Author’s Note: The mystery in this story involves the syntheses of industrial diamonds. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel the need to provide background that, unfortunately, contradicts the facts of the story. In 1953, twenty years prior to the timeframe of this story, the first industrial diamonds were synthesized in Sweden. DeBeers, the real-world diamond cartel, formed a company in 1946 to research the uses of industrial diamonds, and in 1960 set up a plant in South Africa to synthesize them for commercial use. By the era of this story other super-hard elements were also being synthesized. Now, please just disregard all this and enjoy my version.
This story copyright © 2004 Mia McCroskey
The characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.
Steed makes the cut
Emma slides on the ice
“It was a beautiful service, John. Just lovely,” Caro Hill told her brother, taking his arm to guide him a few steps away from the other guests at baby John’s christening. They were in the Steed’s big dining room where the long table had been set for twenty guests.
“Thank you Caro, and thank you and Harry for agreeing to be John’s godparents,” Steed replied with a fond smile.
“We would have been insulted if you hadn’t asked, Johnny,” she replied. “You know we would raise him as our own, should the need ever arise.”
“I know. But we don’t plan for that to be necessary. No, I intend for your role to be that of benevolent aunt offering the occasional bit of spiritual guidance.”
“Each evening I pray for just that, John,” Caro said, and Steed realized she meant it. He had long ago put aside the ritual of bedtime prayers, but his sister had not. Her prayers had evolved from childish blessings through a young woman’s requests to the solemn wishes of an adult. But the moment of contemplation at the end of the day still helped her sustain her calm, pleasant demeanor.
“But John, is Emma well?” Caro went on.
“Yes of course she is!”
“She doesn’t look it.”
“What can you mean?” Steed’s eyes scanned the room looking for his wife.
“When you live with someone, see them every day, sometimes you don’t notice a gradual change,” Caro went on. “She’s thin, John. Her face looks drawn. Her complexion has lost its luster. She looks ill.”
“Emma has always been thin, Caro. She has worked hard to regain her figure after John was born.”
“Are you sure she hasn’t overdone it?”
Steed finally caught sight of Emma talking animatedly with her cousins Delia and Marcus. She was wearing a dark blue velvet A-line dress that concealed her figure. It was unusual for her, a change from her usual tailored look. But the color was so flattering he could not see anything amiss in her appearance. Her face was flushed, perhaps from the merry fire in the hearth near where she was standing. She laughed as he watched her, flipping her hair so that it glowed in the reflected candlelight from a wall sconce. Steed felt his heart quicken at the sight of her.
“It’s just the pre-holiday strain, Caro. She’s put a great deal into the party tomorrow, not to mention this little luncheon. And I fear that I have not been much help planning our holiday celebration.”
Caro studied him for a moment, her expression one of guarded speculation. She was considering her next argument when Edmond Stanton came over to claim Steed’s attention. Her brother was soon drawn into a discussion of polo to which she refused to listen – she could not believe he was still contemplating engaging in the sport.
Although all of the guests for John’s christening were also invited to the Steed’s anniversary Christmas Eve party the following evening, only the Hills, who had traveled the farthest, were staying as houseguests. After the christening luncheon guests departed the Hill children eagerly helped decorate the Steeds’ big, slightly lopsided Christmas tree. Emma and Siobhan had already decorated the house with garlands and red bows. The addition of the ornaments and lights on the tree made the informal sitting room feel more like a home to Steed than any other place he’d ever lived. He sat in is favorite chair, one of the few pieces of furniture he’d moved from the Mews apartment, with John napping in his lap watching Emma trying to direct his sister’s children. This was the second Christmas that they were spending in his home, and he was feeling just a little guilty for co-opting the holiday by marrying Emma on Christmas eve last year.
“The kids were thrilled to come, you know John,” Harry Hill said – he was also watching the decorating from the safety of an adjacent armchair. “They got to decorate our tree last week, and now they get to do it again here. Timothy could not be happier.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Harry. I was just thinking that it’s kind of you to come to us again this year. I never intended to disrupt your family traditions.”
“Hah,” Harry chuckled, eyeing Steed and the infant in his arms. “You never intended to be in the middle of a family at all, until that one waltzed back into your life two years ago,” he said, nodding toward Emma, who was moving a delicate ornament from the branch where little Linney Hill had placed it to a higher spot. Steed followed his brother-in-law’s gaze.
“Not for many years, in any case,” he admitted, then noted Harry’s surprised expression. “I was raised in the same family as Caro, Harry, with an appreciation for this life. Don’t pretend that you never noticed my envy of your situation.”
“Envy? I always thought you were delighted to visit and more delighted to go home. Alone.”
Steed shrugged and looked down at his son’s sleeping face. “One enjoys what one has,” he said. “But that doesn’t completely eliminate the yen for something different. I had given up on it during my years abroad. And I was so sure of my choice that I couldn’t imagine changing my path even when I knew that was the only way to keep Emma. In a way, this little one owes his existence to Peter Peel,” he stroked his son’s cheek with one finger.
“I’m sorry?” Harry sounded baffled.
“If he had not come back and reclaimed Emma, I doubt that I would have found it within myself to see a different path.”
“Don’t know what you’ve got until you haven’t got it any more, eh?”
“Somehow I don’t imagine that you’ll be thanking Peel.”
Steed snorted a wry laugh and little John squirmed in his sleep. Steed shifted him in his arms, bending his head to place a kiss on his forehead.
After a raucous supper culled from luncheon leftovers and a pair of roasted chickens that Caro had slipped into the oven in the late afternoon, the children settled down a bit and took turns holding John under Siobhan’s watchful eye. With their offspring thus distracted, the adults were able to play several rubbers of bridge. If Caro and Harry were in the least intimidated by playing opposite Emma, who was an internationally ranked player, they showed no sign of it. Nor was their performance worthy of embarrassment. They won the second rubber and enough games in the third and fourth to keep Steed and Emma concentrating. Mid-way through the last rubber 15-year-old Sara Hill pulled up a chair between her mother and Steed to watch. She was well trained in proper spectator etiquette, and made a point of only looking at Steed’s hand and keeping her face impassive.
“How are the King boys, aunt Emma?” she asked when her father was gathering the cards to shuffle and deal.
“Soon to have a little brother or sister,” Steed replied before Emma could.
“Amanda Stetson is pregnant?” Caro asked, sounding both surprised and pleased.
“Seven months or so by now, right darling?” Steed replied, looking to Emma for confirmation.
Emma nodded, seeing that Sara was disappointed at the direction the conversation had taken. She glanced at the clock on the mantel.
“It’s mid-afternoon in Washington,” she said. “Why don’t we telephone them and wish them a happy Christmas?”
The way Sara’s face lit up was so gratifying Emma felt herself flashing the girl a conspiratorial grin. But somehow Steed had missed Sara’s question’s true intent and saw no urgency in making the call.
“Surely we should finish the rubber first,” he said. “My evil sister won the last game, and I simply won’t let it end with her holding the upper hand.”
Emma watched Sara’s expression turn impatient and sent her an encouraged, resigned smile.
“We’ll call when we’re done, Sara,” she said. “You can think about what you want to say to Jamie.”
Sara turned bright red and slipped off of her chair to go make over John some more. Steed glanced at her retreating back then across at his wife, one eyebrow cocked. She smiled enigmatically and picked up her cards.
“I shudder to think what the telephone bill is going to come to,” Steed groaned as he settled in on the striped divan beside Emma. She knew he wasn’t really complaining about the forty-minute call to Washington, D.C. He took a tentative sip of the brandy he’d just poured himself, smiled at the velvety flavor, and then put his free arm around Emma and leaned back, pulling her to him. She sighed and rested her head against his shoulder, one hand flat on his chest. “How did you know Sara wanted to speak to Jamie King?”
“Honestly Steed, one would think you must be blind, sometimes. They were quite taken with each other last Christmas,” Emma said, disregarding the fact that she had not noticed either, and only learned of it later from Caro. “I really wanted to invite her along when we went to Washington last spring, but she was in school.”
“Did you?” he took another sip of brandy and held the glass in front of her, offering it. She shook her head against him and stretched her arm on around his chest, holding him tight. “You never mentioned it.”
“I wouldn’t suggest we take her out of school,” she said dismissively. Steed thought back to that trip, when Emma was just pregnant enough to show. She had been keeping a low profile among his colleagues, so her appearance at the Stetson’s wedding amid a bevy of American agents had served as their informal announcement to the intelligence community of their impending offspring. It had caused the expected buzz of gossip that reached London well before they had returned there.
But that wasn’t the part of the trip he remembered most vividly. It was the few days afterward that they’d spent at a resort. Something at the wedding had spurred Emma to ask him about his past – to ask in a way that he simply could not shrug off or evade as he usually did.
She was his wife. She had a right to know. Or so she claimed. And after a bit of reflection he had come to agree. So he’d told her about his last days in Europe before returning to Britain to join the secret service. But it had been just a tidbit, really. A single act in the tragedy — or perhaps it was a black comedy — of his post-war years. And his revelation to her had lead to an even greater revelation: She had recognized Edmond Stanton’s signature on a document Steed had retained from those years. It suggested that Emma’s right hand at Knight Industries had continued as part of the intelligence service after the war.
It wasn’t a crime, of course, only a breach of trust. Edmond had told her long ago that he had resigned when the war ended. So for months now Emma had been wrestling with his lie. She wanted to trust him – she depended on him professionally – but if he’d lied about his status with MI-5, what other deceptions was he capable of? And perhaps the most urgent question for both Emma and Steed was: was he still an agent?
Steed had looked into it and found clues that suggested that Stanton’s situation was not clear-cut. So he’d arranged to find out more. But it was taking a lot of time, and a bit of financing. Steed so wished he could have presented Emma with answers to her worries for Christmas. Instead she would have to make do with diamonds. Big, sparkling, perfectly cut, diamonds.
Maybe Caro was right, maybe Emma did look thin and pale. But she had been spending more time at the office, although she hadn’t told him about whatever she was working on. And she had suffered a terrible shock just two months ago in Venice when he’d been beaten and held captive for two days. He would be hurt if she had not been upset by what had happened to him.
With the new year, and the elaborate home security system that was finally fully installed, her outlook was bound to turn around — and with it her appetite!
“Oh love, I know,” Emma settled into the rocker in the corner of the nursery and struggled with John’s flailing hands as she unbuttoned her blouse. It was early morning and Emma was hurrying so that his crying would not awaken Siobhan. The nanny had been invaluable ever since Steed had been released from the hospital after their return from Venice. She deserved a full night’s sleep tonight.
The baby wailed, gasped, and wailed some more until she opened her bra and pressed his face to her breast. The nursery grew quiet as he sucked hungrily on her nipple. She rocked slowly, listening to his breathing and the squeak of the chair. Across the room the Cheshire-cat clock ticked comfortingly.
She stroked his firm little back, closing her eyes to focus on the feel of his mouth on her. All to soon he was squirming again, his little hands kneading her breast. She shifted him, exposing her other nipple to his eager mouth. Tears dripped down her cheeks as she faced the truth: she did not have enough milk to satisfy him. Since his birth she had cherished her time nursing him. The notion of having to give it up, of weaning him so soon, was heartbreaking.
But her body was out of control. She had to regain her strength, and then she would know she could rely on herself to protect John, and, heaven help her, Steed.
Steed’s condition when they brought him back from Venice had for the first time in their long association, left her terrified of the dangers of his job. She had seen him injured before and nursed him back to health, but this time was different. The nightmares he’d suffered from, in which Emma and John were tortured, had been more incapacitating than the injuries. She’d arranged with the ministry to install the most advanced security system that Knight Industries could buy. She’d doubled her time in the gym each day, struggling to build up strength that seemed unwilling to return. And, gradually, Steed had begun to sleep through the night again. The despair she felt now watching her son struggle for his meal was the price of her folly in believing they could be a normal family.
James Bond stood close to the wall between shop doors to keep out of the stream of last minute shoppers clotting all of the sidewalks of Paris. Even so he was occasionally jostled by carrier bags, an event usually followed by a cross look from the bags’ owner, who obviously thought he had no right to just stand there on Christmas Eve without so much as a parcel in his hands.
But he hardly noticed them. He was watching for someone, and the longer he waited, the more anxious he was to see her. At last he caught a streak of strawberry blonde hair across the street. The corners of his mouth curled into an eager smile as he watched Sally Howard making her away amid the crowds toward the main entrance of Samaritain, Paris’s oldest department store.
He pushed himself away from the wall and through a gap in the pedestrians, darting across the street toward a secondary door into the store. Sally had done exactly what he’d expected, and now she was forcing her way through the crowded cosmetics department toward the bank of lifts near the rear. He bounded through the much less-used entrance and up a nearby flight of stairs. On the first floor he rang for a lift, crossing his fingers that she had not, somehow, made it into whichever car stopped for him. The bell rang and pair of doors opened to reveal a crowd, but no Sally. James’s charming smile earned him a spot in the packed car and much as he wanted to breathe a sigh of relief when the doors closed, he held it in for fear of taking up too much space and being prodded by an old woman’s handbag.
A few minutes later he stepped out onto the store’s rooftop observation deck. The breeze at this altitude was much colder than down on the streets, but the bright sunshine glittering off of the windows of Paris combined with the greenish brown crescent of the river below and a few huge white clouds above made up for the chill. There were a few tourists enjoying the view, posing for snapshots with the Eiffel Tower or Monmartre in the background. James made his way half way around the roof and found a spot by the rail.
Feeling jostled by the crowds and put-upon by her job, Sally tugged the ends of her scarf to tighten it around her neck as she pushed open the door to the observation deck. It was bad enough to be alone on Christmas, but to have to work – to be called to a meet with some anonymous contact on Christmas Eve! He must not be Christian, she grumbled to herself, knowing it was a very real possibility. Then she inhaled the icy air and looked out across Paris. The view was spectacular and it lifted her spirits in spite of her mood. At least he got me out of the flat and away from that box of chocolates Steed and Emma sent, she admitted to herself.
She started around the roof toward the side opposite the doors as her unknown contact had requested. It was, she reflected, a rather whimsical spot for a meet. He must not think he’s in danger, or he would never have picked a place with only one exit. But he had used all the correct recognition codes while remaining anonymous. In fact, she realized, it might not be a “he” at all. It could just as easily be a woman.
She studied the tourists as she walked. Her contact would have a bag from the Gucci boutique. She saw all manner of carrier bags bulging with gifts, but no Gucci carried by man or woman. Half way around she paused, the set of a particular pair of shoulders covered in a rich fawn coat looked awfully familiar. She stepped toward him, her heart suddenly pounding in her throat. As if sensing her, he half turned, letting his head rotate the rest of the way around to look across his shoulder at her. His buoyant grin filled her with joy.
“James!” she cried, closing the remaining gap between them.
He held his arms open and she fell into them, snaking hers up around his neck. He tasted like mint, and he felt like heaven. He returned her ardent kiss, holding her tight for longer than was appropriate, even in Paris. Even at Christmas. When their lips finally parted she felt like crying for joy at the sight of him.
“Oh James,” she sighed looking into his happy, playful eyes.
“Hello Sally,” he said, “I heard you were left all alone here – not very nice of Tara. Thought you might use a bit of holiday cheer.”
“I love you, James,” was all she could manage, and he chuckled as he pressed her head to his shoulder and rocked her from side to side.
“May I buy you lunch?” he asked. The chocolates, although very good, had hardly served as an appropriate breakfast. She was starving.
“Please,” she said, forcing herself to loosen her grip on him. He guided her back toward the stairs and down in to the store café on the level below.
“Where’s the Gucci bag?” she asked as they walked, intentionally making it sound as if she had expected a gift.
“That was a bit of misdirection,” he replied. She grinned and shook her head.
He procured them a table for two at the windows, then left her to guard it while he navigated the buffet-style food service. She alternated watching him work his way along with a tray with looking out the window at the city below. It was impossible that only an hour ago she’d been miserable.
James returned with salads, croque monsieur, and bottles of Belgian beer.
“How’s this?” he asked as he poured her beer.
“Perfect,” she said, picking up half of her grilled cheese sandwich.
She grilled him for news of London and their mutual friends while they ate, but he had little to offer, having been on back-to-back assignments for the last couple months. He was equally interested to hear about Tara and her husband Robbie, who were still begging to be assigned somewhere together. Sally had heard from Tara all about how Robbie had helped Steed with a case, and had helped rescue him from agents of the Mafia, supposedly in exchange for a good word to Mother on their behalf. She could not decide whether Steed had failed to follow through or his claimed influence over Mother wasn’t what he said it was. Sally had her own suspicion – that Steed didn’t think Tara should be assigned with Robbie – but she hadn’t shared it. At least not with her supervisor. She and James discussed it in hushed tones in the busy café, and he agreed with her.
“Does he think she made a mistake marrying Robbie?” Sally asked. James frowned for a moment, then shook his head.
“I think he just doesn’t think all that much of McCall. Remember I said a while ago that if they’re assigned together, he’ll be the senior man.”
“So Steed may not think that’s the best assignment for Tara.”
“Well if that’s it, then I agree with him,” Sally said. “Robbie’s a sweetheart, but I wouldn’t want to work for him.”
“No? Why not?”
Sally knew that James really wanted her opinion of Robbie McCall, so she gave it. “He’s impulsive. Not like you and Steed are impulsive though. When you’re impulsive it’s because you know so much about the situation you can predict exactly what will happen as a result of your actions. I don’t think McCall always does the background work. He takes risks. I wouldn’t want rely on him to watch my back.”
James smiled proudly at her. She had studied hard at the ministry, and learned life’s lessons in the field. And the most important one that she’d mastered was reading people.
When they’d finished their lunch and were headed for the lifts James asked, “Do you have something to wear to the opera tonight?”
“I have a lovely brown jumper with a snowman on it,” Sally joked, thinking that going to the opera with him on Christmas Eve sounded like a dream come true and hoping that he meant it.
“Then let’s do some shopping,” he said, stepping into the car that had just arrived and punching the button for the floor housing ladies eveningwear. Although she did have an appropriate dress at home, she followed him as he weaved among the racks. The diversion of shopping in a real store instead of a charity shop, and of being with James, was too tempting.
Shortly he was seated in a chair while she tried on a series of lovely dresses that they’d selected from the racks. The third one was black and backless and the long skirt flowed like inky water around her legs.
“This is it,” James said, rising to stand behind her as she looked at herself in the mirror. He placed his hand lighly on her bare lower back and she sucked in a gasp at the bolt of electricity that shot from his hand to her groin. His eyes locked with hers in the mirror, full of desire and confidence that said he was looking forward to taking the dress off of her later.
“You’ll need shoes,” he said, his mouth so near her ear she felt faint.
She selected a pair of black, mid-heel, formal shoes, and then the salesman produced a pair of cocoa brown suede boots that nearly reached her knee. James smiled impishly as the salesman zipped them and she stood up.
“Like them?” he asked as she took a few steps. They felt fantastic and she knew they would look great with several of her skirts.
“Delicious,” she sighed, afraid to look at the price on the side of the box. James nodded at the salesman, who had packaged up the formal shoes. “James really,” Sally began to protest, but he raised his eyebrows and glanced at the salesman, and she fell silent as the boots were gently unzipped and removed from her feet.
Laden with dress bag and shoeboxes they moved on.
“You’ll need lingerie,” James said in a way that suggested he had saved the best for last.
“I have things, James. I can just go home and change,” she said.
“But you won’t have time to go home,” he said, leading her into the lingerie department. “It’s half three now and the opera is at seven. Dinner is at ten, by the way.”
“And between now and seven?”
James’s devious little smile told her all she needed to know. “Please get a garter belt and hose,” he begged quietly as they wandered through the racks of brassieres and lacy pants. Sally thought she should feel embarrassed looking at lacy under things with her lover, but instead it felt deliciously naughty. A little bubble of desire grew deep inside her as she looked at seductive underwear and then at his eager expression. She did as he asked and selected a garter belt and hose and two pairs of lovely, lacy black pants. As he paid for them the saleswoman glanced from him to Sally holding the other purchases and back to James with a meaningful look. Yes, Sally thought, he’s older and he’s paying. And it’s none of your business. And just as shopping for lingerie with him had excited her, the notion that their affair was ever so slightly inappropriate – that he was old enough to be her father – only fanned her internal flames. Nobody knew what was between them but them, and she had a perfect example to live by – Emma and Steed.
Outside on the crowded street James guided her to a taxi stand and loaded her bags into the boot. He gave the driver the name of a four-star hotel and settled in the back seat with her. At his hotel a porter had collected her bags before she was out of the taxi. James got his key from the desk and they rode up in the lift with four other guests. They stood side by side, her shoulder pressed against his upper arm, his hand cupping her ass through her coat, fingers secretly massaging her. The porter arrived at their room just as James opened it, apparently having ridden up in a service lift. While Sally shed her coat and went to admire the view of the Seine from the window he arranged her bags on the dresser and accepted a tip from James.
And then James was beside her, his coat and the sport coat he’d worn beneath it gone. He pulled her into his arms and pressed his lips to her forehead. Sally slid her arms around his waist and held him tight.
“I’ve missed you,” he said, his mouth wandering down the side of her face to her mouth.
“Me too,” she murmured against his lips, then gave up and concentrated on the way he was kissing her. He was aggressive, all male, and entirely clear in his intentions. As he stroked her back she brought her hands in between them to begin unbuttoning his shirt. He sighed through his kisses as she caressed his hard little nipples and she hastily opened the rest of his buttons, tugging his shirttails out of his trousers to get the last of them. She put her hands on his belt and felt his own hands come to rest on the zipper at the back of her skirt. It was open, the small hook at the top unfastened, in an instant. He was sliding it down over her hips by the time she had found the end of his belt and begun working on the buckle.
She paused, willing him to slide his hands up under her blouse. Instead he slipped them inside the back of her pants and pulled them down too. She unbuckled his belt and fumbled with the button beneath it until he let her go and undid it himself.
“Out of practice, darling?” he smiled, then immediately regretted it.
She bit her tongue, refusing to give voice to the response that welled up – yes, but you aren’t.
He was as practiced at recovery as everything else. He brought his hands up to cup both sides of her face and covered her lips with his, beginning slowly, then deepening the kiss until they were consuming one another again, mouths and hands all over, loins aching, hearts pounding. Sally let go of her momentary spark of non-specific jealousy under the pressure of his intensifying passion. In between kisses he guided her across the room to the bed and laid her down on it, looming over her to pull her pants the rest of the way off. He pulled up the hem of her knit blouse and kissed her soft stomach, one hand stroking her thigh almost casually. She drew her leg up, opening herself to him, and he moved up to her face, grinning wolfishly at her obvious desire.
Before he could go on she grabbed his head and pulled his face back to hers, kissing him as aggressively as he had her. She continued holding him with one hand while the other worked its way down to his open fly. His rock hard penis strained against satin boxers. She rubbed it through them, eliciting a warm growl from him. He pressed himself into her hand and she squeezed gently so that he gasped and threw his head back, then peered down at her expectantly.
“Touch me,” he begged, eyes locked with hers. She slipped her fingers inside the waistband of his boxers and stroked his hot flesh, groaning herself at the feel of it in her hand. Before she knew it she was shoving his underwear down and gripping his hard, hot penis, guiding it toward her pulsing center. He did not resist, but pushed into her as soon as she let go, feeling as if he were containing an explosion that was about to surge forth from her loins. She bucked against him and he rode her, thrusting in and out as she came around him. He caught her mouth with his, plunged his tongue inside as he moved within her. Then he found her breast through her blouse and bra, and pinched at the nipple so hard she twisted around beneath him, grasping at his bare ass as if to drive him deeper into herself.
“Come with me,” she groaned. “Please James, together.”
It was easy to oblige: he was already riding the edge and her request was enough to take him the rest of the way. With a dazzling flash behind his closed eyes, his body surged forth to fill her, his genitals burning at the friction of their thrusts, his fingers stroking her solid nipple until he lost all control and functioned only on instinct.
“Oh James!” she cried out, inhaling a deep breath and holding it as she fell into the depths of orgasmic bliss. He hovered over her supported on his elbows, his orgasm played out, his mind lost in the same blissful place.
At last she stirred, running her hands up and down his back, releasing the held breath and breathing in another. She pressed her lips to his cheek and he lifted up a little so that he could look into her eyes.
She smiled contentedly up at him and for a moment he felt the usual rush of good fortune he always felt knowing that she trusted him with her body and her heart. And then he felt awful, like a horrible, deceitful cad. He swallowed hard and rolled off of her, lying back on the pillows and staring at the ceiling.
“James?” she asked, concern in her voice. He forced himself to roll his head toward her, not to exclude her although she had no place in his torment. “Was that okay?” she asked tentatively. He felt like a cur. He rolled onto his side and put his arm around her, pulling her close to him, trying to dispel his own guilt by smiling into her beautiful eyes.
“It was amazing, Sally,” he assured her, and he watched her shut her eyes and snuggle against him. She made him feel warm all over. The other woman, Julia Mueller, had no such effect on him. He was attracted to her as he was to any lovely woman. But he had no feelings for her. He was using her on Steed’s behalf to get information. Could Sally possibly understand that? Could Julia?
He knew that Sally could, that was the best and the worst thing about their affair. This was the longest he’d carried on with any woman, and it lasted, he believed, because she was also an agent and understood the requirements of the job. From the start they had not been exclusive. She had entered into this while openly involved with another man. James had no illusions that, should someone come along here in Paris who she fancied, she’d follow her instincts. And should her job require intimacy, she’d do it. He had taught her how himself.
And now he was beginning to regret it. Holding her tight, sated and content, he didn’t want to share. And he had no urging to experience Julia Mueller in this way again. He sighed and Sally squeezed him with the arm she’d wrapped around him, certainly misunderstanding his quandary for contentment. He smiled at the irony of it – he may actually have found a woman he was willing to settle down for, and she wasn’t interested.
They climbed under the covers and lay in one another’s arms talking about her life in Paris and making plans for the next few days. Finally Sally raised her head to look at the clock and James followed her gaze.
“Half five. We should start getting ready,” he said.
“I should have called mum and the kids,” Sally groaned, clapping her hand over her eyes.
“Go ahead and call. I’ll shower first,” he said, moving her hand in order to place a kiss on her forehead, then climbing over her and out of the bed. After the money he’d spent earlier Sally didn’t hesitate about running up his hotel telephone bill. She knew he’s turn it in to MI-6 with the rest of his expenses. She sat up and found her pants and skirt. She was barely able speak to her mother after having sex, she certainly could not do it while half naked. Once she was dressed she picked up the telephone and dialed the UK code.
When James turned off the water he could hear Sally’s voice in the other room giggling and speaking animatedly. The sound touched him. It had been a very long time since he’d felt compelled to contact family because it was a holiday. But this year he had felt compelled to be with her.
More than a year ago Sally had been very apprehensive about telling her parents she was quitting her job at Knight Industries to work for the secret service. The ministry trainers had instructed all of the trainees to be honest with their families and provide them with emergency information from the start. Sally’s mother had reacted as Sally had expected: she feared for her eldest child and regretted that Sally had given up what she regarded as a good career at Knight. And more than a year later, even after Sally had graduated with high marks and been sent to Paris, she remained distressed by her daughter’s choices. Sally’s father had taken the news with what, for him, amounted to enthusiasm. He’d nodded, pursing his thin lips, then smiled. Fortunately, Sally’s mother appreciated hearing from her daughter and knew to keep her concerns to herself when she called.
