Steed does the babysitting
Emma makes a run for it
Mrs. Steed. Mrs. Peel. Miss Knight. My employer has a name for each of her personas. Mrs. Steed is an adoring mother, although I would not characterize her as maternal. She could care for little John on her own if she had to, of course. But I think that both she and John are better off having the resources to employ me. Most of the women I have worked for have been the same. Miss Knight is even less maternal. Sometimes she frightens me when she comes down stairs in the morning dressed for the office: she takes charge of any room she enters. I think even Mr. Steed is intimidated by her. Mrs. Peel is the puzzle. I think that she is the real person — the woman that Mr. Steed loves. She’s the woman who puts on slinky cat suits and teaches me karate and disappears on mysterious missions at all hours…
“Siobhan? Are you still awake?”
The nanny snapped her diary shut. “Yes ma’am.”
Mrs. Steed stood in the doorway between Siobhan’s room and the nursery. She was holding John in her arms.
“I’ll change him and put on his sleeper,” she said.
“Are you sure? I can do it,” Siobhan started to rise from her rocking chair.
“Stay there,” Emma raised a hand, gesturing for Siobhan to sit back down. “I want to do it.”
“Yes ma’am,” Siobhan subsided into the rocker still holding her diary. She couldn’t write in it with Mrs. Steed right there in the next room. Instead she picked up the biography of Henry James she was in the middle of and began to read.
In the other room Emma deftly changed her son’s nappy and dressed him in a clean white sleeper. He was fussy this evening, kicking his legs and grabbing at her hair when she bent over him. She spoke to him in soothing tones, nonsense talk about things going on at Knight Industries. Gradually he calmed down, his mother’s gentle voice leading him to accept the fatigue that was making him fussy. He emitted a huge yawn as she lifted him to her shoulder and stroked his back.
Only a couple years ago she could not have imagined needing these moments with her son so much. She had known she wanted a baby – Steed’s baby – but she had not truly understood the impact that creating another living person, with his own personality, voice, needs, and affection, would have on her life. He was not merely her and Steed’s son, he was his own person, and his impact on the lives of those he would meet was beyond any of their control. The magnitude of the responsibility to guide him into life was far greater than she had anticipated. She wasn’t naive. Siobhan was essential to John’s wellbeing, and to her own. She adored being a mother, but she also adored being in charge of Knight, and being a part of Steed’s work. She could not give up any of them.
“Miss Knight, there’s a Mr. Stetson on line two,” Mrs. Emerson’s voice came from the intercom on Emma’s desk.
“Thank you Mrs. Emerson, I’ll take it,” Emma set her pen on the letter she’d been drafting and picked up the phone. “Lee?”
“Emma, I’m sorry to disturb you in your office, but Amanda insisted that you’d want to know: She went into labor three hours ago.”
“Everything is all right?” Emma asked, straightening in her chair, then standing up to discharge a sudden rush of excited energy.
“Yes, fine. She’s in the hospital. She says that Jamie’s delivery was fast, but the doctor says it was a long time ago, so this could take some time.”
“I’m sure she’ll do fine, Lee. I’m more worried about you!”
“Yeah, thanks,” Lee chuckled. “Hold on –.”
There was a rustling sound and then muffled voices. Emma massaged her left wrist with her right hand. The bad sprain she’d had three weeks ago was healed, but the joint still ached now and then.
“Emma?” Lee came back on. “I have to go. Things are starting to happen in there.”
“You’re going in to the delivery room?” Emma asked quickly, knowing she shouldn’t keep him.
“If Steed could stand it, I figure I’d better! And this hospital is progressive – they encourage it. I’ll call you back later, Emma. Wish me luck.”
“And Amanda, too!”
“So apparently she delivered a beautiful, healthy baby girl about forty-five minutes after Lee and I got off the telephone,” Emma leaned toward Steed over the kitchen table, her fork poised above her potatoes.
“Have they named her?” Steed asked with a smile, tearing open a roll and using it to soak up juice from the steak on his plate.
“Grace Amanda Stetson? That’s quite elegant.”
“It is, isn’t it? They’ll probably call her Gracie or something,” Emma shook her head. “You know how Americans shorten names all the time.”
“Yes, Em,” Steed smirked. Emma stuck out her tongue, then took a bite of potatoes. Although her father had called her that, Steed was well aware that she had squelched it among most of her friends in her early youth.
“You want to go, don’t you?” Steed watched her intently as he took a bite of bread and chewed.
“The thought had crossed my mind,” Emma nodded. “She did hurry here when John was born.”
“She does have her mother there,” Steed was still watching her intently, and she thought she recognized a hint of his devious smile.
“And their house is not that large. I know. What are you thinking?”
“That I have to go to New York next week.”
Emma leaned back in her chair and picked up her wineglass. Now she studied Steed just as intently.
“The Stetsons live in Washington,” she pointed out.
Steed dabbed more bread around his plate and shrugged dismissively. “My assignment should last three days. We could drive to Washington afterwards and stay in a hotel near them for a few days.”
“With John and Siobhan? The last time we took them on one of your trips things did not go so well.”
“It had nothing to do with them, darling. Besides, this is a token assignment. I have to represent Britain in a multi-national security team for a foreign VIP visiting the United Nations. It will be all meetings and formal parties.”
Emma sighed, knowing that he would never suggest bringing John if he thought there was the slightest danger. Then she thought about what he’d just said.
He grinned at her. “I suppose you have nothing to wear?”
Emma picked up a roll and threw it at him.
Tasha Grant replaced the telephone receiver and stared at it for a moment. She inhaled a deep breath and allowed herself an excited smile. In a single phone call she had increased Knight Weaponry’s quarterly income by eleven percent. That ought to impress Miss Knight.
Two years ago, having worked her way up from entry level to middle management in Knight Weaponry, Tasha had thought that she had achieved all she could as a woman in a male-dominated industry. On some levels she hoped so, because she had placed her career above all else, forfeiting a social life for her work. She had joined Knight nine years ago, shortly after Miss Knight’s departure to focus on her marriage to Peter Peel. The press and the opinions of her co-workers had formed her impression of the former CEO. She had listened in fascination to their stories of the notoriously ruthless and universally admired young executive woman. Even those who called Miss Knight the “Ice Queen” expressed deep respect for her. Tasha envied such loyalty and wondered how her staff described her.
When Emma Knight had begun her fight to regain control of the company two years ago Tasha had observed it with a mix of fascination and terror. That her role model might return to the helm of Knight was the most exciting — and frightening — possibility she had ever contemplated.
And then, within a week of her successful return to the company, Miss Knight had been shot by a disgruntled board member and the authorities had arrested a huge number of Knight employees who were involved in some sort of fraud. Tasha’s immediate supervisor and his boss were gone just like that. Shocked, Tasha had done what she always did in difficult situations: she had worked harder and taken on more to make up for the loss of two layers of management. When Mr. Stanton and other members of Miss Knight’s senior management team called her to a meeting in the executive conference room a couple weeks after the shooting she was afraid that they were firing more people. She had been aware of her boss’s questionable activities. She had watched, and learned, and believed that his participation in these activities was part of the secret to his success. She had not been asked to get involved, but she knew how she would have responded if she had.
But to her intense relief, Mr. Stanton had promoted her, as he had more than a dozen other managers that week to take the places of those who were in the custody of the authorities. Jubilant, she had redoubled her efforts to impress. The glass ceiling had shattered. With the vacuum in management at Knight, and Miss Knight in the CEO’s office, Tasha had come to believe that she could go higher.
Just before Christmas, the usual time for salary increases and promotions, she was rewarded again. She was named a vice president, which placed her in the lofty realm of senior management and brought her into regular direct contact with Miss Knight herself. She was more determined than ever to prove that she deserved the responsibility. And her management of the contract in front of her – with the deadline clause and its heavy penalty that she had just invoked – was exactly the way to do it.
“Bells,” Emma sighed, turning her face toward the sound but refusing to open her eyes. They had arrived in New York City the previous evening and settled into a suite at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue. The venerable old hotel would not have been Emma’s first choice, but Queen Berisa of Labania, Steed’s VIP, was making it her base of operations while she attended meetings at the United Nations. The hotel was known for its loyal, discrete staff and the ease with which it could be secured.
By the time they’d arrived in the luxurious black sedan that had met them at the airport John had been fussy and Emma had been tired, so they had ordered a late supper from room service. Then Steed had disappeared to meet with other members of the security team who were preparing for Quieen Berisa’s arrival tomorrow evening. Emma had turned in, not even awakening when Steed slipped into bed two hours later.
“It is Sunday morning,” Steed muttered, snaking an arm around her from behind. She pressed herself against him, luxuriating in the warmth of his body against hers. Steed kissed the back of her neck, his breath raising the fine hairs there. His hand slipped down her flank, caressing her lightly as his fingers sought the hem of her nightgown. She reached up to run her fingers into his thick curls and he turned his face to kiss her palm. He gave up on her nightgown and slid his hand back up over her belly to caresses her breast through the fabric. She felt herself arch to his touch, her ass pressing into his groin and his solid erection.
“Oh John,” she moaned as he pinched her hardening nipple. Her loins ached in response with a desperate need to be filled with him. As if sensing her readiness, he rose up and pressed her down onto her back, moving over her. His mouth took hers in a hungry kiss, and once again he sought the hem of her gown. She reached for him, one hand finding his nipple already solidly swollen inside his pajama top. She pinched it, sliding the fingers of her other hand into the elastic waistband of his pajama bottoms.
He was all heat and power, solid and demanding as she stroked his member and he pressed compulsively into her hand. Early semen made him slick. He moaned when she rubbed it over his shaft, his eyes shut tight as he savored the sensation. She reached further down to brush her fingers over his engorged balls and he gasped, then plunged his tongue into her mouth, a precursor to deeper penetration to come.
He dragged her gown up, plunging two fingers through the curls between her legs, quickly stroking her to slick wetness. Her legs parted wide, inviting him. He bent his head to suck her nipples to aching hardness while his long fingers brought her to a quick, throbbing orgasm. She groaned, her face pressed against the side of his neck, inhaling his musky scent, which inflamed her all the more.
And then he was filling her, thrusting into her with his slick, hot cock, holding her open with fingers as he pulled back out, then thrust in again. She moaned, a long, animal sound as his rhythmic thrusts drove the sound of bells from her mind. There was only him, and her own burning need that his thrusting, stroking, biting, kissing, body was driving to greater heights and satisfying all at once.
She wrapped her long legs around his waist and he used both hands to hold himself above her, driving with his pelvis into her now so furiously that she gasped with each deep, almost painful thrust.
“Oh God John,” she cried, “that’s so good – .”
He kissed her again, sucking at her lips and her tongue, silencing her while at the same time voicing his own driving elation in a series of deep, guttural grunts. She felt him coming. At the moment when he lost his senses in her she let herself go too, flickers of light behind her eyelids mesmerizing her as her deep muscles shuddered around him. She squeezed him even as he shrank, consuming his essence, mixing it with her own. He lowered himself to his elbows, his head on her shoulder, their hearts racing together for several minutes until he finally rolled to one side. She rolled with him, molding herself to him with one arm across his chest, nestled in his embrace.
A while later, when they were both breathing normally, she realized that the bells had stopped.
“Let’s go to church,” she said, raising her head to peer in the dim early morning light at the bedside clock. Steed snorted beneath her and she looked into his eyes, open just a slit to look at her. The edges were crinkled in amusement.
“I think we’ve already desecrated the Sabbath,” he whispered.
“Nonsense. God intends us to procreate,” she replied. He knew there was no point in mentioning that there was very little chance of their recent exertions resulting in procreation since she was using birth control – not the pill, which her doctor had prohibited since her struggle with anorexia, but an IUD. He understood that she was not ready but he was concerned that her fear of having another child might let her postpone pregnancy indefinitely. Having experienced the wonder of their first child, he knew now that he wanted more.
She was already sitting up, intent, apparently, on attending a church service. “It’s only just eight o’clock in the morning. Good lord, do they go to church this early here?” she said.
“They have several services, usually,” he said, forcing himself to sit up too. He watched her stand, her silky white nightgown falling back down around her hips as she walked over to the window. She was more deliciously erotic with her shapely behind sheathed than naked, he thought absently.
“Ah, there it is,” she said, looking down toward the street far below.
“What is?” he asked, scrubbing at his face to dispel the lingering desire, then running his hands through his hair. He wished she’d come back to bed so that he could make proper love to her. The first time in the morning was always too quick.
“The source of the bells,” she went on, oblivious to his alternative interests. “There’s a church across the street. They must have another service – I can’t believe they all go at seven thirty.”
Sighing, Steed picked up the bedside telephone and dialed the concierge. He quickly confirmed that the church across the street, which was Episcopalian, had two more services that morning and one in the evening.
“Let’s bring John,” Emma said, coming back to the bed to kiss him on the forehead. “It will be good to expose him to an American church, even if it is basically the same as ours.”
“He’s not even a year old, I hardly think it will be imprinted on him,” he replied, watching her pull on her dressing gown. She paused and looked at him.
“What time does her highness arrive?” she asked.
“Early evening. I’ll need to be on duty by four o’clock.”
“And back off again by midnight, do you think?” she asked with a playful smile.
“Will you still be awake?” he asked with a nod.
“I shall make a point of it,” she replied, turning toward the door apparently to rouse their unfortunate nanny and child. He decided that she had forfeited bathroom rights, and heaved himself up to go shower.
