sympathetic with her, of course,” he said, looking into the deep brown pools that were her eyes.
“That she’s a strong woman whose skills and talents have been cast into doubt by the male world of athletics?” she asked. He nodded. “She should confront them directly and publicly, if she’s innocent.”
Steed winced, realizing he should not have expected Emma to take the other woman’s claim at face value. “Play by their rules, hum?” he acknowledged, realizing that although she had allowed him to hold her, she was not relaxing in his arms as she usually did.
“Men still make the rules, Steed,” she said with no hint of malice. “And you may hate it when we use them to our advantage, but you generally have to respect us for it.”
“I have nothing but respect for you, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, his eyes showing her a great deal more emotion than respect. She smiled, slipping mentally off of her high horse to enjoy his tender attention for a moment. But her digestion was unwilling to be overruled by her heart. She inhaled another sharp breath to quell a wave of nausea. Steed eased his hold on her to give her breathing room. He looked concerned.
“I’m sure this ship has a medic of some sort,” he said. “Shall I call the steward to get him – or her?”
She forced a weak smile as the nausea began to pass. “I have some bismuth in my bag – you know I always carry the basics. I’m sure that will fix me up,” she replied. She reached up to caress one cheek and leaned close to kiss the other one lightly.
“Hey,” she said suddenly leaning away from him, “You don’t think she’s the target, do you?”
He considered it. “Notable female athlete, likely to be a gold medal winner at the Mexico City Olympic games,” he said. Emma nodded. “I wouldn’t rule her out,” he concluded.
“Have you ruled out anyone?” she asked.
“Only Miss Elizabeth Lee – she’s completely uncontroversial. Any of the rest could have enemies desperate enough to contract an Sionnach.”
Emma nodded, gently disengaging from his arms. She picked up her book. “I need to get to that bismuth,” she said. “See you in the morning?”
“Good night Mrs. Peel,” Steed turned to open the cabin door for her. She glanced up and down the corridor, shot him a sly smile over her shoulder, and left.
Steed locked the door and shrugged off his dinner jacket. His tie was already off and in his pocket and his shirt collar was unbuttoned. After dinner he had sought out Patrick and found him with most of the rest of the crew in the small crew dining room. He’d made up a lie about needing some ice and Patrick had jumped to get it for him, telling him as he guided him out of the room that he should have just buzzed for Ethan.
As he filled an ice bucket from the machine located in a spotless, utilitarian corridor Patrick had quickly given him his report. No cross tatoos yet, and two-thirds of the crew examined. Assuming the night went well, he expected to see the engine room and deck crew in the morning.
Steed adjusted the volume on his receiver to listen to his fellow guests preparing for bed. He waited for them to quiet down, listening to Mrs. Bliss tell Mr. Bliss that she despised him, and Sir Gilbert make several grunting sounds followed by Mrs. Alston’s high-pitched sigh. He quickly switched to another bug where he heard Sir Hamilton telling someone, presumably his steward, to wake him at six, and Mr. Moore return to his fictitious argument about the water plant. He’s beginning to sound a bit obsessed, Steed thought idly. When the rest of the cabins had finally fallen silent he switched the receiver to the bug in Emma’s room. He heard a faint rustling and recognized the familiar sound of a page turning. Then there was a click: the bedside lamp.
“If you’re listening, good night Steed,” she said, although he hadn’t told her he was placing bugs all over the yacht. He smiled down at the receiver, and at his wise, beautiful partner.
“Good night love,” he muttered, reaching for the rewind button on the tape that had recorded everything while he was out. When it was ready he hit play.
Three hours later when the tape ended he was lying down on the bed with his arm across his eyes. Aside from the galley and the bridge, the yacht had been quiet with all the guests gathered together for dinner and the unveiling. While he listened he had changed into his pajamas, but he was reluctant to let himself sleep. Still, he would function better if he rested and he knew it.
Having decided, he switched on the recorder and turned up the volume so any unusual noises would awaken him. He switched off the lights and stretched out to sleep.
Emma woke feeling better and was glad to chalk up the previous evening’s indigestion to too many courses of rich food and wine and not something more serious or sinister. She dressed in a sleeveless white linen dress with a wide red belt and slipped on low-heeled red sandals and her sunglasses. Breakfast was served buffet style in the aft lounge and adjoining deck. Emma found the lounge empty of other guests when she arrived, although she could see some outside at tables on the deck. Avoiding the greasy bacon and eggs, she selected a muffin and fresh fruit and yogurt and, armed with a cup of sweet, white coffee she ventured out into the bright sunshine. Miss Griffith immediately waved, beckoning her to join her.
The swimmer would not have been Emma’s first choice of breakfast companion, but she couldn’t very well ignore her overt gestures. And the other tables were occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Bliss and the Alstons in a jovial foursome and Mr. Moore, who looked characteristically morose as he studied a thick document. “Most Secret” was stamped in red at the top of the page he was reading.
“Good morning Mrs. Peel,” the swimmer said as Emma set her breakfast down on the small table and pulled out an empty chair.
“Good morning Miss Griffith. Did you sleep well?” Emma asked, trying not to put too much emphasis on the casual question.
“When I got over being such a great bloody fool,” Miss Griffith said, shaking her head ruefully. “Listen, Mrs. Peel, I would like to propose an agreement of sorts.”
“Oh?” Emma pulled the cap off of her muffin to reveal big, juicy blueberries within. She smiled in anticipation.
“I thought that perhaps I might forget having seen you in Mr. Steed’s cabin last night if you will forget having seen me there.”
Emma considered Miss Griffith’s proposal as she speared a strawberry with her fork. The swimmer fidgeted with her napkin, then rotated her empty coffee cup on its saucer. Emma was intrigued by the other woman’s nervousness.
“Miss Griffith, if I were concerned about concealing my presence in Mr. Steed’s cabin last night, I would not have revealed myself to you then,” she replied and watched Miss Griffith’s face grow pale. Don’t be mean, she told herself. “However, I have no interest in embarrassing you. You may have my word that I will not mention any aspect of the matter. But please let me say that if you are truly innocent of the Minister for Sport’s suspicions, then you should confront him publicly. Male athletes defend themselves regularly.”
“Precisely what I have told her,” Dame Agnes declared, having approached Emma from behind and overheard her last words. Without invitation she set her plate of eggs and toast on their table and pulled up a chair. “What they are doing is harassment. They should request that you submit to drug testing or let the matter drop.”
The distressed expression on Miss Griffith’s face confirmed Emma’s suspicion that the athlete did have something to hide.
“Or do you think you might not pass a drug screening?” she asked pointedly. Miss Griffith’s eyes widened in alarm and she looked from Emma to Dame Agnes and back. Emma noticed that Dame Agnes was giving her an appreciative look.
“It’s not what you think,” Miss Griffith said. “I don’t take speed or any of the drugs that are banned.”
“Then what are you afraid of?”
“They’d find out that I’m not a – that I take birth control pills.”
Now Emma’s eyes widened in surprise and she looked at Dame Agnes for her reaction. But the actress only smiled and took a sip of tea.
“And that would make you damaged goods? Not fit to be a role model for England’s young women?” Emma asked archly. Dame Agnes chuckled and set down her teacup.
“If only England’s single, female movie and television stars had to submit to drug screening,” she said, “our youth would be left with no role models at all!”
“But it matters!” Miss Griffith said, her voice rising an octave. “You have no idea of the scrutiny!”
Emma raised her brows and looked at Dame Agnes who only shrugged and reached out to pat Miss Griffith’s hand.
“We do know, my dear,” she said. “Mrs. Peel spends her share of time in the public eye, and of course I do as well. The only difference is that we are not subjected to invasions of our privacy via drug tests. And I’m too old for anyone to care who I sleep with. I dare say there are those who would be interested in Mrs. Peel’s love life, but she has the convenient shield of widowhood. She’s allowed some freedom from the scrutiny of the prudes.”