Sally was wishing her youngest sister a merry Christmas when James emerged from the bathroom with a white towel wrapped around his waist. Stammering, she concluded the call as she watched him stride languorously across the room toward the wardrobe. She hurried into the bathroom, inhaling its steamy warmth laced with his spicy aftershave. Talking to her siblings always made her feel childish, and the sight of James nearly naked had jarred her back to the here and now. She hoped her sister, who was only nine, had not sensed her discomfort. As far as Sally knew, none of her family knew she was no longer a virgin. Her eldest brothers, just one and two years younger than her, probably suspected, but would never ask. At seventeen, her eldest sister was capable of guessing the direction her life had taken when she moved to London, but she too had not asked.
They took a taxi to the stately old opera house and melded into the crowds of elegantly dressed Parisians streaming inside. Sally wasn’t surprised that James had procured excellent seats in the middle of the orchestra. Once they were seated he reached into an inner pocket and produced a set of pop-open opera glasses that they used to scan the rest of the audience until the lights went down.
As the first notes of the overture filled the hall James reached over and took Sally’s hand, stroking her palm with his thumb. She smiled and shifted, leaning a little closer to him so that their shoulders touched. The seats around them were filled with glamorous couples and Sally enjoyed the feeling of fitting in. Who wouldn’t, she reminded herself, It’s lovely to be rich and elegant and move in the right social circles. But I’m not, I’m only pretending for tonight. She shot James a sidelong glance. He was using the glasses to study the conductor, who was vigorously waving his arms. But could I be? What would it be like to marry a man like James –assuming he would be willing. Not likely!
James pressed the glasses into her hand and she used them to watch as the curtains opened. For a few minutes she was absorbed in the opera, which was a lesser known romantic tale. But as the characters presented the dilemmas of their love lives, Sally’s thoughts returned to hers. She had thought coming to Paris would dull the need for James in her life. She had expected to see him now and then, and the rest of the time to be so distracted she wouldn’t give him a thought. But it hadn’t worked out that way. Tara’s obsession with her new husband rubbed off on Sally and she’d found herself longing for James, not forgetting him. It didn’t help that Tara knew about her relationship with James and was not shy about asking after him. Sally had tried for indifference when she didn’t hear from him, but Tara’s sympathetic treatment had melted her resolve.
So she’d spent the last few months alternating joy at living and working in Paris with homesickness for her family and friends in London and longing for James. And now he was here, she could easily imagine making him a permanent, committed part of her life. She’d thought it was impossible, but she looked at Tara, and at Steed and Emma, and she knew that it was not. It might not be easy, but it was definitely not impossible. If only the gentleman were interested.
“How did your meeting go?” Steed asked Mike Gambit, holding his glass up to watch the bubbles rise. Gambit watched them too, holding his own glass absently. He was beginning to appreciate Steed’s taste for champagne, but tonight he would have preferred a straight whiskey. During his years solo in the field he had developed a working style that had served him well. But since Steed had taken him under his wing a few months ago he was being asked to handle completely different situations. He knew it was good for his career, but that didn’t make it any easier. He supposed that in the past Steed had sent Emma to meetings like the one he’d had today, so he tried to imagine how she would handle it. Unfortunately, he did not possess her charms – not, at least, the ones that would have come in the most handy.
“Barnes may have talked to the MOD, but he clammed up for me,” Gambit said. “He’s an egghead, so lost in his scientific theory he can hardly see the real world. It’s a wonder he approached the military at all.”
Steed nodded, sipping his champagne. “Too bad Emma couldn’t meet with him today, he sounds like her type,” he said thoughtfully. Gambit nearly choked on his champagne, narrowly missing spewing it down the front of his jacket. As he regained his composure Steed stared at him worriedly.
“All right, old man?”
“Yes. Fine,” Gambit managed, wondering whether Steed had read his mind. Given his strange and varied career, who knew what talents he may have acquired through mysterious drugs or strange devices?
“So he wouldn’t tell you anything?”
“I did get this,” Gambit slipped his hand into his breast pocket and removed a slip of paper. “Four months ago he offered to license the device to the diamond cartel.” Steed nodded. Gambit was stating what they already knew. “He gave me the names of the individuals he met with.”
“And he thinks they’re responsible for the deaths of his backers?”
“As I said, Steed, he’s not terribly clear on real-world situations. But he did seem to be frightened, and I’d say this is the short list of his greatest fears.”
Steed took the paper and read the names. The first two were vaguely familiar as ultra wealthy jet-setters. The third was a completely unfamiliar name – Austrian, or perhaps Swiss, Steed thought. When he came to the fourth he smiled cagily.
“What?” Gambit asked. He knew that look.
“I do believe we’re having dinner with number four next week,” Steed said, folding the paper and putting it in his own breast pocket. Gambit frowned as he watched him, not because Steed kept the list – he’d made a copy — but because he couldn’t remember the fourth name. “Sir Terry Winchester is, in addition to being a member of the diamond cartel, a top ranked bridge player. He’s hosting a tournament Emma is playing in.”
“She is, isn’t she?” Steed’s smile turned possessive as he caught sight of his wife crossing the room toward them.
“Business?” she asked, leaning in to peck Gambit on the cheek. He couldn’t stop a delighted smile, although he thought she looked a bit under the weather.
“That was pleasure,” he purred at her, eyes flicking to Steed to gauge his reaction. Emma smoothly moved to Steed’s far side, slipping her arm through his and catching his eye so that he stared into hers for a long moment, immediately forgetting any reaction he might have been planning to Gambit’s flirtation. She released Steed’s gaze and winked at Gambit, then looked out at the room full of party guests. Steed caught her wink and looked at Gambit, but he wore a look of complete innocence and Steed knew when to give up.
“Everyone seems to be enjoying the party,” Emma said. “Siobhan just took John to bed. He’ll be impossible, I’m sure, he’s so keyed up. I was going to go up and help, but I wanted to be sure you would be all right without me for a few minutes.” She turned her head to look inquiringly at Steed.
“I’m envious,” he said. “I’d almost rather spend time with John than this lot – you accepted of course, Gambit,” Steed said. Emma shot him a crooked smile and pressed a light kiss to his lips.
“You sound like a true father. I’ll be back soon,” she said before striding away.
“She’s right you know,” Gambit said. “The John Steed who I knew by reputation would never avoid a party.”
“Well, old man, one says what’s deemed appropriate,” Steed chuckled, his light eyes flashing. Gambit raised one eyebrow, surprised at this seeming admission. Steed shrugged and sipped his champagne. “I do adore the lad. But a party, with good bubbly! One does need to keep one’s priorities straight!”
“I didn’t think you could lie to Emma.”
“She knew I was lying. That doesn’t count.”
“You really are an old fox, Steed.”
“Completely.” Emma lay on her back with her arms behind her head. Steed climbed into bed beside her and switched off the lamp. Their bedroom was illuminated with silvery moonlight that made her skin look blue. He rolled onto his side and pressed his palm to her flat belly, breathing in her lavender tainted scent. She pulled her arms out from behind her head and placed one hand over his, working the other arm in beneath his head. He did the same, pulling her into a cozy embrace.
“Happy Christmas, Mrs. Peel,” he whispered near her ear.
“Merry Christmas, Steed.”
“And happy anniversary, darling,” he added, allowing his lips to brush her cheek. She turned her face and pressed her lips to his. They were dry and warm, and as they parted her tongue slipped over them, caressing his as well as hers. He sighed at the tingle of her touch and responded with a damp, grasping kiss, his hands exploring the familiar contours of her body. He realized as he stroked her that where he was used to feeling soft curves he found bones, and he tried to recall if she had felt this way before the pregnancy. He thought so, and as she shifted against him, her own hands exploring the ropey muscles of his upper arms, he lost track of what he was trying to decide.
She slithered on top of him pressing kisses all over his face, then his throat, then his chest. She stopped to suck on first one hard nipple and then the other and he heaved beneath her, pressing his aroused genitals against her belly. He caressed her shoulders, capturing her hand as she moved further down his body, stroking her palm and the silky flesh of her wrist. She kissed the velvety soft skin of his stomach and rubbed her face in the coarser hairs further down. He held his breath as she licked his erect member, the moist trails she painted with her tongue on his flesh turning cool in the air. And then she engulfed him, sucking from root to tip, caressing the head of his manhood with her tongue.
He lifted up on his elbows to look at her. “Come here,” he said, his voice husky. “Let me taste you.”
She understood what he wanted. Her loins burned for his touch. She shifted around on hands and knees to straddle him, her knees on either side of his head, offering herself to him even as she licked him again with slow, mesmerizing strokes.
He imitated her, kissing her delicate, sensitive flesh just as she kissed him. He stroked and probed with his tongue and resorted to harder, sucking kisses when she took his entire length into her mouth. Senses filled with her tangy scent, body focused on the warm, soft feel of her mouth on his penis, he let himself drift blissfully along the edge of fulfillment. She emitted a shuddering moan as he opened her with his fingers and slid his tongue as deep as he could. Her lips vibrated on him, tingling up and down the length of his shaft. He sucked her, consuming her as she consumed him, taking as much as he gave as his loins erupted and hers flooded. He felt her swallowing as he thrust his hips upward into her eager mouth, and then he felt nothing but the blissful realization of their love. For a few brief moments they could be one, mutually sated, each completed by the other. She lay on top of him, her breath slowing, his heartbeat gradually returning to normal. She was so light he hardly noticed her until she slipped to one side and repositioned herself at his side. He turned his head to smile at her and found her back in the position she’d been in when he got into bed – hands behind her head, a contented smile on her face.
He rose up on one elbow and traced her mouth with one finger, then kissed it. The taste of their combined essences filled his senses once more and he went on kissing her, surprised at his own need. She wrapped her arms around him and he settled into the kiss, enjoying it more and more as his body began to respond. Finally pausing to breathe he looked into her shining eyes. He saw her love, so dear, so familiar, and on top of it a smoldering passion that sparked his own desire. But beneath it there was something dark, something wary and grim hiding in the depths. He hated the shadow it seemed to cast over her, realized that it had been growing there for weeks, unnoticed until now. Guilty for not seeing it, he wanted to draw it out and destroy it, to make her his joyful, perfect Emma once again.
“Emma,” he whispered, speaking to the darkness. But she smothered him with her mouth, closing her eyes as she covered his face with urgent kisses. And once again he was lost in her, lost in himself as his mind lost the battle to his libido. Hands and mouths everywhere, they spurred each other’s need with aggressive, even rough foreplay. And when their loins were raging once again, he rose above her and satisfied them both with deep, powerful thrusts. Her legs locked around his waist, fingers digging into his back, she wailed against his shoulder as her body writhed around his great, hard shaft. He reared up, driving his weight into her, his head thrown back, mouth open in a silent yell as he came, filling her emptiness in the best way he knew, the way she had always responded to. And deep inside of her he felt her response: powerful muscles contracting as his withering member slipped away from them. He basked in her heat, maintaining the connection of their bodies long after he’d slipped out of her. She sighed and stroked his back where she’d bruised him with her fingers.
“Lovely,” she murmured. Steed raised his head to smile into her eyes and saw no hint of the previous darkness. He pressed a kiss to her lips, then the tip of her nose, then moved off of her to lie on his back by her side.
“I wish you could stay longer,” Sally purred, her round, blue eyes sparkling. She couldn’t believe she was nearly in tears thinking about James’s imminent departure. It was totally inappropriate here in the office. I should have said good-bye this morning in his room. He stroked her back, holding her close against him and she stretched her arms up around his neck, giving in to the need for contact. They had made love that morning, but already her body was aching for him all over again. She knew that her nipples were standing at attention, and as his hand stroked down over her ass she felt the evidence of his arousal too. “Oh God, James,” she moaned, closing her eyes as she pressed her mouth to his. The tears spilled out, and he kissed them off of her cheeks.
“M wanted me yesterday,” he finally muttered, nuzzling her ear.
“But I wanted you more,” she giggled. He nipped her ear and pulled his face back to look at her.
“Still do, I think,” he said huskily. “I’ll call her. Tell her I’m tied up here.”
As he loosened his hold on her with one hand in order to reach for the telephone the office door opened bringing a gust of cooler air from the stairs and Tara, Robbie, and Pierre McCall. Sally instinctively pushed away from James, who flashed the intruders an annoyed look. Sally would never know whether he would really have called M — and whether she would have let him go through with it.
“A bit of inter-agency fraternization?” Tara asked archly as she crossed the outer office to her own office door. Following her, McCall looked completely surprised. At his feet on a slender lead, Pierre dug in his little toes and glared at Bond, one side of his narrow mouth caught between his teeth.
“Hello Bond,” Robbie said, extending a hand to the other man. James removed his hand from Sally’s waist and shook McCall’s. As their hands touched, Pierre erupted in a fit of barking, leaping toward James, then darting back as if he suddenly realized just how much bigger the man was.
“Pierre!” Tara snapped, standing in her office doorway. Pierre subsided to a low growl, his eyes riveted on James.
“I get the feeling he doesn’t like me,” James said good-naturedly. “Fortunately for him, I was just leaving. Sally,” he pulled her forcibly back into his arms for a final hug and a quick kiss. “I’ll phone you later.”
He let her go and headed for the door past Pierre’s frozen form. The little dog rotated as he passed, carefully lifting and setting down each of his little feet to maintain his fighting stance as he kept his eyes on James. James picked up his bag, which was by the door, cast a grin around the room at them all, and left. As soon as he was out of sight Pierre relaxed, plopping his butt down on the floor and opening his mouth to pant. Sally watched him, amazed.
“Sally, daily reports since I left?” Tara asked, slightly more harshly than she’d intended. Somehow the sight of the young agent in the arms of the infamous James Bond – in a relationship with him that had been going on now for more than a year – disturbed her. What is it that he sees in her?
“Here,” Sally said, picking up a stack of reports from her desk. “It has been very quiet,” she added as she handed them to her supervisor.
“So I saw,” Tara muttered. “When is Nelson due back?”
“This afternoon,” Sally replied, stolidly refusing to append a “ma’am” when she addressed Tara. The other agent didn’t seem to want it, and it was a habit Sally knew she needed to break.
Tara flipped through the reports, scanning the daily contact information, as was her habit. To Sally’s relief she didn’t pause on the report for Christmas Eve when the contact had been James. She did stop at the report from the previous day, which Sally had banged out while James met with a contact across town.
“I think you could use some fresh air,” Tara said, holding up the report. Sally nodded, remembering the request for a meet that had come in yesterday. It was a factory foreman who kept an eye on the mood of France’s laborers. It meant venturing out to one of the city’s least desirable industrial neighborhoods. Sally had hoped to fob it off on Nelson, since the foreman had asked to meet late this afternoon.
Knowing she was being punished for having James in the office, she took the report and turned to her desk in order to note the meeting information. Behind her Robbie dragged Pierre into Tara’s office and shut the door. A moment later she heard Tara’s brassy giggle from inside, and she felt color rising up her cheeks. The moment of intense desire had passed when Tara and Robbie came in, but the dull ache of longing was already resurging as she pictured James hailing a taxi and boarding the plane for London. And Tara thought it was funny.
“Can I beg a favor, darling?”
Emma looked up from the MOD contract she was reading at Steed, who was standing near the library door. It was Boxing Day and the Hills had left for home after breakfast Emma had retreated to the library to catch up on some reading prior to returning to the office tomorrow while Steed had disappeared into the gym for a couple hours of much needed exercise.
“No need to beg,” she replied with a smile. He strolled across the room to sit in one of the wingchairs across from the desk.
“Gambit had a less than useful meeting with someone the other day. I think the gentleman in question requires your touch – so to speak. He is, as Gambit describes him, an egghead who can’t see the real world.”
“A brilliant scientist, wrapped up in his work?” Emma asked, easily imagining that Gambit would find it difficult to make a connection with such a man.
“An inventor whose latest creation could have caused a series of murders.”
“No. A machine that creates industrial grade diamonds.”
Emma’s brows rose and Steed could see that she was rapidly thinking through the implications of such a device. Or perhaps imagining grisly deaths caused by it.
“Who has been murdered?” she asked.
“Doctor Barnes solicited financial backing from several people. Some of them have turned up dead recently.”
“Not killed literally by the machine, then?” she asked. Steed shook his head. “And this Doctor Barnes — or rather his machine — is the only thing they have in common?”
“Well, no, some of them have gone in together on other investments. But there’s more too it. Barnes tried to sell rights to his machine to LaRonde.”
“The diamond cartel,” Emma nodded. “That makes sense, on the surface. They have a tight hold on distribution of gem-quality diamonds. But were they interested? I don’t recall them being involved in industrial quality diamonds.”
Steed smiled, pleased that his wife was as well informed on this topic as so many others, although it hardly surprised him. “Apparently not. But after they turned him down, his backers began to die one-by-one.”
“No threats or messages associated with the deaths?”
“Not yet. But Barnes panicked – you can hardly blame him – and contacted an old schoolmate: Brigadier Nathan Smythe-Bailey. The Brigadier contacted us.”
“So you sent Mike to speak to Barnes, and he clammed up?”
“What did Mike hope to learn from Barnes?”
“His suspicions. Whether anything odd has happened to his machine, or his employees. And what, exactly, he told LaRonde.”
“And he came away with nothing?” Emma was surprised – Gambit could be quite charming and she’d expect him to get answers to at least a few questions.
“Not exactly. In fact,” Steed reached into his pocket and drew out a piece of paper. “You will have an opportunity for some background research in a few days.”
Emma inclined her head curiously and reached across the desk to take the paper. Of course he assumed that, since she was willing to help, she would do the background research too. And, of course, she would. She scanned the names and smiled.
“Interrogation between tricks?” she said.
“Well, since the opportunity is there . . .”
“I’d like to speak to Barnes first. Can you arrange it? Mrs. Emerson has my schedule for the next few days.”
“My people will talk to your people,” Steed chuckled, rising to lean across the desk and kiss her. “Thank you darling,” he said.
Emma watched him leave, then picked up the contract. After several months of research and estimation, bid preparation, and negotiations Knight Computing had won the Ministry of Defense’s contract to develop the software for their new counter-terrorism unit. Emma was immensely proud of the Knight software team that had worked long and hard on their proposal. She wished she could give all of them an extra paid vacation as a reward, but with the contract secured they now faced the prospect of several years of hard work building the software. Fortunately, the Knight software staff were to a man dedicated engineers with far less interest in leisure than in developing perfect computer code.
“So the military really is interested?” Dr. Charles Barnes looked at the business card Emma had presented. It identified her as a scientific consultant to the military’s procurement unit. Barnes had fit the mental picture she’d created for him – medium height, a bit paunchy, wearing poorly fitting clothes and a hairstyle that was fifteen years out of date. His eyeglasses had thick tortoiseshell frames and his hands were stained with what appeared to be ink. As he moved Emma noticed a fountain pen in his shirt pocket, as evidenced by a small round stain along the seam. She couldn’t help smiling, at his quirkiness and at herself for finding such men – the complete antithesis of Steed — so endearing. She supposed it was their non-threatening natures, but before she got lost along that train of thought she jumped back into the present situation.
“Very interested, Dr. Barnes,” she replied, pushing her glass-lensed black frame glasses up her nose. She had decided to go for bookish. Her tweed suit skirt was longer than was usual for her, but in her current post-baby condition she felt compelled to hide her too-thick thighs and knobby knees.
“It’s too bad you found me in town today, Miss Knight. Had you come out to the facility I would have demonstrated the device,” Barnes said. Their meeting, arranged by the ministry, was in a mid-level London restaurant.
“That would be a second step in my research, Dr. Barnes,” Emma explained, enjoying making it up as she went along, as usual.
“I see. I see. So what do you wish to accomplish today?” he asked, sounding as if he couldn’t imagine any purpose for meeting if they weren’t looking at his machine.
Emma cleared her throat and looked at a file she’d brought along for effect. She’d jotted a series of questions on a sheet of paper, just in case Barnes should get a look at it.
“My initial responsibility is to determine whether your claim of invention is valid, Dr. Barnes.”
“I have patents!” he sputtered, surprising Emma with his vehemence. She made a random check mark on her list.
“Yes, I will be reviewing your patent applications,” she said absently, noting his annoyed expression over the top of her file. She looked up with a comforting smile. “Not to worry, Dr. Barnes. I’m sure everything is in order. My larger concern is with who knows about your invention, beyond your immediate staff that is.”
“I have kept the project very quiet,” Barnes said, shifting in his chair and glancing up as the waiter refilled his water glass. Emma wondered where their entrees were, although she knew she could never finish the cod fillet she’d ordered.
“You began with a scientific grant, and you have investors, Dr. Barnes. And you have, according to my records, contacted other individuals about the machine.”
“Damned Cardiff,” Barnes snapped, staring at his hands folded in his lap. Then his eyes snapped back to Emma’s. “Yes. I have demonstrated the machine to several individuals. At the insistence of one of my investors.”
“A Mr. Jock Cardiff?” Emma asked, raising her glasses to look at Dr. Barnes directly. Just then the waiter appeared with their lunches, so she removed her glasses and tucked them along with her file into the top of her bag. When the rituals of adding fresh pepper and checking that beverages were adequate were complete, Emma repeated her question. “You mentioned Mr. Cardiff. Is he the one who insisted you demonstrate the machine to outsiders?”
Emma took a small bite of cod and watched Barnes add an alarming quantity of salt to his chop. “And were these men – I assume they were men – potential investors?”
“In a way,” Barnes said cagily, keeping his eyes on his food.
“Really Dr. Barnes, I’m not here as an adversary. I would very much like to see you make a deal with the military. I can only help if you’ll speak openly.”
Barnes took a deep breath and looked back up at her. She smiled.
“Jock Cardiff has been my largest financial supporter,” he said. “I owe him a great deal – certainly to license the device for as great a profit as possible in order to repay his investment.”
“Of course,” Emma encouraged him.
“He set it up. It told him I didn’t think they’d be interested, but he insisted.”
“Why were you skeptical?”
“They were all a part of LaRonde, the diamond cartel. They deal in mined gems, not industrial diamonds. And I was right, of course. They weren’t at all interested.”
“I see. But you did demonstrate your machine to them?”
“Yes. Cardiff insisted.”
“There’s another matter I must ask about, Dr. Barnes,” Emma said, trying to sound unenthusiastic.
“The murders,” Barnes said dully, as if he’d expected this all along.
“Yes, Dr. Barnes. Three of your investors have died in unusual circumstances in the last four months. Have these deaths occurred since you demonstrated the machine to the representatives from LaRonde?”
Emma watched in amazement as Barnes’s face slowly turned crimson. She wasn’t sure whether he was angry, surprised, or frightened. He set his fork down and took a gulp of water.
“After,” he whispered, and Emma realized that he had not previously considered the possibility of a connection between the deaths and LaRonde. She let him think about it, and thought about it herself. Something did not quite add up – something that should lead to a motive. If LaRonde didn’t deal with industrial diamonds, why would they want to kill off Barnes’s investors? And if they did think the machine was a threat to their industry, why didn’t they just acquire the machine and suppress it? Having people murdered was expensive, and if they were going to eliminate anyone, why not Barnes himself?
Realizing she couldn’t go over these puzzles with Barnes – he was skittish enough without her suggesting that he was in mortal danger, Emma steered the conversation back into the realm of science. Barnes grew more comfortable as she asked some detailed questions about how his machine worked. They finished lunch, Emma leaving most of hers tasted but unfinished, and parted with Emma promising to contact him again to arrange a demonstration.
“Anyone home?” Steed called out, striding down the hall toward the kitchen. He suspected that no matter how large a house they owned, all activity would focus on the kitchen.
“In here, Steed,” Emma called.
He stopped in the doorway, taking in the scene with growing unease.
“Hello darling,” Emma said, straightening up still holding a piece of cheese. Siobhan stood next to her holding John. At their feet, a short legged, long bodied, brown, white, and black hound stood staring up at the cheese in Emma’s hand.
Emma favored Steed with her most innocently solicitous look – the one that was perfectly calculated to win him over to her side of whatever argument she was about to make. He’d seen it before. Somehow, he knew, they had just acquired a dog.
“He was lost in the hedge maze, Mr. Steed,” Siobhan said with great amusement. Steed saw from Emma’s expression that she believed she’d met a fellow maze lover in canine form, although he thought the short-legged creature should have been able press through the lower branches and get out.
Emma crouched and fed the cheese to the dog, stroking his head and shoulders as she looked up at Steed.
“Mrs. Peel, I believe I once made my opinion of dogs in my abode quite clear,” he said as stiffly as he could. She grinned at him, looking as if she’d expected him to say just that.
“Sorry Steed, that won’t work this time. Cathy Gale told me that you had a dog.”
Steed grimaced, ruing the day he’d insisted that Emma have a long chat with his former partner. He crossed the kitchen and crouched beside Emma, reaching out to put his hands on either side of the dog’s head and lift it. He pulled folds of excess skin back and looked into brown eyes the same color as Emma’s. The dog finished chewing the cheese, swallowed, and let his jaws open, his tongue lolling out wetly. Steed let the loose skin fall back into place and studied the animal’s comically woeful expression.
“He bears a striking resemblance to old Brigadier Gilbert,” he said with a smile.
“Gilbert?” Emma repeated.
“Gilbert it is,” Siobhan said from above them.
Steed stood up, sighing as he watched Emma stroking the dog affectionately.
“He looks like a pure breed. He probably has owners looking for him,” he said hopefully.
Emma nodded, standing up. “I’ll put a notice in the local paper and in the shops in the village,” she agreed.
“But –,” Siobhan said, frowning from one to the other. Emma glanced at her and shook her head.
“Steed’s right, Siobhan. Someone out there may be very upset that Gilbert here isn’t home,” she said, glancing down at the dog then at Steed.
“Gilbert,” Steed said, knowing that she fully believed the dog would become a part of their family, notices or no.
“Have you met Sir Cavalier, Mr. Steed?” Mrs. Judith Samuels asked from her seat across Sir Terry Winchester’s elaborately set dinner table. Steed had expected the question when the conversation over appetizers had turned to the reclusive bridge master.
“No, I’m afraid not,” he replied, deciding not to add that he had visited the man’s remote house years ago. It would be too difficult to explain.
“He used to be quite the rake,” she said. “He won half his games by distracting the female players. I don’t suppose that would affect you, though, Mr. Steed. What sort of player are you?”
“A tricky one,” Steed favored her with his socially acceptable leer. “However, I’m not competing tomorrow. I’m here to provide moral support to my wife.”
Mrs. Samuels smiled. “How lovely of you. My Bertram wouldn’t be bothered – he’s taken our daughter to Switzerland to ski all weekend.”
“Sounds delightful. But I wouldn’t enjoy skiing without Emma. Perhaps when we’ve been married a few more years…”
“Then you haven’t been married long, Mr. Steed?”
“Just over a year,” Steed replied, glancing sidelong at Emma, who was engaged in conversation with their host on her left.
“Newlyweds!” Mrs. Samuels said with a charming smile. “I don’t envy you – getting to know one another’s habits,” her voice dropped to a conspiratorial level, “all the little things you hid from one another come out in the first year, don’t they?” She leaned toward him, the low neckline of her dress dragging down as her bosom compressed against he table. He kept his eyes on her elfin, wrinkled face.
“Indeed,” he replied with an equally conspiratory smile, half tempted to tell her that he and Emma had learned all those things years ago. As Mrs. Samuels straightened in her seat Steed felt Emma’s hand lightly cover his where it rested on the table next to his fork. He turned to look at her, but she was speaking to Sir Terry.
“They were a Christmas gift from my husband,” she said.
“Then you are a very lucky wife,” Sir Terry said, his eyes on her throat. “They are exquisite.”
Steed let one eyebrow rise in mock alarm, then smiled as if only then realizing that their host was referring to the diamond necklace he had given Emma for Christmas and their anniversary. When he’d handed her the elegantly wrapped box she’d commented rather archly about his combining the two events into one gift. But then she’d opened it and admitted that she would accept such a combined gift any time he cared to offer it. He hoped that he would be able to provide her with such riches for the rest of their lives. But it was reassuring to know that if he couldn’t she could afford to provide them for herself.