St. Bartholomew’s Romanesque exterior with its three arched doors contained a surprisingly delicate, open, Byzantine interior. The Steeds and Siobhan found seats half way up the center aisle in a pew made of dark wood polished by generations of worshipers. By the time the service began the big old church was nearly three quarters full. A hush quickly fell as the organist drew several long tones from the gigantic instrument, integral, according to the notes in the service program, with the building itself. And quite appropriately the service was filled with music punctuated by an inspiring sermon by one of the clergy, although not the rector. When the program indicated that it was time for Holy Communion Emma sensed that Siobhan, seated beside her with John in her lap, was growing tense. She shot her a curious look.
“I’m Catholic, ma’am. It wouldn’t be right for me to take the communion here,” she explained in a tight whisper.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, Siobhan – it says in the service notes that all baptized Christians are welcome.”
“I know ma’am, but my Mum would be mortified, not to mention Father Patrick.”
Emma nodded and noticed that the ushers were approaching their row. She reached for baby John.
“You stay here. I want to take John up for a blessing,” she explained as Siobhan lifted her son into her arms.
Emma and Steed stepped out into the aisle and walked along the thick red carpet toward the altar with the other parishioners seated near them. Emma noted that Siobhan was not the only person to remain seated. Kneeling at the rail Emma presented John to the priest, who blessed him with the sign of the cross, then gave Emma the communion wafer. When the acolyte came along with the silver chalice of wine little John reached out for the base. Emma caught his tiny hand just in time to avoid being splashed and took her sip of wine.
“I don’t think our son appreciates the miracle of Jesus’ sacrifice,” she muttered to Steed as they retreated down the side aisle.
“Perhaps he just wanted a drink – he does like red wine.”
“Steed!” Emma hissed in a loud whisper, stopping to stare at him. He half turned and grinned mischievously at her so that she realized he was teasing. But she still suspected that he was capable of giving their baby a taste of wine – with the intention of training his palate, of course.
After the service they took the advice of parishioners at coffee hour and walked to a nearby restaurant for brunch. They could see that for many of these churchgoers, most of Sunday was occupied with the service and a long, social meal. New York City life didn’t seem so bad. After eating they made their way toward Madison Avenue and its endless stretch of exclusive stores. Steed was glad that Emma seemed content to window shop, at least until they reached Fifty-ninth Street.
“Let’s get something for John,” she said, turning toward Fifth Avenue and the entrance to FAO Schwartz, the famous old toy store. Steed and Siobhan pushing John in his stroller followed.
“Oh my,” Siobhan exclaimed when they stepped between the two enormous toy soldiers flanking the entrance. Her eyes widened as she took in the glittering displays of all manner of toys. “I didn’t know there were so many toys.”
“Indeed,” Steed agreed, glancing at a store directory mounted on the wall.
Emma looked down at John seated in his stroller. “Let’s find the infant section and see if he chooses anything.”
“This way, ladies,” Steed replied, having located the desired section on the directory. He stepped between Emma and Siobhan and led the way, umbrella handle waggling above his head like a tour guide’s flag, into the depths of the store. They followed.
Moments later Emma stopped next to Steed, who was staring at a bin full of blue balls decorated with yellow spirals. He reached out very slowly, holding his hand over one of the balls but not touching it.
“Steed?” Emma asked tensely.
Suddenly he snatched the ball and tossed it to her so quickly she automatically raised her hands to catch it. His expression went from amusement to alarm as her eyes widened and her face went blank.
She grinned at him, dropping the ball back into the bin. He shook his head ruefully.
“Perfectly normal, darling – see? They’re fifty-nine cents each.”
Steed chuckled and they moved on, Siobhan pausing to look curiously at the balls. What, she wondered, was that about?
In the infant section John gazed wide-eyed at the rows of colorful toys as Siobhan pushed his stroller slowly along the aisle. She watched him closely for any sign of extra interest, so when he reached for a box of colorful plastic monkeys with interlocking arms she stopped.
“Is that the one, sweetie?” she asked, bending to pick up the box. John extended his hands after it as she lifted it out of his reach, then he burst into a plaintive wail.
“I think so,” Emma said, bending to retrieve another box and put it in his hands. His complaint subsided immediately.
“You take care of that, will you darling?” Steed asked. “I’ll meet you at the front of the store in a few minutes.”
Emma frowned as she watched him stride away, then looked down at her son, who was sucking on the corner of the box.
“I don’t think we can take that away from him,” she observed. “I hope they can ring it up without making him let go.”
They had completed the purchase, the sales clerk reading the price from the box without taking it out of John’s hands, when Steed reappeared with a package of his own. He escorted them out of the store, a happy smile on his face.
“What have you been up to?” Emma asked when they were outside.
“Just a little something for Grace Stetson,” Steed said, looking smug.
“Grace! I completely forgot!” Emma replied. She had to admit that Steed’s smug look was justified. “What did you get her?”
“A Madame Alexander doll – Caro assured me that it was the perfect gift.”
“Caro was right. She’ll have it forever. Thank you for remembering, darling.”
“Well, I may have made one or two other purchases too,” he admitted.
“For delivery,” he added.
“Steed?” Emma sounded both concerned and annoyed, which only made Steed grin more impishly at her.
“It’s after three o’clock ladies. I have to get back to the hotel. Shall I see you later?”
“Yes,” Emma said ever so slightly frostily. “I think we’ll just stroll down Fifth Avenue toward Tiffany’s.”
Steed’s eyes narrowed at her suddenly innocent expression.
“Do be good darling,” he said, placing a light kiss on her lips before turning to stride quickly away.
“You too,” Emma called out after him. He waggled his umbrella without looking back, but she knew from his walk that he was smiling.
Mr. and Mrs. Steed often speak in code — their own private language. Most couples have them, I think, but the Steeds’ is the most advanced I’ve ever seen. Each of them can say more to the other with a look than I could communicate in several sentences. Some of it comes of having so much in common. They know each other so well each usually knows how the other will react in most situations. And some of it comes of the kind of work they have done together. I can only imagine what their shared experiences must be like – the dangers they’ve faced together, the mysteries they’ve solved. I envy the closeness it has brought them, although I don’t think I envy what they’ve had to go through to achieve it.
Siobhan closed her diary and snapped the catch shut. She found herself writing more and more about her employers. They provided fascinating insights into intellectual and emotional behavior that she had never encountered before. She hoped that she would be able to make something of her notes. She would love to create fictional characters based on them. Stifling a yawn she switched off the bedside lamp and stretched out in the comfortable hotel bed. Across the room John was sound asleep in his crib. She’d heard Mr. Steed come into the suite a few minutes ago, and she knew that any moment she’d hear familiar, private sounds as he joined his wife in bed. At home the nursery and her room were situated far enough from the master bedroom to shield her from their intimacy. But here, and at other times when they had traveled, she’d heard them. She had gotten over embarrassment long ago, and it reassured her to know that her employers enjoyed physical intimacy. She had worked in families where the parents did not share a bed, and those were consistently more difficult assignments.
“How’s her highness?” Emma asked, rolling to face Steed as he stretched out beside her in their bed.
“Safe,” he replied, slipping one arm around her waist and snaking the other one beneath the pillows and her head. She agreeably wriggled close to him, her top leg rising to rest on his, her hands caressing his chest. “She arrived safely, met in a private supper with the Secretary General, then returned to her suite one floor above us to meet with her advisors until about an hour ago, then she turned in. Now the night detail is on duty.”
“Indeed it is,” Emma replied, tickling one of his nipples through his pajama top. He drew in a long, relaxing breath as the deferred desire of the morning rushed back to him. And then he took her lips in an aggressive kiss, pulling her tight against himself to begin the thorough love making he’d been looking forward to all day.
“I am very impressed, Mr. Lanier,” Emma said to the senior partner at the law firm representing Knight Industries’ interests in the United States. “I did not expect the mayor of New York City to take an interest in my visit.”
“Let me be perfectly clear, Miss Knight,” James Lanier replied. “The mayor has one objective: courting you, or rather, Knight Industries, into establishing a greater presence in our city.”
He stepped out from behind his desk and escorted her to his office door. “You should expect the commissioner of economic development to be there too.”
“Double-teaming me?” Emma asked with a wry smile. Lanier chuckled and nodded.
“Perhaps I’ve built you up — just a bit,” he conceded as they walked together along the corridor to the reception area.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Emma replied as she nodded at the receptionist and Mr. Lanier opened the outer door, “I’ve withstood the advances of quite a few politicians.”
She glanced at two men seated in the waiting area, then followed the attorney out. The two men stared after her through the glass doors as she proceeded along the corridor toward the lifts.
“Good evening, Miss Grant. This is Mr. Albert, from Lanier, Albert, Lang in New York.”
Tasha Grant nodded, recognizing the attorney’s name from countless documents.
“Yes Mr. Albert. How may I help you?”
“I’m glad I caught you still in, Miss Grant – it’s late there, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Mr. Albert. But I make a practice of staying until my desk is cleared. How can I help you?” Tasha repeated her question, hoping that the New York lawyer would get to the point. She doubted he’d take offense at her disregarding his small talk – New York lawyers were not known for their chitchat.
“I have just had a meeting with two gentlemen from Exten Weapons Systems. You know it, I presume.”
“Yes, certainly, Mr. Albert. What is this about?”
“As you know, this firm administers contracts on behalf of Knight Industries here in the U.S. The gentlemen from Exten asked to meet with me about a contract with Knight Weaponry for the purchase of a large quantity of detonation units. It seems that Exten was late with a purchase order, so that according to the contract the per-unit sales price was significantly increased.”
“Yes, Mr. Albert. I am familiar with the contract, and that clause,” Tasha replied, concealing a pang of annoyance. She had been delighted to invoke the price increase last week, but since then she had received multiple calls from both partners at Exten. They claimed that their delayed purchase order had been the result of a clerical mishap, and they felt strongly that Knight should be more lenient. She did not agree, and their continued pursuit of the matter was beginning to annoy her.
“Then perhaps you are aware that Mr. Seton and Mr. West from Exten contend that Knight acted hastily in invoking the price increase,” Mr. Albert said.
“Yes. However, as I have told both of the gentlemen from Exten, we have acted within our rights. The reasons for Exten missing the deadline are not our concern.”
“Quite, Miss Grant. However, I must inform you that Exten is considering severing all connection with Knight Industries. Given that we are engaged in several deals with them, that would represent a significant loss of business. I will have to raise this matter to Knight senior management.”
“I see,” Tasha felt herself biting her lower lip and forced herself to stop. She sucked in a deep breath and found her resolve. “They are bluffing, Mr. Albert. The original price for the detonators was very low. The increased price is within market trends. Mr. Seton and Mr. West know that. They will pay the penalty for their clerical ‘mishap’ and this will all blow over.”
“Very well, Miss Grant. Have a pleasant evening.”
Joshua Albert rang off, replacing the telephone receiver a bit harder than was strictly appropriate. Tasha Grant was as hard nosed as Emma Knight, but not, in his estimation, nearly as smart.
Emma popped open the gold pocket watch she carried tucked into the small pocket in her vest. Her tailored three-piece suit in rich beige wool crepe had been a treat to herself after her doctor confirmed that she had reached her appropriate weight and was now allowed to exercise regularly. Just as he had predicted, with better nutrition she was finding it easier to balance the stresses of her family and her work, and Steed’s work. She felt certain that she had fully recovered from the eating disorder that she had developed after Steed’s last dangerous case. The suit’s sleek, tailored lines had drawn an appreciative look from Steed that morning. Then he’d asked if she was trying to imitate him. She’d assured him that his impeccable taste was worthy of imitation, which had sparked an appreciative sparkle in his eyes.
She snapped the watch shut and put it back in her pocket. The impromptu meeting with New York City’s mayor had been brief – more like an audience, she reflected with a smirk. But he had impressed her, and made his point. New York City would welcome Knight Industries with tax benefits and other financial inducements should she choose to establish a presence there and employ a significant number of Americans. Emma had left city hall with a head full of intriguing possibilities. From where she stood now a few blocks south and west of city hall she had a clear view of the most impressive construction site she had ever seen: the twin 110-story towers of the World Trade Center were still three years from completion. Shading her eyes, she let them follow the upward thrust of the strangely skeletal white façade of the north tower. Its narrow top reached high into the clear blue sky. Perhaps in a few years Knight Industries would have a view of the Statue of Liberty from one of those towers. Perhaps it would be young John’s office. She was jarred from her reverie by a passerby who bumped her and moved on without a word. She instinctively checked that her handbag was zipped shut and still on her arm, then started walking toward Broadway with the other pedestrians.
After seeing the Mayor she’d visited the American market research firm that she had engaged to study opportunities for Knight in the US. She had been impressed by their preliminary report on the armaments market and asked them to arrange to present it to Knight Weaponry senior management. The US did seem to be a land of golden opportunity today.
But right now Emma wanted a little personal time. Siobhan had taken John to a morning baby play session at the church. They would return to the hotel and John would need a nap. Emma could afford another two hours before Siobhan would be desperate for a break from her charge.
Emma hailed a bright yellow taxi and gave him an address on 53rd street. As the taxi carried her uptown she watched New York City’s various neighborhoods roll past outside the windows. Bright, cacophonous Chinatown gave way reluctantly to the pastry shops and restaurants of Little Italy, and then the brownstone townhouses and trees of Greenwich Village. The Village with its students and hippies was soon replaced by low-rise office buildings and office workers strolling outside on their lunch breaks. As they rolled further northward the buildings got taller and the traffic thicker, the sidewalks congested with a mix of natives, tourists, and street vendors. They passed a wheeled lunch cart with smoke rising from a propane-fired grill where a man wearing a middle-eastern turban was cooking sliced meat. A number of people in office attire were queued up to buy his food.