Emma studied Dame Agnes for a moment, trying to decide whether to be offended by her candidness. She thought that the actress was, herself, interested in Emma’s love life. And suddenly, as Dame Agnes smiled warmly at her, she thought she knew why.
“Try to get a handle on Dr. Friel,” Steed said quietly. “He’s one of your brainy scientific types.”
Emma nodded from behind her book. They were lying on reclining lounge chairs positioned a foot or so apart on the aft deck. Danielle Bliss and Mrs. Biggs occupied other lounges just out of earshot, and the Miss Lee and Dr. Friel were playing chess in the shade near the door into the lounge. The rest of the guests were scattered around the boat engaged in various leisure activities. Their host, who had made brief appearances at breakfast and lunch, had begged off to attend to some business in his on-board office. Steed was perturbed with himself for not finding and bugging that particular cabin.
“What is Dame Agnes’s story? I have the distinct impression that she knows you.”
Steed had known Emma would pick up on Miss Griffith’s reference to Dame Agnes last night. And when he’d arrived at breakfast this morning he’d seen the three of them sharing a table. As far as he could recall, he’d never mentioned Venus Smith to Emma. Not that he felt the need to hide anything about his friendship with the singer, but it was awkward to have to explain it just now.
“We were introduced by a mutual friend several years ago,” he said. “We ran into one another at parties and so forth for a few years. But when our mutual friend moved to Liverpool I drifted away from that particular social circle.”
“That would be the show business circle?” Emma asked. “You must have missed her.”
“No, your friend who moved away,” Emma giggled, terribly pleased to have correctly guessed at the reason for Steed’s caginess.
Steed rolled his head to the side to look at her and had to smile back at her amused expression. “Yes, I missed her. She was a nice girl.”
“Really? Poor Steed!”
Now she was getting nasty.
“Venus was an enthusiastic assistant on several cases, Mrs. Peel. But that is all. I enjoyed her singing, and her company.”
Emma regarded him for a moment, her smile never fading despite his slightly sharp tone. Steed was a gentleman and he had never, to her knowledge, coerced any woman to intimacy who did not clearly offer it – including herself. Suggesting that he had pursued this Venus and been thwarted was unkind and far off the mark.
“I’m sorry, Steed. That wasn’t nice. Please don’t apologize for your past.”
“I prefer,” he said more quietly than before, “to focus on the present, my dear.”
Emma smiled at him then turned her head back to the book she was still holding up. And when will you think about the future, Steed? She wondered, knowing it was a question she couldn’t ask. But she still hadn’t learned what she really wanted to know about Dame Agnes.
“Did Dame Agnes date men when you were acquainted with her?” she asked, glancing over to see Steed’s frown. “It’s just a sense I got from her this morning – that she’s not interested in men.”
“But she is interested in women? In you?”
“Um. Maybe. Or maybe Miss Griffith.”
Steed resisted the urge to roll onto his side and rise up to really look at Emma. He had no doubts about her heterosexuality, but the vague notion of her with another woman was alarmingly enticing. Then he thought about sharing her intimate attentions and the mental image he had begun to entertain turned unappealing.
“You’re shocked,” she said, watching him.
“No,” he replied.
“I have been approached by women before,” she went on, not believing him. “It’s flattering.”
She flashed him a grin, “But I’m not interested. I have my hands full, so to speak.”
He grinned back at her, knowing that she’d blatantly stroked his ego and eating it up anyway.
Washing dishes was possibly the most distasteful occupation in the world. Doing it in a steamy, cramped dish room while wearing an enormous disguise and thick, dyed beard was sheer hell. Conall mac Culey, who preferred to be called “an Sionnach” – “the fox” — stripped off his yellow rubber gloves and rolled down the sleeves of his white shirt, making sure that the left one covered the tattoo on his wrist. He was confident that he had gone undetected so far, but his years of success were not based on recklessness. He had planned this operation very carefully under the assumption that someone on board might be familiar with what little the law enforcement agencies knew of him – that he bore the cross tattoo on his wrist. He would rather die than have the tattoo, a part of the ancient mac Culey family crest, removed, so he always accounted for concealing it in his plans.
Lunch was over. In two hours Wave Princess would be in the middle of the English Channel. At the point where Wave Princess was farthest from land an Sionnach would complete his mission, discretely slip overboard, and be picked up by a fishing boat. If all went according to his plan – and it always did – he’d be half way to the Atlantic before the body was even discovered. If he were very fortunate, Wave Princess would be at Jersey before anyone went looking for the absent passenger or crew member.
“It’s time I had another look around,” Steed said quietly. “And then I’m going to my cabin, Mrs. Peel.”
Emma held her sunglasses up to watch him get up and walk across the deck to the door. As he disappeared inside she glanced at the other sunbathers to be sure no one had observed her admiring the shape of his ass in the shorts she’d been surprised to see him wearing. She lowered her glasses and directed her eyes back at the page of her book. But it was no use: she couldn’t read. He’d spend fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, making a discrete tour of the boat. Then he’d be alone in his cabin. She forced herself to read a page, and then another, before checking her watch. She’d gotten through twenty pages, three or four at a time between time checks, when she decided she could wait no longer. Mentioning too much iced tea with lunch to Miss Lee and Dr. Friel as she passed them, she went inside and headed for the guest cabins.
Steed sauntered along the passage past the guest accommodations to an opening leading to a metal ladder. He swung onto the ladder and climbed down quickly, landing with his legs flexed and ready to move. He leaned out into the lower passage to look both ways. White painted metal and black metal grates on the floor contrasted starkly with the wood-paneled, carpeted luxury above. The rumble of the engines was palpable here, carried undampened through the yacht’s solid structure. Seeing no crewmen, he stepped into the corridor and walked purposefully toward the stern. He passed doors marked as storage compartments and workshops. It seemed as if the crew of Wave Princess could fabricate almost anything that wasn’t stored in the many spaces down here. Steed admired a well-found yacht like this – seaworthy, tidy, and equipped with an excellent wine cellar.
The engine room door was ajar – not, he suspected, in line with regulations on this boat. But he appreciated the opportunity it afforded him. He leaned close and looked inside without having to move it. To his delight he saw two crewmen sitting on crates marked with the logo of a motor oil brand. They were using a third crate as a table for their card game. Both were stripped down to grimy breeches and singlets. As one dealt the cards and the other picked up his hand Steed got a good look at their wrists. For a moment he stiffened at the sight of a shadow on the nearer man’s left wrist. Then as the man sorted his cards Steed saw that the tattoo was a skull and crossbones design.
Steed had been thinking of putting a bug in the engine room, but as he’d suspected the sound of the engine was so loud it would drown out any conversation not held right next to the device. So he slipped back up the passage to the ladder to keep his appointment with Green.
Emma glanced up and down the passage to be sure she was unobserved, then slipped into Steed’s cabin. His arms were around her, his mouth pressing kisses to her sun warmed neck even as she was shutting the door behind her. She heard herself moan at the wave of desire that surged through her from the places where his hands touched her.
“What took you so long?” he breathed between kisses.
“How long have you been waiting?” she asked, tilting her head back as his mouth traced searing paths over the delicate skin of her neck.
“At least thirty seconds.” His fingers crept around to her front to undo the buttons of her blouse as far down as he could – she had tied it below her bosom to bare her stomach to the sun. His pelvis pressed against hers in an urgent thrust. Hers thrust back of its own accord and he lowered his face to the tops of her breasts.
“We should remember that we’re working, Steed,” she moaned as she caressed the cheeks of his ass that she’d admired earlier.