“Which is only right,” he said, taking her hand in his to squeeze it. She turned her head to smile at him. “Exquisite diamonds for an exquisite woman.”
Sir Terry raised his wine glass and nodded at them. “Eons ago they were lumps of coal. But this evening their sparkle is only bested by their owners’ eyes,” he said.
“Here, here,” Steed replied, joining him in his toast to Emma. Her cheeks reddened, which Steed found most alluring. She was accomplished at accepting compliments, but every now and then someone took her by surprise and the resulting blush was completely disarming.
“You are very knowledgeable about diamonds, aren’t you Sir Terry?” she asked, artfully shifting the focus from herself.
“Sometimes I think that I eat, breathe, and sleep them,” Sir Terry replied with a chuckle.
“I understand it’s an aggressive business.”
“If you’re out of the loop, so to speak,” he nodded. “Outsiders are not generally well received.”
“We are a very old consortium with a very well-established process of acquiring, cutting, and marketing gems, Mrs. Steed. We do not appreciate wildcards.”
“Like new sources of product?” Emma asked. Sir Terry’s expression, while not unfriendly, was decidedly cool. Emma went on to forestall an unpleasant response. “You must have negotiators practically following prospectors around South Africa negotiating terms when they locate a new lode.”
Sir Terry chuckled politely, but his eyes remained serious. “Something like that, yes,” he said.
“And if the gems turn out to be inferior? I assume you include clauses related to quality in your contracts. I’m only curious because I’ve just been reviewing a new contract between Knight Industries and the Ministry of Defense and they’ve inserted some rather specific new language about quality control.”
Sir Terry looked momentarily blank then he smiled indulgently. “Of course, Knight Industries is your company.”
Steed got the distinct impression that Sir Terry assumed that Emma’s involvement with Knight was as a figurehead. He would not be the first man to make that mistake.
“Yes. We do a great deal of business with the MOD. If we’re to see this sort of language in every agreement, I should like to study how it’s handled in other industries. For example, what if a mine turns out gems that can only be classified as – what do you call it? Industrial grade? Does your standard agreement exclude them completely, or do you purchase them on a different rate scale?”
Steed smiled as he watched Sir Terry’s surprise at her directness clash with his desire to maintain the pleasant social mood. Emma’s ability to cause extreme discomfort without letting her sweet smile falter was one of the things he loved about her the most. She was better at it than him, and he’d thought until he met her that he was the best.
“We do not deal in industrial grade diamonds,” Sir Terry said. “We regard them as a byproduct of the mining process. The mines sell them on the commodities market.”
“So they’re not part of your financial model,” Emma said thoughtfully then took a sip of her wine.
Sir Terry looked relieved when the door from the kitchen swung open and seemingly countless footmen began streaming in bearing covered silver dishes. Emma set her glass down and put her hand under the table to adjust her napkin, then stroked Steed’s thigh, her eyes on footmen as they revealed their dishes for Sir Terry’s inspection one-by-one.
“So General Barkan got his way, eh?” Steed said. He was behind the wheel of her Range Rover driving them home from dinner.
“Pardon?” Emma asked.
“He’s been carping for years about demanding more stringent quality control from vendors. It was assumed when he was promoted two years ago that he’d reform the standard contract.”
Emma smirked, tugging her fur coat tighter around herself. She had overridden Steed and insisted that they take the new car rather than the Bentley, which was positively frigid in the winter even with the top up.
“You might have mentioned it,” she grumbled. “We could have prepared countering language.”
“Is Knight having a problem with quality?”
“No. I just hate surprises.”
“You love surprises.”
“Not in business contracts.”
They returned to Sir Terry’s mansion the following afternoon, re-joining the numerous bridge players who had spent the night. Steed wished Emma luck, then joined the handful of other spouses and guests, who paired up to play a few friendly rubbers of bridge while the real competitors settled in for battle.
As the tournament went on and inferior players were eliminated, the spectator party grew more jovial. Steed kept half an eye on Emma as she moved from table to table and partner to partner. She was playing very well – he could tell from the comments made by her vanquished opponents.
By early evening only four players remained. Emma was partnered with Willy MacHugh, an eminent mathematician and old friend. He was elderly and charming and convinced that his bushy white sideburns were a tremendous asset to his appearance. He always flirted with Emma, and she always flirted back, and they chuckled at one another between hands. He was ranked just above her, but they both knew she would overtake him within the year, assuming they both kept playing at the level they were now. As the last game began they faced Sir Terry, who was ranked fourth in Britain, and his partner Lady Jane Garth, a millionaire widow ranked second after the reclusive Sir Cavalier.
The first few hands went quickly with each of the players assessing the others and the partners working out their communications. In this Emma and Willy had an advantage, having played together countless times in the past. Sir Terry played very much “by the book,” using his card play to signal to his partner and rarely looking across the table to see Lady Jane’s emotive facial expressions. Lady Jane grew increasingly impatient at his seeming inattention, but she also played perfectly.
As the last rubber began the two teams were tied. Many of the spectators had drifted back into the ballroom where the games were played to watch, creating the atmosphere of a high stakes casino. Steed sipped a very dry gin martini and watched Emma. He knew she was anticipating at least three plays ahead. He wondered if her whirling brain was generating palpable heat as she calculated complex odds to predict further out than that. He knew she was feeling quite challenged, but she looked as calm now as she had when she’d dispatched her first few opponents.
Late in a game a man in a poorly cut suit pressed through the spectators and paused to watch Sir Terry play a card and collect a trick. He looked decidedly out of place amid the well-dressed and groomed players and guests. Steed suspected that the man had no idea that a suit – especially a rumpled one like he was wearing – was not enough to fit in to this level of society. As Emma began her turn the man stepped over to the table and whispered in Sir Terry’s ear. Sir Terry frowned, then nodded curtly, his eyes following Emma’s hand as she played her card. Then he whispered something back and the man moved away. Steed backed through the spectators and out into the hall to see the man step out of the ballroom through another door and enter Sir Terry’s study across the hall.
Steed had just worked his way back to where he could see the players when the spectators all emitted a quiet “oh!”
Looking at the table Steed saw the Sir Terry had played a card that lost the current trick. From his position he could see that the proper card was in his hand. It was a serious error. And as the game went on Sir Terry made several more bad plays. Steed could see Emma barely containing her delight as that game and the next – the final one – went to her and Willy. For her part, Lady Jane looked livid.
As the game and tournament ended, the spectators moved in to congratulate Emma and Willy. Lady Jane regained her composure and accepted condolences. Sir Terry rose and pressed through the crowd, nodding acknowledgement of a few “bad luck, old man” and “well played anyway” comments. Steed caught Emma’s eye with a smile, then followed Sir Terry.
The study door was not shut tight. Steed stood in the hall to one side catching bits of the conversation inside.
“—not to do it. I sent Harris this morning!”
“I never saw Harris. I had to leave at dawn to get it done. Now it is and you owe me –.”
“Damn it! This is the wrong time! –.” Sir Terry’s voice grew louder and the door slammed.
Steed drifted away from it to a small table in the hall supporting a very conveniently placed telephone. He picked up the receiver and dialed.
“Steed here. I need a report on Dr. Charles Barnes’ investors – have any reported an incident today?” Steed waited, slowly turning to glance at the study door. “I see. Yes please check. No,” he looked at his wristwatch, “I’ll call back. In thirty minutes. Right.”
He replaced the receiver just as Emma appeared in the doorway to the ballroom across the hall. She was holding two glasses of champagne.
“Congratulations, Mrs. Peel. This ought to take you up in the ranks a bit,” Steed said, touching his glass to hers before sipping.
“A few notches,” she agreed, her eyes sparkling. It pleased him to see her so happy.
“I think I’ll need to be going momentarily,” he said quietly. “Can you manage on your own?”
She nodded, surveying the other guests milling around the hall while the card tables were being removed from the ballroom and parlor. A light supper was to be served shortly. He knew she was disappointed, but she would never complain. “I’m sure I can find some willing gentleman to drive me home,” she said archly, then her eyes flicked back to his and he saw that they were full of mirth. She understood. He forced a pained expression, knowing that she would, in fact, charm some fellow into driving her. She would never give the man any hint of inappropriate behavior, but he would hope nonetheless.
The study door opened and Sir Terry came out, walking right past Steed and Emma, his normally amiable expression darkened by obvious displeasure. The other man came after him, turning left immediately toward the front door. Steed handed Emma his half-full glass, arched one eyebrow in farewell, and followed him.
Steed smiled devilishly as he pulled into a parking space a few cars back from the battered Austin he’d followed from Winchester’s house. His target got out of his car and slammed the door, then entered the pub on the corner.
Steed loosened his tie and ran his hands through his hair to muss it up. Leaving his bowler on the passenger seat and pocketing his keys, he hopped over the door and reached back to zip up the driver’s half of the tonneau cover just in case the cold, clear night turned wet.
He pushed through the door into the pub and paused to look around. He spotted his mark at the bar already gripping a pint with both hands, but he let his gaze continue around the pub until he spotted a door in a dark corner labeled “toilets” and “public telephone.”
He made for it in a loose-limbed gate that suggested drunkenness. A few minutes later he came back out and slouched onto a stool near his mark. He ordered a pint of ale and raised it to the other man with a friendly nod before taking a long gulp.
“Ah, that’s better,” he said mostly to himself, but loud enough for the other man to hear. He flashed him his most innocent, friendly smile and took another sip, looking at the man’s glass.
“You’re nearly done there – can I buy you nother?” he asked.
The man looked into his half-full glass and gave Steed a puzzled look.
“Hate to drink alone, you see,” Steed added, nodding encouragement, then without waiting for a response he waved at the barman and ordered the man another pint.
“Thanks,” the man said hesitantly as the fresh drink was set in front of him. Steed slapped a few pounds on the bar. The barman scooped them up with practiced efficiency.
“Steed,” Steed introduced himself. “John Steed.”
“Hamish Brown,” the man replied. “Thanks again. But let me get the next round, eh?”
“Ho ho!” Steed chortled, slapping the bar with his open palm. “That’s a fair deal!”
Steed soon learned that Mr. Brown regarded himself as a “handyman” who took care of delicate tasks for various employers. Steed implied that he was in a similar line of work, through knowing looks and carefully chosen words suggesting that he understood it’s true nature. At the fourth round Steed suggested whiskey instead of beer and Brown readily agreed, his eyes glinting as Steed opened his wallet to reveal a thick stack of bills.
At Steed’s gentle urging Brown began to unburden himself through two more rounds. He had, he explained, done a job for his best employer today, only to find out too late that the man had tried to call it off.
“So now you have to undo what’s done, eh?” Steed asked. Brown shook his head and stared into his glass. Then he lifted it and gulped down the whiskey. Steed waved to the barman to refill it.
“Can’t,” Brown muttered, watching the amber liquid flow into the glass.
“No?” Steed coaxed. “Surely you can do something to correct what’s been done.”
“Can’t bring ‘em back,” Brown muttered, shaking his head. Then his head snapped up. He stared into Steed’s sympathetic eyes. For a moment Steed feared that he’d sobered. “I did him like I was told. And I didn’t take a thing because of the payment. But now he won’t pay and I’m empty handed. Damn Winchester!” Brown slapped the bar with his open palm.
“That’s your boss?” Steed asked mildly.
“Shir Terry Bloody Wincheshter,” Brown slurred, his true contempt for the man finally coming out as the alcohol dulled his inhibitions. “Heard of ‘im?”
Steed realized that despite his tremendous capacity, the drink was beginning to have an effect on him too – his face had registered recognition.
“Rich bloke, ain’t ‘e?” he asked with a shrug, breaking eye contact to take a gulp from his glass. It was getting harder not to grimace – it was very bad whiskey.
“Rich, nasty, getting richer, and stealing from me. He owes me!” Brown slapped the bar again, drawing a displeased look from the barman.
“He’s paid you before, right?” Steed asked. “You’ve got a working relationship.”
“Three times in the last six months,” Brown grumbled. “He asked, I did it – taking all the risks on myself. He’s got a hell of a nerve with ‘is ‘I sent Harris to tell you not to do it’ today.’”
“Three?” Steed whistled in appreciation.
“Damn right. I’m good and he knows it. Hell of a nerve.”
Steed reached over and covered the man’s hand before he could lift it to slap the bar again.
“Hell of a nerve indeed,” he said supportively. Brown sighed and leaned heavily on the bar on both elbows. Steed took another note from his wallet and laid it on the bar.
“Have another round on me, Hamish,” he said. “I’m off to face the light of my life. She’s likely to be the death of me.”
“Thanks friend,” Brown said, not looking up from his glass on the bar.
Steed got to his feet and stood still until his head stopped spinning. She will kill me, he thought fuzzily.
Emma settled on Willy MacHugh, her bridge partner, to solicit a ride from. He lived not far from the Steed flat in Stable Mews. Emma had not for a moment considered asking someone to drive her all the way out to the country. As soon as Steed left she’d telephoned Siobhan and received reassurance the John was perfectly fine, and although he certainly missed his parents, he was already asleep.
Willy dropped her outside Steed’s old flat, pressing a kiss on her hand before bidding her good night and watching to be sure she got safely inside. Emma found evidence of Steed’s recent presence in the flat – a dry glass on the rack by the sink and cold ashes in the fireplace. He had cut back Mrs. Alden, his housekeeper, to every two weeks, and there wasn’t a chance Steed would tidy the hearth himself.
Emma climbed the spiral staircase and undressed. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, then scrubbed the makeup off of her face before slipping naked into bed. She had thought she had a nightgown here, but she couldn’t find it. No matter that they were married and had a shared home, this was still Steed’s apartment, and her presence here was more as a guest than a regular inhabitant. Still in unusually good spirits from her victory in the tournament – although she believed it had only happened because Sir Terry had been distracted at the end – she drifted into a restful, dreamless sleep.
And awakened some hours later to the sound of heavy footsteps downstairs. She slipped out of bed, realized she was naked, and put on the nearest garment – Steed’s silk dressing gown from the back of the door. The footsteps were on the stair as she opened the top drawer of the dresser and removed a small revolver. She knew it was loaded, and as she inched toward the door she took off the safety. She held it ready as the bedroom door swung open, and continued to hold it as she studied her husband’s rumpled form in the dim light.
He looked from the gun to her face, his impish grin more disarming than a physical assault could ever be.
“You’re drunk,” she said, putting on the safety and returning the gun to the dresser drawer.
“Only a little,” Steed replied, stepping into the bedroom as he removed his already loosened tie. Emma switched on a lamp and studied him again. His hair was a mess, his suit wrinkled, and he smelled like a brewery. “’scuse me, darling,” he said, pressing the tie into her hand as he walked unsteadily toward the bathroom, “gotta’ piss like a racehorse.”
Grimacing at his uncharacteristic crassness, Emma unknotted his tie and laid it on the dresser and then followed him. He stood swaying, missing the toilet about half of the time as he did, indeed, do a grand imitation of a racehorse.
“You didn’t get far,” he said, turning his head to look at her, completely undisturbed by her presence in the bathroom. As he spoke his stream veered toward the bidet.
She nodded downward and he looked back, adjusting his aim.
“Oops,” he said absently.
“I couldn’t ask someone to drive me all the way out to the house,” she said, stepping closer to him as he finished and reached down to flush.
“And you suspected I’d come here,” he added with an innocent smile.
She smiled back, admitting to herself and him that he was right.
“Come on,” she said, reaching for his jacket. “You need a shower.”
“Positively. And even then you’ll be miserable in the morning.”
He submitted to her undressing, obligingly stepping out of his trousers, shoes, and pants when she tapped his calves like a pony whose hooves she wanted to clean. His clothes bundled in her arms, she leaned past him to turn on the water in the shower.
“Go on,” she nodded toward it. He didn’t hesitate, but stepped in and, as she started to move away, dragged her by the arm in with him. “Steed!” she yelped as the cool water hit her in the face. He pulled the bundle of now damp clothes out of her arms and tossed them outside the shower, then shut the glass door.
“Your dressing gown is going to be ruined,” she said, trying to ignore the stimulating effect of his hands on her flesh.
“Take it off,” he muttered, suiting action to words. It fell around her feet in a sodden heap and Steed ran his hands over her naked body with unabashed pleasure.
“You’re not as drunk as you look,” she said, ignoring the impulse to resist him. She was his wife, after all, and oath-bound to serve his needs, even when he behaved like a scoundrel – which was rarely, after all. Besides, his touch combined with the tingle of cool water had already aroused her. He pressed her against the cold tile wall, one hand wrapped around her squeezing her ass, the other pressing between her legs. His mouth covered hers, his tongue probing. She kissed back, greedily taking all he offered, inflamed by his aggression. She lifted one leg, rubbing the inside of her thigh on the outside of his, opening herself to his fingers. He stroked her to streaming wetness.
Drunk or not, his body was fully engaged. His rock-hard erection pressed into her belly. As she shivered at the sensation of his fingers on her clitoris he lifted her with his other hand, using his body to hold her against the wall as he guided himself into her. Then he wrapped his arm around her raised thigh, nestling it against his waist as he thrust deeper.
Water streamed into her mouth as she gasped at the intensity of his movements. They were not strangers to sudden, animal need, but it was almost always mutual. This time, though aroused, Emma felt like she was watching from the outside as Steed took his pleasure on her, selfishly relieving pent up stress, uncaring that the tile was cold and her raised leg was cramping. And why not? He risked his life tonight, most likely. I own him everything. He has every right to use me.
He came with a loud, satisfied growl, his loins pulsing over and over again until he pressed his forehead to the cold tile beside her head and let her slip the few inches down so that her feet touched the floor. She held him, her face tucked against his neck to shelter from the shower’s spray. He drew her away from the wall with arms wrapped possessively around her, lifting his own head to drown it in the water. She pulled away from him and forced him to turn so that the water ran down his chest and belly and rinsed his limp, spent genitals. Then he shifted her in under the spray to perform the same cleansing. She leaned her head back on his shoulder as he ran his hands over her body again, this time to wash away the evidence of his brutish behavior.
Steed’s stomach lurched as the bed shifted. He opened his eyes a slit, then more when he discovered that the room was still safely dark. Emma was fully dressed and sitting on the bed by his legs holding a glass filled with an unappetizing looking substance.
“I’ve made you your auntie’s remedy,” she said. He carefully pulled himself up in the bed, ignoring the pounding in his head, and reached for the glass.
“Thank you,” he whispered, putting it to his lips. His stomach lurched again and he lowered it untouched. “Maybe in a few minutes,” he added.
Emma’s smile was sympathetic. “Did you at least learn something from him, while you were drinking him under the table?” she asked, speaking very softly. Steed stared at her, then managed a wan smile. Of course she could guess what had happened last night.
“Yes,” he said. “Although I can’t think about it right now.”
“Umm. Association,” she said sagely. He frowned and tried raising the glass again. “Thinking about what he told you reminds you of drinking – which you most certainly do not want to think about just now. Go ahead. Try holding your nose,” she nodded at him, looking at the glass that he was holding near his lips. He reached up and pinched his nostrils shut with the other hand and took a big gulp of the restorative mixture.
They both waited, Emma looking concerned, Steed concentrating on keeping the substance down. After a few seconds he took a deep breath, followed by another gulp. Emma smiled.
“If you’re going to survive, then I’d better get going. I’ll be at the office this morning – will you come pick me up later?”
“You have great faith in my recuperative capabilities, Mrs. Peel.”
“I have great experience of them, darling,” she said, standing up.
“I’ll pick you up at noon. We’ll have lunch – oh Lord,” he shut his eyes as the thought of food brought on a wave of nausea. Emma waited. “That is,” he went on, “if I can find the car.”
“I wondered if you drove here last night,” she said.
“No. I took a taxi. But now I have to remember just where I took it from. That’s where the old girl is parked.”
Emma paused at the top of the steps that lead from the Knight Industries headquarters building to the sidewalk. Reaching up to settle a stray lock of hair behind her ear she smiled down at the big green Bentley and the figure leaning against her.
“So will you meet with someone from Vallis, Miss Knight?” Tasha Grant, a recently promoted Knight vice president asked. She had followed Emma into the lift and out the doors, ignoring the rather expressive warning looks from her peers. Giving her full marks for bravery, and deciding to reward it, Emma glanced at the woman and nodded curtly.
“Arrange it with Mrs. Emerson, Miss Grant,” she said, looking back at Steed, who was watching.
“Thank you Miss Knight. I’m certain you’ll agree that they have a great deal to offer us, after you’ve spoken to them,” Miss Grant said, following Emma’s gaze. “Is that Mr. Steed?” she asked.
Too far, Emma thought. “Thank you, Miss Grant, Happy New Year,” she said rather sharply. Edmond is going to be livid with me for agreeing to the meeting.
Leaving her employee looking surprised and wounded, she descended to the sidewalk, noting without surprise that Steed had undergone a transformation since the morning.
“What did you do to her?” he asked when she was close enough to speak quietly.
“Has she gone back in?” Emma asked, not looking back.
“She is just now,” he said, his gaze seemingly focused on Emma. “She did make a point of watching our greeting. Is that why you’re being so standoffish?”
“I’m not being standoffish, Steed. But this is a public street in front of my building. Open the door and when we’re in the car I’ll consider a more friendly greeting.” He winced, although her tone had been pleasant, and opened the passenger door for her. When he’d gone around and climbed in behind the wheel, Emma slipped a hand along the back of his neck and pulled him to her for a quick kiss.
“Better?” she asked playfully.
“Most assuredly,” he agreed. “I never have gotten used to Emma Knight, leader of industry.”
She took another long look at him and smiled as he started the car.
“What are you smiling at?” he asked, easing into traffic.
“You’ve had a haircut, and your hands look lovely,” she said “Better than mine, I dare say.” She held up her own hands with their slightly chipped polish and ragged cuticles.
“A bit of grooming goes a long way toward recovery,” he said lightly, confirming her suspicions. But if he’d spent a couple hours in some exclusive men’s salon, she was sure he’d also spent a couple making notes on whatever he’d learned the previous evening.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“I was hoping you’d join me for a drive in the country, Mrs. Peel,” he replied, his tone and the use of her old name confirming her suspicion: they were going to work.
“I can spare the afternoon – but I want to spend New Year’s eve with our son, if you don’t mind.”
“I would only mind if you excluded me. This will only take a few hours, and then we can go home. I spoke to Siobhan a little while ago, John is fine.”
“Yes, I know,” she said with a sly smile. “And just what is ‘this’ that will only take a few hours?”
As he navigated the Bentley out of central London Steed explained that Brigadier Nathan Smythe-Bailey, Dr. Barnes’s friend in the Ministry of Defense had contacted him that morning. The MOD really was interested in licensing the diamond machine, and Smythe-Bailey had asked Steed to see a demonstration, to have the ministry confirm that the machine was genuine. If Steed was satisfied, the Brigadier would set up further demonstrations for top brass. Emma coming along would validate Steed’s story, since she’d already presented herself to Barnes as a military consultant.
“Here it is, Mr. Steed, Miss Knight,” Dr. Barnes said as he guided them into a large room in his research facility. Their footsteps sounded hollowly on the pale linoleum floor. Half of the space was occupied by the machine, which featured a large chamber made of something transparent book-ended by hulking devices shrouded in steel panels. Each of the two devices had an array of gauges and lights on the front surface. A control panel stood separate from the machine positioned in the center of the room so that the operator could look into the chamber.
Emma nodded appreciatively at the device and its room.
“Clean environment, all cabling under the floor,” she said as if ticking off a mental list. Dr. Barnes fairly glowed under her indirect praise. Steed stepped up to the chamber and peered in through what seemed to be six-inch thick glass.
“So this is where it happens?” he asked, pressing his nose to the glass and shading his eyes. Dr. Barnes hurried over, gently drawing Steed away from the device. Steed skewered him with an expectant look. The doctor looked slightly alarmed, then focused his attention of the person he saw as more of an ally – Emma.
“Early prototypes had a steel chamber,” he said. “But in order to demonstrate the machine’s function I believe it is better to allow the world to see the process in action. The thick, transparent material is not glass, but a new formulation of Plexiglas developed for the American space program. At this density it could withstand an atom bomb blast.”
Seeing Steed’s alarmed expression the doctor paused, momentarily at a loss for words. Emma stepped in.
“But it doesn’t need to withstand anything that extreme, does it Doctor?” she asked.
“No! No of course not,” Barnes replied with a relieved sigh. “I believe in excessive security where laboratory workers are concerned. A production model of this device could be built with thinner Plexiglas or with steel. In any case, the chamber must be extremely strong because of the pressure that is slowly built up inside. The process is hardly, well, explosive.”
“I see,” Steed said skeptically. Emma smirked at him. She knew he’d read all about the process already. “So what’s all that black dust in there?” Steed asked, peering into the chamber again. “Looks like the inside of my chimney.”
Dr. Barnes pulled him away again just as gently. “Carbon, Mr. Steed. The building block of diamonds.” Barnes looked toward Emma, “My machine cannot create gem quality diamonds of the sort that would be suitable to adorn one as lovely as you, Miss Knight,” he went on. As Steed’s brows arched behind the doctor’s back, Emma smiled sweetly, giving every impression of being genuinely flattered. “No, only mother nature can achieve such brilliance,” Barnes went on wistfully. Then he turned to the control panel of his machine. “My machine uses an electromagnetic field to excite carbon molecules into bonding, and applies tremendous pressure to solidify that bond into the gem diamond’s poor cousin. The hardest substance on earth, suitable for cutting and grinding and many other industrial purposes, but too discolored and flawed to be used in jewelry.”
“Fascinating,” Steed said. “All from the dust on my hearth!”
Barnes forced a chuckle and studied the settings on the control panel.
“Shall I start the machine?” he asked, hand poised over one of several switches.
“By all means!” Steed replied.
Out of habit Steed and Emma both watched the sequence of switches and dial settings that Barnes used. The devices on either side of the chamber rumbled to life, the lights on their fronts blinking in seemingly random patterns. The noise was deafening, and as it increased Dr. Barnes motioned them toward the door.
Outside the sound was significantly dampened. “We can put on headphones to visit it during the process,” he explained. “But it will take ninety minutes for the first diamonds to form. My wife has prepared lunch in our apartment – will you join us?”
“Delighted!” Emma said, gesturing for the scientist to lead them.
“Ninety minutes for him, ninety thousand years for nature,” Steed muttered into her ear as they walked.
“Does that bother you, Steed?”
“I find it most disturbing,” he agreed. Emma smiled indulgently.
Mrs. Barnes greeted them in the dining room of the scientist’s on-site apartment. She was the antithesis of her husband – tall, shapely, and blonde with a ready smile and lively eyes. And she doted on her husband. She served them a fresh, albeit ordinary chicken salad with iced tea and fresh baked rolls popped out of a tube. While they ate Dr. Barnes talked about the evolution of his idea and the machine. He didn’t tell them anything that they hadn’t read in the background files, but his version brought the cold science to life for Steed.
When they finished Dr. Barnes guided them back into the lab and handed them ear guards before opening the door to the room where the machine was growling away.
The carbon dust still swirled in the chamber, but on the floor they could see a few larger dark objects. Dr. Barnes went to the control panel to shut down the machine, then stood in front of the chamber waiting for the dust to settle.
“Are those –?” Emma began to ask as he opened several latches and swung the front of the chamber open.
“Diamonds? Yes they are. Uncut, of course. Not that industrial diamonds are cut in the same way as gem diamonds.” He bent to pick up the three dark objects on the floor of the chamber and wiped them off with a handkerchief already stained with dark dust.
He handed them to Emma with a shy smile. She examined them, but had to admit to herself that she could not identify them as anything other than lumps of coal.