Emma’s previously bright opinion of the city began to tarnish. Civilization here in New York seemed to be slipping backward. The office workers were reduced to hunters and gathers, foraging on the street for lunch. Emma wondered if any of these workers ever actually sat down in a restaurant to linger over an aromatic cup of coffee. And then she wondered if her own employees at Knight headquarters in London were tending toward the same pattern. She had noticed several small luncheon take-away shops opening near the John Knight building recently.
The taxi turned onto 53rd Street and stopped in the middle of the block outside of the Museum of Modern Art. Emma paid the fare and got out. As she entered the museum another taxi pulled up to the curb and a man in a brown suit wearing a fedora with a stained band got out. He smoothed his long, curled mustache as he watched her pay the entry fee through the glass front of the building. Then he crossed the street and sat down on the steps leading to the doorway of a small, seemingly out of place, residential building wedged between tall office towers.
“The subject exited the building on Fulton Street and took a taxi uptown to the Museum of Modern Art. She spent approximately ninety minutes there, then exited the museum and walked east to the Waldorf Astoria.”
The mustachioed man in the brown suit sat across a polished wooden conference room table from Alec Seton and Michael West, the partner owners of Exten Defense Systems. Mrs. Penny Quinn, administrator of their New York office, was looking through a file drawer in a cabinet against the wall behind them.
“I tried to slip the desk clerk a fiver to tell me if she was a guest, and if so what room she’s in, but he wasn’t selling,” he went on, smiling as he watched his clients’ faces fall. “But the bellhop was more greedy. He took my five bucks and told me that Mrs. Steed is in suite 1920. Mrs. Steed,” he repeated the name, stroking his mustache as he studied Seton and West.
“I don’t understand,” Seton said. “Why would she be using an alias?”
“Mrs. Emma Steed?” Mrs. Quinn asked, closing the file drawer.
“That’s what he called her,” the detective said, looking up at her.
“That’s not an alias. That’s her married name,” Mrs. Quinn said. Her employers both swiveled in their seats to look up at her.
“Emma Knight is married?”
“Yes. More than a year ago.”
“How on earth do you know that?” West asked.
“Mr. West, I make it a habit to learn personal details about the heads of all of the companies we do business with,” Mrs. Quinn said as she walked toward the door. “You sent a note of congratulations after the wedding. And when her son was born last year you sent him two shares of Exten stock – a token gift for which she sent a thank-you note.”
“Mrs. Quinn –,” West started to speak, but Mrs. Quinn had left the room, closing the door after herself with a thunk. “How can she do that?”
“Who knows,” Seton shrugged. “She probably had us sign the stock transfer along with a purchase order for office supplies. You know she runs this place.”
“You’d better hang on to her,” the detective observed with a nasty grin.
“Siobhan,” Emma called as she entered their suite. She set the carrier bag with the Miro print she’d bought for John’s room on a side table and walked toward the nanny’s room.
“In here, missus,” Siobhan called from her bathroom. Emma crossed the bedroom, noting the scattered toys, baby clothes, and books presided over by the gigantic stuffed gorilla that had been delivered from the toy store Sunday afternoon. Steed is going to have to arrange to ship that home, because I’m not, she thought as she stepped into the bathroom.
Siobhan was bathing John. Emma sat down on the toilet to watch her expertly manage his grasping, splashing hands as she sponged the pink skin of his back and shoulders. She resisted the urge to elbow the nanny aside and take over. There were moments like this when she regretted entrusting so much of the care of her son to another woman. But she knew that she couldn’t do it on her own, not if she was to manage Knight, and keep an eye on Steed.
In the tub John stuck out his little tongue and blew a loud, wet raspberry.
“What was that?” Emma asked as Siobhan chuckled, then blew her own raspberry back at the baby.
“He learned it from the other little ones at the church this morning,” she explained.
Emma grimaced, and for a moment wished she could keep her son from playing with other children. But she knew that wasn’t good for his social development – all the books said so.
Suddenly John evaded Siobhan’s grasp and reached out to her with both hands.
“Ma,” he squealed happily.
“Hey!” Emma nearly shouted. “Did you hear that?”
“I did, missus. I surely did,” the nanny smiled.
Emma picked up a folded towel and used it to lift John out of the bathtub. She wrapped him in it and carried him into the bedroom pressing kisses on his giggling face.
“I’ll put a nappy on him,” she said. Behind her Siobhan pulled the plug on the tub drain, sighing quietly as she got to her feet. One day you’ll have your own. No one will be able take him away on a whim.
Emma diapered John and dressed him in a clean shirt and trousers. Then she took him and a couple toys into her bedroom. She sat him on the bed while she changed into deep green stirrup pants and a cable knit jumper made from fine silk yarn, pausing frequently to distract him from crawling to the edge. When she was comfortable she crawled onto the bed with him to play.
That’s how Steed found them a while later.
“May I join you?” he asked, unbuttoning his jacket as he crossed the room to the bed.
“Please do!” she replied. Steed shrugged his jacket off, smiling at the sight of Emma and John’s twin faces smiling up at him. He climbed onto the bed, stretching out facing Emma with John in between them.
“Were you dismissed?” she asked playfully, shaking a rattle for John.
“I have a few free minutes. I thought I’d check up on you, although I thought you might all be out shopping.” He ignored Emma’s smirk and took John’s hand, smiling at the strength in his son’s grip.
“Da!” John giggled, his infectious smile making Steed match it.
“Did you hear that?” he asked, looking across at Emma.
“Um,” Emma nodded, smiling proudly at John. “He said ‘ma’ first though, a little while ago.”
Steed’s eyes narrowed at her and she grinned back, then laughed out loud. Between them John giggled again, and then stuck out his tongue to blow a raspberry at his father.
“And that? Has he done that before?” Steed asked, then razzed John back.
“Unfortunately,” Emma groaned, realizing that her husband was just as bad an influence as any other six-month-old.
Steed and John engaged in a razzing contest, finally collapsing together in giggles. Emma reached over to stroke Steed’s hair, then gave his nose a pinch as their eyes met. His were crinkled at the corners, filled with laughter and, as he shared her gaze, the much deeper intensity of adoration. Emma caressed his cheek, sharing her most intimate little smile as she leaned close to kiss him over their baby. John reached up to pat her cheek.
“Her highness is speaking here at the hotel later this afternoon. I can get you in if you want to attend.” Steed asked.
“I’d love to.”
Alec Seton did not like feeling desperate, and he did not like the way his partner was behaving under pressure. Seton was, according to his professors at MIT and his colleagues, a brilliant weapons systems designer. He understood machines, not people. Michael West, his partner in Exten, was an engineer, but he was also a natural salesman capable not only of reading people, but also deftly manipulating them. Together they had founded and grown Exten from a garage company to a million dollar business with two manufacturing plants and contracts with half a dozen military organizations throughout the free world. But even so, the increased price they were going to have to pay Knight Industries for the detonators he had specified in the XT8100 was going to reduce their profits on the missile to almost nothing. And they were counting on those profits to cover the next installment on the loan for their new, advanced manufacturing equipment.
Neither man for a moment considered blaming Mrs. Quinn for failing to get the purchase order to Knight by the deadline. Neither partner had told her the deadline was upon them, so her decision to mail the document rather than messenger it to Knight’s lawyers downtown had been perfectly justified.
Seton had suggested that they speak to the bank – they had good credit and he was sure they could get an extension. But Mike, who had handled the loan arrangements, had grown agitated and stormed out of his office without agreeing. Then they’d seen Miss Knight at the lawyers’ office and Mike had said he knew what to do. He’d telephoned the detective, a friend of a friend he’d said, and had him follow Miss Knight. So now they knew where she was staying and Seton had decided that it was time for him to take action.
“Your invitation sir?”
Seton looked down into the eyes of a pretty young woman in a dark suit holding a handful of white cards, then back up at Emma Knight’s back as she made her way into the ballroom where the Queen of Labania was about to speak.
“I, um, think I forgot it,” he improvised, patting his jacket pockets pointedly.
“I’m sorry sir, we can’t admit anyone with out an invitation,” she said sweetly. Even he could tell she wasn’t likely to budge.
“Please miss, I need to speak with someone who’s just gone in. I don’t need to stay for the –.”
“I’m sorry sir,” the young woman interrupted him, at the same time raising her right hand. Seton’s gaze followed the retreating Emma Knight, and when he looked back at the determined young woman a tall man with an amiable expression on his face had stepped up behind her.
“Is there a problem, Marlene?” he asked, his English accent so cultured it almost hurt.
“This gentleman does not have an invitation, sir,” the young woman replied.
The Englishman looked Seton up and down. Not a threat, just a crasher to be removed, his expression clearly said.
“I am sorry, sir, but Marlene is correct. Security,” he waved to a man posted nearby, then looked back at Seton. “You understand.” His pleasant expression never wavered, his genial tone never faltered.
The guard, who gave the impression of a side of beef, stepped up close on Seton’s right. The Englishman inclined his head toward the door and turned away so dismissively Seton was actually offended.
“This way, sir,” the guard said in distinctly Brooklyn nasal tones and even more firmly than Marlene. He put his hand around Seton’s elbow and propelled him along the corridor away from the ballroom.
“It’s all right, I’ll go,” Seton said, trying to free his arm from the man’s tight grip.
“No problem sir,” the guard replied neutrally. But he did not let go until they had stepped onto the sidewalk outside of the hotel. Then he was gone.
Seton turned around and stared at the door for a moment, then shook his head and turned away. He was sure the man had a gun under his jacket. That was far more than he had bargained for. There had to be another way to see Miss Knight while she was in New York.
“Miss Grant, I asked to see you because I had a conversation today with Mr. Albert, one of our attorneys in New York. I believe you’re acquainted with him?”
“Yes Mr. Stanton. I spoke with him the other day.”
“Indeed. Miss Grant, Knight Industries does a fair amount of business with Exten. You are aware of that, I believe.”
As usual Tasha could not read Mr. Stanton – his enigmatic look had earned him the reputation as the best negotiator in England for good reason. But she was still confident that she had acted properly; she would not be put on the defensive.
“Your decision to invoke the deadline in the Knight Weaponry contract with Exten has apparently caused that firm some financial hardship. It is not our desire to inconvenience our business partners – we’d soon run out of them, wouldn’t we?” his polite little chuckle gave Tasha a chill.
“No sir. However, I cannot be responsible for Exten’s other dealings with Knight. Weaponry’s business is my chief concern. When Exten’s purchase order did not arrive on time we reduced production of the detonators lest we end up with an expensive overstock. Then when we received the order late, we had to add a third shift to meet Exten’s deadline. In short, sir, they inconvenienced us.”
Stanton leaned back in his chair and tapped a pen against his chin, watching Miss Grant through slitted eyes. She waited.
“Very well, Miss Grant. I shall negotiate a compromise price with Exten.”
“Yes sir. May I participate?”
He watched her in silence for another moment. “You may sit in on the call. Quietly.”
“Thank you sir. I appreciate the opportunity.”
And she did. It seemed to her that Mr. Stanton had been pleased – sure he’d concealed it, but she was certain – at the opportunity to renegotiate the price. After all, if she hadn’t invoked the deadline, they’d have to sell at the original very low price. Now they could get more while still letting Exten believe that they had won.
“Your highness, may I present Miss Emma Knight. Miss Knight, her royal highness Queen Berisa of Labania,” the Labanian footman’s lilting accent made Emma smile as he presented her with a half bow.
Emma made a small curtsey, her eyes meeting those of the queen. Unlike this afternoon, when her highness had radiated determination and energy, Emma’s immediate impression tonight was of serenity and intelligence as she gazed into nearly black irises surrounded by bright whites. The queen’s complexion was chocolate suffused with an enchanting inner glow, perhaps the effect of expertly applied makeup, but deeply flattering nonetheless. Her intricately braided hair was studded with jewels and golden trinkets. Her native gown’s colorful patterns made it far more interesting than the Diors and LaCroixs and Chanels all over the room.
“It is a great pleasure to meet you, your highness,” Emma said. As she spoke she felt Steed step up beside her, betrayed by a whiff of his telltale cologne and the tingle that his presence always gave her.
“The pleasure is mine, Miss Knight. I understand that your company has an important role to play in ensuring the security of my people,” the queen replied, her eyes darting from Emma to her right, obviously noting Steed’s presence.
“Indeed, your highness. Our negotiating team is engaged in discussions with your military this very week,” Emma replied. She felt Steed stiffen next to her. She had not mentioned this detail of Knight business to him. “I hope that our meeting here will help smooth the wrinkles in their negotiations.”
“Indeed!” the Queen chuckled. “I approve of such directness, Miss Knight. I shall instruct my generals to maintain an open mind toward what your company has to offer.” She looked again at Steed, who Emma imagined was looking as complacent as ever despite the agitation she knew she had caused him. “And do I take it that you also enjoy Mr. Steed’s services?” she added.
Emma allowed herself to look at Steed, arching one brow as she did, silently repeating the queen’s word: Services?
He met her gaze with his complacent smile, professional to the core even in the face of her teasing.
“I’m afraid it’s worse than that, your highness,” Emma smiled, turning back to the queen. “He is my husband.”
“Really?” the queen drawled, sounding like a gossiping peasant as she gave Steed an appraising look. “I have never imagined him to be the marrying kind.”
“Nor I, your highness,” Emma replied, watching Steed finally crack. He arched an expressive brow at her, then offered the queen a deep bow and escorted Emma away.
“You used me,” he muttered near her ear as they made a circuit of the ballroom. His eyes were everywhere except on her. He was listening, she knew, to a constant stream of reports from the rest of security team delivered through a small earpiece connected by a thin wire to a receiver in his pocket. He had a concealed microphone too, she was certain.