“I always remember,” he allowed, tracing along the top of her bra with one finger. She squeezed him and gasped as he thrust his solid groin against her again. He gasped as one of her hands slid around to his fly and found the top of the zipper.
“Got a light?” Patrick asked the obese dishwasher. He had not learned the man’s name, and nobody in the galley seemed to be friends with him. This was the third time Patrick had met him on the side deck having a smoke, although they had yet to exchange any words. As he tapped a cigarette out of his dwindling pack he realized that the dishwasher was always wearing long rubber gloves. Patrick had not seen his wrists.
The dishwasher grunted and held out a lighter that had a pair of miniature dice inside its transparent fuel chamber. His hands were bare, but the sleeves of his white shirt were long enough to cover his wrists. Patrick lit his cigarette and handed the lighter back.
“Thanks,” he said after taking a drag. The dishwasher grunted again.
“Been on board long?”
The dishwasher peered at him through small, dark eyes framed by bushy dark eyebrows above and round, ruddy cheeks below. He emanated a sense of menace that made Patrick’s skin crawl.
“No.” The dishwasher replied, then took another drag on his cigarette and tossed it overboard. He glared at Patrick again as he went back inside.
I don’t think I like him one bit, Patrick thought. He had just met with Steed and told him he had no suspects. Now he’d have to make contact with him again.
“Oh Steed,” Emma moaned at the touch of his tongue on the tender flesh of her areole. He took her nipple between his lips and squeezed and she felt as if she were going to explode. They had stumbled onto the bed and he’d found the front catch on her bra. He’d spread it open beneath her blouse to enjoy her delicious, round breasts while her hands roved over him.
They both froze at the sound of the unfamiliar voice beside their heads. Steed raised himself over Emma and looked at his open suitcase on the bed beside them. Emma turned her head toward it too.
“Alton!” the voice said. Steed moved a folded shirt to reveal the receiver.
“What? Who are you?” Sir Gilbert’s voice replied, sounding sleepy. Steed rolled off of the bed and Emma sat up, her hands flying to her bra to close the clasp.
“Take this,” the strange voice said and there was a sound of rustling paper. “Write what I tell you.”
“Not until you explain yourself,” Sir Gilbert said. Steed reached for the doorknob as he watched Emma buttoning her blouse.
“Gilbert, are you awake?” a woman’s voice joined the conversation coming from the receiver’s little speaker. Steed’s eyes widened and he opened the cabin door. Emma scooted off of the bed and followed him.
As they pelted down the passage they heard a loud thump followed by a feminine scream that echoed in the wood paneled corridors.
Sir Gilbert’s large stateroom had double doors. Steed and Emma stopped outside and exchanged a glance. They both stepped to the far side of the passage and faced one another.
“Shut up! Now. Or I’ll shoot you.” The voice, pitched very loud over the screaming woman, emanated from right on the other side of the doors.
Steed and Emma both clasped their hands in front of their chests and charged shoulders first across the passage. The doors slammed open and they crashed through and straight into an obese man dressed in a stained white shirt and grey trousers. He staggered back and there was a thwap sound from the silenced gun in his right hand. Lady Regina’s screams grew louder and more frantic.
Steed regained his balance and swung a powerful punch into the man’s protruding gut. Emma, who had landed sprawled across the bed on top of Sir Gilbert’s legs, got up and swung a roundhouse kick at the big man. Steed’s punch sank deep into oddly spongy flesh. Emma’s kick sank in to his buttocks and she got the impression that it had no effect at all. The assassin’s shot had gone wild and the gun had gone flying across the cabin. He used his right hand to shove Steed’s shoulder hard, taking him by surprise so that he fell back against the bulkhead by the door. Emma aimed another kick and the assassin grabbed for her foot, throwing her off balance so that she fell back onto the bed.
The assassin bolted through the door and Steed pushed away from the bulkhead to go after him. Emma glanced at Sir Gilbert and was surprised to see a salacious grin on his face as she pushed herself off of his legs for the second time. Lady Regina had finally stopped screaming now that the threat was gone. Emma decided she would be most useful helping Steed.
Steed might have expected to catch up with the obese man quickly, except that he was sure that the man’s excess fat was a disguise. An Sionnach charged through the aft lounge flinging Mrs. Biggs aside when she stepped into his path. He slammed the door open and started across the deck with Steed a pace behind. The guests on the deck all froze in surprise at the spectacle of the enormous dishwasher pursued by Steed.
Half way across the deck Steed tackled an Sionnach. They tumbled onward, momentum carrying them all the way to the aft rail – a low wall around the deck with an opening in the center at the top of a ladder down to the lower stern deck. An Sionnach’s oversize body slid through the gangway with Steed trapped under him.
Emma caught up with them just in time to see Steed hanging by both hands from a safety chain hooked across the top of the opening. Below him an Sionnach made an odd yelping sound as he slid sideways down the ladder. He was still flailing for a handhold when his thickly padded body hit the stern deck and bounced overboard into Wave Princess’s wake.
As Emma grabbed Steed’s wrists to steady him a slight figure climbed up onto the aft rail to her right. Miss Griffith paused for a moment, arms spread for balance as the boat swayed over moderate swells. She stood for a second looking at the man bobbing in their wake, then executed a perfect swan dive.
Steed got his feet on the ladder and Emma released his wrists and shouted for someone to throw the big orange life ring that was mounted on the bulkhead. Dame Agnes snatched it off of its hook, ran to the rail, and hurled it like a flying saucer out across the boat’s wake. It sailed a long distance before splashing down some distance from Miss Griffith, who was swimming toward an Sionnach.
Steed unhooked the chain and stepped back onto the deck beside Emma, who wore a sly smile.
She giggled, her eyes traveling down his torso as one hand covered her mouth. “Your fly is open, Steed,” she said quietly. Steed’s eyes widened, then he faced aft and reached down to close the zipper that she had opened earlier.
“Can you still see them?” he asked.
“Just,” she said, shading her eyes with her hand to focus on a tiny spot in the distance.
“Don’t take your eyes off them whatever you do.”
Steed dashed back across the deck between the other guests, who were for the most part still too stunned to react. A few minutes later the boat began to turn. Emma moved to the side deck as they came around, thanking her parents for her inherited good eyesight as she never lost sight of the distant orange speck that was the life ring.
“You’re relieved, Mrs. Peel.”
Emma glanced upward at the sound of Steed’s voice. He was on the bridge leaning out of a window.
“The first mate has them in sight with his binoculars.”
Emma drew her blowing hair away from her face and threw Steed a smart salute that he returned, then strode forward to the bow to watch the rescue.
“Are any of your crew trained for security?” Steed asked Captain Duff.
“Sir Hamilton frequently has important guests on board. All of the deck crew are trained to provide security.”
Steed had startled the captain and first mate when he burst onto the bridge shouting that two people were overboard. To their credit, the officers had rebounded instantly, sounding the alarm to alert the crew, putting the yacht into as tight a turn as possible, and following Steed’s direction to locate the people in the water.
“The man in the water is very dangerous. We’ll need to lock him up somewhere on board until we can hand him over to the proper authorities.”
“We have a compartment forward that we can clear for detention,” the captain said, reaching for a telephone mounted on the control panel.
“Henry, take Ashe and prepare to launch the boat. The man in the water is extremely dangerous. Treat him with extreme caution, understood?” he paused, listening. “Put him in forward storage. Secure him in the compartment, locked door. Twenty-four-hour watch.” The captain hung up the telephone and looked at Steed. “Good enough Mr. Steed?”
“Yes Captain, thank you for your help.”
Steed had made his way all the way down to the stern deck by the time Wave Princess was back in the area where an Sionnach had gone overboard. Henry and Ashe were launching the boat, which was mounted on davits on the deck. Steed was dismayed to see that Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, Miss Lee and Dr. Friel, and Dame Agnes had all gathered on the small deck as well.