“We’ll need to have these tested, Dr. Barnes,” she said matter-of-factly, ignoring the slight lift of Steed’s eyebrows. Dr. Barnes plunged his hands into the pockets of his lab coat and nodded, eyes on the diamonds.
“As you wish Miss Knight. I have had them certified by more than one lab, however.”
“Yes of course. But the MOD, you know,” she let her voice trail off, looking toward Steed. He snapped into role, nodding vigorously.
“Indeed. Everything in triplicate, you know Dr. Barnes. Well, we’ll get out of your hair now. Someone will be in touch to negotiate terms.”
“Oh? Oh! Thank you Mr. Steed. Miss Knight. I’ll show you out –.”
“No need,” Steed assured him, gesturing at Emma to precede him.
“Good day, Dr. Barnes,” she said, then headed down the corridor toward the front door of the facility. Steed followed her with a farewell nod to the flustered inventor.
“Observations, Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked when they were back in the car.
“Mrs. Barnes certainly was a surprise,” Emma replied, casting Steed a sly look. He shot her an annoyed frown and returned his eyes to the road.
“Would Barnes’s machine bother LaRonde?”
“It could certainly disrupt the industrial diamond market by increasing supply,” she said thoughtfully. When she didn’t go on Steed looked over at her. He could see the wheels in her head turning.
“What?” he asked.
She gave him her sly look again. “I’m thinking of having Harry get familiar with the industrial diamond futures market.”
“But when the market drops –.”
“There are ways to make money on any trend if you can predict it,” she instructed him. He grinned.
“And aside from your possible personal gain, what do you think about Barnes’s device?”
“If I were dependent on South African diamond mines for my fortunes, I’d be concerned that eventually Barnes could perfect his device to make gem quality stones. In that context LaRonde might very well be concerned.”
“Why, then didn’t they simply license the device and suppress it? And if they’re behind the murders, why Barnes’s investors? Why not Barnes himself?”
“I hate to say this Steed, but I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Steed nodded thoughtfully and they rode on in silence for a few minutes.
“Say, what did happen to you last night, anyway?”
“I bought a killer several rounds of drinks.”
“Charming. Who did he kill?”
“Cyril Chapman. The last of Barnes’s investors, except for Jock Cardiff.”
“Siobhan, have you seen Gilbert? I’ve got John on the floor in here,” Emma called, smiling down at John’s happy grin as he tried to catch the rattle she was holding above him.
“He’s asleep in the kitchen by the Aga,” the nanny replied from the corridor. Gilbert the basset hound had gone unclaimed for a week, and during that time he’d insinuated himself into the family with one exception. They had no idea how he would behave with John, so they had kept them apart.
“I think he’s exhausted – I saw him chasing a rabbit through the snow in the garden earlier. I’ll be back in about an hour – is everything on the list?”
“Should be. But if you think of anything else, get it,” Emma replied.
She listened to the girl’s footsteps in the corridor and the front door creaking opened and closed. She loved these times when she took charge of John. She wasn’t fooling herself – she knew that they couldn’t get along without Siobhan. But since she’d stopped nursing, spending time alone with John had become even more important to her. She suspected that Siobhan knew that. Or maybe she offered to go to the market and run other errands just because she needed a break.
Emma giggled merrily with John, who had just discovered the pictures painted on the beautiful rattle that had been sent by her aunt from Japan. She felt a pang of annoyance at the sound of the telephone ringing.
“Wait here,” she told her son, standing up and watching him over her shoulder as she went out into the hall to the nearest extension. John remained on his back shaking the rattle clutched in his hand.
“Steed residence,” she answered, carrying the receiver back to the sitting room doorway so that she could watch John.
“This is Jeffrey Miles at the lab. Mrs. Steed?”
“Yes Jeffrey,” Emma replied.
“I have the report on those diamond samples you dropped off.”
“Oh good. What did you find?”
“Three moderate quality white diamonds. One is flawed, but the other two are quite good. They aren’t very big, mind you.”
Emma frowned, reaching up to drag her hair back away from her face.
“I don’t understand, Jeffrey. The samples were industrial diamonds – I didn’t think flaws or color were a factor – just hardness.”
“Mrs. Steed, the three rocks you dropped off two days ago are gem quality diamonds, not industrial.”
“I can’t believe it,” Emma said, pressing her hand to her forehead as if to contain the revelation.
“I have the complete report here – I can read you the details if you need them right away.”
“I’m sorry Jeffrey, this is completely unexpected. I’ll have to come by for the report tomorrow,” Emma said, trying desperately to remember if Dr. Barnes had said he’d given samples to the members of LaRonde who’d seen the machine.
“That’s fine Mrs. Steed. I could have it delivered to Mr. Steed’s office if that would be more convenient,” Jeffrey said. Emma forced herself to think about what he had said.
“Yes, that would be better,” she said after a moment. “I’ll tell him to look for it.”
“Will do Mrs. Steed. Good afternoon.”
“Good afternoon Jeffrey,” Emma replied, still trying to absorb the news. She replaced the receiver and stepped back to the sitting room doorway. She gasped and clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle the cry that rose in her throat.
John lay where she had left him, but in place of the rattle he had a firm grip on both of Gilbert’s long ears. The dog was licking John’s face, making the baby giggle wildly.
Emma walked slowly toward the pair, afraid to move too quickly for fear of startling Gilbert. Her heart raced at the sight of his shining yellow teeth so near the baby’s face. Oh God don’t let him hurt John.
She crouched beside them and Gilbert rolled his bloodshot eyes up at her. He pulled in his tongue and closed his mouth, giving her a pleading look that so clearly begged her to make the baby let go of his ears she had to laugh.
With great relief she took John’s hands in hers and gently extracted Gilbert’s ears from them. The dog wisely backed out of the baby’s range, and then laid down. He lowered his jowly muzzle and rested it on his front paws, eyes never leaving John.
Emma reached over and stroked his soft head and scratched behind his ears, her heart slowing to normal as she absorbed the good news that the dog could be trusted with the baby.
Beside her John’s little voice turned from giggle to wail as he realized his new friend had gone. Emma gathered him into her arms for a cuddle under Gilbert’s watchful gaze.
Steed was exhausted. In the week since New Years it seemed as if every dignitary in England had hired new staff whose background checks turned up anomalies that required field agents to investigate. They were also all planning junkets to dangerous locales that needed to be approved, and, most disturbingly, mislaying secret documents that had to be recovered. Steed wanted to believe Mother was just being vindictive over his expense report from the forgery case last fall, putting him in charge of several projects where the legwork was being handled by other agents.
But he knew that wasn’t really it. Ever so slowly he was being edged toward an administrative role – possibly as Mother’s replacement. And while he would have kicked up a fuss about it as recently as a year ago, the events in Italy had brought his situation into sharp focus: His rash lifestyle had been honed during his years as a lone operator, but he was no longer alone, and he no longer needed life-threatening danger in order to feel alive. He only need look into his son’s innocent eyes, or Emma’s smoldering gaze, to know that his life was valuable to both of them, and that made it valuable to himself.
So he managed the other agents, sending them in where he felt that he should go, frequently amazed at their willingness to place themselves in danger on his order. And he spent far more time and energy overseeing their movements and worrying about them than he ever did when he was the man on the front lines.
Tonight he had closed the files and locked his office at half past eight, and come home hoping to find a bite to eat, play with his son, and cuddle with his wife. He’d found Siobhan with John in the kitchen and accomplished his second desire first. Little John giggled and squirmed as Steed tickled him and blew noisy raspberries against his soft tummy. But gradually Steed’s own tummy asserted itself and he tucked little John into the crook of his arm, a position the boy was rapidly growing too large for, and went to the refrigerator.
“Siobhan, why do we have all this infant formula?” he asked taking out one of a half dozen cans. John reached for it, seeming to recognize it. The nanny’s unconcerned expression concealed something else. Steed thought it might be contrition.
“Mrs. Steed has been having trouble meeting little John’s needs,” she said. “It happens quite often. He’s thriving on the formula.”
Steed replaced the formula in the refrigerator and shut the door. He looked down at John’s round, pink cheeks and sweet little nose and pictured Emma as she’d looked that morning. The skin below her high cheekbones had been sunken and sallow, and her shoulder as she lay on her side had stuck up in a bony point. Then he thought of his sister’s words at the christening lunch.
“Where is Mrs. Steed?” he asked, handing John to the nanny.
“Down in the gymnasium,” she replied, her concern finally showing as she adjusted John in her arms.
Steed felt his nostrils flare as he nodded curtly and turned on his heel toward the basement stairs.
He stood in the doorway of the basement room that they’d finished as a gym. Emma was lying on the padded bench beneath the barbell loaded with nearly six stone. As he watched she slowly lifted it off of the rack and extended her arms. He suppressed a gasp as he saw the bones of her forearms clearly within the sleeves of her black leotard. He quietly crossed the room, reaching her just as she finished three repetitions and set the barbell back on the rack. Her arms were shaking.
Steed put his hand on the barbell.
“You shouldn’t lift without a spotter,” he said as casually as he could. The truth was, the sight of her lifting so much weight with such thin arms had given him a terrible fright. As he looked down at her he counted her ribs, realizing that her breasts were barely more than a band of smooth flesh above them.
“When did you get home?” she asked, slipping out from under the barbell in order to sit up. When she swung both her legs to one side he sat down on the end of the bench beside her.
“Not long ago. I saw John in the kitchen. He wanted to talk.”
Emma smiled at him, the corners of her eyes wrinkling with amusement. But her face was drawn, her eyes lackluster. He stood up abruptly and held his hand out to her. She shot him a puzzled frown and took his hand, rising as well. He lead her to the full-length mirror mounted on one wall and placed her in front of him, his hands on her shoulders.
“Emma,” he said quietly, his face near her ear. “What do you see?”
Her frown returned as she glanced over her shoulder at him, then back at the mirror.
“I see me, and you Steed. I see us.”
Steed moved his hand down her arm and wrapped his thumb and index finger around her forearm. The tips of his fingers met easily.
“How do you look?” he asked.
“Tired!” she chuckled nervously.
He shook his head, Caro’s words echoing in his mind. “Do you think you’ve been overdoing it?” he asked, the words coming hard as the ache in his heart began to move to his throat.
“Oh Steed, you know I’ve wanted to get back into shape after having John. It’s just taking a little longer than I thought.”
“Emma, you were back in shape in November. Now you’re just, well, making yourself look skeletal.”
Her eyes widened in momentary shock, then she spun around, eyes flashing with anger.
“Skeletal!” she snapped and for just a moment Steed thought he might be in for a slap. But she quickly slipped into icy, seething anger. “You think I look skeletal?” she hissed.
“Emma,” he tried, knowing the best thing now was to give her some space and time. Too late he realized that his only safe response would have been a quick denial. As Emma inhaled a long, enraged breath and stalked out of the gym he realized that he couldn’t have done it even if he’d thought of it. It would have been dishonest.
“Mr. Steed?” Siobhan leaned into the dark study where Steed had retreated after leaving the gym. He raised his eyes slowly from the highball glass of scotch he was holding. “His nibs is asleep and I’m about to follow. Can I get you anything? Have you eaten?”
“No, thank you Siobhan. Is Mrs. Steed – have you seen her?”
Siobhan rubbed her hands together nervously. “I think she’s gone to bed, sir,” she said.
“Thank you Siobhan. Good night.”
The nanny stood there for a moment longer looking like she wanted to say something more, but when Steed returned his gaze to his glass she turned away.
Steed slipped into their bedroom a while later. Undressing in the dark he climbed naked into their bed and leaned over Emma. She lay on her side, her back to his side of the bed. He pressed a kiss onto her bony shoulder.
“I love you Emma,” he whispered, his voice catching as he pressed his face to the side of her neck for a moment. The scotch had not dulled the pain, but the feel and smell of her in his arms did. He settled down behind her, wrapping his arm around her, ignoring the feel of her ribs through her thin skin. He pressed himself against her, absorbing the warmth of her flesh that had always comforted him, and trying to imbue in her some of his own resilience and strength to help her overcome whatever demons were driving her.
Emma stood by the window staring out through the frosty panes at the strange shadows cast by the moon on the hedge maze. She’d been seething at Steed when she went to bed, but the exhaustion that seemed to drag at her all the time now had forced her into so deep a sleep she hadn’t felt him join her in their bed. She’d awakened just now, her internal clock still prodding her to feed John even though she no longer could. She’d been desperately relieved to feel Steed’s warm, solid presence in the bed with her. She’d been terrified that her anger might have driven him to sleep in one of the many other bedrooms. If he had, she reflected guiltily, it would have signaled the beginning of the end. If I don’t pull myself together I’ll lose him.
Only as she was enveloped in warmth did she realize that she was shivering.
“You’re icy. Come back to bed, love,” Steed murmured into her ear, his arms wrapped around her.
“Oh Steed,” she sighed, pressing her face into the warm flesh of his neck. She allowed him to guide her back to the bed. Once there she clung to him and he held her close, gently stroking her hair with one hand.
“I’m sorry,” they both said at once and Emma felt the sobs she’d been repressing come in a rush.
“You’ve no call to be. I’m a wreck,” she whispered.
“Shhhh,” he whispered back, pressing his lips to her forehead. When her sobs had subsided he spoke again. “I was thinking earlier of something Father Michaels told us before the wedding. That we have the strength to find our way back to one another through anything, we need only remember how we have managed it in the past.”
Emma sniffed and raised her head to look into his eyes. The sadness in them made her heart quail so that she couldn’t find a way to speak. He went on.
“So I thought about us, and about how we have always found one another, no matter the obstacles. The diabolical masterminds, the old enemies seeking revenge, my foolish ego, your inconvenient husband,” he paused with the slightest smile and saw a tentative reflection of it in her eyes. “And I thought about how I felt when you appeared in that pub in the West Country after three years apart. Emma, there is absolutely nothing that can come between us that I will allow to steal the happiness you brought back to me that day. I was half a person. You completed me. You are the only woman I can love. I will do whatever you need me to do to help you. You only need ask.”
“Be patient with me John,” she whispered, closing her eyes and pressing her face to his neck again. It was such a simple request. And yet, he knew, if she did not find her way back soon he would have to act for her own health and to save their family.
Siobhan walked as lightly as should could along the corridor toward the kitchen. She could smell coffee, so she knew at least one of the Steeds must already be up. After last night – she’d heard Mrs. Steed scream at Mr. Steed, and her heart had ached for him sitting up until all hours in his study drinking – she did not know what to expect this morning. The Steeds were dynamic, volatile people, but this was the first time she’d seen them fight so violently and go to bed mad.
She held John in her arms like a shield. The one thing she did know was that neither of them would do anything to frighten their son.
“Good morning Siobhan,” Mrs. Steed looked up from the breakfast table as she entered the kitchen.
“Good morning,” Mr. Steed added from his place across from his wife.
Relieved to see them having breakfast together, Siobhan carried John to his high chair and buckled him in.
“I put some of his cereal in a pan to warm,” Mrs. Steed said, looking over at the Aga.
“Thank you ma’am,” Siobhan said, glad to focus on checking the baby’s food.
“Steed, I just remembered. Jeffrey Miles was sending the report on Doctor Barnes’s samples to your office yesterday afternoon. Did you see it?” Emma asked.
Steed thought for a moment then shrugged. “I was clearing away other cases all afternoon and evening,” he said, sounding disgusted. “It’s probably there. In fact, yes, I remember seeing it in the pile, but I didn’t bother to open it.”
“You should,” Emma said and her tone made him stare at her for a moment. Her eyes flicked to Siobhan, who was standing at the stove stirring John’s cereal.
He raised one eyebrow and she inclined her head. “I shall,” he replied, desperately curious about what she felt she could not say in front of the nanny.
“How could you be so irresponsible? You know the service won’t leave the nappies outside the gate,” Emma growled. Coming down the back stairs Steed froze to listen for a moment before descending in to the kitchen. John’s high-pitched wail provided an ear splitting counterpoint to Emma’s deep, angry voice.
“I told you, Mrs. Steed, I was changing him and he peed on me just as they rang. I was covered in it. By the time I got it out of my eyes they had gone.” Siobhan replied, her tone a desperate mix of pleading and confined anger.
“You should have rung them immediately.”
“I did ma’am. But they can’t get back here until tomorrow,” Siobhan wailed, desperation finally breaking through. She feared to mention the extra fee for the unscheduled delivery, so certain was she that Mrs. Steed would dock it from her pay.
Steed descended the last few steps into the kitchen unnoticed by the raging women and crossed to the playpen where John sat crying. The baby looked up at him, continuing to wail. Steed reached into the playpen and picked him up.
“And what about until the morning, Siobhan? We’re completely out of clean nappies,” Emma hissed. Steed cuddled John and he calmed down a little. Still unnoticed by Emma and Siobhan, the two male Steeds left the kitchen.
Steed settled behind the desk in his study in the other wing of the house. John had calmed down on the walk from the kitchen and was content to sit in his father’s lap and play with his pocket watch chain. The scene in the kitchen was most disturbing because it was so unlike Emma to become enraged about what sounded like an unfortunate mistake. If anything it was this one’s fault.
“Peed on her did you, my boy? When you’re older we’ll work on your aim. Or maybe you hit your intended target,” Steed grinned down at John and opened the report that he’d left on his desk when he came in earlier.
He was as surprised as Emma had been the previous afternoon to learn that the diamonds produced by Barnes’s machine were gem quality. And he was annoyed with himself for not taking Emma’s advice at breakfast more seriously and looking at this report first thing this morning. Why didn’t she mention this when we were alone? He wondered. Then he remembered the previous evening’s fight. This has got to stop. We’re no longer a team in too many ways.
Unable to focus on that particular problem, he picked up the telephone and dialed Dr. Barnes’s research facility. An answerphone took his call, which he’d expected. He left a message asking Dr. Barnes to call him at his earliest convenience, only afterwards realizing that Emma should have made the call since she took the samples. And then he realized that she may have already called. Heaving a sigh, he set aside the task coming up with another reason for his call when Dr. Barnes called back, and turned to the next file on his desk.
Jock Cardiff, bearded with piercing blue eyes and high, prominent cheekbones, peered back at him from the photograph clipped to the ministry-provided dossier. In his lap, John reached out for the photograph and emitted a little wail.
“No, son, he’s not a villain. He’s a very rich man,” Steed said soothingly. John wailed again, still reaching for the photograph. Steed captured his hand to protect the picture and looked at Cardiff’s financial background again. “A very rich man, my boy. Exceedingly rich,” he crooned on, eyes narrowing as he re-read one of the small-type notations in the lengthy financial statement.
Something – a premonition, or perhaps a movement caught by his peripheral vision – made Steed look up to see Emma standing in the doorway. She walked into the study, her expression considerably calmer than it had been in the kitchen.
“Has he solved the case?” she asked, nodding at John.
“In fact, he has just discovered an important clue,” Steed replied. Emma sat down in one of the chairs facing the desk. “Jock Cardiff – Barnes’s remaining investor, the one who pressed him to demonstrate the machine to LaRonde — owns majority interest in a diamond cutting firm in Amsterdam.”
Emma’s eyes widened. “So he’s not part of LaRonde, but he certainly has a connection,” she nodded. “I can’t believe we missed that.”
“Buried in the fine print,” Steed shrugged, as always prepared to move on and recover from an error. “What have you done to Siobhan?” he asked, fearing the worst from his changeable spouse.
“She’s gone for disposable nappies. We should keep a supply on hand,” she said, her expression all contrition. Steed had to smile. “May I have my son back please?”
Steed stroked John’s silky hair and shook his head. “No. You’ve been a bad mother this evening, letting him cry while you argued with Siobhan.”
Emma’s nostrils flared, and she stood up, her former rage returning in an instant. Steed watched her in surprise.
“How could you!” she growled, turning on her heel and storming out of his study.
“Emma!” he called after her. “I was just teasing your mum,” he said to John. The baby peered up at him through Emma’s eyes and his heart sank. Hefting the boy to his shoulder he got up and went after her.
“Here’s mum,” Steed said, crossing the bedroom and climbing onto the big bed beside Emma. He’d wandered the whole house looking for her, suspecting she might be here, but wanting to give her time before finding her. He stretched out beside her and placed John on his stomach. Emma, lying on her stomach, turned her face away from them.
“Now John, this is your chance to learn about your mum’s stubborn streak,” he said playfully. “She doesn’t want to let me apologize for being unkind downstairs.”
Beside them, Emma sighed and lifted up, rolling onto her side. Steed turned his head to look at her.
“I’m sorry darling. It was a poor joke. But I didn’t mean it for a moment,” he said.
“I know,” she said, reaching out to touch the tip of John’s nose. “I’m the one who’s sorry, again. But your joke hit too close to home: We’re completely out of nappies and the pale of dirty ones smells, and I’m annoyed with myself because this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t insisted on the security system that keeps the gate locked.”
Steed couldn’t help but chuckle. “Not to mention that Siobhan, the groom, and the gardener have set it off three times since it was installed. Did you see the warning letter from the local police that came the other day?”
Emma shook her head, moving closer to lay it on his shoulder. He obliging slipped his arm around her. “I’m not going to worry until the ministry complains about having to send their response teams each time,” she said with a smile.
“Oh, Mother complained about that after the first time,” Steed laughed. Emma laughed with him and little John clutched at Steed’s shirt as he grinned.
“So Jock Cardiff would benefit from LaRonde licensing Doctor Barnes’s machine,” she said. “But that only explains why he pushed for the demonstration. What about the deaths of the other investors? You said they had other deals in common. Does he stand to gain from their deaths in any of them?”
Steed hugged her to him with the arm around her. “That’s my brilliant Emma,” he murmured into her hair. Then he pulled his arm out from under her and lifted John from his stomach to the bed.
“I have a call to make. These bed-time flashes of brilliance are why we have researchers available ‘round the clock,” he quipped, climbing to his feet. Emma sat up and took John into her arms as Steed left the bedroom. She looked down into their son’s sweet face and smiled at his father’s impish twinkle in the baby’s eyes.
“It is against my better judgment, Mother, but I did give them my word,” Steed said to the head of the ministry. Mother sat in his wheelchair with a Burberry blanket tucked around his lap against the chilly January day.
Below them on an emerald green field two football teams chased one another and a ball. Rhonda, Mother’s omnipresent aide, was in a stadium seat one row down and two seats in. Half a dozen men in dark coats and glasses were positioned around them at discrete distances. Steed thought he recognized one young man from Sally’s training class. Not a cherry assignment, Mother’s detail. He must have displeased someone, he thought.
“She is not exercising any judgment at all,” Mother grumbled, raising a pair of binoculars to watch a play. “McCall is sloppy – good as a contact in a peaceful place like Provence, but too cocky and not nearly smart enough to partner with Tara in the sort of hot spots where she excels. You made her a good agent Steed. You don’t want to let her throw it away.”
Mother never flattered. His compliment was sincere and Steed appreciated it, although he believed that if Tara had developed into a good agent it was only partially his doing. She had come to him with good instincts and training.
“I have to respect her decision, Mother. What we think is throwing her career away could be a choice that will make her happy for the rest of her life,” Steed said. He preferred to stand during interviews with Mother. The breeze in the stadium was very cold so he plunged his hands deep into the pockets of his overcoat.
“You’re thinking like a happily married man, Steed,” Mother nearly sneered. Steed’s eyes narrowed in annoyance, but he kept his temper under tight control.
“Perhaps,” he said, drawing a surprised glance from Mother. “After all, I have gained some understanding of the value of personal commitments.”
Mother sighed, watching the play through his binoculars again. As the team in white made a goal he lowered them and drummed his fingers on the arm of his wheelchair for a moment.
“You run them Steed. In fact, take over management of our operations in France. Then you will have the latitude to reassign one of them. Or both of them. Grant them their wish, and then deal with the consequences.”
One brow arching, Steed stared down at Mother.
“Dismissed. Rhonda will see to the paperwork,” the older man snapped.
Steed nodded curtly and turned on his heel, trotting up the stadium steps to the nearest entrance and diving into the darkness beyond before allowing himself to think about what had just happened.
Run them. Manage France. Damn.
“Mr. Barnes, It’s Emma Knight. Have I caught you at an inconvenient time?”
“Not at all my dear. We’ve just completed a twenty-four hour run and my assistants are collecting the results.”
“Dirty work,” Emma observed.
“Sorting through the dust.”
“Oh, I see what you mean. No, no, they’re collecting sensor data, Miss Knight. We have been calibrating the machine for several months – making fine adjustments and examining the results based on a number of sensors and monitors built into the device.”
“I see. I just have a quick question for you, Doctor Barnes. When you demonstrated the machine to the representatives from LaRonde, did you give them samples like you did me the other day?”
“No. They were more interested in the analysis results from the certified labs,” Barnes said.
“Showing the quality of your industrial diamonds.”
“And what about your investors? Have they taken any samples from your facility?”
The line was quiet for a moment and Emma imagined Dr. Barnes expression turning frightened again. She hoped Mrs. Barnes was about to comfort him.
“Jock Cardiff had some – ‘souvenirs’ he said.”
“About a month ago. Is there something wrong with them? We haven’t had samples tested during the calibration process – we rely on the data.”
“No Doctor, there’s nothing wrong with the samples. I’m just trying to tie up all the loose ends. Thank you for your time.”
Emma replaced the receiver and grimaced at her abrupt closure. But she didn’t want to tell Dr. Barnes about his diamonds just yet. He was safer not knowing, and first she wanted to find out if anyone else knew.
When she and Steed visited the facility they had signed a guest registry. She thought that a look at it might reveal other possibilities beyond Cardiff. Quickly coming to a decision she picked up the telephone and dialed Steed’s office. He wasn’t there, so she left a message, then left another one on his answerphone at three Stable Mews.
“Siobhan?” she called a few minutes later, coming from the master bedroom dressed in her favorite black catsuit.
“Here ma’am,” the nanny called from her room adjacent to the nursery.
“I’m going out for a few hours. Mr. Steed told me this morning that he’d probably be staying in town tonight. You’ll be all right on your own?”
“I’m not alone, ma’am. I have John for company,” Siobhan replied brightly, stepping into the doorway between her room and the nursery. She paused, studying Emma’s thin form in the loose-fitting catsuit. “I’ll be fine,” she added, her voice less bright, but still sincere. “I need to catch up on my journal.”
“Good!” Emma replied, leaning into the crib to kiss John, who was napping. “Steed knows where I’ll be, should something come up.”
“Here’s some interesting reading, Steed,” James Bond passed Steed an unmarked file. Steed sat down in one of the chairs across from James’s desk, holding the folder in both hands with a sense of foreboding.
“What does it say?” he asked.
James shrugged. “I haven’t read it, actually,” he replied. Steed opened the file to find a thick bundle of large black and white photographs of documents. He let his eyes rise to James’s face, then back to the photos.
“I only had twenty minutes with it in her office.”
Steed nodded, lifting the first photograph. Bond was an expert – the documents were perfectly framed and absolutely sharp. He could easily read Edmond Stanton’s name typed in the spaces of an old war-era form.
“This means a lot to me, and to Emma,” he said, looking back at James. The other agent inclined his head in acknowledgement.
“I’m glad to have been of help. And glad it’s done.”
Steed studied the photo of the old form for a moment before James’s comment and tone sank in. He looked back up at the other agent.
“You regret what it took to get this?” he asked carefully. He was sure that Miss Mueller in MI-6 personnel had not invited him in to her office to look at this file without an expectation of experiencing Bond’s more intimate talents. In fact he knew they had been on several dates.
James shrugged, his expression slipping from neutral to genuinely unhappy. “Julia Mueller is a beautiful, charming young woman. And every moment I spent with her I wished that I were with someone else. I feel as if I betrayed her, even though there’s nothing between us – no promises. No commitment.”
Steed’s eyes narrowed, easily following James’s guarded expression of his feelings for Sally.