“You invited me,” she replied coolly, smiling at a German diplomat who she recognized from countless parties in London. She felt Steed’s hand on the small of her back, a light, reassuring touch. He wasn’t angry.
They stopped at a well stocked bar manned by an attractive young bartender.
“I have to stick near her until she retires,” he said quietly. “You can amuse yourself?”
“I can. But I do hope she decides to go to bed before the band. I would like to dance with you.”
“I’ll see that she does if I have to carry her off to her room myself.”
“That would be counter to my intentions,” she chuckled. Steed’s eyes widened at her suggestion, then he winked and strode away.
Emma secured herself a glass of champagne and set about occupying herself by observing the other guests. As it turned out she had no shortage of dancing partners while she waited for Steed. She was well known in diplomatic circles both from her work with Steed and on her own account as a leader of industry. The diplomatic crowd tended to migrate to wherever the best parties were, and this week the United Nations was the place to be. Seeing her unattended seemed to have a consistent effect on male diplomats and operatives from many nations – they swooped in one by one to spin her around the dance floor and inquire after her business and her husband’s business, not usually in that order. They got nothing other than a pleasant dance, of course, which was what they expected. It was an old familiar game, but Emma still enjoyed it.
Two or three minor issues required Steed’s attention during the evening – a waiter without proper credentials had to be dismissed, and a young woman with no invitation was turned away despite her very skilled flirtation. Her highness’s food taster thought that the mushroom canapés tasted peculiar, so Steed had tried them and agreed – they tasted as if they’d been made with rancid butter. The banquet chef had emerged from the kitchen in person to apologize.
To Steed’s utter delight, her highness announced just after ten o’clock that the rigors of travel and speeches had worn her down. She departed the ball with her escort. Steed lingered on in the shadows of the ballroom feeling frivolous and underutilized until the escort team delivered its all-clear report. Her highness was safely in her suite with her personal guards in place.
Reminding himself that he had resigned himself to these “baby-sitting” missions because of his son, sleeping far above, and his wife, who was currently dancing with a notoriously lecherous Italian, Steed tugged the cord to pop out his earpiece and dropped it into his pocket with the receiver.
He crossed the dance floor, his expression turning stormy as he watched the Italian’s hand slide down Emma’s bare back and stop just where her black velvet dress started, dangerously close to her exquisitely shapely posterior. Coming up behind the Italian, he tapped the man’s shoulder slightly harder than was necessary.
“May I cut in?” he asked, his voice silky, his jealousy masked behind a pleasant smile. “Steed!” the Italian’s brows rose in surprise at finding his dancing partner’s husband so close. Before he could say more Steed had taken Emma’s hand and expertly inserted himself in front of her. He danced her away, leaving the Italian to be an obstruction amid the other dancing couples.
“Thank you for the timely rescue,” Emma sighed. Steed found himself smiling. The job may not be particularly dangerous, but he’d still managed to save Emma from something. “Has her highness turned in?” Emma asked.
“She’s buttoned up for the night,” he confirmed, allowing his hand to slip down Emma’s back. He caught her wry smile and returned it.
“You know if her appeal is heard here, it could signal the beginning of a whole new approach to the industrialized world’s support of developing nations.”
“You have been talking to the other guests.”
“You did leave me to them,” she pointed out evilly. He winced, then pulled her closer, pressing his cheek to hers. She turned her head ever so slightly, just enough to touch his neck with her lips and breathe gently into his ear. He shivered with pleasure as he guided her between two other couples. But the dance floor was crowded; he eased his grip on her just a bit and concentrated on dancing.
“The last song is ending, darling,” Emma whispered into his ear a long while later. They had both slipped into a dream-like state as the evening went on, eventually slowing their pace to the point where they were swaying in place, completely absorbed in the music and one another. They would never be so gauche as to kiss on the dance floor, but other guests observing their swaying embrace smiled knowingly and looked away, so intimate did it seem.
“So it is,” he whispered back, reluctantly loosening his hold and turning with her to face the band as they struck their final notes. They applauded politely along with the few other guests still on the dance floor. The bandleader announced that refreshments were available in the next room, where, Steed knew, there would also be a jazz band playing until nearly dawn.
“After party?” he asked, catching Emma’s eye. He prayed she would say no. His prayer was answered when she caught his hand in hers and, with a warm little smile and a shake of her head, led him toward the exit.
“You’re back on duty in the morning, aren’t you?” she asked as they waited for the lift. He nodded, feeling apologetic.
“My days of dancing all night and working the next are long over,” she said. “I would imagine yours are too, given a choice.”
The lift arrived and they stepped in with the operator.
“Nineteen, please,” Steed told him, then looked back into Emma’s eyes. “Is that a comment on my age?” he asked playfully.
She reached up and traced the side of his face with the back of her hand, her own smile far more intimate than playful. “No. On your choice of activities,” she replied, her voice remarkably neutral in the presence of the lift operator.
Two shots fired in quick succession from different caliber guns rattled doors and windows and echoed for a second or two in the otherwise silent hotel corridor. Steed was on his feet reaching for his dressing gown before the echo had faded. He barely had the robe around himself as he stepped into the sitting room. Striding toward the suite door he pointed at Siobhan, a pale moonlit figure standing in her bedroom doorway.
“Go back,” he commanded, not bothering to see if she complied, which she did, closing the door most of the way, but peering out through a narrow crack.
Steed looked out the peephole in the suite door, then opened it, standing to one side to look out along the corridor.
“—stairwell. I hear steps. No, down. He went down!” a voice was saying. Steed moved into the doorway and looked the other way down the hall. The night security man for their floor was standing in the open stairwell doorway speaking into the microphone affixed to his cuff. Catching sight of Steed he turned toward him, revealing a bloody wound on the side of his head.
“Richards, report,” Steed said. Richards glanced back into the stairwell, then let the door shut and came toward Steed.
“I came around the corner from the elevators and saw an intruder here – about where you are standing, sir. Outside your door. I challenged him. He was dressed like a burglar but orders are to challenge first, so I did. He turned toward me and I saw the gun, so I drew. He fired first, but I hit him, too.”
“He was outside my door moving toward the stairs?”
“Yes sir, I suppose so. He – maybe he came out of the stairs on the wrong floor. He must have been looking for her highness. Her suite is just above yours.”
Steed turned to look at the door to his suite. The number was 1920. The queen’s suite was 2019. Could the man have been a dyslexic attacker? Suddenly Emma filled the doorway wrapped in a hotel bathrobe.
“Steed?” she asked, more curious than frightened, he noted. Her gaze drifted to Richards and her eyes widened. “You’re wounded,” she said, automatically stepping out and taking his head in her hands to examine the wound.
“Just a scratch ma’am,” the guard said. She rolled her eyes, releasing his head and turning back toward her husband.
“Call for relief, Richards and get that seen to,” Steed told the man. “And I want an update on the intruder as soon as you have one. I’m going upstairs as soon as I dress.”
Steed dressed and left Emma on watch in the sitting room, a book in her hand and her small handgun by her side. She was still awake when he returned an hour later. He faced her inquisitive look as he loosened his tie.
“They caught him in the cellar,” he said. “That’s one of the virtues of this hotel – we can control all of the exits very easily.”
“Um,” she nodded, setting her book down and stretching her arms over her head. “And there’s secret access to the railroad tunnel underneath,” she said. Steed arched one eyebrow at her as he shrugged out of his jacket. “I read, darling,” she shrugged.
“Yes, but you have a rather unique selection of reading material,” he said, knowing that she had read the mission briefing. “Unfortunately her highness’s security budget does not cover an escape train.”
“Unlike the PM when he visits?” Emma smiled. “So who is he?”
“He won’t say. And he wasn’t carrying identification.”
“Of course not.”
“So you think he was working solo?”
“We’re not sure, but we’ve doubled the guard for the time being,” he crossed to their bedroom door, then paused, peering at the closed door to Siobhan and John’s room. “Is John all right?”
“The shots woke him and he cried for a bit. I held him until he calmed down. I’m sure they’re both sound asleep now.”
“Let’s join them, shall we?” he extended his hand toward her. She switched off her reading lamp and rose to take it.
There was a shooting tonight in the hall outside of our suite. There, I’ve written that sentence and I still cannot quite absorb it. Miss Knight said the man who was shot was not hurt badly – the bullet nearly missed his ear, she said. But that means it actually did hit his ear, and now he’ll forever live with an ear that was shot off. She was so calm, comforting little John while she talked about the poor man and his ear. Was she ever upset by things like this I wonder? Was it Mr. Steed who made her insensitive to the shock of people shooting at one another? Or is it just in her nature not to empathize?
“Excuse me Miss Knight?”
Emma looked toward the slight man with curly dark hair and a thick beard to match – both in need of a trim. He was wearing a rumpled grey suit of a cut several years out of style. His tie was of indeterminate color and several inches too short. Emma did not let her gaze descend any further.
“May I help you?” she asked as Siobhan stopped beside her with the stroller.
“Miss Knight, I’m Alex Seton, from Exten Weapons Systems. I feel awkward intercepting you here in the hotel like this, but if you could give me five minutes?”
Emma’s lips pursed with clear annoyance, an expression so chilly that for a moment Seton wanted to dissolve into the carpet. Michael, who had met her once or twice during negotiations with Knight, had told Seton that she was courteous to a fault, but that did not make her any less intimidating.
“Please,” he added with a shy little smile, feeling his head incline and his shoulder rise to meet it, a tick he had developed in high school and never gotten rid of. Amazingly, her expression softened. She nodded at the young woman pushing the stroller, who promptly pushed it across the lobby toward a newsstand near the door.
“All right Mr. Seton. You have five minutes.”
“Thank you, Miss Knight. I don’t presume that you are aware of the various business agreements our two companies are en–.”
“You are designing advanced components for some of our computing products, and you are purchasing detonators from Knight Weaponry,” Emma interrupted him. “What can I do for you, Mr. Seton?”
Alex swallowed down his surprise. He had not expected her to be so familiar with the details of her very large corporations’ business. But her patience was waning. He felt his head tilt again as he swallowed and took a breath. He plunged his sweaty hands into his trouser pockets as he spoke.
“Miss Knight, we recently made an error that is costing us dearly. We admit that it’s our own fault, but I am hoping you will see your way clear to be lenient – that is, to have your staff at Knight Weaponry be lenient.”
“Please explain, Mr. Seton.”
“We missed a deadline, Miss Knight. By less than a day. But because of it we are forced to pay a much higher price for the detonators that you mentioned. Our order is substantial to us, but it is just a small portion of Knight’s annual business, I’m sure. Could you possibly intercede on our behalf?”
“Of course I could, Mr. Seton. But what you really want to know is if I will,” Emma said. She was thinking about the Knight Weaponry standard sales contract. She knew what deadline Exten must have missed, and had an idea of the percentage of the cost increase they were facing. The clause was intended to encourage buyers to execute their purchases, and it was rarely invoked even when the deadline was missed. Emma wondered who had let the axe fall in this case, and why. She certainly was not prepared to overrule any of her staff without finding out.
“Yes, Miss Knight. If you will. I – I can deliver the initial designs on the circuit sooner, if that would help.”
Emma looked pointedly at her wristwatch, then across the lobby at Siobhan and John.
“I will speak to my staff, Mr. Seton. I can make no promises without hearing their side of this. But someone will be in touch with you, one way or the other, within twenty-four hours.”
Seton felt as if a huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He knew that he visibly straightened because Miss Knight’s head shifted as she watched him.
“Thank you, Miss Knight. That’s all I can ask.”
“Indeed,” she said, and realized it was harsher than necessary. So she smiled and offered him her hand, which he shook rather tentatively. “Good day Mr. Seton.”
She turned on her heel and headed for Siobhan and John. Seton watched her, sinking slowly back into the chair that he’d arisen from when she had first approached.
“Security, stop that man!” Steed yelled as he slammed open the stairway door and started across the lobby. The man in question drove his shoulder into the security guard’s chest, knocking him aside before plunging into the revolving glass door leading to the street. Steed didn’t spare a glance for the dazed guard as he pushed through the door himself.
“Pardon me!” he said, touching his hat to a hotel porter who he nearly knocked over as he sprinted across the wide sidewalk. He had caught a fleeting glimpse of his quarry disappearing through a doorway in the side of the church building across the street.
The man had been spotted by security dropping out of a window from the Waldorf Towers, an apartment building, onto the rooftop of the hotel. The agent had reported the sighting by radio and chased the man into the stairwell. Steed, who’d just been leaving the Queen’s suite when he heard the report, had dashed out to intercept the intruder on the stairs.
Entering the stairwell he’d nearly bowled over the agent from the roof who was dashing across the landing just inside.
“Sorry old man,” Steed had said, then followed the agent’s gaze down the next flight of steps where he saw the heels of their quarry as he rounded the hairpin turn onto the next flight down. Steed was off again in an instant, bulleting down the stairs three at a time. To his surprise as he rounded the next turn he saw the man leaning on the handle of the door to the nineteenth floor.
“Stop!” he’d yelled mostly to startle him. It worked. The other man paused with the door cracked open to look up at Steed. With a hurried prayer that some higher power would look after him Steed launched himself at the man from the third step down. The man turned to face him with his arms extended as if to fend him off rather than simply stepping aside to let Steed land on the brutally hard concrete floor. Even so, the landing hurt as the man collapsed beneath him and they rolled toward the next downward steps.
But the seemingly concluded arrest had gone amiss when the agent from the roof had charged down the stairs and knocked Steed off of their quarry. The agents lost valuable seconds recovering while the intruder got to his feet and flung himself down the next flight.