“Ladies, gentlemen, please – the man is very dangerous. Please keep back when they bring him aboard,” he said. Dame Agnes immediately began herding the others toward the bulkhead away from the open stern. Satisfied that she’d keep them under control, Steed turned to watch for the boat.
“Mrs. Peel – Emma!” Sir Hamilton hurried across the forward deck to where Emma stood watching the boat motoring toward the people in the water.
“They told me that you helped Mr. Steed chase him overboard. Are you all right?” He put his hands on her upper arms, clearly wanting to hug her, only such an act would be too forward.
“It was all in a day’s work, you might say,” she said with an uncharacteristically demure smile. Sir Hamilton looked puzzled, then he smiled as if catching on to a joke.
“Emma,” he chuckled, “Lady Regina said you were very brave. Were you afraid?”
“Mad men with guns are always frightening, Ham,” she replied, reaching up to draw away a lock of hair that was blowing across her face. “One learns to cope.”
Sir Hamilton frowned again, this time looking closely into her eyes. “I don’t understand, Emma,” he said, his voice betraying hurt. “I invited you on board because of your painting. But you are working with Mr. Steed?”
Emma felt horribly deceitful. “It was a coincidence, Ham — that you invited me this weekend. If you hadn’t I would have come anyway. With Steed.”
A succession of emotions passed across Sir Hamilton’s face: confusion, then deeper hurt, then a sort of dignified hope. He nodded thoughtfully. “They did say Steed might bring his partner.”
“Me.” Emma shrugged, trying to read him.
“But you are an artist…”
“Among other things,” she nodded. “Steed and I have been together for more than a year.” Only when she finished her sentence did she realize that she had omitted the word “working.”
“And if I were to invite you to dinner next week, would you accept?”
Deep inside Emma winced. Steed had not been wrong in his analysis of Sir Hamilton’s intentions. He liked her paintings, but he also liked her. And to some degree she returned his affection. He was intelligent and kind, he shared many of her interests, and his finely honed features and trim frame were very attractive. But when she thought of anything more, of hands on her flesh, of lips touching hers, she could only think of Steed. He dominated her senses, consumed every shred of her emotional attention and carnal desire.
“That would depend on your intentions, Ham,” she replied gently. “If we were meeting to discuss my painting — a commission perhaps — then I would be delighted. But if your intentions were – otherwise, I’m afraid I couldn’t. It would be unfair to you.”
Sir Hamilton inhaled a long breath and his hands dropped to his sides. His face fell, but then his good manners helped him to manage a small, regretful smile.
“Ah well,” he said. “I might have known you were too special to be unattached.”
He raised one hand to silence her. “Please Emma, leave it. I shall simply be forced to respect you for not compromising your personal life in order to sell your paintings.” He half turned and offered her his arm. “Shall we go to the stern deck? The boat is coming back.”
Emma followed his gaze aft to where the boat was approaching the stern of Wave Princess having picked up Miss Griffith and an Sionnach. Smiling at Sir Hamilton even though she did not feel at all happy about hurting his feelings, she took his arm and let him escort her.
A movement on the forward stairs caught Steed’s eye and he looked up over Miss Griffith’s shoulder to see Sir Hamilton escorting Emma onto the stern deck. Steed could not put his finger on it, but there was a tension between them – something in the way Sir Hamilton watched her intently and the way she avoided his gaze.
Emma looked around curiously as they crossed the small deck to where Steed stood with the dripping Miss Griffith and Dame Agnes. Dame Agnes had draped a towel around Miss Griffith’s shoulders and stood protectively beside her.
“an Sionnach has been taken below, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, once again proving that he could very nearly read her mind. Her eyes shot to his and he was able to read discomfort in them. She nodded, acknowledging that he had answered her unspoken question, then joined Dame Agnes and Miss Griffith. Steed turned to Sir Hamilton.
“I’m sorry to have to suggest a change of itinerary, Sir Hamilton, but we should take him back to Newport,” he said. Although he had phrased it as a request, by his tone it was clearly a command. “Jersey is too remote to efficiently deal with an Sionnach – he’s too dangerous to entrust to local authorities on the island.”
“Yes of course Mr. Steed. I’ll speak to Captain Duff.”
“And I’ll need to use the radio,” Steed added sounding much less demanding since his first request had been granted.
“Then come with me to the bridge, Mr. Steed.”
While Steed and Sir Hamilton made their way up to the bridge Emma and Dame Agnes took Miss Griffith to her cabin.
“Really, Dame Agnes, Mrs. Peel, I’m quite all right,” Miss Griffith said as they arrived at her cabin.
“Of course you are dear, we just want you to know how proud we are of you,” Dame Agnes said. Emma shot her a puzzled look. That wasn’t her motivation for tagging along at all.
“Miss Griffith, did an Sionnach say anything to you while you were in the water?”
“An Sionnach?” Miss Griffith frowned and looked from Emma to Dame Agnes for help.
“That’s what he calls himself – ‘the Fox’,” Emma explained. “Did he say anything to you while you were with him?”
“The Fox? That suits him. That fat suit he was wearing was brilliant. Until it got wet.”
“Awkward was it?” Dame Agnes asked.
“He would have sank like a stone without me and the life ring,” Miss Griffith grinned at the actress.
Seeing that Dame Agnes was not going to help her keep her questioning on track Emma tried again. “So he was too busy staying afloat to speak?” she asked.
“Better tell her,” Dame Agnes said to Miss Griffith, “she’s not going to give up. I know the type.”
Emma let it pass, not wishing to explore how Dame Agnes knew of her connection to Steed just now. She looked expectantly at Miss Griffith instead.
“He pushed me away at first,” the swimmer said. “So I let him struggle while I got the life ring. The truth is I nearly lost him then – by the time I got back to him with it he was nearly spent. The spongy stuff in that suit was saturated and he had exhausted himself. I don’t know why he didn’t try to take it off.”
“People don’t always think clearly in unfamiliar situations,” Emma said. “What happened when you got back to him with the float?”
“He took it and started looking around for something. I saw that Wave Princess was coming back, so I thought it was best to just hang on to him and stay put. He was muttering something like ‘where are you? Come get me.’ I asked him who he was talking about but he just called me a bad name.”
“He was looking for someone to pick him up,” Emma said thoughtfully. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Dame Agnes nod.
“He would have had an escape route planned,” she said.
“But if they were in the area, they would have seen Wave Princess coming back and stayed away, if they knew what was good for them,” Emma said. “Did you see any other boats?”
Miss Griffith thought for a moment, then nodded. “There was a fishing boat. From my position in the water it appeared to be right on the horizon, so it must have been several miles away. I don’t think he saw it.”
“We’ll never know if it was there for him,” Emma said disappointedly. “There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of fishing boats in these waters. There’s no way for us to investigate all of them.”
“For you to investigate?” Miss Griffith said, eyes narrowing. “You insisted that Mr. Steed is not a private investigator.”
“Strictly speaking, Miss Griffith, Steed told you he is not a private detective. Emphasis on ‘private.’” Emma replied.
“So he operates in an official capacity?” Dame Agnes asked.
“That’s right, Dame Agnes. Steed is a civil servant.”
“Well who would have thought it?” the actress smiled. “Venus never explained.”
“But you’re an artist,” Miss Griffith said, still looking distrustfully at Emma.
“Mrs. Peel has many vocations, Lydia,” Dame Agnes said, watching Emma for her reaction. “Just what you’d expect from someone whose true occupation is espionage.”
Emma inclined her head at the actress, then returned her attention to Miss Griffith.
“What about in the boat after you were picked up?” she asked, although she knew Steed would ask the crew the same question. She still hoped Miss Griffith would remember something more helpful.