“Sounds like you’d rather there were,” he said, suppressing the amusement he felt at seeing the quintessential bachelor agent – other than himself, that is – caught by the fairer sex.
“A commitment?” James asked, although he had understood.
“Promises. Understandings. Words spoken…” Steed supplied.
“She’ll never say them. It won’t further her career.”
“Perhaps you can persuade her that it will,” Steed suggested cagily.
“Isn’t it time you took a partner? Someone to watch your back?”
A sly grin crept onto James’s face, starting with his eyes. “You’d let her leave your ministry?” he asked.
Steed closed the file he was holding and stood up.
“We’d miss her – she’s developed into a good operative – but I wouldn’t prevent her from following her – career.”
Emma parked down the road from Barnes’s research facility right around closing time and counted the workers exiting the facility. The file said there were twenty-seven employees in addition to Dr. Barnes. She waited another thirty minutes after number twenty-seven came out, then got out of her car and strode toward the building.
All was dark and quiet, and she was sure that Dr. Barnes had retired to his apartment at the back. She picked the lock on the front door and paused in the entry scanning for any sign of an alarm. The file said there wasn’t one, but sometimes the public had the audacity to make changes after the ministry’s investigators compiled their information. No claxons sounded, no lights flashed. Emma sat down behind the receptionist’s desk, switched on the lamp, and opened the top center drawer.
A black-haired girl of about six with a sweet smile and close-set eyes peered up at her. Smiling back, she moved the photo aside – wondering why it was hidden away in the drawer – and found the guest registry.
Ten minutes later she had photographed the pages for the past six months. None of the signatures caught her attention – other than that of Jock Cardiff, the other investors, and the members of LaRonde who had seen the machine. But the ministry’s research department might uncover other suspicious visitors when she gave them the photographed pages.
Having achieved her goal, Emma could not simply leave. Switching off the lamp, she used her penlight to make her way through the halls to the research area where the diamond machine was housed. The machine was quiet, it’s dusty chamber empty. Wandering further, Emma went through a door marked “mailroom.”
Letters in canvas baskets were apparently ready for pickup. Emma examined one or two and saw that they were ordinary business correspondence. She scanned the room with her torch and stopped on a stack of boxes near the large rear door. They were all addressed to a company in Amsterdam – the same company that Jock Cardiff owned an interest in. Heart pounding with the excitement of discovery, Emma found a paperknife and sliced open the tape securing the top box, and then an inner box. Inside she found what she’d expected – the raw diamonds that were the output of the machine nestled in layers of tissue. The inner box was stamped with a date about three weeks ago and some other data – machine settings, she thought. She located packing tape on a counter next to a postal scale and resealed both boxes, smiling at the import of her discovery.
Winter was reasserting itself in a steady shower as Mike Gambit darted across the street beneath a black umbrella. Once he reached the porch of Jock Cardiff’s club he furled it, twisting the fabric as tightly as he could. It still refused to look as tidy as Steed’s always did – there were wagers within in the ministry on whether Steed ever actually opened any of his impeccable ‘brollys.
A flash of his identification gained him admission to the club, which was around the corner from Steed’s, and which had been contacted in advance regarding Gambit’s visit. Someone who knew someone had convinced someone that the nation’s security was a risk if Gambit was not allowed to surprise Jock Cardiff in the smoking lounge. Gambit loved the way these things could always be arranged.
Having left his raincoat and umbrella downstairs, Gambit stood in the doorway of the second floor smoking lounge dressed in his best suit and silk shirt and tie. He was still getting accustomed to civilian attire, and developing his instinct for what to wear on occasions where he used to simply put on a uniform. He’d talked with Steed about it, and the older man had offered him the best advice: think of a suit as a uniform. Applying his ingrained respect for a uniform to his civilian clothes helped him to feel comfortable in them.
Jock Cardiff was installed in a wingback chair in a corner adjacent to a window. Gambit watched him draw on the thick cigar he was holding, staring out at the rain as he inhaled the smoke. Gambit reached into his vest pocket and took out a matching cigar. He slid the paper band off as he strode across the room.
“You mind?” he said as he picked up a large lighter from a table near Cardiff’s chair. Cardiff glanced at him and at the lighter, then looked back out the window without responding. Gambit used the attached guillotine to slice off the end of the cigar – Steed had snatched a cigar from his hands when he’d bitten the end off at Christmas – then he lit it very slowly and deliberately.
When the end was glowing cheerily he settled into a second wingchair, also angled toward the window. Cardiff glanced at him again, then back out the window. Gambit exhaled the tangy smoke, which smelled just like Cardiff’s – more ministry research — and overtly studied the other man.
Cardiff glanced at him again and frowned. “Have we met?” he asked pointedly.
“Not yet,” Gambit replied, rolling his cigar between two fingers and his thumb. “But we’re going to.”
“Oh?” Cardiff shifted in his chair, subtly squaring off across from Gambit.
“We’re going to grow quite close, you and I.” Gambit flashed a wide, toothy grin.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Diamonds, Mr. Cardiff. You are engaged in some very risky speculation regarding diamonds.”
Cardiff’s rosy cheeks seemed to grow brighter, although it was actually the rest of his complexion that grew pale around them. His expression, however, turned quite dark. “You don’t know anything.”
“How many lives are they worth, Mr. Cardiff?” Gambit asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Burns, Olson, Wallace,” Gambit raised a finger with each name, then looked from his hand to Cardiff’s face. “They’re all out of the way, but now I’m here.”
“You’re mad. Johnson!” Cardiff half rose, his hands on the arms of his chair, and looked across the lounge toward the door. The room was empty except for them.
“Sit down, Mr. Cardiff,” Gambit said, his voice snapping from calm to incontestable command. Cardiff subsided into his chair, glaring at Gambit. “You have a history of loosing business partners. But you are not going to loose me. Do you know why?”
“No. I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”
“You are not going to loose me because if you try – if any grubby little chaps try to sneak up on me in the night with chloroform on a rag, or a wire garrote, I’ll break them,” Gambit snapped his burning cigar in half. “And then I’ll come break you.”
“What is it you want?”
“Fifty percent, Mr. Cardiff. Fifty percent of whatever you get for the diamonds from Barnes’s machine.”
The surprise in Cardiff’s face was unmistakable, and watching it transition to pleasure made Gambit very nervous. Whatever Cardiff was up to, Barnes’s diamonds were not the biggest part of it. “How do you know about them?” Cardiff asked, regaining his previous calm.
Gambit shook his head, scolding eyes peering from under thick brows at Cardiff. He reached over and dropped his broken cigar into the large ashtray next to the lighter.
“It’s enough for you to know that I know. And that I’m even less afraid to act than you are. Fifty percent is fair for not turning over what I know to the authorities. Very fair.”
“You don’t know anything. I had nothing to do with their deaths.”
“Are you certain that’s what Sir Terry will say when the police call on him? And Hamish Brown?”
Cardiff’s settled deeper into his chair, still clutching the arms, and peered back out the window.
“Thirty percent,” he said softly.
“Bargaining, Mr. Cardiff? What do you have to offer that’s worth the twenty percent you’re asking me to give up?”
Steed let himself enjoy the sensation of flying as Commander soared over the last jump on their favorite trail. Dancer’s leap was slightly higher and she landed close on Commander’s off flank, grunting as she stretched her delicate legs to match the larger stallion’s stride up the slope. Steed still got a thrill from riding like this on his own horse across his own property. Although he had teased Emma about buying so much land, the truth was he’d never considered not acquiring the entire estate, and he would not dream of selling off a single acre. They had enjoyed a short-lived, wet January thaw for the last few days and although the track was muddy it was free of dangerous ice. Steed let the horses stretch out in a leisurely canter for the last mile, then he signaled Commander to slow to a walk. Dancer fell in beside them, her lead rope hanging slack between them.
Steed had arisen early, unable to fall back to sleep as his mind ran though the puzzle of Dr. Barnes’s diamond machine, the prospect of managing the ministry’s presence in France, and the meaning of Edmond Stanton’s status as an active MI-6 agent. He was most upset about the last item because he had not told Emma. Work had kept him in London the night before last, she’d been asleep by the time he came home late last night, and he’d been so restless he’d been unable to wait for her to awaken this morning. And now, as Commander carried him eagerly through their forested property he devised a plan that he knew was the right course of action, but that still left him feeling guilty for not telling her immediately.
As for Dr. Barnes’s machine, Steed was anxious to hear the results of Gambit’s visit to Jock Cardiff. They had agreed that Gambit would try to intimidate Cardiff into admitting that he was working with Sir Terry. The ministry’s researchers had uncovered another investment that involved Cardiff and Barnes’s other investors. It was structured so that when an investor died those remaining were offered his portion at a very low price. Cardiff had purchased parts of each deceased investors’ shares so that now he owned a majority interest in the operation — a new diamond mine in South Africa. Steed had been disturbed to learn that an investor in the mine who wasn’t part of Barnes’s project had also died about six months ago. So it seemed that the deaths had less to do with Barnes than with the mine.
But given this, Steed could not figure out how the information Emma had called him with last evening fit in. Had the raw diamonds ready for shipping to Cardiff’s firm in Amsterdam been Cardiff’s goal all along, or a happy accident that he was taking advantage of? Either way, he would have to document them in order to sell them in the legitimate diamond market. Steed did not think that LaRonde would provide falsified documentation and jeopardize their centuries old reputation. But with majority control of a mine, Cardiff would have the means to falsify the gems himself.
He saw Emma and Mike Gambit standing by the stables before he and the horses had left the cover of the trees. He could tell from Emma’s rigid stance that she was angry. The crop that she was idly slapping against the baggy calf of her jodhpurs confirmed that he’d made the right decision bringing Dancer out with him. Much as he loved Emma, he would not allow her to take out her current anger and unhappiness on her horse. Dancer didn’t need to be ridden with a crop. Gambit stood a few feet away from Emma – clearly at what was intended to be a respectful distance. He waved as Steed and the horses approached, but Emma just watched them.
“You took my horse,” she said with a forced smile as he reined Commander to a stop a few feet away from her. He dismounted and rounded the horse’s head, patting his withers as he went.
“Good morning darling,” he leaned close to kiss Emma. Despite her tense manner she responded to him, her lips parting slightly against his. “I didn’t know you would want to ride, and she was desperate for a run.”
“Perhaps our desperations match,” Emma half muttered, avoiding Steed’s eyes. Steed forced himself to look at Gambit, although he hated facing the other man in Emma’s unhappy presence, hated letting him see how things were. Gambit’s expression was anxious, but it could just as well be due to the case as to Emma’s behavior.
Emma stepped around Steed and reached for the cheek piece of Dancer’s halter. Startled by her sudden movement, the horse jerked her head up and away as Emma grabbed the leather strap.
“Ouch!” Emma’s fingers released the halter and she grabbed her left arm with her right hand. Her drawn face twisted in surprise and pain as she stared at her left wrist.
“What is it?” Steed asked, instinctively turning and reaching out toward Dancer to calm her. “Emma? Are you hurt?”
“I — ,” Emma frowned, finally meeting his eyes. “It feels broken,” she said weakly.
Gambit moved closer as Steed gently took Emma’s hand in his. A sharp intake of breath told him that any little movement hurt.
“It may just be a sprain,” he said soothingly, thinking as he spoke that Dancer’s movement shouldn’t have injured her at all.
“I can’t believe it,” Emma said even as Steed thought it. “I’m falling apart.”
“Let’s just get it seen to, shall we?” Steed said, looking at Gambit. “Mike, would you help Emma back to the house? Put some ice on it. I’ll just turn these two out and bring the car ‘round the front. Won’t be a moment.”
Gambit put a fraternal arm around Emma’s shoulder and encouraged her to hold her forearm against her chest. Steed watched them walk across the lawn, then turned back to the horses.
Ten minutes later Steed helped Emma into the passenger side of the Bentley, having left the Range Rover in case Siobhan needed it.
“I’ll follow in my car,” Gambit said, his reason clear. He had come to speak to Steed about the case, and as soon as Emma was taken care of he’d need a few minutes of his time and then go.
“Perhaps this isn’t the best time, Steed,” Gambit said, watching his superior pace across the waiting area. Emma had been taken into an examination room as soon as they arrived at the hospital where baby John had been born. There was a private ministry clinic attached to it, but since Emma’s injury was unrelated to a case she had refused to let them take her there. If she had been gravely wounded Steed would have overruled her, but as it was he secretly hoped that the staff of the larger hospital would notice her deteriorated condition. The ministry medics were excellent with bullet wounds and the effects of torture, but not so familiar with the gamut of civilian maladies. He was not sure whether she was physically ill or emotionally and psychologically distressed, but whatever the cause, she was clearly physically impaired. If she would not hear it from him, maybe a doctor would force her to face it.
“Steed?” Gambit repeated. He was leaning on a counter where an array of brochures were displayed. Steed looked toward him and noticed one about the dangers of alcoholism next to his elbow.
“No, tell me what happened,” he said. Gambit’s report was important, and it would distract him for a few minutes.
“All right,” the younger man drawled, pushing himself away from the counter to pace at a perpendicular angle to Steed. This forced Steed to stop in order to focus on him. Gambit stopped to, satisfied that he had Steed’s full attention.
“Cardiff’s got nerve. I implied blackmail and he proposed a deal,” he said.
“I demanded fifty percent of his income on the manufactured diamonds. He countered with thirty and a piece of the new mine. The one that he got control of since the other investors are dead.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Why offer a blackmailer to get in on a legitimate deal?”
“Because it isn’t,” Gambit shrugged, then grinned at Steed’s surprised expression. “The mine’s not new, it’s an old one that had a collapse two years ago. The location in the claim paperwork is off by about twenty miles. The collapse buried seven men and a fortune in mined gems they were bringing out, but the owner – LaRonde – closed it down because it was too dangerous. So Cardiff arranged for this falsified claim and got the other investors to fund it. They’ve got men digging out the collapsed section and re-bracing it – strictly illegal without inspections – and they’re dumping any corpses they find. Not only will Cardiff get the mined gems that technically belong to LaRonde, but he has a front for the manufactured diamonds from Barnes’s machine.”
Steed shook his head, thinking for a moment as he absorbed it all.
“And just why is it he told you all this?”
“He didn’t, not all of it. He told me just enough to make me an accessory. Research turned up the rest. If I go to the authorities I get nothing from him, and he’s confident that he’s paid of the right people. He knows I wouldn’t go to LaRonde – if they would reward me at all it would be a pittance compared to the potential from the mine. If I play along, I get what he’s offering, which over the long term would be considerably more than the fifty percent of Barnes’s diamonds that I asked for.”
“But you won’t live long enough to collect the mine income.”
“Indeed. I told him he wouldn’t be able to have me killed as easily as the other investors, but I don’t think he believed me,” Gambit snorted a laugh and Steed had to smile too.
“Greed can blind one to reality,” he said.
“So what’s our next move?”
“You stay out of sight. You can be sure Cardiff’s doing what he can to check your legend – it’s solid, I assume?”
“Signed, sealed, and documented. I’m as slimy as they come. Did a couple years in the clink for fraud, on probation now. And a reputation as a fighter – I had them throw that in to put him off attacking too quickly.”
“Well, it could just inspire him to come at you with more force. I think that Emma and I will need to pay another call on Dr. Barnes – it might be time for the MOD to take control of the machine, although I’m not sure what they’ll do with gem-quality diamonds – bond them to tank treads, perhaps?”
“Or pay the national debt?”
Just then the door to the examining rooms opened and a nurse stepped in.
“Mr. Steed?” she asked, looking from Gambit to Steed.
“I’m Steed,” Steed said,
“The doctor would like to speak with you.”
Shooting Gambit a quick, dismissive nod, Steed followed the nurse into an examination room. Emma was not there, but the attending physician in his white coat and glasses, a stethoscope around his neck, was.
“It’s a bad sprain, Mr. Steed,” the doctor said, all calm expertise. “The aid is wrapping it now. Tell me, Mr. Steed, is Mrs. Steed taking any medications?”
“No, doctor. She’s nursing our son, so she’s rather particular about that.” Steed realized as he said it that it wasn’t true. But he did not know how long ago Emma had stopped nursing John.
“I see,” the doctor tapped his pen on the clipboard, staring at it. “No long-term illnesses?”
“No, nothing more than a head cold,” Steed replied, feeling that he was lying again, although it was essentially true. Still, the evidence of Emma’s poor health was written all over her drawn face.
“Are you aware that Mrs. Steed is dangerously under the appropriate weight for her height?”
Steed’s heart quailed. Of course I know. How can I have gone on ignoring it for so long? Quite suddenly he felt weak. He reached for the back of a chair, then went ahead and sat down. He forced himself to look up at the doctor, who was watching him expectantly.
“Yes,” Steed said, barely more than a whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I tried to discuss it with her, but she got angry.”
“How long has she been like this?”
“My sister noticed it at Christmas. The change had been so gradual I hadn’t seen it. And I didn’t want to see it then. It’s gotten much worse in the last month, but I suppose she must have started – or stopped eating — in November.”
The doctor nodded, studying his notes some more. “I’m going to admit her, at least for tonight. We need to run tests to determine whether there’s any permanent damage. Two months, you say?”
Steed nodded numbly. Permanent damage?
“I’m optimistic, then, that we will find her still capable of complete recovery. If,” he practically skewered Steed with his stare, “we can identify the source of her distress and help her to understand how to manage it.”
“Yes, Mr. Steed. Such eating disorders are physiological responses to psychological trauma or stress. Your wife will need help, and I hope that you will be willing to participate.”
Steed rose, his recent weakness banished in the face of the doctor’s hint that he might not wish to see Emma healthy. “I will do anything necessary, doctor. Anything.”
“Mr. Stanton’s meeting is in five minutes Mr. Steed,” Mrs. Emerson, Emma’s secretary at Knight Industries, told Steed as he reached her desk in the company’s executive offices.
“Thank you, Mrs. Emerson. As I said, please don’t mention that Miss Knight is not here when he arrives.”
“Very well sir. Miss Knight’s office is open. Go on in.”
Steed settled into the chair behind Emma’s big desk and rotated so that his back was to the door. He wiggled around in the chair and smiled. It was extremely comfortable, thanks to a months-long search for the perfect chair managed by Mrs. Emerson. How can Emma possibly feel inadequate? He mused as he waited. She has the respect of thousands, not counting me.
Before Steed left the hospital, the doctor had brought him to Emma and explained more about her condition to both of them. Steed had held her good hand while the doctor spoke. To his vast relief, as the doctor mentioned the good chance of a full recovery, she had squeezed his hand. She had agreed to stay in the hospital and only asked him to see that Siobhan and John were all right and to contact Mrs. Emerson to cancel her appointments at Knight. When Steed learned that Emma had a meeting with Edmond Stanton, he had decided to take the meeting in her stead.
“Mr. Stanton is here,” Mrs. Emerson’s voice’s was remarkably clear through Emma’s desktop intercom. Steed fleetingly remembered that Knight had recently acquired a high-end audio company to augment its electronics line. He was making a mental note to ask her to bring home a set of loudspeakers for the stereo receiver in the sitting room when he heard the office door open. With an effort he concealed his pleasure at surprising Stanton beneath his best enigmatic expression, then he rotated the chair to face the doorway.
Stanton was halfway across the room, smiling as he expected to see Emma smile back.
“Steed!” he said, surprised, but not overly alarmed.
“Stanton,” Steed nodded, resting his forearms on Emma’s desk and clasping his hands. “Emma has had an accident – not serious, but she’s been detained at the hospital. She asked me to see that her appointments were contacted.”
“But you did not see fit to contact me?” Stanton asked, pausing in between the two guest chairs in front of the desk.
“I thought it more appropriate to see you personally, as a colleague,” Steed said, allowing himself the victorious little smile he’d been hiding. Across from him Stanton visibly stiffened. Steed watched his reaction carefully and saw shock quickly replaced by concern and then forced, artificial puzzlement.
“I don’t understand,” he said with admirable sincerity. Steed leaned back in Emma’s chair and gestured at one of the guest chairs. Eyes narrowing for just an instant, Stanton allowed concern to show, then he recovered his curious politeness and sat down.
“Colleague?” he asked. “You know that I retired from your line of work years ago.”
“Did you?” Steed smiled amiably. “So that package you brought back from Havana last month was what? Cigars? That you handed off to a total stranger while walking across Tower Bridge?”
Stanton’s expression remained one of polite confusion. Steed went on.
“And the film you brought back from Sao Paulo in October and posted to a bogus film processing company with an address in Whitehall. Vacation snaps?”
“It was a business trip,” Stanton said sharply, his thin, angular face finally showing his alarm.
“Oh I know it was,” Steed said, breaking into a pleased grin. “Emma Knight’s business, and her majesty’s business, conveniently combined. You work for two very demanding women.”
“Does Emma know?” Stanton asked, all pretenses at denial gone.
“She will when you tell her.”
“You know I can’t.”
Steed shook his head slowly, tsking several times. “She already suspects. It is eroding her trust in you. And with Emma, trust is everything. If you discuss it with her now, you can repair the damage.”
“And if I do not, you will? You know that would be a violation of the act.”
“She will, eventually, ask me if I have learned anything. Emma is the only person I find it impossible to lie to, Edmond.”
“How did you find out?”
Steed shook his head.
“Steed, if there is a security breach –.”
“There’s no breach. Only a trail that an old bloodhound finally scented and ran to ground.”
Stanton considered the threat Steed was making. He had never stinted his service to Knight in favor of his service to MI-6, even if he had used his travel on Knight business as a cover for the other. Emma’s experience as an amateur member of the intelligence community would allow her to understand that. And any criticism she cared to offer would be the pot calling the kettle black. Except that she could, and would, turn the tables on him, reminding him of his own disapproval of her involvement with the ministry, all the while secretly in the employ of MI-6 himself. But if he did not tell her himself — if he left it until she pressed Steed and he had to tell her — it would be the end of his career at Knight. Stanton realized as he watched Steed relax behind his wife’s desk that he did not want to leave Knight. And, looking at the other man’s satisfied smile, he also realized just how brilliant a strategist Steed was.
“You said Emma was injured,” he said. Steed nodded, concern suddenly replacing the satisfaction on his face.
“She sprained her wrist,” he said carefully. As he expected, Stanton did not look at all satisfied
“She’s in the hospital for a sprained wrist?” he asked skeptically.
“I took her to the hospital because the sprained wrist was an excuse to have her see a doctor,” Steed admitted, relieved to be able to admit that he had manipulated Emma. He had not even realized he was doing it until the doctor was discussing her condition with them and she was squeezing his hand.
“She is not ill, is she?” Stanton asked, his usually cold brown eyes filled with apprehension. “She has not looked herself since the holidays.”
“She has been experiencing some – stress,” Steed said, loathe to say that Emma’s problem was psychological. He couldn’t explain it, and he hated discussing anything that he did not fully understand himself. He was relieved when Stanton nodded understanding.
“Having the baby, and then the injuries you sustained,” Stanton paused at the awkward reference to the forgeries case. But even before admitting his own ties to MI-6 he had known Steed’s profession, so he had no need to hide the fact that he knew Steed must have been tortured. “And with some of the contracts we’ve been negotiating, it’s no surprise she felt overwhelmed.”
He saw from Steed’s curious look that he was unaware of any difficult negotiations. “We’re on the verge of signing three contracts with the MOD,” he explained, seeing no harm in Steed knowing that much. Steed’s amused grin surprised him, and he cocked one eyebrow in inquiry.
“Last summer, during Birch’s trial, Emma was concerned that the media would expose my profession and the competition would cry out that Knight has an advantage in MOD negotiations,” Steed explained. “I have no doubt that she has not mentioned your contracts to me in order to protect herself from that criticism.”
“Now there’s irony,” Stanton said, understanding Steed’s amusement. “What would the competition do if they found out Knight’s chief negotiator works for MI-6?”
“Poor Emma can’t seem to get away from us spooks, can she?” Steed asked as they both laughed.
“Doctor’s orders,” Steed said, holding a spoon full of warm soup in front of Emma’s mouth. He was sitting on the edge of their bed next to Emma, who was tucked in under the covers.
“That you feed me?” she asked, then opened her mouth so that he could put the spoon in.
“That I see that you eat it, and digest it,” he said with gentle firmness.
“I resent that,” she said, swallowing another spoonful. “I have never resorted to purging.”
Steed glowered at her to hide his sadness at the new vocabulary her condition had taught them. He was tempted to say that she probably would have purged if anyone had forced her to eat. As it was he felt dreadfully guilty for not noticing just how little she had been consuming, even though the doctor had assured him that women who developed this particular disorder were usually extremely good at concealing their habits.
Emma consumed several more spoonfuls, then reached with her good hand for the glass of fruit juice on the bedside table. She was on a strict diet to control weight gain. Steed knew full well that if she acquired fat she’d tumble right back into the throes of the disorder. She was still too weak to really work her muscles – the doctor had been adamant about that for fear that she would do more damage. So every calorie she consumed had to count. And for the moment, until the healthy diet had the desired effect, her digestion was very uneven. To his relief she had agreed that staying in bed near the toilet was for the best, for a few days anyway.
“Steed,” she said, replacing the glass on the bedside table. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Shhhh,” he set the bowl of soup on the table. “Emma, don’t.” He did not want to hear her admit weakness, even when it was so evident. She was his strong Emma. He could not accept any other reality. That was his weakness, and even though it had brought them to this he still could not bear facing it.
She shook her head, her eyes lowering to her wrapped wrist. “For the first time in my life – or at least since my mother died – I was powerless. I felt helpless and terrified for my son and my husband. I could only see one course of action: I had to regain my strength and fighting agility, and I had to make our house safe for our child. I felt fat and weak. I had to make myself back into the woman I used to be. The woman you fell in love with. I had to be your Mrs. Peel again.”
“You will always be my Mrs. Peel. It has nothing to do with how you look, or how well you execute a karate chop,” Steed said and took her good hand in both of his. “And Emma, you are the strongest person I know. But everything that makes you who you are – your brilliance, your creativity, your drive, and passion form a terribly fragile balance. I was deeply disturbed by what happened in Venice. You took action when I could not because of my wounds. But no one noticed your wounds, including me.
“I am to blame for your condition. I was blind to your need.”
Emma shook her head, raising her face to his. Her eyes were deep brown pools moist with kept tears. She held his gaze as she spoke. “There’s no fault,” she said. “And I promise that this injury,” she raised her wrapped wrist, “has snapped me out of it. If I ever start behaving that way again you’ll see it sooner, and I’ll listen to you when you try to tell me.
“But I mostly regret that what I did forced me to wean John so early. I had hoped to nurse him for a full year.”
Steed smiled, his eyes suddenly twinkling.
“I can think of a way to start you nursing again,” he said, reaching up to stroke her cheek with one hand. She automatically leaned into his touch, but her expression was momentarily confused.
“Oh!” she said suddenly understanding. For an instant Steed thought that her expression turned dark, but then she went on. “That might be a good idea. Only –,” she pressed her lips to his palm, then smiled at him. “—only my doctor might object for the time being.”
“What? You mean he told you not to — .”
“Get pregnant, Steed – although I didn’t actually ask him. But I think he just wanted to make me understand that I must regain my strength.”
“That sounds a lot like what you’ve been saying for the last few weeks, darling,” Steed said cautiously.
“I know,” she nodded and squeezed his hand. “But I promise, this time I mean it. In the right way.”
They fell silent, Emma contemplating the surprisingly frightening notion of having another baby, Steed thinking about unfinished business. After a few minutes he reached a decision. He released her hand and rose, going around the bed to sit beside her. She watched him, and when he was settled beside her she moved over against him, pressing herself into his welcoming arms.