“Radio someone in the lobby,” Steed had snapped, shoving the other agent off of himself. Then he’d started down the stairs three at a time after the man.
He didn’t know why his associate hadn’t managed to notify the guards in the lobby in time to stop the man, and, as he pursued him into the church building he did not care.
He found himself in a short corridor with a reception counter at the far end flanked by a pair of elevator doors. A young woman with straight dark hair framing her pale face and artificially bright red lips was sitting behind the counter. She was staring to her right along a corridor at right angles to the one Steed was in. As he approached her at a dead run he heard a door around the corner slam. The woman’s head snapped around toward Steed.
“May I help you sir?” she said, standing up as if to intercept him.
“Where does that door lead?” Steed asked, pausing to smile at her.
“The stairs,” she replied. “Are you here for a meeting?”
“I’m here to catch up with that man,” Steed replied, shoving away from her counter and heading for the stairway door.
“Sir?” her call was drowned out by the slam of the door.
He leaned out into the space in the middle of the stairwell and looked up. He didn’t see any movement or hear any footsteps on the flights above. He knew from the outside that the building, which was attached to the church, was five stories tall. But something told him that his man would not have gone up – it was a dead end with only these stairs and the two elevators all right next to each other as an escape route.
Because it had always lead him right in the past, Steed followed his gut. He pounded down the stairs toward the basement and slammed open the door at the bottom.
A tiled corridor led to the right. The sound of trainers squeaking on a varnished floor indicated an athletic game going on in a gymnasium at the far end of the brightly lit space. The air was tinged with the sharp tang of pool chlorine. A flicker of dark movement in a cross passage down the hall caught Steed’s eye and he took off again.
“Hey!” a man shouted from around the corner ahead, “watch where you’re going!”
A second later Steed skidded to a halt at the intersecting corridor. A man wrapped in a towel was shutting the door of a wooden sauna. He turned to glare at Steed, who smiled, nodded, and dashed past him.
The stark athletic facilities soon turned into more traditional basement space as Steed crashed through a still-swinging gate in a wire fence. Beyond the gate was a storage area that put Steed in mind of his own basement back in England – a rabbit warren of storage rooms divided by load bearing walls and mechanical risers. Except these walls supported not a house but the mass of the church above.
He was operating on instinct again, his brain sorting out the sound of his man’s footsteps echoing in the jumbled space. Decorative angels, artificial Christmas trees, crosses, stacks of file boxes, and theatrical props all flashed by as he ran through the basement maze. Deep vibrations echoed through one chamber as he passed, and he was aware of a row of thick, metal tubes against the wall – the largest members of the church’s huge pipe organ, so tall they extended from the church ceiling high above all the way down into the basement.
He knows exactly where he’s going, Steed thought as he caught sight of his man yanking open a door in a shadowy brick wall on the far side of the next room. The man lost valuable seconds dragging the door open on its rusty, protesting hinges. Steed squeezed through seconds later and nearly plummeted down the dark stairs on the other side. He caught himself with one hand on a filthy railing that felt as if it was going to come loose, but held long enough to help him regain his balance.
The stairs ended in another passage illuminated by a bare blue light bulb high on one wall. The shadow of his prey passed through the bulb’s circle of dim light as Steed sucked in a deep breath and picked up his pace again. Even with his habitual hours of training on the treadmill his lungs were beginning to protest. Litter lined the sides of the passage, getting denser the further he went. Steed was sure he saw small creatures darting away into the darkness as his feet pounded loudly on the grimy cement floor.
The shadow ahead passed through another dim circle of blue light — a little closer this time. Encouraged, Steed managed to pick up his pace. Suddenly something ahead slammed – the solid sound of metal against concrete. A few paces later Steed made out a rectangle of deeper blackness ahead and he soon reached the open doorway his prey had gone through. He stopped short, swaying on his feet as he caught his balance. Something told him not to take another step. He found the doorframe with one hand and stood still to listen for telltale sounds to indicate what direction he should go. The cross passage was much larger than the corridor behind him. A warm breeze carried strange smells – rancid garbage, human waste, and the distinctive odor of motor oil. A distant roar nearly covered the sound of rapid footsteps echoing off to the left.
By the time he had determined this Steed’s eyesight had adjusted to the light and his suspicion was confirmed. The doorway opened into a subway tunnel. He was standing on a narrow walkway above the rail bed. The tracks and electrified third rail were four feet below, gleaming with the reflection of the blue lights spaced every hundred feet or so. Another step and he’d have plunged down onto the tracks and very likely hit the deadly electrified third rail.
With a grim smile he turned to the left and started along the narrow walkway at a controlled run. Far ahead a shadow flickered beneath one of the blue lights – his man had gained a lot of distance on him. He risked moving faster on the narrow ledge, considering leaping down to run between the rails. But in a moment a shadow beneath the next light told him that he was gaining again – he could catch up if he kept going this way.
But moments after that he became certain that the distant roar was getting louder and closer. Far ahead twin white lights grew brighter. Steed picked up his pace a little more, left hand brushing the wall beside him. Far ahead, but closer than before, he saw his prey pass beneath another light. The subway train seemed to be right beside him, although Steed knew that the darkeness tricked vision: the train was still a few hundred yards off. Steed’s left hand plunged into empty space and he smiled, but did not stop. He had thought there must be alcoves – small safety spaces for subway workers to dodge into if they were caught in the tunnel when a train was passing. He resisted the urge to tuck himself into the one he had just passed, knowing that there was another ahead – he just had to get to it before the train got to him. Perversely he hoped that his quarry would find one too – he would feel cheated if the train caught him before he could get to him.
The roar of the train grew deafening, the rush of warm, putrid air physically buffeting Steed. The engine had definitely passed his man, so Steed had the chance to close some more ground while his target was pinned down. He could see details of the front of the train now: a driver sat behind a large window, a route identifier centered at the top had a white number four in a green circle.
“Crushed by the number four train,” Steed panted to himself, acknowledging that if he did not find another alcove in the next few seconds he would have to press himself against the wall and hope that the train did not suck him in as it roared past. Looking at the narrow space between the approaching train and the wall he was certain that he would not survive. The train filled the tunnel, a growling, spitting steel monster, its bored driver oblivious to the mortal danger that his machine represented to the man on the tunnel walkway.
As Steed plunged toward it — knowing that finding an alcove ahead was his only hope for he could not turn and outrun the train back to the last one — he recalled reading about the trauma that motormen experienced after their trains struck people on the tracks. He could not summon much sympathy for the man in the driver’s seat thundering down on him at fifty miles an hour.
And then as the rivet heads around the grimy headlights became clear and the smell of ozone tingled in his nostrils, his left hand found open space. He slammed himself into the alcove an instant before the train consumed the tunnel. The wind of its passing sucked his bowler right off of his head and pulled his tie out of his waistcoat. It fluttered in the air, reaching for the passing wall of steel and glass. For a moment he feared it would snag on the train and drag him out. Steed saw the flicker of strangers’ faces through the windows – puzzled commuters who saw but did not believe they saw the man pressed against the wall outside as the train roared along. The wind was too strong. He clenched his eyes shut against the rushing air that burned his face.
An eternity of roaring, clanking, shuddering time passed, the lighted windows of the passing train flickering behind his closed eyelids. And then the pressure abated. Although he wanted to hunch forward and breathe, he forced himself to open his eyes and start out once more.
He became aware of the glow of the station ahead when his prey was silhouetted by the bright white light of fluorescent bulbs over the platform. He was much closer than he’d realized, and as the man passed through the little swinging gate at the end of the platform Steed was only twenty paces behind him. The platform was not crowded and the two panting, dirty men emerging from the tunnel drew just a few quick glances from wary civilians. As if by magic a path cleared before them as a woman hustled her small child toward the platform’s edge – safer than the path of the seemingly demented men – and two teenage boys parted throwing an expletive toward Steed’s prey. Steed closed half the distance between them, wondering whether his prey would continue along the platform to re-enter the tunnel at the far end, or go up one of the staircases leading to the station above. He wanted to catch him before he could do either.
But for once his luck did not hold. Another train roared into the station, brakes screeching as it stopped. The doors opened and dozens of riders issued out onto the platform. Steed was buffeted to the right as he passed an open door from which a gaggle of school children was pouring. Suppressing the urge to brand them ruffians for not watching where they were going as they chattered among themselves, Steed concentrated on keeping an eye on his man as he waded through the masses.
His man was equally hindered, reaching a creaking escalator in the midst of the crowd. He was forced onto it by the press of bodies. Unable to run up the steps, he looked back down over the heads of those beneath him. Steed saw anger and panic as his gaze locked with his quarry’s. With a smug grin, he heaved himself up onto the side of the escalator and climbed using as footholds the horizontal wooden bars placed to prevent youngsters from sliding down. The civilians on the escalator leaned away from him, a few shouting or crying out in fear. His man twisted around, his expression turning unnerved as Steed charged toward him. In a moment Steed loomed above, finally catching up just as they both reached the top.
People scattered as Steed dropped onto his man’s shoulders, bringing them both to the ground a few steps from the top of the escalator. The last push up the side of the escalator had finally winded Steed. Gasping, he pinned the man’s legs with his knees and planted both hands on his shoulders, pressing the man’s face to the filthy floor. The man, who was at least a decade younger, appeared to be as worn out as Steed. He tried unsuccessfully to heave himself up, then collapsed.
“All right, that’s enough,” a man shouted from a few yards away. Steed looked up at the pair of uniformed police officers striding purposefully toward them.
“Let him up,” the other, smaller officer said, reaching out as if he intended to drag Steed off of his man. Steed straightened, getting to his feet. His quarry dragged his hands underneath himself and rolled into a sitting position.
“Which of you is Steed?” the taller officer asked, one hand resting on the butt of his holstered service pistol.
“I’m Steed,” Steed replied, eyes locked on his quarry, fully expecting him to bolt. As he spoke the shorter officer reached down to drag his quarry up. To Steed’s relief, he did not let go. “If you’d be so kind as to secure his hands I’ll take him,” he added.
“One thing at a time, sir,” the tall officer said, raising the hand from his gun as if to calm Steed. “May I see some identification?”
With a polite smile to acknowledge the man’s devotion to procedure, Steed slowly reached into his jacket pocket to retrieve his billfold. The officer nodded acceptance of his identification, although Steed was sure the import of his red card was lost on the man. Upon seeing his partner’s nod the shorter officer produced handcuffs and put them on the other man.
“All right?” Steed asked, “I’d like to get him into custody.”
“Yes sir,” the tall officer said, “those are our orders. Arrest him for disturbing the peace.”
“He threatened a diplomatic guest of the United Nations,” Steed said, his habitual calm barely concealing his surprise.
“The lawyers will sort all that out,” the officer said. “You can send your people to the 95th Precinct. Unless,” he paused, giving Steed a threatening look that almost made the agent laugh, “you want us to take you in too?”
“No, thank you officer. My people will be around for him,” Steed replied, his own statement not at all threatening, simply stating his own organization’s superiority. The officer shook his head ruefully, conveying his amusement at the eccentric Englishman.
Steed followed the officers and his man up to the street where they climbed into a waiting police car and drove off leaving him standing on the busy sidewalk. He reached up to adjust his bowler and realized that it had blown off in the tunnel. Heaving a sigh, he stepped across the sidewalk to a telephone booth and dug in his pocket for some change.
“You’re working too late Edmond,” Emma said, leaning back in her chair to stretch her legs out in front of her. She and Siobhan had walked for miles and her feet were complaining about it. After her conversation with Alex Seton they had taken John to the zoo in Central Park and then worked their way downtown. Siobhan had used her spending money on a carrier bag full of used books at The Strand and they’d both enjoyed looking through the cutting edge fashions and vintage clothing in Greenwich Village’s avant garde shops. It was now late afternoon in New York and well into the evening in London.
“June is visiting her sister,” Edmond replied. Emma easily pictured him in at his tidy desk in his austere office, the telephone cradled against his shoulder as he leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. She could even imagine his smell – pipe tobacco mixed, at this late hour, with a hint of perspiration. It was a comforting image for Emma.
“So you have nothing to go home to?” she teased him, knowing that it was essentially true: his wife June was the soul of his home. With her absent, his life was centered in his office. Emma realized as she pictured that it was a paternal image. He had been her father’s best friend and business partner, a part of her entire life. When she thought of her father he was larger than life. When she thought of Edmond he was just a man – approachable, supportive, a good friend. And yet he had deceived her for decades, maintaining his official involvement with MI-6 while telling her and the world that he’d left the intelligence business after the war.
He had confessed this to her recently after Steed had found out the truth and confronted him. Deep down his deception still hurt her, and she knew that if this had come to light a few years ago she would have branded him yet another deceptive man like her ex-husband and eliminated him from her life. But to her surprise, one of the effects of marriage to Steed and motherhood was a broadening of her acceptance of others. She did not need to consult a psychologist to know that in marrying Steed she had found emotional security. She was no longer alone, no longer solely dependent upon herself. She could accept faults in others without being threatened.
“Only the supper she left in the freezer for me,” he replied, and the squeak of his chair helped her picture him rubbing his temples with his free hand as he looked toward the ceiling. “How is John?”
“Content and on his best behavior,” she replied, knowing she meant the baby, not her husband. “It’s a good thing he’s turned out to be a good traveler.”
“Or he’d be spending a lot of time at home with the nanny,” Edmond replied without a hint of judgment. Emma cringed because he was right. “And Steed?”
“He’s well too. His assignment should end this evening.”
“So you’ll be off to Washington tomorrow?”
“Yes. You have our contact information, don’t you?”
“From Mrs. Emerson. So is this just a check-in call?”