“When the boat was coming toward us he did say something like ‘this isn’t over.’ I thought he was just angry, you know? Saying anything. It didn’t make sense. They’re not going to let him go so he can try again, are they?”
“Of course not!” Dame Agnes said before Emma could form a more realistic reply. She decided to let that go, too. No need to concern Miss Griffith with reality. Emma expected the ministry to keep an Sionnach out of circulation, but mistakes could happen and evil criminals could find ways to escape. And they could hire very good attorneys.
“Thank you Miss Griffith. You must be uncomfortable in those wet things. I’ll get out of your way so you can change. Dame Agnes?” Emma moved to the door and waited for the actress to join her – mostly out of curiosity, to see if the other woman would want to stay.
“Shout if you need anything, my dear,” Dame Agnes told Miss Griffith as she joined Emma.
“Mrs. Peel,” she said when they were in the passage and Miss Griffith’s door was shut. “I’m not nosey, I read a lot and you receive your share of exposure in the press. And I can see that you and Steed are – that you have a working relationship. Although I believe you have concealed it well from most of the guests. That was your intention, correct?”
“Yes, Dame Agnes. And we would appreciate your discretion.”
“Of course. It’s amusing to see Steed behaving so much more subtly than he used to.”
“Indeed? Was he really that different?”
“Brusque, demanding, a bit of a bully a lot of the time,” Dame Agnes said. “And that was at parties.”
Emma had to chuckle. She knew that side of Steed, but somehow he’d learned to suppress it except when dealing with the most unsavory characters they encountered. She could not imagine him behaving badly in a social setting. She longed to take Dame Agnes aside and have a long chat about the Steed she’d known a few years ago, but the investigation had to take precedence. And Emma still had the sense that Dame Agnes’s interest in her was more than friendly. That made her just uncomfortable enough to avoid spending too much time alone with the actress. Between that and Sir Hamilton’s interest, Emma was beginning to feel an intense desire to get off the yacht entirely.
Steed had to jot down his coded message to get it right before speaking over the open radio waves to an operator at the ministry. Satisfied that a ministry team would meet them when they arrived in Newport, he headed for the galley to find Patrick Green.
Dinner preparations were in full swing. Steed was relieved to see Patrick arranging raw clams on dishes layered with crushed ice. He slipped into the galley to stand next to the operative.
“You heard?” he asked quietly. Patrick’s hands kept working, his eyes following a short, thickly built woman in chef’s whites who was bustling around the galley.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I realized after we last spoke that I hadn’t seen his wrists. He kept a very low profile here. I was going to come find you when I could get away.”
“Not to worry old man, it all worked out,” Steed said, taking a clam from the plate Patrick was working on.
“Steed!” Patrick hissed.
“Just tell them that this is my plate, that’s a good fellow,” Steed swallowed the clam and tossed the shell on the counter, then slipped away before the sous chef noticed him.
“Quite an experience indeed,” Sir Gilbert was saying when Steed found him in the aft lounge surrounded by other guests. Sir Hamilton had gathered them all there to apologize for the change of itinerary. “I didn’t want to be intimidated by the horrible, sweaty creature. But I wasn’t especially brave. I was actually rather frozen, you know, couldn’t really do a thing to help myself. Now Mrs. Peel was another story all together. She charged right in and took him on without a care for her own safety.”
Steed struggled to conceal his annoyance at being so completely disregarded. Is every man on this yacht trying to attract Emma’s affections? He wondered grumpily. Emma was there among the guests, but Steed did not move to join her.
“But how are you, Lady Regina?” Miss Lee, standing very close to her fiancé Dr. Friel, asked. Everyone turned toward the lady in question, who was positioned in the center of a settee holding an ice bag to the side of her head. Mrs. Biggs sat beside her.
“Shaken, I’m afraid,” she admitted, although her solid demeanor suggested anything but.
“My dear Regina suffered far more than I,” Sir Gilbert said, looking fondly at his wife. “She was struck by the would-be murderer, weren’t you my dear?”
“Yes. When I walked into the cabin. I count myself fortunate that he did not simply shoot me.”
“He has never been known to kill anyone other than his intended target,” Steed said, drawing all attention to him.
“So you know who he is?” Dr. Friel asked. “Just how much did you know, Mr. Steed?”
Steed did not answer immediately, but held Dr. Friel in his amiable gaze. Emma recognized an unmistakable current of annoyance beneath it, but she thought nobody else would recognize it. Before Steed answered, Sir Gilbert stepped in.
“Come now, Dr. Friel, one in your position must know when not to ask such questions. Steed’s in security and I for one feel very lucky that he was on board today. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?”
Dr. Friel nodded at Sir Gilbert and really did seem to accept his advice. The others began talking among themselves and Lady Regina beckoned to Sir Hamilton. Emma made her way toward Steed, who was listening to Lady Regina ask to be moved to another cabin.
“It’s ghastly, that bullet in the ceiling,” she said. “Isn’t there somewhere else we can stay? I can’t bear to go in there, and we’re hours away from port now – aren’t we?”
“Yes, of course my lady,” Sir Hamilton said. “There is one unoccupied stateroom, although it is not as large as yours.”
“But it does not have any bullets in the ceiling or walls, I trust?”
“No,” Sir Hamilton smiled, “Not even a scratch, if I know my crew. I’ll have your things moved immediately.”
“What about the gun, Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked quietly.
“What about it, Steed?”
“You’ve tucked it away somewhere safe, I assume.”
“I haven’t got it, Steed.”
“I just assumed that you picked it up when I went after an Sionnach!”
“No Steed, I went after you. And good thing, or you might have ended up in the water too.”
“Yes, remind me to thank you properly later,” he shot her a private smile that made her insides flutter. “I just checked the Alston’s cabin. I searched high and low, but there was no sign of the gun that fired the bullet that Lady Regina is so bothered by.”
“Someone must have found it,” Emma said speculatively. Their eyes met for a moment, then they separated, each heading for a specific target.
Her concerns about the scene of the crime assuaged, Lady Regina had settled back on her settee and removed the ice bag from the side of her head. She and Mrs. Biggs looked up at her as Emma approached.
“May I, my Lady?” Emma asked, indicating the empty seat on her other side.
“Of course my dear. Sir Gilbert has been rather vocal about your performance this afternoon. I do hope you’re not offended by his enthusiasm. I share his appreciation for your help.”
“It was nothing, Lady Regina. I practice martial arts – it’s a very enjoyable sport. I was glad to lend a hand – or a foot, in this case. But how are you feeling?”
“My head does hurt, I will admit,” Lady Regina said, making Emma suspect that the woman was rarely loathe to share her aches and pains with others. “But there’s no long-term damage, I suspect. Mrs. Biggs has been watching over me like a guardian angel.” She patted the other woman’s hand.
“It’s my pleasure, my Lady,” the writer said.
And it gives you an opportunity to observe the victim, Emma thought. If I wrote mysteries I’d be making notes on these two, too.
“Lady Regina, please forgive me if this upsets you, but did you or Sir Gilbert pick up the gun after Steed and I went after an Sionnach?”
“You mean the one he was aiming at us? He dropped it, didn’t he?”
“Yes, when Steed and I came in. Did you or Sir Gilbert pick it up?”
“Heavens no! I didn’t even see where it landed. The others came in right after you went after that mad man. They saw to my head, and Sir Gilbert. I didn’t think about the gun again.”
“Until you saw the bullet in the ceiling,” Emma suggested.
“No, all I thought about then was the bullet,” Lady Regina said, her tone suggesting that Emma wasn’t quite bright.
“You said the others came in – who was there?”
“Why, my dear Mrs. Biggs was there first, and then Mr. Moore, bless him – he’s such a calming influence.”
“They came in to your stateroom?”