“When I first met you, Emma, I was in awe of your personal strength. Gradually, as I came to realize my feelings for you, I began to wish you would reveal your secrets, the innermost beliefs that keep you so balanced. And eventually I realized that as close as we were, I had not earned the right to your deepest truths. I had not given you mine.”
Emma twisted her head around to look at his face, but he was staring across the room — not at the door in the far wall, but into the past.
“My family was livid with me for resigning my commission after the war and going back to Europe. I didn’t contact any of them — Caro, our father, and grandmother Steed — for all of the years I was away. The only person I was in touch with was Forbes – the family butler,” Emma nodded recognition. She had met Forbes, who still served Steed’s aged aunts. “He was army intelligence, retired.” Emma nodded again. She remembered that, too. But she was afraid to speak for fear of halting Steed’s story.
“About five years after I left, while I was in Barcelona, my cousin Arthur contacted me. I’m not sure how he tracked me down, but he had some friends in the community.” Steed paused, eyes narrowing as he stared into the distance. Then he sighed and started again.
“Arthur is the thoughtful, bookish type – very smart, but overly smug just the same. I remember you commented on him at the wedding,” Emma frowned for a moment, then remembered the surprisingly unimpressive, pudgy man. “He was always just a bit disapproving of Caro and I when we took off for long gallops or went rowing in the millpond. He’d sit on the grass with his book, away from the adults, but one of them just the same, while Caro and I splashed one another with our oars and had a grand time. We splashed him sometimes too.”
“I’ll bet,” Emma smiled, easily imagining the scene Steed described, and deeply moved the he was once again opening up about his past. It was a rare and treasured moment.
“Over and over he made the mistake of assuming that because we were having fun we did not read or study. During visits he would introduce topics at the dinner table – literary, or the news of the day – and engage father or grandfather. Then he would give Caro and I his smug look. So we would have to out talk him about whatever it was. I think he never realized that I would stay up until all hours reading – you know I don’t need that much sleep. And Caro had proven her skill at the ‘womanly arts’ as a young girl. She’d already sewn enough samplers to stuff a hope chest, so even before we were in our teens she was spending all her free time reading too. Poor Arthur. He never won a dinnertime argument.
“Arthur’s father was a manager in the grocery distribution firm that grandfather Steed bought after the First World War. That’s how Aunt Grace met him. Arthur was sent to good schools and did well, and he went to work for his father. When grandfather died he left the company to Aunt Grace and her husband, who was managing it by then. So Arthur was set for life. He was never called up – his eyesight is terrible — so he spent the second world war working with the military to keep food distributed throughout the country.”
“Poor man – he probably ruined his eyes as a youngster trying to learn more than you.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Steed chuckled.
“Go on,” Emma urged him, fearing that he’d lose the thread of his story.
“When I went back to Europe after the war I knew my father was angry and disappointed with me. I didn’t care. I could see no life for me in England. Caro called me selfish, but she also assured me that she loved me. Father never said a word.
“Five years passed. I found plenty of work in several countries. I saved a great deal of money. I was living in Barcelonetta – you know it? Yes of course. Not a nice area, but perfectly suited to my needs. I came in one afternoon and my dueño – my landlady – had a note for me. She was a skinny old witch who drank all the time and threw herself at me two or three times a week. I knew she had steamed it open. But the joke was on her – she couldn’t read English.
“It was from my cousin Arthur. He was in Barcelona on business and begged me – in a way that suggested he was doing me a favor – to join him for dinner. I wondered if he had had the note delivered or come himself, but then I realized that if he’d actually been there my dueño would have been beside herself about an Englishman visiting. So he may not know the nature of my lodging, and I could be reading the belittling tone into his note when it wasn’t really there. I was tempted to pretend I hadn’t received it. But curiosity eventually won out over contempt.
“Over dinner – at a very touristy restaurant in the marina — he informed me in a way that suggested great regret that I had been disinherited. My father, not having heard from me in five years, had revised his will and I was not in it.”
“I was shocked for a moment, but then, as the news sank in, I felt an unexpected sense of relief. I was truly free. I was not responsible for the family lands or the big, drafty house, or the dependent aunts. I was free to make my own fortune and live my own life. It was the most liberating feeling I had ever known.”
“But was it true? What happened to change your father’s mind? He did change it – he must have. You own the house now.”
“As I said, I felt free to make my own fortune. So I did. Contracts were readily available, and the more dangerous the more lucrative. I became branded as a risk taker, but a successful one. Until finally living on the edge overcame me. I told you about deciding to come home.”
“From Berlin. Yes.”
“From France, really, from Gerard’s house in the Loire after I left Berlin. He had a lot to do with my decision to come home. In any case, shortly after I returned to London and got settled, I received a letter from Forbes. There was an invitation in it to Caro and Harry’s wedding. It was the following weekend.
“So you went.”
“Of course I went. I wasn’t about to let Caro marry some bloke I hadn’t met!”
“Without any consideration for the scene you’d create at the most important day in your sisters’ life.”
“Well, no, actually. I hadn’t thought of that. But it was a big wedding. I slipped in at the back and watched. Harry looked a nice enough fellow and I figured I’d talk to him at the reception. If he turned out to be a sour sort there was still time for an annulment.”
“You didn’t really think that?”
“I did. Someone had to look out for Caro’s best interests.”
“You were insufferable.”
“This is my story, Mrs. Peel.”
“Sorry. Do go on.”
“I did make rather an impression on the reception line. Caro grabbed me by the neck and wouldn’t let go. Harry looked stunned – he wasn’t sure whether I was an old flame or what. Father was,” Steed paused, momentarily lost for words, “father was dour.
“There were various happy aunts, and Arthur, of course. He looked peevish.”
“Is he your only cousin?”
“No, there are a few others about, and a few who were lost in the war. But Aunt Grace lived closest, so we grew up with Arthur always underfoot.”
“And did you grill poor Harry during the reception?”
“Well, there wasn’t time really. I did have a few minutes with him, and he was rather short with me – he had heard that I was a rascal, and he assumed my return could only mean trouble. I suspected that he was after Caro’s money, the way he looked at me like a common thief.”
“Good heavens! Our Harry?”
“Well consider his side of it: the prodigal son – widely believed to be either a spy or a mercenary and probably a little of both – returns on his wedding day. Caro and the aunts always spoke fondly of me, but Arthur and his father had very little good to say. And my father had nothing to say at all. So for all Harry knew, I was there to try to reclaim my inheritance. He had every right to glare at me.”
“So did you talk to your father?”
“Not at the reception. But Caro insisted that a room be found for me and I stayed the night. In the morning I was summoned to a family meeting. I tried to beg off – told Forbes that I wasn’t family any more. But he’d have nothing of it. Escorted me to what I was sure was going to be my doom – a meeting in the library.”
“Sounds like an ominous tradition.”
“Oh indeed. All momentous Steed family events were announced and discussed in the library. Forbes led me in and I felt as if I were going to the executioner. They were all there. Father standing in front of the fireplace and Caro sitting near him. Harry was off in a corner, the newest member of the family and looking like he’d been dragged in like me. A few of the aunts who’d stayed over were there, and cousin Arthur, looking bootfaced.
“My father told me that Caro had come to him this morning to ask for one more wedding present. He said that he had already been generous – he had given them the Campbell farm, among other things. But he could not deny his only daughter on her wedding.”
“Yes. She had asked him to re-inherit me. He had agreed.”
“Were you surprised?”
“Astonished. My father had arranged for his attorney to come revise his will that afternoon. They all entreated me to stay. All but Arthur, that is.”
“He expected to get some of your inheritance?”
“I suppose so. I learned later that he had made himself very close to my father, and, in all fairness, he had stuck around and helped with family matters.”
“But his motive, Steed — .”
“Was probably less than noble,” Steed nodded. “But who among us can claim strictly noble behavior? Other than a handful of saints?”
Emma conceded with a nod. “So how did you feel about being burdened with the family fortune again?”
“I had mixed feelings – I’d felt free of obligation while I was disinherited. But as I grew closer to Caroline again I realized that I would not wish to burden her with the management of the entire estate. And when father died a year later I was glad that I was there to help arrange things for our dependent aunts.”
“I can think of someone whose motives are always noble,” Emma sighed, rolling toward him and reaching an arm across his chest.
“Shhhh,” he sighed, wrapping his arms tightly around her.
Although in many ways Sally loved living and working in Paris, when it came right to it, she was lonely. Nelson, the other agent under Tara’s supervision, was courteous, but he had never warmed to her. She was sure it was because her relationship with Steed – she had connections in high places that made her off limits for casual fraternization. His coldness would not have bothered her if they weren’t in a foreign city. She missed her family, and her training classmates, and Emma. And because of the nature of her work she was reluctant to become to friendly with the Parisians who she had come to know – the woman in the flat across from hers, the older man who walked his dog every Sunday morning in the square where Sally liked to read the newspaper, the waiter in the café where she drank her morning café crème. In the end, when she broke up with him, she had come to hate concealing her occupation from Terrance, her first boyfriend in London. Steed had advised her that she needed someone to talk to who she could trust – he had been referring to James. Sally had not truly understood what he meant until now.
Most mornings she forced herself up and out a little early so that she could enjoy her coffee at the café around the corner from her flat in the 11th. At first she’d economized, paying the minimum by standing at the bar to sip her coffee and read the morning news. But then the waiter, a tall, slender young man with an oversized jaw and piercing blue eyes, began to talk to her. When he discovered she was English he became determined to help her improve her French. She conversed with him enthusiastically, and gradually two things happened: her French improved, and she came to regard Jean as a friend.
But friendship with a café waiter wasn’t companionship of the sort she had grown up with and depended on. She was still lonely.
One chilly late January morning she sipped her coffee and made notes – a grocery list – on a small pad. Jean was serving a couple of tourists at one of the table. Sally glanced at her watch and looked up into the mirror behind the bar. And gasped.
James’s reflection smiled warmly as he crossed the café to her. And then he was there, his hands on her upper arms, his unbelievable blue eyes – so much more piercing than Jean’s, she realized suddenly – meeting her own.
“How?” she asked quietly, know he’d understand the question.
“Howard, Sally. Junior operative assigned Paris. Departs flat at 7:40, drinks café crème with one sugar at Café le Fleur, walks to metro…”
Sally shook her head at him, hiding her dismay at her predictability — and the fact that it was documented — with a smile.
“I’ve read your file.”
“Yes, I see.”
“I’m leaving on a difficult job in six hours. Come back to your place and call in sick.”
Sally’s eyes narrowed as she tried to ignore the flash of desire that welled up at his command. She resisted the urge to simply obey him out of habit, affection, and rapidly overwhelming need. She looked at the way his lips curled up at the very edges and her resolve evaporated.
“Au revoir, Jean,” she called to her friend as she took James’s arm. Jean waved, watching them depart. James peered back at him.
“You know him well?” he asked when they were on the street.
Sally shrugged and wiggled her fingers into James hand. She watched the pavement as they walked, hiding her surprised smile at his apparent jealousy.
They climbed the three flights up to her studio flat. Sally headed for the telephone, gathering up yesterday’s clothes from the armchair as she went. James smiled fondly as he watched her trying to tidy up without being obvious.
“Nelson? It’s Sally. I had a call from a contact this morning. He wants a meet. I’m going to go directly. I’ll be in later – you’ll let Tara know? – Thanks.”
James had her blouse unbuttoned, reaching around from behind her, by the time she had finished speaking to Nelson. He cupped her breasts through her bra and pressed warm, tingling kisses on her neck.
“You’re delicious,” he murmured as she hung up the telephone and twisted in his arms. His hands ranged over her back, pulling up her shirt to stroke her bare skin. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his face to hers. They moved across the room as they kissed, tripping over the edge of the bed and landing with their arms and legs entwined. Sally giggled at their lust-driven spontaneity and at the way James was tickling her. He reared up over her and reached down her leg, stroking upward under the hem of her skirt. She bent her knee up, subtly encouraging him.
He had taken off his overcoat and jacket while she dialed the telephone. Sally reached up to unbutton his casual wool shirt, pausing to stroke bare skin as soon as it was revealed. His fingers slid over her belly to find the waistband of her tights and he tugged at them. Releasing his shirt, Sally lifted her hips and hiked up her skirt to pull them down. Grinning, James took over, working them along with her underpants down her legs and off. He stroked the insides of her thighs, leaning over her to nuzzle her breasts and place slow, wet kisses on her throat, cheeks, and lips.
She parted his shirt and slipped her arms around him, the warmth of his skin sparking her desire so that she returned his kisses with unbridled energy. They rolled together across the bed, first Sally on top, then James, caressing, kissing, tickling, and nuzzling with mouths and hands and toes. It was joyful, wild love making. Bit by bit their clothes were discarded, landing in heaps over the bedposts and on the floor. And touch by touch they incited one another with caresses to sensitive spots long known and cherished. And when the pressure in his loins had built to a boiling frenzy, and the ache in hers make her moan against the soft skin of his shoulder, he entered her with a hard, demanding thrust. She was so slick and hot he groaned at the pleasure of it, pulling out and thrusting back in just to feel it again. She shuddered around him, her loins flooding as he thrust again and again, lifting himself up on straight arms to press into her as deep as he could go. He was lost in her, and she in him, two become one in their moment of ecstatic climax.
“Where are you going?” Sally asked, pressing a kiss to his bare chest. They had lain boneless for a while after making fast, powerful love. And then they had made slow, intense love. And now they were enjoying a few minutes more together before James had to go.
“A developing nation where the military specializes in black market arms and assassinations,” James replied, his voice flat. Then he rolled onto his side, capturing Sally in his arms and holding her to him. “You’ll be here when I get back, won’t you?”
“Of course I will James. Right here running Tara’s errands and traipsing all over Paris following up on dead-end leads.”
“You don’t sound happy,” he frowned, reaching up to draw her hair out of her eyes. She sighed.
“I’m thrilled to be here. It’s amazing. But sometimes, every now and then, I get lonely.”
“When was the last time you were home?”
“My mum’s birthday. In November.”
James kissed her forehead, his breath caressing her face.
“When I get back, I’m taking you home for a week – home to London, I mean,” he added when her eyes widened. For a moment she had envisioned him in her family’s little country house.
“I’ll look forward to it,” she replied. And although it would not solve her real problem, she really was excited at the prospect of a few days in London with James.
“Sally! What happened with your meet? No – never mind. Just put it in a report. But first finish the ones in your in-box. Today. Everything is off everyone’s desk today.”
Sally stood in the doorway, baffled, as Tara charged back into her office. Nelson was at his desk typing frenetically with four fingers. Sally wondered, not for the first time, how he had gotten through training typing like that. But he was fast at it, she had to admit.
“What’s going on?” she asked quietly as she went to her desk. It was neat, the files in her in basket all stacked neatly, the pens and pencils stowed in the drawers.
“We got a cable this morning. There’s a new director for France. He’s coming tomorrow.”
“Who is it?”
“The cable didn’t say.”
“Is that odd?”
“I don’t know. But Tara’s pretty nuts over it.”
“Well, I guess the best thing is to do as she asks – then even if the new guy’s a horror she’ll be happy with us.”
“Two days. I promise. I’ll call this evening.”
“Paris, Steed. This is not fair.”
“I won’t have a moment to enjoy it – even if there were the slightest chance that I could without you.”
“Just go!” Emma laughed, waving Steed away as he gave her a final hug. She was sitting at the breakfast table with the morning paper, tea, and porridge. Steed pressed a kiss to the top of her head, then released her to do the same to John in his high chair.
“Be good son,” he murmured to the baby. Smiling at Siobhan, then at Emma, he strode out of the kitchen.
Sally stifled a yawn and glanced across the office at Max Bennett, the ministry agent based in Cherbourg. He had one hip hitched up on the edge of Nelson’s desk as he spoke quietly to the younger man. He glanced up and caught Sally’s yawn, so he winked. The door to Tara’s office was open, and she and Robert McCall were seated across her desk from one another not speaking. Pierre the dog was conspicuously absent. The outer office was also occupied by Pierce Sheldon, who, like Bennett, had come in from his base – in his case La Rochelle.
Yesterday Tara’s tension had rubbed off on Sally so much that she’d had a difficult time getting to sleep when she finally went home. She had no idea what it meant that France had a new supervisor. She and Nelson had understood that Tara had been reporting directly to Mother, so they supposed that this could be regarded as a demotion. But the ministry’s organization was so complex a change like this could be part of a larger reorganization that had nothing to do with Tara’s performance. With so little notice, and so much to do to finish up all their work, she and Nelson had not been able to find out anything despite several surreptitious calls to London.
Suddenly the outer door buzzer erupted in the charged atmosphere of the office. All eyes turned to Tara, who looked up at the monitor mounted near the ceiling of her office. Her eyes momentarily widened, then she look distinctly annoyed. She touched the button that opened the downstairs door.
A moment later they heard footsteps on the stairs and then the office door opened to reveal John Steed, bowler perfectly straight on his head, umbrella held in one hand. He stood in the doorway, his amiable smile concealing all emotion as he looked around at everyone gathered there. Tara came from her office, Robbie two steps behind her.
“Well, everyone is here. How delightful to see you all,” Steed said, crossing to Sally’s desk where he set his umbrella and bowler. “Its certainly warm here compared to London. Lucky for all of you, eh?”
“Steed, it’s lovely to see you,” Tara said. Steed turned his gaze on her, his eyes flicking to McCall and back. “But this isn’t the best time. We’re expecting the new supervisor for France. He’s coming over from –.”
Tara stopped talking, her mouth still open as she stared into Steed’s kind, sparkling eyes. He nodded ever so slightly.
“So it seems.”
Sally felt her face split into a grin that she struggled to smother. She was thrilled that Steed would be overseeing their activities, and she was glad for Tara that it was Steed and not some unknown administrator.
“I have been placed in charge of the ministry’s operations in France – I believe you received a cable yesterday? Good,” Steed paced across the office, his eyes meeting Sally’s briefly with a wink as he turned back toward her desk.
“The first thing we’re going to do is close this office.”
Gasps from several places in the room were quickly muffled. But Steed’s wink reassured Sally that there was more to this announcement than they others seemed to think.
“Close it?” Tara finally managed to squeak out.
“The Paris office will move into the British Embassy compound.”
“Steed I’m sure you must know that we were evicted from the embassy when it ran out of space a few years ago,” Tara said, glancing to Bennett for confirmation. He was the only one of them who’d been in France at that time.
“Ancient history,” Steed waved away her objection. “I’m lunching with the ambassador. All will be arranged. Agent Nelson,” he faced the young man’s desk.
“Please schedule meetings for me with each of you for this afternoon at my hotel.” He dropped a card from the hotel on Nelson’s desk, then checked his watch. “Now I’m afraid I must run to the Embassy. I’ll see each of you this afternoon.”
And then he was gone, his hat and umbrella whisked off of Sally’s desk so quickly only she noticed.
“So that’s it. Mother handed it to me to deal with,” Steed concluded, watching Sally as he spoke. He didn’t think he was wrong to confide in her about why he was in charge now. She had proven her discretion to him long ago, and he rather liked having an ally in Tara’s organization. And he was certain Tara expected it, so best to take advantage of her expectations.
“James and I talked about it once,” Sally replied. “He pointed out to me how it could be bad for her career for her and Robbie to be assigned together. It’s sad, isn’t it? I guess it helps you realize how lucky you’ve been with Emma.”
“But it’s just the same, Sally. Emma was always my inferior – I mean, under my direction,” Steed looked slightly embarrassed at his choice of words.
“Do you really believe that?” Sally asked slyly. One of Steed’s brows rose and his expression threatened to turn annoyed. For a second Sally feared that she had poked too hard. But then Steed leaned back in his chair and laughed.
“Not for a moment. But that was how the organization saw it. And that’s how it will see Tara with McCall, if they’re together.”
“So what are you going to do? It sounds like you don’t want to put Tara in that position.”
“And I suspect you would prefer not to be there, either – if I brought McCall to Paris he’d naturally take command of the group.”
Sally schooled her features and hoped she succeeded in looking neutral. Steed smiled and she knew she’d failed.
“Sorry Sal old girl, you’ll have to wait and see what further surprises I’m going to spring. But meanwhile, will you join me for dinner tonight? I don’t want to dine with Tara and McCall and be chatted up the whole time.”
“I’d love to, only if you don’t tell any of them about it. You know how they’ll react, and Nelson is already standoffish.”
“My dear girl,” Steed stood up and gestured that she should too, that the interview was over. “You will come to value relationships like ours, even when they seem to cause you difficulty with others.”
“I do value it, Steed. But in a couple days you’ll be gone and Nelson will be shooting daggers across the room at me if he knows I had dinner with you.”
They had walked to the door as she spoke. Steed nodded understandingly as he opened the door.
“Point taken. I will simply have dinner plans if Tara asks. Meet me here at half seven. I’ll make reservations somewhere.”
“Thank you Steed. I’ll look forward to it.”
“Inside the embassy you will be more ‘in the loop,’ as they say. Six has altogether too much influence with the ambassador. They’re goals are admirable, but the details sometimes run contrary to our own. I want you inside so you can keep an eye on them.” Steed and Tara were seated in his room sipping Bordeaux from a bottle he’d bought after lunch.
“The spy watching the other spies, huh?” Tara sighed, imagining her job becoming considerably more demanding. This unhappy thought replaced her previous complaint about Steed’s plan, which had to do with location. The embassy was miles away from her flat.
Steed watched the play of emotions on her face. “But I should think you would be asking about Nice anyway – for you and McCall?”
“I never said I wanted to move to Nice,” she said defensively.
No, you don’t want to give up your command, he thought. Poor Tara, in love with her man and her career.
“But you still want to be with McCall.”
“Is that what all of this is about Steed? Are you in charge because we asked to be together?”
Steed smiled proudly – she was a very smart girl, even if her forthrightness sometimes worked to her disadvantage. He could not help still feeling responsible for her early development as an agent.
“Not entirely, no,” he lied. “But I do intend to remedy the situation to your benefit, my dear.”
“Tell me how? Are you thinking of sending me to Nice?”
Steed shook his head slowly, pursing his lips. “I can’t tell you yet. I will announce those changes tomorrow, after I’ve talked with everyone.”
Tara sighed and reached into her handbag, then pulled her hand back out and clasped it with the other in her lap.
“Still craving cigarettes?” Steed asked casually. Her eyes flashed at him, but she did not reply. He had read her file very carefully. His observation was carefully calculated to let her know that. He glanced at his wristwatch and rose.
“Bennett is due any minute,” he said pointedly. Tara looked up at him for a moment, and the discomfort in her eyes truly touched him. He held out his hand to her and she took it as she rose to her feet.
“I have your best interests at heart, Tara. I understand your feelings for McCall. And I have not forgotten what you have done for me in the past. Trust me.”
Tara felt the long absent frizzle of attraction to Steed flick through her body and she knew that she should, indeed, trust him. She smiled and let him lead her to the door.
“I trust you Steed. I know you won’t let us down.”
Steed shut the door after her and stared at the back of it for a moment. She was smart all right. Smart enough not to let him off the hook for his promise to bring her and her husband together, one way or another. He fully intended to do so, but not in the roles that everyone might expect. He had arranged it all over lunch with the ambassador and it had taken some fast talking to sell his concept. Tara had no idea how trying her request to be with McCall’s really was.
“Mrs. Steed, there’s a Mr. Edmond Stanton at the gate to see you,” Siobhan leaned in the library doorway. The security system included numerous cameras surveying all facades of the house and stable, and an intercom and remote control for the gate. After considerable deliberation they had moved the laundry to a small upstairs bedroom and installed all of the monitors in their place off of the kitchen. But Emma was already finding this arrangement inconvenient. Although a doorbell-type chime had sounded to signal someone was at the gate, Siobhan had had to go to the kitchen to find out who, then traverse the length of the house to tell Emma of her visitor. And she would have to go all the way back to let him in – assuming he didn’t give up and leave in the mean time. They needed intercoms.
“Thank you Siobhan. Please send him in. He’s from Knight – perhaps you remember him from Christmas.”
“Yes, I thought he looked familiar, but it’s difficult to tell with the black and white picture.”
Emma sighed as Siobhan disappeared. A trained security guard would be able to read the worst security camera image. Maybe that was the solution. How much staff can two – no three – people need?
A few minutes later Edmond appeared in library doorway, a warm smile on his face and a bunch of yellow roses in his hand.
“Emma!” he said, striding across the room toward her desk.
“Hello Edmond,” she rose and rounded the desk to take the flowers and give him a friendly kiss. As she withdrew his eyes fell on her bandaged wrist.
“What have you done, my dear?” he asked.
“It’s nothing, Edmond. A little twist in the wrong direction. It’s wonderful to see you,” Emma set the flowers on her desk and directed Edmond toward the sofa and armchairs across the room. “Would you like a sherry? It’s not too early, is it?”
Emma poured them each a glass from the drinks trolley that she kept stocked, then moved to her favorite armchair. He took his glass and settled on the sofa.
“So is this a social visit, or business?” Emma asked, studying Edmond curiously. He seemed unusually tense. She could not help but think about the questions about his past that she had been pondering for many months. “Not a problem with the software contract, I hope,” she added.
“Social, I suppose,” he replied. “No, business. I have something to tell you. Something I regret not telling you long ago. I’ve come to beg your forgiveness for my deception.”
“Come in Sally, I was just going to call Emma to be sure she’s having supper,” Steed said as he opened the door for the young agent. He was tying his necktie as he spoke, walking back across the room to the bedside telephone. Sally stepped in and shut the door, frowning at his statement.
“You’re checking up on her dinner?” she asked. Steed turned toward her as he smoothed his tie. His pained expression caught her off guard. “Steed?”
“Of course you wouldn’t know, would you,” he said more to himself than to her.
“Know what?” she moved toward him as he sat down on the bed near the telephone. To her it looked as if he’d suddenly deflated.
“Emma has not been well,” he said, slowly bringing his gaze to hers. “She stopped eating before the holidays and lost a great deal of weight. I was tortured in Venice last fall – you knew?” he paused to see Sally nod slightly. She had heard of his condition through the grapevine. “I had nightmares afterwards – not unusual for me. But these nightmares involved her and John. I told her about them. I did not realize how disturbed she already was about my condition. I never should have described the dreams. She was so disturbed she had a security system installed at the house, even though we’ve never been threatened at home.”
Sally took it all in with wide eyes and a stunned expression. Then she pursed her lips and studied her hands for a moment.
“Steed, in all of the cases you and Emma worked on was there ever one where one of you failed to rescue the other?”
“No,” he paused to consider, then shook his head in confirmation. “Somehow we always pulled each other out – sometimes just in the nick of time,” he smiled and she could see he was remembering something.
“But this time Emma failed. She didn’t rescue you did she?” Sally did not know the details of the case, of course, but she had heard from Tara, who’d been there, that Steed had escaped his captors on his own.
Steed stared across the room for a moment, then shook his head.
“Emma is not used to failing, Steed. That alone would be deeply disturbing. And she has never really faced the reality – the difficulty – of mixing being a spy with having a family. I should think it would have hit her hard, the responsibility of keeping you and John safe. She still wants to be your partner, but she also wants to be your wife and raise your child. She must be struggling with balancing it all.”
“You are a very perceptive young woman, Sally. And you certainly understand the risks of commitment to a spy.”
Sally nodded, thinking about the confusion of feelings she herself struggled with regarding James.
Steed reached for the telephone and began to dial.
“Please don’t mention any of this too her,” he added hastily as he listened to the distant ringing of the phone at his home. Sally nodded agreement.
Speaking with Emma, she could hear a strain in her voice, but she ignored it and asked after John, her painting, and other neutral topics. Emma seemed to brighten as they talked and as Sally handed the telephone to Steed she added another item to her list of reasons to be homesick – she wished that she could have been there during Emma’s turmoil. Perhaps she could have helped her friend.