Emma smiled. They both knew she would not have called him at the office at this hour just to check in. “You know Exten Weapons Systems?”
“Yes of course.”
“I was approached by one of their owners today.”
“West? Or Seton?”
Emma wiggled her toes, stretching her arches. I need a pedicure. “Alex Seton. You know him?”
“West handles their negotiations, but I’ve met Seton socially.”
Emma understood that in Edmond’s language a social meeting was hardly a meeting at all. He only came to know people through negotiating.
“Mr. Seton said that Exten missed a contract deadline and we increased our price for detonators. Can you find out whether we were just exercising the contract or whether we had real need to ask the higher price?”
“I’m aware of the detonator deal, Emma.”
“Oh? And what are the details?”
“Mr. West says it was a clerical error that delayed their purchase order and has asked us to reconsider our contractually valid price increase. From our perspective, the delay in the order upset our manufacturing schedule.”
“Who raised the price?”
“Miss Grant elected to exercise the contract.”
Emma continued to study her toes. She knew that Tasha Grant had been emulating her – or trying to – for at least a year. And while Miss Grant was knowledgeable and experienced, she lacked the creativity and intelligence to manage in the same way as her role model. Doubtlessly the woman thought that if a contract allowed for action she should take it – particularly when that action would result in increased revenues. But squeezing higher profits from Exten for an order of detonators would have very little benefit for Knight in the long run.
“I have already had her recalculate an acceptable price for the detonators,” Edmond went on. “In between their original price and the higher contractual price. I was planning on renegotiating with Mr. West tomorrow. I told Miss Grant she could listen in on the meeting.”
Emma smiled, not at all surprised that he had already developed an acceptable solution. Nor did she doubt that the renegotiation would result in the exact price Miss Grant had calculated. Perhaps Miss Grant would learn something from Edmond in the process.
“I told Mr. Seton someone would be in touch within twenty-four hours – so you’ll speak to them in the morning, New York time?”
“Good. I think I’ll have a one-on-one with Miss Grant when I get back.”
“That would be useful. I stand by our decision to promote her, but I do think some managerial guidance would be in order. And she is much more responsive to you than to Anthony.”
“That’s something she’ll need to rectify,” Emma said. As Knight’s general manager, Anthony Cruz was Miss Grant’s true manager. “In any case, you should go home, Edmond. Read a book. Watch the telly.”
Edmond laughed and she could tell he had straightened in his chair preparatory to ending the call. “I’ll do that – read a book, I mean.”
“Good night Edmond.”
“Good evening Emma.”
“Is her highness safely away?” Emma asked, watching Steed stride wearily across their bedroom. She had enjoyed a quiet supper with Siobhan and John in the hotel restaurant while Steed was overseeing the queen’s final dinner and departure.
“Packed and away,” he confirmed as he untied his necktie.
“You look exhausted. And what happened to that suit?” She pointed to the suit he’d been wearing earlier in the day, now folded next to his suitcase. Filthy, unidentifiable smears were visible on it. After arranging for the man he’d chased through the subway to be picked up as soon as he was released from the 95th Precinct – which he had been within two hours – Steed had returned to the hotel to change. As they were leaving in the morning he had not sent his possibly ruined suit to the hotel cleaners.
“Don’t ask,” he sighed, shrugging off his jacket. He was only partially relieved that Emma complied with his request, returning to her book as he finished undressing. He had been typically stoic about the exhausting chase, but he would rather like to tell someone about it.
“Don’t,” she said as he reached for his pajamas.
“Emma, I am exhausted,” he pleaded, half turning toward her. She was ensconced in the bed with most of the pillows propping her up. She looked decidedly regal with her hair pinned up, a few escaped tendrils around her face. She had set her book on the nightstand.
“So you would appreciate a bit of massaging?” she asked, raising her hands to wiggle her fingers at him.
“You,” he said, coming to the bed, “are an angel.”
“So long as you notice,” she replied rising to her knees beside him as he stretched out on his stomach on the bed. “Are you going to tell me about it, or do I have to resort of physical torture?” she asked, running both hands over his shoulder blades and down his back, a sensation as far from torture as he could imagine. “I don’t want to guess at what you got into in that suit.”
“A subway tunnel,” he replied. “Another intruder lead me out of the hotel and on a merry chase right into this fair city’s underground.”
“I hope there weren’t any trains running at the time,” Emma said, working her way along either side of his spine with her thumbs.
“There were,” he groaned, stiffening as her strong fingers found a knotted muscle in his lower back.
“Steed, really?” she paused and leaned over to look at his face. Hers was full of genuine concern.
“Not to worry, Mrs. Peel, I tucked myself into an indent in the wall until it passed.”
Emma frowned, sure that he was downplaying the danger. “And the man you were chasing?”
“Did the same, I presume. I caught up with him after the train had passed.”
“In the tunnel?”
“In the next station, actually.”
“Good heaven’s Steed – how far did you chase him?”
“About ten blocks, I reckon. Not counting stairs,” he sighed as she returned to massaging his back. They both fell silent as she worked her way down his back and over his buttocks to his thighs. He moaned as she worked on them, squeezing away the aches as her talented hands warmed and soothed the sore muscles.
“You are an angel,” he muttered as she moved on to his calves. She could tell he was drifting off, and regarded it as a compliment that her ministrations could soothe him so completely, if he was so tired they did not incite an entirely different reaction. By the time she returned to his shoulders his breathing was slow and deep. She pulled up the covers and stretched out on her side of the bed, leaning over to press a kiss on the back of his neck.
“Good night love,” she whispered.
Steed felt the bed rock as Emma left it, but he kept his eyes stubbornly shut. Her massage combined with a solid night’s sleep had been the perfect restorative. As he lay in the delicious cocoon of sheets and coverlet he felt circulation warming his limbs and other excitable parts of his body. The bathroom door opened and he waited, anticipating her return and planning his first seductive move.
There was a rustling sound across the room, and more light pressed in against his eyelids. Suddenly immensely disappointed, he opened his eyes to see if she really was dressing. His disappointment evaporated. She was standing in the sunlight streaming in through the window, breathing deeply, squaring her shoulders, and settling into the first position of her yoga routine.
He smiled as the sight of her further warmed him. Her silky pajamas clung in all the right places, outlining a curve of her ass in one pose and a rounded breast, a hint of erect nipple, in another. She knows I’m watching. When he knew she was half way through he folded back the covers and got out of bed, disregarding his nakedness as he went to stand close behind her.
Balancing on one foot, he bent his right knee to place his bare foot on the side of his left knee, imitating her pose. He inhaled a long breath, catching a distracting whiff of her shampoo mixed with musky female sweat. Her lithe movements looked like an easy dance, but she put all of her considerable strength into exercising each muscle group, and she always worked up a sweat. They held the position for several seconds, and when Emma extended her leg out to the side he did the same. She breathed deeply and swiveled her leg to the rear. Steed lowered his and caught hers, sliding his hand up her thigh and wrapping his other arm around her to cup one perfect breast.
She laid her head back on his shoulder with a throaty purr, her leg lowering as he stroked toward her pelvis, pale silk fabric bunching up beneath his hand. He pinched her nipple and felt her shudder against him. His lips found the sensitive spot beneath her ear and he feathered light kisses there as he pressed her ass against his aching groin with his other hand. She reached up to run her fingers through the hair on the side of his head, then reached down to draw his fingers away from her breast. He lifted his head to look at her profile, subconsciously admiring the tilt of her nose despite his annoyance at being forced to relinquish his hold on her.
“Let me finish,” she said huskily, turning her head to press a moist, promising kiss to his lips. He inhaled again, filling himself with her tangy scent. He moved a few inches away from her, his skin prickling where cool air replaced the silken touch of her pajamas. She returned to her last position and he imitated her once again, this time following her movements without touching her.
If anything it was even more arousing, hovering behind her, struggling to avoid contact as she stretched and bent in ways that he was sure were designed to tease him. When at last she turned to face him he started turning as well, only stopping when his conscious mind told him she was actually through and he could finally have her. He wanted to kiss her seductive smile as she caressed his bare chest, but he restrained himself, standing with his hands at his side.
“You were very good,” she said, her throaty voice conveying her own deep desire as her hands wandered down his torso. He reached up to unbutton her pajama top.
“That was nothing,” he breathed, gasping as her hands brushed over his engorged balls and then stroked along the underside of his erection. He abandoned her half opened buttons to hook his hands into her pajama bottoms and push them down her thighs. They dropped to the floor around her ankles and she lifted one knee in a move she had practiced moments before. But this time, facing him, she rose onto her toes and pressed into him, guiding him into herself with one hand, the other holding his shoulder. He wrapped one arm around her ass, lifting and pressing her pelvis to his even as her hot core sent his mind spinning with flashes of erotic fire.
And then in a demonstration of strength that surpassed her own powerful stretching session, he slowly bent his knees to lower them both to the carpeted floor while remaining buried within her. She moaned wordlessly, raising both legs to open herself more to him as he held his upper body up on straight arms and ground his pelvis into hers. He peered down at her, lost in his own libido although his sparkling grey eyes locked with hers as he smiled. Then he withdrew a little, his thick, solid penis caressing her clitoris in a way that drove her to distraction. She pinched one of his nipples and he cried out at the jolt of pleasure it sent straight through him. And then he bent his head to push aside her half-open pajama top and find first one, and then the other excited nipple and suck at them until they burned. He licked gently at the puckered flesh of her areoles and felt her convulse against him as he plunged into her again.
She scratched at his bare back and he moved once more, growing more heated at the feel of his balls pressed between them with each thrust. And his arousal deepened even more as she writhed beneath him, twisting her hips to change the way his engorged member caressed her. She used him to pleasure herself, guiding him along paths he well knew, but via a different route this time from the last, and from the next. No matter how they came to it, through deep hard thrusts or short, fast strokes, it was always the same: as his climax built and erupted, his soul joined with hers, streaking through the thin barrier of consciousness to a place outside of it where they mingled, floating for an eternity in fulfilled bliss. He had never known this particular joy with another woman, and he never intended to find out whether it was possible. She was all he needed. All he would ever need.
And then, gradually, they were two people lying on a hotel room floor with a damp spot on the carpet beneath them, bathed in sunlight that glistened off of their sweat-skimmed flesh.
He lifted himself, having collapsed to her side, and smiled down into adoring, contented eyes. A hotel room floor was hardly the most exotic place they’d ever made love. In fact, he reflected as he rose and took her hand to pull her up with him, it was just a bit tawdry.
He bundled her back into the bed. He was determined to erase the vulgar image of them on the floor from his imagination by cuddling her in the bed for a while. And if the cuddling led to something more …
“What are you thinking?” she asked, then touched her lips to the tip of his nose. “We have a long drive today.”
He felt his lips curl, knew that she would end the cuddle before it could lead anywhere and realized that she was right. They could not spend the day in bed as they had once been able to, before marriage and baby. But not for an instant did he regret it.
“That I worked very hard, before I met you, not to be the type of man who takes a woman on a hotel room floor,” he said.
Emma studied him, for a moment unable to read his mood. Then she decided that he was serious and his sincerity touched her. She stroked his back and enjoyed the security of his arms encircling her. Before meeting him she had never expected to know a man with whom she’d be willing to have intercourse anyplace but in a proper bed. Years ago he had awakened her sexually, and through trust and respect had helped her to identify and release her suppressed desires. He had inadvertently ruined her, in that when her husband had returned he had been shocked by her sexual openness, even restricted to the privacy of their bedroom. He had been repulsed and called her a whore, although she never breathed a word of the truth about Steed to him. So, to try to save her marriage, she had shut it all in for several years. Eventually her misery in her life with Peter Peel had finally driven her to seek a divorce. And only when she had rediscovered John Steed and felt assured that he was prepared to accept her on her terms had she allowed herself to feel the tug of her libido once more.
“I’m terribly sorry to have broken down your morals,” she finally replied with a smirk that he kissed away.
“It’s only that I can not help myself when you’re around,” he sighed as if it were a painful admission.
“I don’t know,” she said playfully, “You showed great restraint just now when I asked you to wait.”
“Certainly darling. I wouldn’t worry. After all, I think it’s awfully good for you to let go of your control now and then.”
“Well that’s all right then,” he chuckled, kissing her again. A stray spark of hope that she’d let them stay in bed a while longer sparkled in his eyes when he opened them to look at her. But her knowing look was enough to extinguish it.
“Let’s find another hotel and see how we like their floor tonight,” she suggested.
“Everybody buckled in?” Steed asked, glancing over his shoulder into the back seat of the car where John sat strapped into an uncomfortable looking plastic molded infant seat, the giant stuffed gorilla on one side, Siobhan on the other. The infant was staring fixedly at the gorilla, an amused expression on his face.
“Yes sir. We’re quite comfortable,” Siobhan replied. Steed glanced at Emma, who was studying a roadmap, then started the engine of the big, American car. He had wanted a convertible, but Emma had overruled him on the grounds that it was far too cold to drive with the top down on the highway. So they’d settled for a four door Detroit-made touring car with an automatic transmission.
“You’re sure the Lincoln Tunnel is the best route?” Emma asked as he pulled away from the curb and entered the busy traffic on Park Avenue.
“Direct me, darling,” he replied, unwilling to engage in a battle over navigation. Beside him Emma pursed her lips and looked up from the map.
“Why are you going north?” she asked.
“Because that’s the direction of traffic on this street,” he replied. “Shall I turn at the next corner?”
“Yes. Go left.”
Steed followed Emma’s directions through mid-town Manhattan until he saw a sign for the Lincoln Tunnel ahead. He couldn’t suppress a grin, which she noted. She shrugged.