“Yes dear. We were touched by everyone’s concern, of course.”
“Of course,” Emma agreed. She let herself make more small talk with the women while she thought about the other guests who’d had access to the Alston’s stateroom. Why would either of them pick up the gun? As a souvenir? That sounded absurd, but she and Steed had dealt with their share of absurdity before. She was running out of idle pleasantries when she saw Steed detach himself from Sir Gilbert and glance her way. Excusing herself, she joined him at the drinks trolley that Sir Hamilton had had brought in.
She told him of the Alstons’ visitors while he fixed them both gin and tonics. She sipped hers and smiled – she would be in trouble working with Steed if she couldn’t hold her liquor. It was mostly gin with a touch of tonic and lime.
“Biggs and Moore,” he agreed “Sir Gilbert said the same thing. Well, only one of them lends herself to intrigue,” he said.
“Which I should think eliminates her from the running,” Emma replied. “Isn’t it just a bit obvious – mystery writer steals murder weapon?”
Steed made a slight shrug, as he sipped his drink, then lowered it and gave her a wide-eyed look.
“Her latest plot,” he said mysteriously. Emma gave him an overtly blank look, so he explained. “She was dictating it last night. I have it recorded.”
Taking her drink from her hand as she was raising it toward her mouth he set them both down on the trolley and led her toward his cabin.
“So you bugged all the cabins,” Emma said as he threaded the tape from last night through the recorder. “Including mine?”
He looked at her guilelessly, “Part of the job, my dear.” Then he straightened and leaned close to her where she stood by the bed. “And a belated good night to you, too,” he added, placing a kiss on her lips. Smiling, she sat down on the bed and reclined against the pillows.
“So tell me a story,” she said, “Or rather, let Mrs. Biggs tell one.”
Steed pressed the “play” button and listened for a moment, then fast forwarded the tape a couple times until they heard Mrs. Bigg’s voice.
“The receiver was searching for signals from all the bugs, so it switches from her to others, but there’s enough of her to get the drift of it,” he explained, scooting up on the bed to sit beside Emma.
“May I have a private word with you, Sir Gilbert?” Mr. Moore asked, drawing Sir Gilbert away from a conversation between Frank Bliss and Mrs. Biggs.
“Certainly Mr. Moore,” he replied.
“Perhaps outside would be most private,” Moore said, gesturing toward the door to the aft deck. Sir Gilbert followed his lead outside. The late afternoon sun was painting the white deck, bulkheads, and railing a brilliant shade of gold. The two men stopped in the middle of the deck and Sir Gilbert looked expectantly at Mr. Moore.
“I heard that the killer wanted you to write something. May I ask what?”
“You may, but I don’t know. He never actually said.”
“Ah. Too bad,” Mr. Moore said. Seeing Sir Gilbert’s surprise he added, “I suppose it would be a clue as to who hired him.”
“Yes, of course. Steed said something like that too.”
“So tell me, Sir Gilbert, I understand that you’re thinking of backing this measure to put fluoride into our drinking water.”
Sir Gilbert’s best politician’s smile filled his face as he plunged on to familiar territory. “Absolutely! I’m tired of Britain being chided for its dental condition. Fluoridation will strengthen our children’s teeth before problems can begin.”
“But you’ve seen my report –.”
“What? Yes, yes, I understand your concerns, old man. But most of your objections seem to be based on the nature of fluoride itself. That’s hardly your domain, you know. You don’t raise a single point about the security of the process.”
“It’s poison, Sir Gilbert!”
“Not according to – what’s that?”
Mr. Moore had reached both hands into his pockets and withdrawn them. One held a folded piece of paper with a pen clipped to it. The other held an Sionnach’s gun. Sir Gilbert looked from one hand to the other and then at Mr. Moore’s face. Of the three, the last was the most frightening, twisted into utter rage.
“Sign this,” he said, thrusting the folded paper at Sir Gilbert. He took it, unclipping the pen to unfold it. He skimmed the letter, which was written as if from him but in a sprawling, messy hand and poorly constructed sentences. Moore had raged on for most of the page about the dangers of fluoride, concluding with a complete disapproval of the measure to put the stuff into the nation’s drinking water.
“Just sign!” Moore repeated urgently. Sir Gilbert shook his head, refolding the letter calmly.
“Can’t do it, old boy. No one would believe I wrote this.”
Moore’s nostrils flared as he snatched the letter back. Sir Gilbert dropped the pen, but Moore ignored it as it clattered on the deck at their feet. He thrust the gun toward Sir Gilbert’s stomach, keeping it low and shielded from the view of those in the lounge.
“Back up,” he commanded, his voice a low monotone. “To the edge.”
“You’ll never get away with this,” Sir Gilbert said, his composure beginning to fade.
“But you’ll be dead, and without you they’ll fail.”
“You’ll be in jail – you won’t be able to fight them from there.” Sir Gilbert took a step back as the gun pressed painfully into his stomach.
“An isolated setting where the villain is present to observe the assassin he’s hired kill the victim,” Emma summarized, hands behind her head as she lay on Steed’s bed.
“To be sure the job is done – are there such obsessive people about?” Steed wondered. He was up pacing.
“Well, in this case, if the person who hired an Sionnach is on board, then she — or he — has been proven right. And she, or he, may very well try to finish the job.”
“Thinking that we’ve gone off duty.”
“Hadn’t we get back onto it?”
“You’re so right, Mrs. Peel.”
Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, Dame Agnes, Mrs. Biggs, Miss Griffith, and Sir Hamilton were sitting in the aft lounge when Steed and Emma returned. Exchanging a concerned glance with Emma, Steed stepped up behind Sir Hamilton.
“Pardon me, everyone. Has Sir Gilbert been about?”
“Or Mr. Moore?” Emma added, glancing at Steed. She knew he thought Mrs. Biggs was the villain, but she wasn’t so sure. She was beginning to think that coincidences were possible after all.
“They stepped outside a few minutes ago,” Mrs. Biggs said, looking toward the door to the deck. “Oh dear!”
It was obvious even in the darkness on the unlit aft deck that Mr. Moore was forcing Sir Gilbert toward the port rail. Steed opened the door and he and Emma stepped out.
“Back up!” Moore growled. He didn’t hear the door open behind him, and if Sir Gilbert noticed he made no sign of it.
Steed and Emma moved quickly and quietly across the deck, coming up behind Moore. Steed tapped on his right shoulder and as he spun around gun in hand Emma chopped his wrist with a sharp, downward stroke. Steed swung his solid right fist into Moore’s jaw, propelling him backward into Sir Gilbert, who instinctively grabbed him and then let him slide to the deck.
Steed kicked the gun away from Moore’s right hand and it skittered across the deck, stopping beneath a lounge chair.
“Are you alright Sir Gilbert?” Emma asked.
“Thanks, once again, to you two,” the nobleman replied. “He has a letter he wanted me to sign. He’s absolutely mad.”
“Sir Gilbert? Mr. Steed?” Sir Hamilton joined them, followed by the rest of the guests from the lounge. Moore started to rise and Emma planted one foot on his left shoulder, holding him down. He glared up at her, but stopped struggling. She suspected that Steed’s punch had left him quite rattled.
“Sir Hamilton, can you have some of your crew take Mr. Moore to his cabin and keep him there. I’d like to speak to him,” Steed said.
“Certainly, Mr. Steed,” Sir Hamilton went to the bulkhead near the door and opened a small cabinet to reveal a telephone mounted inside.
“If you don’t mind,” Sir Gilbert said, peering down at Moore, “I think I’d like to go find Regina.”
“Of course, Sir Gilbert,” Steed said. “We’ll talk later.”
“Yes, as you wish,” Sir Gilbert said almost absently as he nodded to Emma and moved out from behind Mr. Moore. Sir Hamilton rejoined them, his eyes focused on Moore.