“I never thought when I came to the conclusion that I would find a way to continue my work and also marry Emma that she might also need to reconcile the difficulties,” Steed said once they were seated with menus and a bottle of wine. “I knew it was an unusual choice – most field agents do what James did – they resign, or get out of the field.”
“What James did?” Sally’s eyes widened.
“You didn’t know he’d been married?”
“I had no idea. I thought he never would –.” She stopped short, struggling to imagine James resigning from the service for a woman. It was incomprehensible, and yet, Steed said it was so. “Where is she now? He isn’t still –!” she stopped short again, suddenly horrified at the possibility that James may have been deceiving her all this time.
“No, she died. It was a long time ago.”
“Who was she? What was she like?”
Steed stared at her for a moment, wondering how he had fallen into this. But he reckoned that she deserved to hear it all, and she might very well burst if she didn’t. Who knew what she’d hear if she started asking around.
“He met Tracy in Portugal during a case. It was love at first sight – they quarreled,” he chuckled. “The countessa was beautiful, athletic, filthy rich, and spoiled. Her father settled on James as the right man to tame his daughter. James didn’t agree, at first. But she got through to him somehow, and he to her.”
“A rich countessa,” Sally repeated, and Steed realized she had not heard anything after that.
“He concluded his case and gave his notice. They were married soon after that, in Portugal. They were driving away from the wedding when they were attacked.”
“Right after their wedding?”
“Yes. They were shooting at James, of course. But she was hit. She died instantly.”
“Oh God,” Sally gasped, one hand pressed to her mouth. Steed waited for her to regain her composure, which she did, although her eyes still reflected her horror at such a terrible tragedy. “Poor James.”
“Indeed. It explains a lot about his behavior, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sally whispered, taking a gulp of her wine. “A countessa,” she repeated quietly.
“The title wasn’t important, Sally. I’m sorry I mentioned it. What mattered was that he loved her enough to resign his commission to be with her.”
“Of course it matters. It matters when you’re like me, just a country peasant.”
Steed could see tears welling up in her eyes. He had never intended to unearth such deep emotions at the dinner table. He waited, confident that she would regain her control. As he watched her dab at the corners of her eyes and take a deep breath he reached a decision.
“I hate to meddle, Sally. But you’ve had a hand in my and Emma’s affairs so I suppose turnabout is fair play.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw James a few days ago. He told me that you are the first woman he’s known, since Tracy, who makes him feel the same way that she did.”
Sally’s face turned crimson. She could feel how hot it was and that made her even more embarrassed. She wiped her mouth with her napkin just for something to do as she absorbed the import of Steed’s words. She had never expected such a confession from James, and the fact that he’d made it to Steed, not her, only increased the significance. His feelings were so strong he was not comfortable discussing them with her.
“What should I do?” she finally asked.
Steed’s eyes widened in surprise. “Why, whatever you’re already doing, I should think. But Sally, if you feel the same way about him, you should find a way to let him know. Because he has no idea.”
“Family? Are you here?” Steed called, setting his valise on the floor in the entry. He could hear a radio or television coming from the direction of the kitchen. Then a movement beyond the French doors in the dining room caught his eye. He went to the doors that looked out on the enclosed garden and covered pool. It was a snow-dusted fairyland, and Emma was dancing around a sculpture in the middle of it. Near her feet little John, enveloped in a tiny snowsuit, was examining the snow.
Unable to contain his pleasure at the sight of them, Steed opened the door and stepped out, smiling. Emma paused, her mittens hovering above the surface of her sculpture.
“You’re home!” she grinned at him, then moved on around the sculpture, stopping behind it.
“That’s a peculiar snowman, Mrs. Peel,” he observed, eyeing the tall, curved spire of snow with an oblong lump of snow at its base. The two shapes were situated on a snow pedestal several feet high, so the entire work had a looming appearance.
“It’s my winter pieta,” Emma replied, her hands tracing the delicate, curved spire. Steed saw it immediately – the mother and child in minimalist terms. Very modern, very simple, and very much Emma’s style. He felt a rush of gladness at the sight of her creating. It had been months since she’d painted or shot and developed photographs.
“If you say so,” he said dismissively, because he was sure it was the reaction she expected. As if to confirm his cynicism, a snowball sailed out from behind the sculpture and hit him square in the chest.
“Hey!” he shouted with a laugh, diving toward John. He picked up the startled baby and held him at arms length in front of himself. “I have a shield!” he added. Emma stepped around her sculpture with another snowball in hand. She studied her husband and son, then tossed the snowball low and with precise aim.
“Below the belt!” Steed growled, bringing John to his chest to hold him tight and kiss his little exposed nose. “Your mother is a cheater.”
“I take advantage of opportunities,” she countered, walking to them. Steed removed one arm from John and drew her into an embrace. “Hello darling,” she added, molding herself to him so tightly he felt a familiar, welcome rush of desire.
“I don’t mind a physical welcome,” he purred, “but of a different nature, if you please.”
Emma’s intimate little smile lit her face. She put her hands on his cheeks and drew him into a delicious kiss.
“That’s better,” he sighed when she released him. “Come upstairs.”
“Siobhan is making supper. We can’t disappear upstairs for hours.”
“It needn’t be hours – .”
“Oh?” her arched brow conveyed the rest. She wanted him, too, and a quick encounter before supper would not satisfy. He did his best to look put out, but knowing what would eventually come fanned the flames so tantalizingly he did not mind waiting.
By the time they had removed coats and snowsuits and washed hands, Siobhan’s supper was ready. The four of them – five when Gilbert padded in and plunged his muzzle into his dish in the corner — ate together in the kitchen. Steed felt overwhelmed with happiness at his home and family. Each time he looked around at them he knew it was nothing short of a miracle that he had them.
But when supper was over and the washing up done Emma declared that she intended to watch a television program on photography. Siobhan took John off to bed, and Steed, seeing that his wife was not kidding, went off himself in a mostly fake huff.
“Married life, Steed,” Emma called after him as she turned on the television.
An hour later she came into the bedroom and found him naked in bed with a thick book. He looked up as she shut the door and strode slowly toward him. She seemed to glow with newly regained health. Her face had filled out and he was sure her breasts were fuller. With a surge of physical desire he imagined the pleasure of finding out for sure.
“Come lie down,” he said, his voice rough with desire. She smiled triumphantly and he realized that her delaying tactics were just that. “Vixen,” he growled, setting his book aside and preparing to rise. “Teasing a desperate man.”
She came to the bed before he could rise and put one knee on it beside him. She began slowly unbuttoning her sweater. He watched, mesmerized by the sight of her skin slowly exposed. His hands rose to her hips and held her as her sweater came open to reveal her lacy black brassier and the alabaster skin of her stomach below it.
“Emma,” he sighed, slipping his hands up her bare back to pull her to him. She shrugged her sweater off as he kissed her stomach, inhaling her scent, tasting her salty sweet skin, placing kisses between her breasts, up her throat, and finally, as he pressed her to the bed beside him, on her beautiful face.
They rediscovered one another as they often had after an absence: with vigorous enthusiasm. Emma had realized when she pressed herself into his arms in the snow that she had not felt such desire in months. Just a few days of a regular diet had brought back more than just her strength and good mood. She reveled in Steed’s skilled attention and returned his kisses and caresses joyfully.
Their passion built slowly but to a fever pitch so hot and needy, and so attuned to one another, they both sought to quench it at once. Emma reached for him, one hand on his muscular ass, the other at the back of his neck, just as he rose over her and reached down where he had already stroked her from warmth to blazing desire. She groaned with anticipation as he parted her, and half cried, half yelled as his hot, solid erection filled her. Her breath caught in her throat as her loins erupted around him, her hips moving of their own volition with him as he thrust over and over, faster with each hard stroke. He threw his head back and moaned out her name, his loins pulsing into hers, his hands gripping the sheet on either side of her head. Her own hand dug red welts in his ass as she gripped him, pressing him into herself, trying with all her might to make him a part of her, or she of him.
And for a brief, sublime moment it was true. They sailed over the highest peaks of joined pleasure and drifted down the other side, their bodies collapsing limp and sated, unable, for a moment, to move. And then Steed shifted to her side, one arm under her neck, the other across her stomach. And she sat up just enough to reach the sheet and pull it up over them to ward off the chill in the room. And then they rested.
“A few days ago you said you wanted to know my deepest secrets,” she said after a while. Steed lifted his head to look into her eyes. She was staring at the ceiling, but her eyes flicked to his for a moment, then back.
“You have always been a mystery to me in some ways, Emma. I hope one day to truly understand you. But I suppose it’s the mystery that holds me, so you might not want to reveal too much.”
She turned her face to look at him and found a fond, amused expression on his face.
“I can only tell you what I know myself, love. I think we both have enough dark corners to keep one another guessing for a long time to come.”
“Touché,” he smiled, pressing his lips lightly to hers.
“You wondered about how I find balance. You realize that I lost it after Venice – that’s why you wanted to know, to help me regain it. And you have Steed. I can see that I was lost, and I know where I need to go now. But I’m also desperately afraid that I will lose it again when you need me most.”
Steed managed to look surprised despite Sally’s observations to him. He was not surprised that the young woman had been right.
“But you didn’t fail, Emma. I got impatient and left before you got there for me.”
Emma stared at him in silence for a moment, then the corners of her lips curled into a smile. He returned it, leaning close to kiss her again. “You did, didn’t you?” she whispered, her smiling eyes locked with his. And together, at last, they found understanding. He understood the fear that had caused her such distress, and she understood that to him she had never failed at all.
“I have only felt so out of control twice before in my life: when my father died, and in the weeks just before Peter disappeared.”
“Tell me about him, Emma. Tell me about the man you fell in love with.”
“You’re the man I fell in love with, Steed,” she said.
But he persisted. “He was first. Tell me. Please.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, clearly puzzled by his request. In the past the last thing he had wanted to hear about was her attraction to her first husband. But, she realized, it was one of her secrets – at least it was a secret to him. She could give him this, she should give it to him after his own story the other day.
“The Knight board had voted me CEO and I had taken over with – well, the press called it ‘youthful enthusiasm and zeal,’” she grimaced. He smiled.
“I met Peter at a benefit for Cancer research. You know the type: two hundred pounds for a plate of roasted chicken and dancing to a mediocre band. The board was determined that I be a very public figure. They sent me to the worst of the best events, and the best of the worst, I suppose. My face was in the society pages weekly. But I saw to it that my name, or at least Knight’s name, was in the business pages even more often.”
“I remember,” Steed said. And at her surprised look he added, “I remember seeing your face in the society pages. And Knight’s name in the business section.”
“You never said,” she said, quite surprised to hear this now, after so many years.
“I didn’t want you to think that I was judging you based on your public image. Better not to let you know I was aware of it. And naive of you not to realize that I must be – you knew I read the paper.”
“I just –,” she stopped looking half puzzled, half annoyed, “I just never thought about it. Now I feel rather foolish.”
“Hush, don’t be silly. Go on.”
She pursed her lips at him for a moment, then took a breath to resume her story.
“Peter inserted himself into my schedule. He would turn up at my office after seven and take me to dinner, then bring me home.”
“Certainly not. But he would be back in the morning with croissants, or on weekends with champagne and orange juice. He never pressured me to work less or change my schedule.”
Steed smirked. “You were incredibly lucky to find such a man.”
“Yes, I thought so, too. So I started altering my schedule to spend more time with Peter. He was charming, attractive, and, I finally realized, devoted. He made it easy to love him.”
“So you obliged,” Steed said, somewhat nastily.
“Do you want me to go on?”
Steed gave it a moment of thought: intellectually, he did. Emotionally, he had once again reached a point where he could not bear to imagine her with someone else.
“Please go on,” he finally said. She nodded.
“When he proposed it was an obvious decision. I like to believe that his courtship was not just to get access to Knight. But I still have doubts that prey on me. I have never felt able to trust my heart completely again.”
Steed was astonished. He’d had no idea that she was so unsure of Peter’s motives. She had mentioned it once or twice before, but he had mistaken it for idle observation, not for something that truly plagued her even now. His instinct was to try to help her – to try to find out whether Peter had been involved then with the criminals who he later worked with. But he could not do that now. He put the idea aside for later consideration.
“I feel awfully fortunate that you gave me the time of day when we met, after being so badly hurt.”
“You knew I would be fascinated by the case you asked me to help with.”
“I hoped you would be fascinated,” he corrected her. “I have rarely hoped for anything quite so much, in fact.”
Emma shot him a skeptical look.
“You were exactly what I was looking for in a partner,” he added. “When you agreed not only to help with the case, but to see me socially I was ecstatic. But I still wonder why you did.”
“I was lonely. I had pushed my friends away for fear that they would ask questions about Peter and I would have to admit what he had done to me. You were safe. You would not ask about Peter, and if you did I could deflect it since you had never known him.”
“I have been called many things, Mrs. Peel, but ‘safe’ has never been one of them,” Steed snorted.
“Don’t you think the women you dated considered you safe? The perfect gentleman, comfortable in any social situation, and no possibility of messy emotional entanglements.”
“You knew that – even then? And you let yourself get involved.”
“The heart is ungovernable, Steed. I realized that I was in love with you — and I accepted that my love would go unrequited.”
“I was a bastard,” he nearly spat, shutting his eyes very tight.
“You were who you were,” she replied, caressing the side of his face with one hand. He opened his eyes to meet her gaze. “And I was not exactly open. I loved you, but I couldn’t risk myself again, not after Peter. Our relationship suited both of us. And look, we’ve managed to live happily ever after.”
“Have we, Emma? Are we all right?”
“I was so afraid, Steed. How can we be safe – how can we keep John safe – if I can’t do my part?”
“You can do your part, darling. You have never lost the things that make you who you are – your mind, your commitment, your wit. You will regain your strength in no time. And I will do my part for our family. I’m moving out of the field – Mother is forcing it, and I’m letting him. No,” he pressed a finger to her lips to stop her protest, “it’s what I want. I want John to have a father. I want to live my life with you, not lose it in the field. I’ve done my duty risking everything for Queen and country.”
“Oh Steed,” Emma sighed, “we can’t have it all, can we?”
“If you mean one another, children, and seeking vengeance on diabolical masterminds on a daily basis, then no, I don’t suppose we can. I am sorry.”
“I suppose we shall have to make the best of it,” Emma’s lips curled in a sly smile as her fingers slid over Steed’s chest.
“Anything you want, my love,” he whispered against her ear. Her fingers twined into his hair and drew his head up so that she could find his lips with hers. Very soon they were engaged in a series of deep kisses, exploring one another once again.
“I forgot to mention, darling, Edmond came to see me while you were away,” Emma said the following morning. Steed was reading the morning paper, which was delivered now by Hal the groom since the paper delivery refused to deal with the security gate. Hal had been cleared by the ministry, so he, like Siobhan and the gardener, had the gate access code.
“Did he?” Steed replied brightly, “that was thoughtful of him.”
When Emma did not respond he lowered his section of the paper to look across at her. She looked both expectant and irritated. He arched his brows inquiringly.
“He told me that he’s been working for MI-6 ever since the war. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
Steed set the paper on the table and took a sip of his coffee, watching her all the while.
“I found out recently. I gave Stanton a chance to tell you himself.”
She nodded, immediately accepting his actions, and took a sip of her own coffee which, Steed realized, was not on her diet. He banished the small frown that crossed his face before she saw it.
“It isn’t so much that he didn’t tell me all these years. I understand the concept of ‘need to know.’ It’s that he discouraged my involvement with the ministry and you, all the while knee deep in the business himself.”
“He might have been trying to protect you, you know.”
“From getting hurt again, after Peter.”
Emma considered this for a moment. It could be true. But she had another thought.
“Do you think he remembers counter signing that contract years ago? The one you have locked away?” She was referring to an assassination contract signed by someone who, today, was very highly placed in government. If the contract were exposed, he would likely be ruined. Steed had not executed the commission, in fact, the sheer wrongness of it was what had finally driven him to return to England and join the service. But he had kept the document all these years as its author had risen in power and popularity, his very secret, very powerful insurance policy.
“If he does, would he remember that it was sent to me?” Steed asked.
“Suppose he does. He might have discouraged me from being involved with you in order to keep some distance between you and him.”
Steed thought about it. And he thought about what political opinions he’d heard Stanton express over the years of their acquaintance. He realized that he’d heard Stanton talk politics with others, but never with him. If Stanton was still supportive of the author of that contract, then he might very well know Steed’s part in it, and want to avoid too much contact.
“Well, if he did, then he failed. But it would be interesting to know more about his political leanings.”
Emma stared at him for a moment, perhaps following the same train of thought that he just had. When she nodded he knew that she had.
“I have no idea. That’s odd, isn’t it? Since I’ve known him for so long. He had never expressed a political idea in my presence, and yet, I’m sure he is not apolitical.”
“Perhaps you can put out some discrete feelers.”
“I can be the soul of discretion,” she agreed, sipping more coffee.
“I feel guilty about this, love, but I’m desperate for a ride. I know you can’t join me – doctor’s orders,” Steed said a few minutes later.
“You should feel guilty. But go. And give Dancer my love.”
“I shall. You should visit her. Bring her a carrot. I’m sure she’s feeling guilty, too.”
“Don’t anthropomorphize, Steed,” Emma scolded. He assumed a puzzled expression, teasing her for using showy words. She looked blank for a moment, truly not realizing why he was being dense. He winked and she smirked at him, understanding his taunt. “I’ll keep an eye out for your return and come out to meet you,” she suggested. He smiled cheerfully and gulped the last of his coffee before heading upstairs to change into riding clothes.
“You aren’t wasting any time,” Sally said, watching agent Nelson sorting through the contents of his desk drawer. He was dropping items into a small cardboard box on the floor.
Steed’s announcements on the second day of his visit had been even more startling than his plan to close their Paris office. During his private interview Pierce Sheldon had begged Steed to move him out of La Rochelle. He claimed he was sick of western France, but Steed knew it must have something to do with a woman. In any event, moving Sheldon had suited Steed’s needs. Sheldon would go to Nice and Nelson, who’d been in Paris for a couple of years, would move to La Rochelle – his first solo posting. McCall, Tara’s husband, would come to Paris, but not as part of the ministry cell there. Steed had coaxed the ambassador into accepting McCall as a special security advisor. As such he would report directly to Steed, on the same level as his wife Tara. Steed had conceived of the arrangement as a way to accommodate Tara’s request to be with her husband without demoting her. And he’d managed to execute it so that he now had both Tara’s cell and McCall next to the Ambassador. MI-6 would find it much harder to run its agents through the embassy to wreak havoc in Western Europe without him and therefore Mother knowing about it. It was not that MI-6’s goals were counter the ministry’s, but sometimes their methods were much more heavy handed. They often damaged relationships that the ministry’s people had worked hard to build.
Sally was excited about working inside the Embassy, and she was glad that Steed had rewarded Nelson’s years of service under Tara. She did admit to herself that she was envious, even though she knew she wasn’t yet ready for a solo posting. She’d thought Nelson would soften toward her since Steed had obviously favored him in his reorganization, but this morning as he packed his desk he seemed as unfriendly as ever.
“I have to get to la Rochelle so Sheldon can brief me before he goes to Nice. McCall’s coming here first thing next week, so Sheldon has to get there by the weekend.”
Sally couldn’t argue with his logic, although she wasn’t sure that the timetable was quite that accelerated.
“…I think they may have seen me. I’m sorry Steed, but I just couldn’t sit tight –.”
“Mike?” Emma interrupted. She’d been in the bedroom when she saw Steed ride in from the woods, so she’s rushed to the kitchen for carrots. She’d been hurrying past Steed’s study toward the library and its door to the outside when she’d heard Gambit’s voice coming from the telephone recorder.
“Yes. What’s wrong?”
“Is Steed there?”
Emma rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and grit her teeth at the obtuseness of some men. Of course he’s not here or he’d have answered the telephone. “He’s out in the stable,” she replied. “I can go get him, or you can tell me what’s wrong – you sound like it’s urgent.”
She was proud of herself for refraining from demanding that he stop wasting time and just tell her what was going on.
“I was supposed to keep a low profile – we expected Cardiff to come after me. But I had a hunch, and I couldn’t sit at home. I’ve been tailing Cardiff, and this morning I tailed two of his men to Victoria. There’s a train heading for the stations nearest Barnes’s facility in ten minutes. I’m sure they’re going to take it, so I got in line for a ticket. Then they spotted me. I got into this call box, but I’m sure they saw which way I went. Hell – there they are!”
“Can you get out of sight?” Emma asked, picking up the telephone and carrying it toward the window. Its cord didn’t reach that far. She set it on a chair and carried the receiver the rest of the way, stretching the coiled handset cord to its full extent. She unlatched and opened the window, which had a view of the stables.
“It’s too late. They’re heading this way. Tell Steed I’m sorry.”
“Don’t hang up, Mike,” Emma nearly shouted into the receiver. She leaned out the window and waved her free arm wildly. Across the lawn she could see Steed standing at Commander’s head, obviously talking to his horse.
“ – come on! Get out of there –,” a strange voice came through the receiver followed by a thump that sounded like the handset banging a wall.
“Steed!” Emma shouted, waving even more wildly.
Steed looked up at the house, saw her waving, and waved back, then gestured that she should join him. Frustrated, she waved the telephone receiver out the window, then put it back to her ear.
“Gambit?” she said. All she could hear was muffled voices and an odd scraping sound.
Over at the stable Steed suddenly realized that she was calling him to the telephone. He patted Commander on the withers and hurried toward the house. Relieved, Emma shut the window and returned the telephone to the desk. She did not hang up the receiver just in case Steed wanted to try to trace the call.
He came in through the library, which was next to his study.
“Emma?” he asked as he joined her. He immediately took in the receiver sitting on the desk and Emma holding a pair of carrots.
“I heard Mike’s voice coming from the recorder as I was passing. I picked it up and he said he had followed Cardiff’s men to Victoria and he thought they were taking a train to Barnes’s facility.”
“He was not supposed to be following Cardiff’s men.”
“Right. He did tell me to say he was sorry.”
“Bloody lot of good that does!” Steed nearly shouted, picking up the receiver. “Gambit?”
He frowned, looking at Emma. She shook her head.
“While I was speaking to him they spotted him. They took him.”
Steed slammed down the receiver, then sucked in a deep breath to calm his anger.
“I thought you might want to trace it,” Emma said, staring at the telephone and imagining the lost connection. Steed frowned at her, then looked at the phone too.
“Bloody hell,” he said.
“That’s succinct. But maybe it doesn’t matter – if they took him, they aren’t hanging around Victoria anyway.” Emma bit the end off of one of her carrots and pointed it at him. He had to smile at her, had to admit she was right. And being angry with Gambit was counterproductive. He picked up the receiver and started dialing.
“I’ll get ready to go,” Emma said, taking another bite of carrot as she headed for the door.
“Where?” Steed asked, holding his hand over the mouthpiece as he listened to the ringing on the other end.
“Barnes’s lab,” Emma shrugged as if it were obvious, which it was. Steed nodded as he turned back toward the desk and someone answered his call.
“Brigadier Smythe-Bailey is sending a section to meet us,” Steed said once they were in the Bentley zooming toward Dr. Barnes’s lab. “That’s eight men – hopefully Cardiff doesn’t have more.”
“Do you think he’s going to try to take the machine? Wouldn’t it make sense for him to leave it where it is and just collect the gems?”
“He may be feeling threatened – that was our intention with Gambit. We wanted to force his hand.”
“That seems to have worked.”
The sight from a distance of a lorry backed up to the loading entrance of Barnes’s facility caused Steed to press the Bentley to her top speed over the last quarter mile. He braked her to a skidding halt in front of the lab facility and he and Emma hopped out almost before she was at a full stop. There was no sign of the army.
It was a weekday mid-afternoon, but the receptionist was not at her desk when they charged past it and on down the corridor toward the lab containing the machine. The door was open and the ominous sound of the machine powering up spurred them to an even faster pace.
Steed burst through the doorway umbrella first. Emma followed, her good arm raised in a protective position, her injured one held tight across her torso. Steed charged on across the room without pause, bowling down a man standing at the control console. Emma paused to look around and cried out in shock at what she saw. Amid the swirling black dust in the chamber was the unmistakable form of a man. As Emma watched he pressed his palms against the thick Plexiglass barrier, giving the impression of disembodied hands trying to get out.
A second man near the machine had spun around as Steed attacked his companion. Emma took advantage of his momentary distraction to charge him, stopping short just out of his reach to aim a sharp kick at his torso. He had swung an arm back to strike her, and her unexpected kick threw him off balance. He slammed against the chamber and Emma landed another kick that shoved him to the side. He stumbled to his hands and knees and Emma struck him from below so that he let out a loud “umpf” and collapsed to the floor.
Behind Emma Steed and the other man were still exchanging blows, but Steed had forced his opponent away from the console. Seeing that her man was down for the moment, Emma darted to the console and began the shut-down sequence of commands that she had watched Dr. Barnes use.
As she drew down a lever to adjust the pressurization setting Steed’s opponent smashed into her, dragging her away from the console. Steed, who he’d thrown against the far wall, came after them. Seeing that Emma had her good arm around the man’s throat as they rolled across the floor Steed left her to it and stopped instead at the console. He took a moment to figure out what step in the process she had gotten to and reach for the lever. As his fingers closed on it Emma’s opponent, who’d recovered his breath, came staggering across the room toward him. Steed raised an arm to ward off his weak blow, but had to abandon the console to defend himself against the next punch, which was stronger.
Across the room Emma and the other man rolled several times, Emma’s elbow banging painfully on the floor with each rotation. They fetched up against the wall with Emma on top. She ruthlessly dragged her knee up and planted it in a very sensitive location, putting all her weight on it for a moment as she scrambled to her feet. She spun around and saw Steed rabbit punching the other man, the machine still roaring away. She couldn’t see the man in the chamber at all now through the dust.
She hurried back to the console and reached for the lever, pausing to be sure that Steed had not changed any other settings. She drew it down to reduce the pressure in the chamber. Something slammed into her back and she collapsed over the console, the lever digging painfully into her ribs. She spun around, ready to kick out, but found Steed’s back just inches away. He landed another punch on his opponent and the man finally went down. The one Emma had kneed was still down, his hands cupped protectively over his groin.
Steed watched his man fall, gasping for air himself. Emma tapped him on the shoulder and spun around, initially defensively, but then smiling at Emma. She turned back around to continue powering down the machine and Steed ran over to the chamber to open the latches.
“Steed! It’s Cardiff!” Emma’s shout from behind drew his gaze, but she was already heading for the door. Steed hurried after her, reaching the door just in time to see Cardiff turn a corner twenty paces in front of her. Steed was momentarily torn, but he trusted Emma to undertake a safe pursuit, so he returned to the chamber and opened it.
“Gambit!” he dragged the man’s inert body out, raising a cloud of thick, black dust. Coughing hard, he rolled Gambit onto his back and patted his cheeks, then grabbed his wrist to feel for a pulse. Gambit began coughing hard so Steed dropped his wrist and dragged at his shoulders to bring him to a sitting position.
“Hurts,” Gambit gasped, so Steed let him lie back.
“Just relax. I could be wrong, but I think you’ve got the bends, my friend,” Steed said, worried, but at the same time relieved that the other agent was alive.
Two military jeeps were stopping in front of the building as Emma came running out of the front door. Cardiff was already in the road and running hard. As the passengers – three soldiers — climbed out of the lead jeep Emma jumped into the front passenger seat.
“Go after that man!” she ordered the surprised solider behind the wheel. He looked her up and down, taking in her burgundy catsuit with its short, white rabbit fur trim, then he looked at Cardiff, sprinting away. He spun the steering wheel and hit the accelerator and the jeep leapt forward down the road.
“All right, don’t move!”