“It does seem to be the best option,” she said. Steed chuckled at her admission, glancing in the rearview mirror as he changed lanes to approach the tunnel. The light brown coupe in the lane he was leaving had been parked outside of the hotel. He made a mental note of it, then returned his attention to the thickening traffic at the tunnel entrance.
Other than the intruder from the roof and the exhaustive chase, the last day of her highness’s visit in New York had gone smoothly. She had assured Steed that she had been the target of five assassination attempts since her coronation ten years earlier, but that her predecessor – her paternal uncle — had nearly lost his life to assassins thirty-four times in fifteen years. Steed had been unable to imagine his own monarch taking such violence in stride.
“Why do the tags on the cars say ‘The Garden State’?” Siobhan asked. They were zooming along the New Jersey turnpike, having finally escaped the dense traffic around New York City.
“That’s the state motto,” Emma replied, looking out at the seemingly endless forest on either side of the road.
“Should be the Forest State,” Siobhan said, echoing her thought.
“Or the oil refinery state,” Steed suggested, referring to the industrial sprawl near New York.
“What other states will we pass through?” the nanny asked.
Out of the corner of his eye Steed watched Emma trace their route on the map with her finger and read out the names of the remaining states. He checked the rearview mirror again.
“So the states are like our counties?” Siobhan asked.
“No, there are counties within the states,” Emma replied, concealing her surprise as the nanny’s lack of knowledge about the municipal organization of United States.
“America is very big,” Siobhan observed.
“Very,” Steed agreed, glancing at Emma. She just smiled.
“Here we are at last,” Steed announced, parking the car in front of a big Victorian house converted to a bed and breakfast with a discrete sign out front.
“It looks charming,” Emma said, studying the house while Steed got out and rounded the car to open her door. He opened Siobhan’s door too, then stepped around to the back to get their luggage out of the boot.
“He’s sound asleep, ma’am. Maybe I should stay out here with him until the rooms are organized,” Siobhan said from inside the car. Emma leaned in to look at her sleeping son.
Steed set the suitcases on the sidewalk and looked back along the quiet street. Then he closed the boot with a thump.
“Let’s all go in now,” he said in a tone that broached no argument. Emma shot him a puzzled look before leaning into the car to help Siobhan remove John from his seat. They made their way up the front walk and into the inn that Amanda had selected for them.
Steed set their suitcases on the floor then turned to look back out through the lace curtain hanging over the glass window in the door. Emma followed his gaze as he watched a light brown car come along the street, pause beside their rental car and then drive on. He turned and saw her watching him, but rather than explain he moved past her toward the reception area where a clerk was watching them curiously as well.
Emma frowned, following him.
“What was that about?” she asked a few minutes later when they were in their room and Siobhan was in hers coaxing a crying John into finishing his nap.
Steed popped the catches on his suitcase and opened it. From across the room Emma could see the revolver lying on top of his folded shirts. But he did not take it out. Instead he turned toward her, his expression finally showing the concern she’d suspected he was hiding.
“I saw that car in Manhattan,” he replied.
Emma shook her head, not satisfied. “You were expecting to see it here,” she said.
He nodded, crossing the room to her. He put his hands on her upper arms and was shocked to feel her trembling. Her wide-eyed expression suggested that she was as shocked as he was at her fearful reaction. They had both thought she had regained the inner strength to handle threats like this.
“It followed us. I saw it several times along the way.”
“Who are they?” she whispered, swallowing hard. Steed slipped his arms around her and held her close, stroking her back until he felt the trembling stop.
“I don’t know, love,” he said. “but what I do know is that they are not going to hurt me, or you, or our baby.” He felt her inhale a deep breath, and then she pressed her hands to his chest and looked into his eyes. He could see that the fear had gone, replaced by her old, familiar strength. Just a momentary falter, then.
“Let’s find out,” she said. He nodded, lips curling in a proud smile. Then he let her go and picked up the telephone.
Steed had a short conversation with his friend the American agent Lee Stetson, then gathered up his wallet and the car keys. He poked his head into Siobhan’s room where Emma had retreated to help the nanny organize the baby’s things.
“I’m going to trade in the car,” he said simply. “Lee will be over soon.”
Emma nodded, resisting the urge to tell him to be careful.
“Is there a problem with the car?” Siobhan asked when he had gone.
Steed and Emma had agreed that it was best to be honest with Siobhan when they suspected danger that might affect her. She shook her head, taking a moment to decide how to explain.
“Steed noticed a car in Manhattan, and saw it again on the highway and here in Washington. He’s going to trade in our rental car for a different one, just in case they followed us.”
Siobhan nodded thoughtfully, then looked out the window toward the street where they could see Steed getting into the rental car.
“What if they’re watching now?” she asked.
“Steed is very good at losing a tail,” Emma replied with complete confidence.
“And if they come in here after he goes?”
Emma wished the nanny had kept these questions to herself – she hadn’t wanted to think about them. “That’s why I taught you self defense,” she said. “And Lee Stetson, the American agent, is on his way over now.” She was sorry to see Siobhan look relieved only when she mentioned Lee’s impending arrival. It seemed she had some more work to do to help Siobhan feel self-reliant.
But Emma did have to admit to herself that she was glad when she saw Lee’s silver sports car pull up to the curb in front of the inn. A few minutes later she admitted him into their rooms, greeting him with a friendly hug.
“It’s good to see you Emma,” he said. “Hello,” he added, seeing Siobhan in the doorway to her room.
“Lee Stetson, this is Siobhan Caffrey, John’s nanny,” Emma said as Siobhan stepped into the room to shake Lee’s hand. She studied the tall American’s boyish good looks with interest.
“Welcome to Washington, Miss Caffrey. And is that John?” Lee cocked his ear toward the other room where John was apparently awakening from his nap. Siobhan went in to him, lifting him from his crib so that Lee could see him. He ceased his “wake up whimpering” as Emma called it and looked curiously at the stranger.
“He’s all Steed, isn’t he,” Lee said, admiring the boy. Emma nodded, admiring her son too, as she often did in odd moments. “But I see you in him, too,” Lee added, glancing at her to see if he had offended.
She grinned at him, reaching out to take John, suddenly needing to hold him. She noticed Lee watching her and raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
“I had been trying to picture you as a mother and couldn’t,” he said. “But now,” he shook his head, smiling wryly, “It makes perfect sense.”
“Just wait until you see Steed with him,” Emma said and Lee laughed.
They sat in a pair of chairs by the window in Emma and Steed’s room catching up with one another while both surreptitiously watched for Steed’s return. Emma was also listening to Siobhan talking quietly to John as she gave him a bottle and then changed him.
Nearly an hour had passed when a sleek, black Jaguar pulled up behind Lee’s car and Steed got out. He glanced up and down the street as he locked the car and walked briskly up the front walk.
“Looks like he decided to go upscale,” Lee observed wryly. Emma sighed.
When Steed stepped into the room a few minutes later he wore a self-satisfied smile.
“Good to see you Stetson,” he said, crossing the room to shake Lee’s hand. “Everything all right here?” he added, looking at Emma.
“Yes. It’s been quiet,” she replied, reaching out to touch his forearm for reassurance she hadn’t realized that she needed. She noticed concern flash in his expression, so she smiled and made a little shrug. He slipped his arm around her waist, looking back at Lee.
“Thanks for coming over.”
“Don’t mention it. Amanda and Dottie are cleaning up a storm. I was glad to come catch up with Emma.”
“I hope they aren’t cleaning because of us!” Emma said.
Lee laughed, shaking his head. “I’m afraid so. We’ve got a full house with the baby, so it does tend to get messy fast. But you must know what that’s like,” Lee paused, listening with Steed and Emma to Siobhan’s giggle. “Or maybe not,” he added, thinking of the Steed’s big house.
“Would we be imposing to go over now?” Emma asked, drawing Steed’s concerned look again. “I can’t wait to go for a ride in that Jag you rented, darling,” she said to him with a smug smile. “Does it actually have a back seat?”
Steed gave her another squeeze then let her go. “I’ll just tell Siobhan to get John ready – if it’s all right, Lee.”
“Sure! Maybe the vacuuming will stop if we all turn up,” Lee replied enthusiastically.
The Jag did have a back seat, and Emma was not surprised to find that Steed had had the rented child car seat installed in it. They had also transferred the stuffed gorilla, which had been left behind in the first car. Once they were all in Steed followed Lee through the quiet residential neighborhood. Lee’s description of the house as a storm of cleaning turned out to be somewhat extreme. They found Dottie, Amanda’s mother, in the kitchen preparing dinner. Amanda’s two teenaged sons, Philip and Jamie, were watching television. Amanda herself was in her bedroom nursing baby Grace.
Dottie and the boys welcomed them warmly while Lee opened a bottle of wine, and soon Amanda appeared with Grace in a basket draped with pink and white lace. Catching Emma’s surprised expression she shrugged and, when out of her mother’s earshot, said: “I know it’s a bit much, but mother decorated it. I figure Grace will out grow it soon enough.”
The two women shared a laugh and refused to explain when the others looked at them curiously.
“No, no, you aren’t to help. The boys will wash up while mother and I get dessert ready,” Amanda insisted, shooing Emma out of the kitchen. Steed and Lee had their heads together in a corner of the living room, and Siobhan was giving John a bottle on the sofa with the television turned on low. She had developed a fascination with American television.
“Then Grace shall have to entertain me,” Emma said cheerfully as she lifted the infant from her basket. Hearing no argument, she carried the baby through the living room and into the den across the hall. The room was dimly lit by a single, small lamp – a peaceful oasis in an otherwise hectic household. Lee had been right: they were crowded in Amanda’s house.
She sat down at one end of the small sofa, stroking Grace’s smooth, pink cheek with one finger and smiling at the little girl’s angelic face. Not so long ago Emma would have been unable to recognize a girl from a boy at this age. But Grace’s small, delicate features were obviously feminine compared to John’s strong cheekbones and chin. Grace made a sucking sound with her tiny, rosebud mouth. Emma pressed her knuckle against it and the baby sucked, a universal sign of infant hunger.
Emma shut her eyes tight and took a long breath, warding off the wave of sadness that this innocent, instinctive behavior caused. Within a few months of John’s birth, her own breast milk had stopped because of the eating disorder she had developed. She had had to wean her baby long before she wanted to, and although she had overcome the mental and emotional turmoil that had brought on the disorder, her milk would not return. Not unless she became pregnant again.
She removed her finger from Grace’s mouth and the baby reached for it with a grasping, undirected hand. Emma muttered to her, taking her hand and assuring her that she would eat soon, and that she was a lovely little girl.
A shadow darkened the doorway and she looked up to find Steed smiling down at her as he stepped into the room. He hitched his hip on the arm of the sofa, his hands folded on top of his thigh.
“I want one,” Emma said, looking from Steed down at Grace.
“You have one, darling,” he chuckled, afraid to believe what he thought she meant.
“I want a little girl,” she amended, offering Grace her knuckle again. Grace latched on to it, sucking greedily, if disappointedly. Steed watched, recognizing Grace’s behavior and knowing how it must make Emma feel. He moved closer, sitting down on the sofa beside them, one arm across the back behind Emma’s shoulders.
“So do I. I adore John beyond all reason. But I want a daughter. I always have.”
“Well, since the possibility has existed,” he agreed, acknowledging the changes Emma had made in his life. Emma nodded, eyes wide in the darkness, glistening with the kept tears she had fought off earlier. He pulled her closer and kissed first one, then the other, wishing he could banish the briny sorrow from her heart as easily as her eyes.
“Whenever you’re ready, darling. Tonight, if you want,” he said with a suggestive little smile, knowing it wasn’t really possible, that she’d have to get the IUD removed first, but determined to let her know how enthusiastic he was. She shot him a crooked smile that made his heart skip a beat. Right now, if we could lock this door, he added to himself ruefully. She looked back down at Grace, at the same time snuggling closer against him. And for a moment they were a family with a daughter, even though she was borrowed, and he felt an overwhelming rush of contentment.
“Pardon me,” Lee’s voice was barely more than a whisper. He stood in the doorway looking uncomfortable for having disturbed them. “Operations just called,” he added, offering it as an excuse.
Emma felt a familiar tensing in Steed’s body so she shifted away from him, giving him more room. It was as if he grew when he went to work, as if he drew the mystery and clues into himself and they expanded him, made him larger than life, more than the good, honest man who was Emma’s husband. And yet, the man he became was the man she had fallen in love with years ago. She never resented him shifting into that role. And she knew that her involvement in his work changed her too, made her sharper, more acute. It made her forget for a short time that she was the CEO of Knight Industries. But never, not for a moment since last October, did it make her forget that she was a mother.
“What have they found out?” Steed asked, removing his arm from around Emma so that he could sit forward on the sofa.
Lee stood with his hands crammed into the pockets of his blue jeans, rolling forward onto the balls of his feet, then back, still uncomfortable for having interrupted their intimate moment. “It’s a rental car, rented yesterday at LaGuardia airport to a Mr. Roland Wallace of Charlotte, North Carolina.”
“Who’s Roland Wallace?” Emma asked before Steed could. She shot him a smile that he returned.
“He sells furniture to hotels and institutions. North Carolina is known for its furniture.”
“So the car was stolen.” Steed said, not a hint of doubt in his voice.
Lee shrugged. “The rental agency said Mr. Wallace has not reported it stolen.”
“Oh.” Emma cringed. They all knew what that meant: either Mr. Wallace did not much need his rental car, or he was not in a position to report it stolen.
“Don’t jump to any conclusions. If he’s in New York City, he may not have needed it all day,” Lee said. “It could have been stolen on the street. The rental agency will notify us if he contacts them.