“My crew will be here in a moment to take him,” he said. Then he looked around at the other guests. “Meanwhile, I have been informed that dinner is ready to be served. May I suggest that the rest of us go to the dinning room?”
After the other guests had made their way toward the dining room Steed and Emma waited to see Moore securely escorted inside by two of Sir Hamilton’s crew.
“You go ahead,” Steed told Emma. “I want to be sure they have him well guarded, and to get that letter Sir Gilbert mentioned.”
“Don’t forget the gun, Steed,” Emma replied, one eyebrow cocked over a sly smile. He grinned back at her and went to retrieve the gun.
Mr. Moore’s one-sided arguments that Steed had overheard through his listening device seemed to be just the tip of the iceberg. When he joined Moore and the two burly crewmen in Moore’s cabin he was subjected to an increasingly frantic tirade about the evils of fluoride. The two crewmen holding Moore’s arms looked to Steed for guidance. Clearly they didn’t think they should let him go. Steed stepped up to him and reached into each of his pockets, finding the somewhat crumpled letter. He stepped back and inclined his head toward the bed as he unfolded the letter. The crewmen, one of whom he was sure was ex-infantry, half carried the still babbling Moore to the bed and forced him down onto it.
Steed read the letter, noting that the handwriting grew more and more childish until the printed name at the bottom appeared to be the work of a first former. The space above it was clearly left for the real Sir Gilbert to sign. Steed tucked the letter into his own pocket.
“Better empty the cabin,” he said to the crewmen. “Get everything out that he might use on himself or you. Then he’ll only need one guard, I think.”
Steed returned to the radio room and composed another coded message, then went to his cabin to change for dinner and secure the letter. While he did so he listened to Mr. Moore’s ongoing tirade between muffled sounds of the crewmen removing his luggage from the cabin.
Properly dressed and groomed, Steed entered the dining room to find the main course just being served. Disappointed that he’d missed the raw clams, he took his seat between Danielle Bliss and Dr. Friel, far down the table from Emma and Sir Hamilton. As he sliced his chop and listened to Mrs. Bliss describe a production of Hamlet that she’d recently seen to Dame Agnes across the table, Steed could not help letting his attention focus on Emma. She had also changed before dinner, into a deep blue cocktail dress that left her stunning shoulders nearly bare. She wore a single blue stone – perhaps a blue topaz – set in silver on a thin chain. It sat on her throat drawing the eye to her perfect cleavage, of which just enough was visible to tempt, but not advertise.
He watched her smile at Sir Hamilton, then speak, her face animated with amusement and alight with her innate brilliance. She can’t help it, he reminded himself. She is a beautiful woman, and she knows how to dress. She didn’t wear that for him, she wore it for herself.
But intentional or not, he could see that she was encouraging Sir Hamilton. His face was also alight, but with something far more basic than brilliance. He was captivated by her – Steed knew the sensation well enough to recognize it in another man. And who am I to discourage what ever is growing there? I won’t change for her and we both know it. If she wants the life he can offer instead of what we have, then it would be unfair of me to stand in the way. He resolved to tell her so, painful as it would be
As the guests drifted away from the dinner table Steed watched Emma excuse herself and head for the stairs leading down to the deck where the staterooms were. He thought to follow, but before he could excuse himself from his end of the table Sir Hamilton rose and headed for the stairs. A few minutes later Steed was able to get away, but when he got to the bottom of the aft lounge he stopped, looking out across the deck at two figures standing at the rail. His heart ached and he never once considered how much Emma’s departure had looked like flight. He reminded himself of his noble intentions: to assure her that she was free to choose another and never let her know that it would break his heart.
“Here you are,” Sir Hamilton came up beside Emma, who had made her way to the rail on the aft deck. As dinner had progressed she had sensed his renewed interests so that by the time they were through with the cheeses she was struggling with a desperate desire to flee to her cabin, or to Steed’s. “A breath of fresh air is pleasant after such a satisfying meal,” he said.
“Yes. I needed some air,” she agreed.
“And a touch of privacy is pleasant too,” he added, his blue eyes sparkling at her.
“Ham please. I was sincere this afternoon,” she said in as kindly a tone as she could. He shut his eyes and bent his head for a moment as if absorbing some heartbreaking news.
“I’m not sure why I had hoped …” he said, trailing off as he opened his eyes again. She smiled.
“It’s very flattering,” she said. “And if we’d met at a different time in our lives, perhaps …”
He sighed, returning her smile, although his was much more wistful.
“Well, now that I’ve made a fool of myself twice in one day,” he said with a self deprecating chuckle, “I shall leave you to your fresh air.”
He made a little bow and turned toward the door. Emma forced herself not to watch him go, turning instead to look back out across the yacht’s shimmering wake.
Sir Hamilton exhaled a deep breath as he stepped into the lounge. He stopped short and looked into a pair of cold, grey eyes. Steed looked back, his face unreadable.
“You are a very lucky man, Mr. Steed,” Sir Hamilton said, then averted his face and walked toward the drinks trolley where a few other guests had gathered.
Steed walked slowly across the deck, every step a battle between his will to do the right thing and his adoration of the woman he was approaching. Emma wrapped her arms around herself, for a moment looking like she was being held by someone. Steed stopped and took off his jacket. He closed the rest of the distance between them and placed it on her shoulders.
Without comment she took the lapels in hand and pulled it around herself, pressing her nose for a moment against the collar then looking back out across the water sparkling with reflected moonlight.
Steed moved up to the rail to stand beside her, but did not touch her.
“All right Mrs. Peel?” he asked, looking out across the water too.
“Yes, fine Steed,” she replied, her voice thick. He struggled not to look, knowing that if he did he’d want to hold her. He feared that she did not want him to.
“Tricky case – I was convinced Mrs. Biggs was finally living out one of her plots,” he said, silently chastising himself for making small talk when what was needed was honesty.
“I wasn’t. But her plot made it seem more plausible that the real villain was among us.”
Steed nodded and half turned, leaning on the railing with one arm. Studying her profile in the dim light he thought he saw sadness and it cut him to the quick. She’s sent him away and she regrets it. I would hate to lose her, but seeing her sad is even worse. I won’t hold her if she has doubts. It’s unfair to us both.
“He would make you happy, I think,” he said softly. “I would understand if he is what you want.”
She stood silent for so long he thought she had not heard, or understood.
“And that’s it? A friendly handshake and a quick exit, and you telephone the ministry to ask for a new partner?”
Her tone was so icy he shivered. When she turned her head to look at him the anguish in her eyes was unbearable. He was astonished at the magnitude of his blunder. How could I misread her so completely! He took a deep breath and turned to look back out at the sea. He gripped the railing so tightly he knew his knuckles were white. As always with Emma, honesty was the only solution now.
“I would be devastated,” he said, swallowing hard. “But I would respect your decision. I would not wish to make it difficult for you. I want you to be happy, Emma.”
“And you think your wishes are superior to mine?” she asked quietly. He frowned. As was often the case, he couldn’t quite keep up with her agile mind, particularly when it was flitting across emotional whitecaps.
Emma shot him a sidelong glance and realized he had not understood. “Am I not allowed to consider your happiness in my decisions?” she explained. “Although I tend to think of it as ‘our’ happiness.”
“No, you want to reserve the grand gesture for yourself,” she exhaled a mocking chuckle. “But Steed, you have always treated me as an equal. You must allow me to be equal in these matters too. I would not dissolve our partnership now because we are both very happy with it – we are, aren’t we?”
“Very Emma,” he replied softly. She nodded and looked back out across the water.
“Sir Hamilton has considerable charms, but for some inexplicable reason I am simply unable to appreciate them.”