Steed spun on the balls of his feet, still crouched over Gambit. He was looking into the barrel of a standard army issue semiautomatic rifle.
“That’s a bit much, don’t you think?” he asked dryly. Beside him Gambit coughed again. The soldier did not move. “Steed. John Steed. I called you fellows.” Steed added without moving. He could imagine himself reaching for his identification and being mowed down with his hand in his jacket.
“You’re Steed? Let’s see some ID, if you don’t mind.”
Steed stood up slowly, and equally slowly reached into his jacket to retrieve his billfold.
“This man has been in the compression chamber,” he went on when the soldier had lowered his weapon. “He needs to be taken to the hyperbaric chamber at the Bailey training facility immediately, as quickly as possible over land – he can’t fly.”
“Yes sir. We’ll call for an ambulance,” the soldier turned to issue orders.
“Hold on Mike. I know it hurts. Have I ever told you about the time I surfaced too quickly from a dive in the Med?”
“Someone chasing you?” Gambit muttered.
“No, absolutely gorgeous blonde swimming away from me.”
“Did you catch her?”
“Yes, but the bends hurt so much I couldn’t do anything with her!”
“He’s gone off the road,” Emma said, grabbing the top of the dirty windscreen to pull herself up with her good arm and look over it. Cardiff had darted off the road between the well-spaced trees and was running across a mown field. Emma held on tight as the jeep swerved off the road after him.
“Sorry miss,” the driver shouted up at her. Emma dropped back down into her seat.
“Come along side him,” she said, “on my side.”
The soldier glanced at her, but she was already pulling her legs up onto her seat, crouching ready to spring out onto Cardiff. With a slight shake of his head, the soldier adjusted his course and in seconds came along side the running Cardiff. Emma leapt out onto his back so that he went sprawling. Emma somersaulted and rolled to her feet a few feet beyond. She was just spinning back around to face him when he came at her, landing a solid punch to her stomach before she could protect herself.
The soldier stopped the jeep a few feet further on and jumped out and ran back. Winded, Emma rolled under Cardiff’s second blow to the side of her head. Then the soldier grabbed Cardiff from behind and slugged him hard across the face. Emma stood doubled over and watched the soldier duck a blow from Cardiff and hit him again. Cardiff went down and the soldier planted a big, booted foot on the middle of his upper back. He turned toward Emma, noticeably straightening his shoulders as he did. Emma got the distinct impression he was trying to impress her. She ignored the pain in her temple and forced herself upright.
“Let’s get him back to the lab,” she said with a dazzling smile, just for his benefit.
They could already hear the wail of an ambulance, and they saw it stop in front of the lab as they approached from the other direction. Emma took it as a good sign – Gambit must still be alive.
“There you are Mrs. Peel. And Mr. Cardiff,” Steed stepped away from the group of soldiers he was speaking with when Emma entered with Cardiff and her new soldier friend in tow.
“Private Klein deserves all the credit,” she said, smiling again at the young man. He seemed to bask in the glow of her smile, and for a moment she felt guilty for flirting. I’m a mother, for heaven’s sake! But then again, if he can’t tell…
While Emma touched the sore side of her head, Steed quickly dispatched the soldiers to take Cardiff and his men into custody and begin securing the machine. Emma quickly dropped her hand when he looked her way, gesturing for her to follow him toward the back of the facility and the Barnes apartment.
“Head all right?” he asked as they walked. She grimaced. He noticed.
“Cardiff hit me,” she said. “Perhaps you can kiss it to make it feel better, later.”
Steed barked a short laugh, then turned a distinctly lecherous smile on her. “You can be certain that I will,” he said, and despite her aching head she felt a delicious shiver of anticipation.
As quickly as he’d risen to her sensual bait, he returned to business.
“Apparently Cardiff drove up in the lorry with his two men and Gambit in the back. He must have met them at the station. They ran off all of the staff and made Dr. Barnes show them how to operate the machine. Then they sent Barnes back to his apartment with his wife. Two of the soldiers found him there. I told them to leave him be.”
“What are you going to do about him?”
“Oh, he’s to be well taken care of. Assuming he wants to be,” Steed opened the door to the Barnes apartment without knocking. “Dr. Barnes?” he called out into the tidy sitting room.
Dr. Barnes’s wife appeared in the doorway to the dining room. “In here Mr. Steed,” she said. “Please come in.”
Steed and Emma followed her into the dining room where they’d had lunch on their previous visit. Dr. Barnes was sitting at the table with his hands clasped in front of him. Steed took the seat across from him. Emma remained standing across from Mrs. Barnes.
“Dr. Barnes, the military has secured your machine. Jock Cardiff had planned to load it into that truck outside and haul it away. Did you know anything about that?”
“No! I mean, I only found out today when they got here.”
“Did you know your machine has been producing gem-quality diamonds?” Emma asked.
“Industrial diamonds, Miss Knight. It is designed to make industrial diamonds.”
“The diamonds your machine has been producing for the past several weeks have been gem quality, Dr. Barnes. Your calibrations have increased its performance that much. Cardiff had the samples he took tested, just like I did.”
“Never again. I will never accept investors again,” Barnes moaned, raising his hands to hold both sides of his head. Emma wanted to imitate the gesture – her own head was still throbbing.
“That may not be necessary, Dr. Barnes,” Steed said gently, “at least not for the foreseeable future. The military would like to purchase your machine. And they would like to engage you to document the calibration settings – determine exactly how to set it to make various grades of diamonds.”
“Charles, you could do your work, and feel safe,” Mrs. Barnes stepped close to her husband to put her hands on his shoulders. Barnes lowered his hands slowly, the tension in his face gradually easing.
“Tell me what to do, Mr. Steed.”
“May I join you?” Steed asked. He was standing in the bathroom naked. His solidly muscled body crisscrossed with scars was a little rounder in the middle than it had been when they’d met, but if anything to her it was even more solidly erotic. He looked too relaxed to feel the need of a soak in warm water. Emma, reclining in the bath, eyed him appreciatively.
“I was hoping you would,” she replied, her nostrils flaring as a wave of yearning warmed her to her toes.
Steed climbed into the big bathtub facing her, his legs sliding along the bottom beside her. She ran her hand along his calf to his knee under the water, watching him lay his head back and exhale a long, contented sigh.
After leaving Dr. Barnes’s facility they’d stopped at the Bailey training facility – an army installation where soldiers were trained in SCUBA diving – to check on Gambit. Emma was not surprised that Steed had known that this was the closest hyperbaric chamber to Barnes’s machine. She was sure that he had sought out this information on the chance that a person might end up in the pressurized diamond-creating chamber. Few people knew of his methodical research before delving into every case. It was one of the things she respected the most about him – his ability to determine what he should know and his quick location and absorption of the information. He liked to compliment her intelligence, but for all his acting the well-mannered fop she knew that he was just as intelligent as she was. She could never have fallen in love with him if he weren’t.
Gambit was under pressure in the chamber the equivalent of five-hundred feet below the surface of the sea. They would bring him back to normal pressure very gradually overnight. Steed and Emma had peered in at him through the small window in the chamber, wishing him well over the microphone provided for communication with trainees.
He’d been supplied with food, water, and magazines, but he’d looked rather dejected and Emma could guess that he was feeling very embarrassed for disobeying Steed’s orders. Steed had not mentioned it since his initial outburst, but Emma was sure he’d discuss it with Gambit when the junior agent was better. She was glad that Steed had kept Gambit close after the Venice case. She liked him. There was something about Gambit’s respect for Steed and Steed’s fondness for Gambit that reassured her. She knew she could count of Gambit to watch Steed’s back when she could not.
“It seems like we should be packing for a get-away,” She observed as Steed relaxed into the bath water.
“A case-closed holiday?” he asked, raising his head to look at her.
“Yes. Do you miss them?”
“Considering that they were a frail attempt at being an ordinary, happy couple, I think that this is by far the better option, love.”
Emma was astonished. She had always regarded their post-case trips as a brief chance for them to be just John and Emma on holiday. She had never guessed that he felt that way too.
“And just because we’re here at home does not mean we can’t pretend that we’re somewhere else. We rarely left our room on those trips anyway,” he added.
Emma splashed him playfully. “We did too.”
“Only for the contrast – it made returning to our room that much more interesting.”
“Our rooms. At least we don’t have to play that charade anymore,” she explained.
“Ah. Another of the many benefits of marriage,” he said, stretching his arms high above his head. “You were flirting with Private Klein,” he added, flashing her a wolfish smile.
“He was sweet. And I was flattered,” she shrugged. If Steed couldn’t tolerate a little harmless flirtation, she would have to rethink her own tolerance of his usual behavior around other women.
He continued to smile, studying her speculatively. She finally allowed her eyes to narrow. “What Steed?”
“You actually have doubts about your attractiveness,” he said. “Good Lord, Emma, you are spectacular. You have always been spectacular, and you will continue to be so when you are – I don’t know – eighty!”
“But I must be a decade older than Private Klein. It was flattering to know he found me attractive,” she said. Steed continued to stare so expectantly she paused to think through what she’d just said. And then it hit her. She smirked, raising one foot to stroke Steed’s chest. “I suppose age doesn’t really matter, sometimes,” she added, acknowledging the twelve-year difference between them. It has never mattered to me!
“I certainly hope not,” he replied, capturing her foot to stroke her ankle and calf.
“There’s a difference between men and women, Steed,” annoyed with herself for feeling the need to explain her behavior, but doing it anyway. Steed’s observation had struck a nerve. “An attractive man is attractive all his life. But women – a mature woman just doesn’t get the same sort of attention as a young one. I’m not feeling so young anymore, Steed.”
Steed resisted the urge to tell her that his opinion of her attractiveness was the only one that mattered. The truth was whenever he saw another man admiring Emma he felt a rush of satisfaction that she was his. They could look all they wanted, but his was the bed she shared. He wasn’t proud of such brutish feelings, but he admitted them to himself. Since the day they’d met he’d coveted Emma while at the same time treasuring her independence. He’d known then that if he did not accept his own possessive nature, he could never overrule it.
“It depends on your audience, darling,” he said. “A man who can’t appreciate you is not worth your trouble. And believe me, Emma, I appreciate you more than any other man alive.”
Emma lay her head back, her lips curling in amusement. She knew his heart, knew his possessiveness and the inner struggle he waged to maintain his outward demeanor of detachment when they were in public. Flattering attention from men like Private Klein was pleasant, and admiration in the business world was helpful in her role as the head of Knight Industries. But she valued Steed’s opinion above all others. That she was attractive to him was what really mattered.
Desiring more contact with him, she rolled up onto her knees to run her hands up his chest and onto his shoulders. His arms settled around her as she lowered her lips to his. She stretched her legs out behind her, sliding to his side and luxuriating in the feel of his flesh against hers.
“Ummmm,” he sighed, stroking her shoulders and back. “I appreciate you very much.” He traced her brow with one finger, the corners of his lips curling, and kissed her nose, then her lips. “And I love you even more.”
They cuddled that way for a long while, exchanging gentle caresses and long, wet kisses until the bathwater turned cool. Then Emma wiggled out of his arms and climbed from the tub, dripping on the mat as she reached for one of the thick towels they kept on hand.
Steed lay in the water, arms along the edges of the tub, legs lying akimbo, watching her dry herself. She favored him with her secretive little smile as she brushed the towel over her breasts. She shut her eyes and inhaled a sharp breath as the towel rubbed her nipples. When she opened her eyes Steed was grinning at her. She tossed the towel over his head and dashed out of the bathroom.
Steed flung the towel aside and climbed out of the tub, reaching under the water to pull the plug as he went. He followed Emma into the bedroom where she was sitting on the bed with her arms around her knees. She released them, stretching out her legs and leaning back on her hands as she watched him. Her enigmatic smile was back, enticing him – daring him – to approach.
He started at her feet, kissing each of her toes and then the bottoms of her feet so that she giggled. He kissed his way up her legs, parting her thighs to kiss the sensitive inner flesh leading to the thatch of auburn hair protecting her moist, eager center. She threw her head back, emitting a long, low moan as his kisses touched her, parted her.
He consumed her, his own loins burning hotter and hotter. She shivered under his hands as his tongue triggered a sharp little orgasm. She cried out, a desperate sound that drew him to her. He swarmed up her body, kissing her ribs and between her breasts, then pinching one crimson nipple between his fingers while taking the other between his lips. She cried out again, a sound somewhere between desperation and satisfaction, followed by a gasp as he pressed her down onto the mattress, his pelvis grinding against hers. He took her mouth, consumed her face as he had her loins, with his strong, gentle lips and tongue. She consumed him as well, stroking his bare shoulders and back with her healthy arm and stretching the other one down his body to clutch gently at his ass.
They rolled from her back to his, kissing and touching, sighing and groaning as their powerful desire for one another drove them closer and closer to intense physical joining. They were barely aware when it came, when he used his fingers to part her and drive himself inside. She closed around him, her legs encircling his back, her arms around his neck. For a few blissful moments they were one, moving together, breathing together, searching together for the ecstasy that so defined their love. And then they found it: a blaring whiteness washed over them, draining them of what little thought remained.
Steed slipped to her side and they lay still for a long while as their senses slowly recovered. Eventually he sat up and found the covers. Emma sighed beneath his gentle touch, rolling onto her side to face him. He reached up to trace her brow again, and to touch the tip of her nose and her lips.
“Good night love,” he whispered, watching the corners of her mouth curl.
“Here he is,” Steed said, leading Emma into Gambit’s private room at the ministry clinic. He’d completed his decompression treatment and been moved to the London clinic for a short stay. At a glance Emma could see that he was chafing for his freedom.
“Feeling better then, old man?” Steed asked as set the glasses he’d brought on a table and set about opening the bottle of champagne.
“Much, thanks,” Gambit replied. “Well enough to go home. But they won’t let me.”
“Ah, Gambit, you’ll soon learn to do as they say here. They’ve seen it all,” Steed paused to concentrate on removing the mushroom shaped cork without spilling any wine, “and treated more.”
Gambit’s scowl didn’t improve. Emma rounded the bed and leaned down to give him a kiss. As she straightened Gambit shot Steed a triumphant grin. Steed, holding out two glasses of champagne, arched one expressive eyebrow, then grinned back.
What causes eating disorders?
* Biological factors
Also, once a person begins to starve, stuff, or purge, those behaviors in and of themselves can alter brain chemistry and prolong the disorder. For example, both undereating and overeating can activate brain chemicals that produce feelings of peace and euphoria, thus temporarily dispelling anxiety and depression. In fact some researchers believe that eating disordered folks may be using food to self-medicate painful feelings and distressing moods.
* Psychological factors
People with eating disorders tend to be perfectionistic. They have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. In spite of their many achievements, they feel inadequate, defective, and worthless.
People with eating disorders often lack a sense of identity. They try to define themselves by manufacturing a socially approved and admired exterior. They have answered the existential question, “Who am I?” by symbolically saying “I am, or I am trying to be, thin. Therefore, I matter.”
* Family factors
* Social factors
If people are vulnerable to eating disorders, sometimes all it takes to put the ball in motion is a trigger event that they do not know how to handle. A trigger could be something as seemingly innocuous as teasing or as devastating as rape or incest.
Triggers often happen at times of transition, shock, or loss where increased demands are made on people who already are unsure of their ability to meet expectations. Such triggers might include puberty starting a new school, beginning a new job, death, divorce, marriage, family problems, breakup of an important relationship, critical comments from someone important, graduation into a chaotic, competitive world, and so forth.
Wanting to take control and fix things, but not really knowing how, and under the influence of a culture that equates success and happiness with thinness, the person tackles her/his body instead of the problem at hand. Dieting, bingeing, purging, exercising, and other strange behaviors are not random craziness. They are heroic, but misguided and ineffective, attempts to take charge in a world that seems overwhelming.
On the special calendar that De Beers sends to some 250 chosen clients, there are ten circled days on which diamonds are distributed. On these designated dates, the clients, who include diamond-cutting factories in New York, Tel Aviv, Bombay, Antwerp and Hong Kong, come to Number Two Charterhouse Street in London to attend what is called a “sight.” These occasions, which occur every five weeks involve the transfer of a pre-selected number of diamonds from the De Beers stockpile to the diamond-cutting industry around the world. At the sights in 1980, for example, De Beers distributed more than $2 billion worth of uncut diamonds that would eventually be resold in the retail market for more than $8 billion.
The block-long building at Number Two Charterhouse Street is the headquarters of the Diamond Trading Company.. Its four-story-deep vault holds most, if not all, the world~s supply of uncut diamonds. As clients arrive at the fortress-like entrance, they are met by uniformed guards and are escorted to a reception room on the second floor. One by one, the clients are then taken to private viewing rooms, which all face the northern light. Each room is equipped with an electronic scale for weighing diamonds, a magnifying glass for evaluating their quality and a telephone for consulting their associates.
After a brief wait, a guard delivers a small cardboard box to each room, weighs the contents on the scale and then leaves. Inside the box are a number of paper envelopes containing uncut diamonds that look like bits of broken glass. The type, quality, and exact weight of each diamond is marked on the outside of the envelope. On a sheet of paper accompanying the box is the price of the diamonds. The price of a diamond is heavily dependent on its quality. A discolored flat diamond weighing one carat may be worth no more than $50; but a flawless, colorless and octahedron diamond of the same weight may be worth $10,000. The price tag for the entire box may vary between $1 million and $25 million.
In these 200-odd shoe boxes are most of the diamonds that will eventually be sold in engagement rings and other jewelry throughout the world. The determination of who gets which diamonds in their shoe boxes completely shapes and orders the multibillion-dollar diamond business. The man who makes this decision at Number Two Charterhouse Street is E. M. Charles, a tall, gray-haired man whom everyone in the trade calls Monty.
Monty Charles has been close to the Oppenheimer family since he was a child. In the 1930s, his father owned an inn at Brae that was a favorite weekend retreat of Otto Oppenheimer, an uncle of Harry, who was then the director of the Diamond Trading Company in London. Oppenheimer took a liking to young Monty Charles and persuaded him to come to London to work for him as a sorter of diamonds. When the Second World War began, Monty Charles enlisted in the British Army. Soon afterward he was captured by the Japanese and forced to take part in the infamous death march. He was one of the few British officers who survived the ordeal.
In 1945, he was released from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. When he returned to England, he was again employed by the Oppenheimers at the Diamond Trading Company. A hard, determined man, he rose within years to the position of managing director. Nominally, he worked under Sir Philip Oppenheimer-Otto’s cousin, but as far as most of the clients were concerned, Monty Charles was the court of last appeal for them.
Before each sight takes place, Monty Charles has to decide how many diamonds of each quality will be distributed m all, and then how this supply will be divided up among different clients. To begin with, before each sight is held, Monty Charles has to himself have a dependable picture of world demand for diamonds. A full-time staff of economists and researchers are employed by the Diamond Trading Company to track such crucial indicators as the rate of family formation in the United States and Japan, the economic conditions in each country, and the amount of income after taxes that might be available to buy diamonds. From this, the demand for diamonds is estimated. Next, market analysts calculate the number of diamonds that jewelry stores, wholesalers and diamond cutters already in their inventories and how many diamonds are in the “pipeline,” as the route all diamonds between De Beers and retailers take is called. N. W. Ayer, the cartel’s advertising agency, assists here by surveying retail stores and asking in telephone interviews about the quantitles of the diamonds that they have on hand. Diamond Trading Company executives are responsible for also making regional assessments based on reports from De Beers’ partially owned subsidiaries in Israel, Belgium, India and Portugal. Through this private intelligence system, the Diamond Trading Company is able to ascertain the categories of diamonds that are either in short supply or are a glut on the market. For example, if small yellow diamonds appear to be in excess supply, they are omitted from the boxes in the next sight.
About ten days before each scheduled sight, the staff makes a final determination of the total number of diamonds to be distributed in each category. The sorters then take this quantity of diamonds out of the vault and lay them on tables, according to size, shape and color in the sorting room on the third floor of the Diamond Trading Company. The massive display of glittering diamonds is truly extraordinary: When, for example, I was shown around the sorting room, in January of 1979, there were more than a quarter-billion dollars worth of gem diamonds heaped onto the tables.
Moving among these tables strewn with diamonds, Monty Charles and his staff decide which clients are to receive which diamonds. About a month before a sight takes place, clients submit requests for the number and types of diamonds they want. Most clients receive, however, not what they asked for but what Monty Charles decides to give them. There are, after all, only a limited number of really lucrative diamonds distributed at each sight, and those clients who receive a large share of them will prosper-and be able to expand their businesses. For the major diamond dealers, the objective is to increase the allocation of valuable diamonds that they receive in their shoe box at each sight. It is, as one dealer put it, “the name of the game.” But it is Monty Charles who spells out the rules of the game.
The first rule: No one may question the authority of the Diamond Trading Company to decide who gets- which diamonds. Monty Charles, as director of the operation, must be accepted as the sole arbiter of both the number and quality of the diamonds placed in each box. Since the number of uncut diamonds a manufacturer receives roughly determines his volume of business, and the quality of diamonds determines his profitability, the allocation of diamonds is a crucial factor in surviving in the diamond business. Yet no client may request a larger-or smaller-consignment of diamonds than he receives. Nor may he seek redress from the Oppenheimers or any higher executive of De Beers. Monty Charles’s decision is final.
The second rule: There shall be no haggling over price. The price for each of the 2,000 classifications of diamonds is fixed by De Beers, and determines how much money the mines in Africa and Siberia will be credited for the diamonds that they shipped to the Diamond Trading Company. De Beers can change the price at will, without any advance notice, or add a “surcharge.” Since the price that De Beers charges its clients at sights is usually at least 25 percent below the wholesale price for uncut diamonds, the privilege of being invited to a sight is worth about one-quarter of the value of the box. Even when wholesale diamond prices are depressed, clients are still expected to pay the fixed price, which may be above prevailing market prices. This is the price for admittance to future sights. If a client refuses to pay this price, he may not receive an invitation to future sights. For example, when wholesale prices fell in the 1974 recession, one large distributors of diamonds in the United States, refused to pay more than the fair market price for its box. As a penalty, it was not invited to another sight for three years, causing it to lay off workers, close factories and forgo profits, and when it allowed to attend another sight, it found that Monty Charles had filled its box with low-quality diamonds that were only marginally profitable to cut, which it now accepted.
The third rule: Take the entire box or none at all. Diamond mines produce diamonds of all sizes, shapes, colors and clarities. Some diamonds, such as the octahedron-shaped clear stones, are relatively easy and profitable to cut and polish into jewels. Other diamonds, such as the twisted crystals called macles, require enormously skilled labor and yield low profits. If manufacturers were allowed to choose only the more profitable diamonds in their box, De Beers would be left with all the unprofitable diamonds. Monty Charles therefore arranges a “series” of diamonds for each client in which the less profitable diamonds are mixed in with the more profitable gems. Under no circumstances may clients pick from this series the diamonds they want. They must accept all-or none.
The fourth rule: No client may resell the diamonds in his box in their uncut form without a special dispensation from Monty Charles. To maintain its international monopoly over the supply of diamonds, De Beers must control the world stockpile of uncut diamonds. If it permitted its clients to resell their boxes, some outside party could amass its own stockpile by bidding for the boxes. This actually occurred in 1977, when Israeli dealers paid a premium of up to 100 percent to De Beers clients for their unopened boxes. Many clients, seeing the opportunity to double their money overnight, took advantage of this windfall. The result was that by 1978, the stockpile in Israel was rapidly approaching in size De Beers’ own stockpile in London. If the Israelis suddenly panicked and threw their uncut diamonds on the market, the price would collapse. If the Israelis continued to amass diamonds, they would be in a position to offer their own sights and undercut the mechanism De Beers had invented for controlling the market. De Beers succeeded by gradually forcing the diamonds out of Israeli hands in 1979. To prevent a recurrence, Monty Charles insisted that clients must immediately cut and polish all the diamonds supplied to them in their boxes and then return the cardboard containers to assure that no one was selling their sealed boxes. He dramatically demonstrated that violators of this edict would be severely punished by purging some forty clients from the sights for reselling some of their uncut diamonds. His retribution was not lost on the other clients.
In some cases, a select number of clients are permitted to act as sub-distributors for De Beers and resell their diamonds to small cutting factories. Clients with such a dispensation are given what is called a “dealer’s sight” (as opposed to a “manufacturer’s sight”). They are expected to sell uncut diamonds only to trustworthy manufacturers, and are held accountable for any leakage of their diamonds into private stockpiles.
The fifth rule: Clients will supply De Beers with whatever information, it needs to assess the diamond market. Before attending a sight, a client must fill out a detailed questionnaire, specifying the number of uncut diamonds he has in inventory, the number of diamonds in the process of being cut, the number of diamonds previously sold, and all other relevant details of his business. He further estimates his future sales in each category. This data is processed through the computer at Charterhouse Street and helps provide a picture of the number of diamonds in the pipeline. The entire System requires that no more diamonds be released I from the stockpile than the public can absorb.
Indeed, to make sure that its clients are not secretly disposing of or privately stockpiling diamonds, the Diamond Trading Company requires that they submit to a “diamond audit.” In this procedure, a De Beers representative pays a surprise visit to a client’s cutting factories to see the financial records, the actual inventory of diamonds, machinery, and number of employees at work. He then makes his own estimate of how many diamonds the client is cutting per month. If this tally does not square with the number of diamonds the client had received at the London sights, the discrepancy is reported to Monty Charles.
The sixth rule: Diamonds must never be sold into “weak hands” In order to maintain the illusion that diamonds never crease in value, price wars and cutthroat competition must be avoided at all costs. De Beers’ clients are prohibited from selling their diamonds to any wholesalers or retail Jewelers who undercut prices at the retail level. If De Beers finds any wholesalers or retailers engaging in what it considers to be destructive competition, the manufacturers who get their diamonds at the sights are expected to immediately cut off the transgressor’s supply. In this respect, De Beers’ clients are, forced to be silent partners with De Beers in maintaining an orderly retail market.
The penalty for the violation of this rule is subtle but effective. A client who sells diamonds to “weak hands,” or anyone of whom De Beers disapproves, finds that the mix of diamonds in his box becomes progressively less profitable for him. For example, one manufacturer, who had been a client of De Beers for two decades, had sold some diamonds in 1977 to an Israeli diamond dealer who was considered by De Beers to be a dangerous speculator. He then found that his box, with a price tag on it of over $1 million, contained mainly “rubbish,” as he called it. He realized that in deciding whether or not to accept it he had a Hobson’s choice. If he took these diamonds, he would lose several hundred thousand dollars processing them. On the other hand if he turned down the box, he would lose his source for future diamonds and be forced to close his cutting factory. It was a painful decision. Finally, he nodded to his broker that he would accept the diamonds. On the way out, he passed Monty Charles, who shook his hand amicably and asked how he liked the merchandise he had received. When the client expressed some disappointment, Monty Charles reportedly answered, “Perhaps you’ve been slightly naughty, but let’s see what we can do next time.”
Aside from the penalties that it can impose at will, De Beers also provides positive incentives to clients who support the system-the “carat and schtick” approach, as one Israeli client Joked. Not only can the assortment of diamonds be arbitrarily upgraded for a favored client but Monty Charles can also add very lucrative “large stones” to a box. These larger diamonds can usually be resold for a windfall profit.
The sights in London thus are not merely occasions for major gem manufacturers to select the uncut diamonds that they wish to purchase but an integral part of the mechanism through which De Beers establishes and maintains the value of diamonds. Through these ten events a year De Beers extends its control from the diamond mines of Africa to the cutting factories of Belgium, Israel, India, and the United States. And through its clients-whose fortunes depend heavily on the contents of the shoe boxes they receive-De Beers is able to monitor and regulate the flow of diamonds that pass through the world pipeline into the retail market. The stakes are indisputably high in this game.