Steed let himself inch a little closer to her, but made no move to touch her. The tension between them was so palpable he though he might receive a shock if he did. They stood like that, side by side, for several minutes. And then Emma raised one hand from the railing and placed it over his. He looked down at her strong, fine fingers resting along the backs of his thicker ones and felt himself inhale a deep breath. He turned his hand over to clasp hers and she squeezed back.
“You can’t compete with that, Ham,” Dame Agnes said, swirling the brandy in her snifter as she looked out from the lounge at the two people standing in the moonlight near the rail on the aft deck.
Sir Hamilton finished pouring his own brandy and turned to follow her gaze. Outside, Steed released Emma’s hand and slipped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close against himself. Her arms went around his waist as she rested her head on his shoulder. Sir Hamilton sipped his brandy and dragged his gaze away from the lovers to regard Dame Agnes.
“Nor can you,” he said. She shook her head and sighed, then looked up at her old friend.
“Let’s give that billiards table you had installed up forward a bit of exercise, shall we?” she suggested, pointedly turning away from the aft deck. Sir Hamilton studied her for a moment, wondering whether he’d guessed correctly about her interest in Mrs. Peel. But the actress’s face was enigmatic.
“Let’s,” he said, gesturing for her to precede him out of the lounge. At the door he paused to allow himself one last look out at the deck beyond the glass doors.
“We’ll be at Newport in a couple hours,” Steed said, his face pressed into Emma’s hair. Her arms around him felt like velvet bindings, securing him to her in such a way that he never wanted to sever the connection. He tipped his head back to look into her eyes, bringing his hand up to caress her cheek. Her eyes sparkled with a smile. When she didn’t respond he let his hand drift around to the back of her neck and took her lips with his. Her eager kiss was response enough, and suddenly he wanted nothing more.
After a long while they stopped to breathe.
“Can we just do this for two hours?” she asked, her voice husky.
“Less a little time to pack our things, I should think,” he replied, equally huskily before feathering light kisses all over her face. She tilted her head back and he kissed her throat too, and then returned to her sensual mouth.
“The ministry team will take us back to London,” he said after a while. “Unless you –.”
“I’ll drive you to the marina to pick up the Bentley tomorrow,” she interrupted before he could suggest she might want to stay with the yacht. He nodded, feeling chastised for starting to suggest it.
“Thank you for your help, Sir Hamilton,” Steed said, shaking the man’s hand.
“I was glad to be of assistance, Mr. Steed. Glad such an evil man has been apprehended. I am sorry about Moore, though.”
“As are we all, I think,” Steed replied, then turned to cross the narrow gangway to the dock. He waited at the bottom for Emma.
“Thank you for everything, Ham,” Emma said, leaning close to kiss him on the cheek.
“It has been an adventure, Emma,” he replied, squeezing both of her hands as he looked into her eyes. “You’re sure you –. No, nevermind,” he smiled ruefully. “Get home safely. I’ll contact the gallery about that commission.”
Emma’s eyes widened in surprise as he released her hands. She turned and hurried down the gangway toward Steed.
They sat side by side in the back seat of the sedan. Emma peered out the window at the dark countryside. Her lips were sore, her senses still flooded with the smell and taste of Steed. They had parted when the lights of the English coast were very near, hurrying to their cabins to pack, and then making arrangements with the crew for Moore and an Sionnach to be readied for departure. Now the prisoners were each in their own car with agents guarding them. A third pair of agents had stayed behind to gather statements from Sir Hamilton’s guests in the morning.
Emma was experiencing the familiar post-case exhaustion, and the long car ride home was not helping. She wished that she might have stayed in her comfortable bed on the yacht for the night, but she could not have let Steed return to London without her, and he could not stay and send his prisoners back with the other agents.
A warm pressure on her hand, which was on the seat beside her, woke her from a drowsy state. She glanced down at Steed’s hand covering hers and smiled. She looked up into his serene grey eyes, the edges crinkled by his most intimate smile. She felt her heart flutter at the deep affection it conveyed. She had never seriously considered leaving him for Sir Hamilton. But that he’d become so agitated at the possibility reassured her of the state of his heart, even though he would never speak of it directly.
“Try to get some sleep,” he suggested quietly. “We’ll drop you off first. I’ll have to go to the ministry with them.”
She nodded. She’d known he would – that this journey would not conclude with them finally resting together. That saddened her, for she wanted very much to wake up in his arms. But she accepted it as a condition of their relationship. His work was of paramount importance.
“I’ll call you tomorrow, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, leaning out the car window as she took her bag from the other agent.
“Good night Steed,” she replied, waving as he pulled his head in and rolled up the window against the night chill. It was two o’clock in the morning. Emma hurried into her building.
An hour later she had unpacked and brewed herself some chamomile tea, and was standing in her negligee and dressing gown looking out the window as she sipped it. Tired as she’d been, she could not find her way to sleep now.
The sound of the doorbell at so late an hour was unnaturally loud. Grimacing at the tea slopped into her saucer, she set the cup down and went to the door. If it wasn’t a prank, then there was only one person it could possibly be. Activating the Cyclops, she saw that it was.
She opened the door and Steed stood there, case in one hand, umbrella in the other, his expression unusually dower beneath his bowler.
“Steed?” she asked, gesturing him in. He came, setting his case and umbrella down and removing his hat.
“I was afraid I’d wake you,” he said, although she noted that he made no apology for the possibility. She knew that if she hadn’t answered he’d have come in using the secret catch on the door.
“I think I’m over tired. I can’t get to sleep.”
“I know just the remedy for that,” he said, his face brightening for a moment before he wandered on into the sitting room and plopped down.
Although she couldn’t get to sleep, Emma was not enthusiastic about sitting up for the rest of the night either.
“What happened to Moore and an Sionnach?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be dealing with them?”
The muscles in Steed’s jaw worked as he ground his teeth. He was far more agitated than she’d thought.
“Five took Moore the moment we got to Whitehall. Claimed he’s their responsibility. It seems that when I reported from the yacht they went to search his home and office. Found all sorts of troubling things.”
“Should I not drink the water?” Emma quipped coming to stand near him. She refused to sit down, although he didn’t seem to notice.
“Boil it,” he replied quite seriously.
“And the Fox?”
“Six.” Steed grumbled, looking up at her. “They moved in on the interrogation as soon as we got him into the room.”
“How could they?” she frowned. He shrugged, evidently disgusted with the bureaucracy. “Patrick’s from six, so they’re using that to lay claim to the arrest.”
“That’s hardly fair –.”
“Oh, internally everyone knows who caught him, Mrs. Peel. And after all, what we do is supposed to be invisible.” He exhaled a long sigh and Emma realized that his irritation was dissipating now that he’d expressed it to the only person who would understand. Impulsively, she settled herself on his lap. His hands automatically moved to her waist as he looked up into her eyes in surprise.
She flashed him an enigmatic smile as she unknotted his tie.
“Sunday morning,” Steed muttered into Emma’s ear as he wrapped his arms around her from behind.
“Ummm,” she yawned, wondering if it was indeed still morning or they had slept it away.
“You stay here,” he said, pressing a kiss to the side of her neck before moving away from her. “I’ll be back.”
She rolled onto her back to watch him dress himself in twill trousers and a casual shirt from his suitcase, then he disappeared from the bedroom. She let herself drift, replaying the highpoints of the early morning hours. Steed had been right, he had known just the thing to help her get to sleep. A while later she heard sounds coming from the kitchen. She reluctantly climbed out of bed and wrapped herself in her dressing gown.
As she’d expected, Steed had returned with croissants and the morning paper. He was adding a tray of coffee things to the table in the sitting room when she came in. She smiled in happy anticipation of a rare quiet Sunday afternoon. She might just get out a fresh canvas and start a new painting.