“They also said that her highness Queen Berisa’s private jet landed safely in Paris, refueled and took off again for Labinia without incident. I don’t mean to be demeaning, Steed, but we don’t see how your babysitting assignment could have attracted this sort of attention.”
“Thanks so much,” Steed replied with mild sarcasm, but he smiled and leaned back on the sofa, crossing his arms.
“What about you, Emma? Is there anything going on at Knight Industries that someone might object to?” Lee asked. Emma looked from the American down into the face of his baby in her arms. He had no idea how many times her past deeds, both for Knight and with Steed, had brought on just this kind of trouble. And each time it had taken her completely by surprise. This time she could think of only one person who had confronted her regarding Knight business recently.
“I spoke to a business associate yesterday who was unhappy about a contract. Then I spoke to Edmond about it. By now he’s renegotiated the sore point. Mr. Seton did not strike me as the sort to pursue it once I had agreed to renegotiate. In fact, I had practically forgotten about it.”
“That hardly sounds worth stealing a car and following you across three states for,” Lee had to agree, looking to Steed for his opinion. He nodded, looking lost in thought.
“Have you thought of something?” Emma asked, also noting his seeming distraction.
He turned his head to her, smiling fondly. “No. That’s the problem. I’ll have to keep thinking.”
“Steed, bring in the gorilla,” Emma said in a loud whisper. She was half way up the walk in front of the inn. Siobhan had gone ahead of her with John. Even in the darkness she could see Steed’s frown. “It identifies the car as ours, doesn’t it?” she added pointedly.
“Ah!” he said, his expression brightening with understanding. Emma turned back toward the inn while he went round the car to get the toy out from the other side.
He sat the gorilla on a chair in Siobhan’s room then left the women to get John settled. All evening he’d been mentally reviewing recent cases that he’d had a hand in. There were quite a few since he was managing the ministry’s operations in France as well as overseeing a large handful of cases in Britain. He sat down in his and Emma’s room and picked up the telephone, dialing the many numbers required to connect with the ministry in London.
He reported the following car and asked for a report on the status of his arrests to be delivered to Lee Stetson at the nameless intelligence agency in Washington that employed both Lee and Amanda. By the time he was concluding the call Emma had said goodnight to John and Siobhan and joined him. She listened to him bid the agent in London good night while she undressed and slipped on her silk pajamas. At last he replaced the receiver and looked across the room at her.
“Oh,” he sighed, sounding disappointed. She glanced at him, one eyebrow raised curiously, the book on chaos theory she’d just started reading in her hand. He shrugged, then pulled his jumper off over his head. She was still looking at him. “I was thinking about the floor,” he said.
Her eyes widened for an instant, and then she turned to the bed and drew back the covers, taking a moment to set her book aside and adjust the pillows.
“Let’s start in the bed and see what happens,” she suggested, glancing over her shoulder at him just in time to see him removing his trousers.
“I can tell you what will happen,” he said, folding them over his arm.
“Please do,” she replied, settling down on the bed and pulling her knees up to wrap her arms around them. She looked like an attentive pupil. He arched one expressive brow, then the sides of his eyes crinkled as he smiled and began to comply with her request.
Things happened so quickly in Venice last year I hardly had time to think. When Mr. Steed was kidnapped Mrs. Steed and the others set about finding him so efficiently it was like watching a performance. And then they did get him back and the last bit – him in the hospital and then flying home – seems like a dream. In fact, it all felt like a dream, and I’d forgotten how exhausting the fear can be until this afternoon. When Mrs. Steed told me we’d been followed from New York all I could think about was fear. I was certain that some evil person was going to break into our rooms. And I know Mrs. Steed was disappointed in me, but I felt much safer when Mr. Stetson got there to stay with us.
“They mean well – they just want to help,” Michael West said, rising to pace around the conference table.
“Just want to help!” Alex Seton was experiencing a rare moment of complete anger with his partner. West’s creative marketing and sales had built their company into a multi-million dollar firm, so Alex had been tolerant of his occasional lapses in judgment. But this was beyond his limit. “They’re gangsters, Michael. Gangsters who are pursuing the CEO of one of the biggest companies in Britain — on our behalf!”
“Just to talk to her –.”
“You can’t really believe that. And have you thought about exactly why they’re doing it? Do you really think their motive could possibly be to help us out?”
“They have nothing to gain – except a reduced price on our missiles.”
“But Michael, you already gave them back the discount when Mr. Stanton renegotiated the price of the detonators. What will they get from us if they succeed in convincing Knight to further reduce the price?”
“Gratitude. They haven’t asked for a further discount.”
“Oh please. I’ve read The Godfather. They want a piece of our business, Michael. They want us to owe them. And I don’t want to think about what they’re going to ask for when it’s time to collect.”
Seton watched his partner’s face transition from defensive through puzzlement to genuine concern as understanding dawned. West pulled out a chair and slumped into it, his elbows on the table and his head on his hands.
“I hope everything about their purchase of the missiles is above board,” Seton added, voicing his final fear.
“Of course it is. You know how hard-nosed legal is. They’re a legitimate agent for several small governments.”
Seton nodded. His partner was right – their legal department protected them from themselves, examining every detail of a buyer’s qualifications to purchase their weapons. The federal regulations were stringent and the penalties very heavy.
“You have got to call them off,” he said, returning to the problem at hand.
“I can’t. I tried. My contact at the armaments agency can’t reach his associates – the ones who are trying to get to Miss Knight.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Does it matter?” West straightened in his chair to stare at his partner. Seton took a deep breath and exhaled it, silently conceding the point.
“Fine. Then we have to go at it from the other direction. We have to warn Miss Knight.”
“I tried. She checked out of the Waldorf this morning and her office will only say she’s on a short holiday with her family. I didn’t want to tell anyone else at Knight what was going on. I telephoned Mr. Lanier too, but he couldn’t tell me where she’s gone.”
“So maybe they won’t be able to find her either,” Seton said, momentarily brightening until he thought about it for a second longer.
“Did you try Miss Grant?”
“That hard-nosed bitch?”
“Stanton renegotiated the price after she raised it, right?” Seton asked. West nodded. “So she’s on the outs with her management. Maybe we can give her something that will help her regain favor. We can make her the hero who gets our warning to Miss Knight.”
West stared at him for a moment, a slow smile spreading on his lips. “Are you angling for my job?”
“Everything seems brighter in the light of morning, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said in his most jovial tone, taking her arm as they preceded Siobhan and John up the Stetson’s front walk. “No sign of our shadow.”
“Bright light is just the sort in which I would expect a shadow to be cast,” Emma observed with a surreptitious glance up and down the quiet street.
“Yeeesss,” Steed drawled, touching the tip of his umbrella to the doorbell. “Will it mollify you if I spend most of the day cooped up in Stetson’s office reviewing my recent sins?”
Emma opened her mouth to reply that no, she would be happier if he and Lee would spend the day with her and Amanda, but before she could speak the front door swung open to reveal young Jamie King holding infant Grace in one arm with his school bag slung over his other shoulder.
“Good morning,” he said, sounding just a bit impatient. “Things are crazy here, as usual – ouch!” he pulled his head away from Grace’s hand, which was tangled painfully in his hair.
“Perhaps a haircut?” Steed suggested mildly.
“Here, let me. I’m used to it,” Emma said tossing Steed a mildly reproachful look as she reached for the baby. Jamie relinquished Grace willingly just as footsteps clunked rapidly down the stairs behind him and his brother Phillip appeared.
“Hey,” the older boy half grunted at Emma and Steed, then turned to his brother. “Come on, Eric will be here any second.”
“Bye Mom,” Jamie called, casting Emma and Steed an apologetic look as his brother pressed him past them out the door.
“Good bye boys. Have a good day at school — Jamie? Where is Grace – Oh, Good morning!” Amanda’s voice grew closer with each self-interruption until she finally reached the front hall to find Emma, Steed, and Grace. Beyond them Siobhan was standing on the front porch with John in her arms.
“Looking for this?” Emma asked, holding Grace up to look at her mother.
“Come in. Poor Siobhan’s crowded out onto the porch,” Amanda said, ushering them into the family room. “Steed, the agency called and said that the report you requested has been telexed to them. I was told to tell you that it’s almost a hundred pages. The telex operator was a bit annoyed,” she grinned. “Lee will be down in a minute.”
“Thank you Amanda. I’m sorry to steal him away, but I am certain you ladies will have a delightful time without us tagging along.”
“We shall have a lovely time talking about you both,” Emma replied, causing Steed’s brows to rise in mock alarm. Amanda laughed and scooped Grace out of Emma’s arms, kissing her bright cheeks before tucking her into the garish basket sitting on the kitchen counter.
“And an even lovelier time joining you for dinner,” she added. “Mother insists that she and Siobhan will be fine taking care of the little ones. She wants to take you to the mall, Siobhan.”
“That’s very kind of her, Missus,” the nanny said, sounding uncertain. Emma gave her an encouraging nod.
“I think you’ll find a suburban American mall to be quite an interesting experience, Siobhan,” she said.
“It’s shops, isn’t it? Like the high street?” Siobhan asked.
“Oh yes, it’s shops,” Emma chuckled. “But I don’t think you’ll find any resemblance to the typical English village high street.”
“Thank you Mrs. Emerson. Miss Knight can call me any time – day or night,” Tasha Grant concluded her call to Miss Knight’s secretary with a smug smile.
She had been surprised to receive a favor from Michael West and Alex Seton: Whether they knew it or not, telling her that Miss Knight was being pursued by their client had handed her the key to professional redemption. Although Edmond Stanton had been courteous about the blow-up over the Exten contract, and he’d allowed her to listen in on the re-negotiation, it was absolutely clear to her that her decision had taken her down a few notches in his estimation. And his opinion might as well be Miss Knight’s, they worked so closely on Knight’s high level strategies.
Now, courtesy of the very men who’d put her in such a bad light in the first place, she was possessed of information that Miss Knight vitally needed. Her most important next step was to speak to Miss Knight in person. She was determined that nobody else was going to deliver this news and get the credit.
“Steed, they told me you were up here. Good to see you again. I hear congratulations are in order,” Billy Melrose, Lee and Amanda’s supervisor at the Agency, offered his hand. Steed rose from behind Amanda’s tidy desk to shake it. He and Billy had been acquainted for years – longer, he thought, than Billy remembered.
“Thank you Melrose,” he replied. “It’s quite enlivening seeing oneself reflected in a child.”
Melrose eyes widened in his jolly, round face, and then he grinned and looked across the office at Lee, who was behind his own desk.
“I was referring to France – you’ve been put in charge of your operations there,” Melrose said.
“Oh that,” Steed shrugged. “Yes, one of Mother’s little jokes, I think. Or punishment for excessive expenses.”
“So you won’t admit that your being groomed, Steed?” Lee asked, glad that his boss had broached the subject. It had seemed to him since his friends’ marriage that Steed had been steering a course toward a desk. He was mainly interested because of his own marriage and tiny baby daughter. Amanda was not pressuring him to give up field work. But when he looked at Grace’s tiny, innocent face he could think of nothing but how much he wanted to see her grow.
“More like manipulated,” Steed replied with a chuckle. “But I suppose I am allowing it. To a degree. It is a challenge to set the junior people on a course and see how far they can get – rather like playing soldiers.” He settled back into Amanda’s chair. Melrose hitched his hip on the edge of the desk, smiling at Steed’s comparison.
“It sounds like you’re imagining wind-up toys,” Lee said, leaning back in his chair to swing his feet up onto his own desk and put his hands behind his head.
“Sometimes it seems that way,” Melrose said. “Not with you, Stetson,” he added, seeing the hint of a frown on Lee’s face. “But some of those clowns down in the bullpen. Speaking of which,” he reached into his breast pocket to remove a folded sheet of paper and hand it to Steed. “The report about a stolen rental car came for you a while ago – they only just handed it to me. How’s the progress reviewing your cases? Any suspects?”
Steed unfolded the paper and studied it.
“Steed has been typically thorough in the last few months – the villains who know of him are all incarcerated or dead,” Lee answered for him. They had worked through the morning, lunch, and into the afternoon going through the report from the ministry.
“The car was reported stolen last night. By the man who rented it,” Steed said, looking over at Lee. He was relieved that Mr. Roland Wallace of North Carolina was alive and well, if car-less.
“But by now they’ve probably dumped it and found another,” Lee said.
“Do you think we should get out of the inn?” Steed wondered. Melrose and Lee both peered at him curiously. It was not like Steed to be hesitant – he would more likely make a stubborn decision that they’d have to counter. He caught their surprised looks and shrugged. “It’s just I’m baffled,” he said. “There’s nothing here,” he patted the portion of the report that was on the desk in front of him, “that ought to inspire pursuit from New York to Washington. I just don’t know how much of a threat this is.”
Melrose nodded thoughtfully, but Lee lifted his legs off of his desk and sat up. “We need to talk to Emma again. We’re wrong to focus only on you.”
“She has hardly been involved with my cases since –,” Steed paused, stopping himself from saying Torcello, the island in Venice’s lagoon where he’d been held and tortured last fall. “—John was born.” He knew his voice conveyed sincere regret, but hoped the other men would chalk it up to the loss of his best partner in crime fighting and not the horrible emotional ordeal that Emma had gone through since his rescue.
“Her business, Steed. Even though she’s not involved day-to-day, Knight Industries must attract its share of loonies who might want to get to its CEO.”
Steed considered it for a moment while Melrose slipped off of the edge of the desk to pace across the room.
“Have you talked with anyone at her office?” he asked. Steed shook his head, thinking of the options. He did not particularly want to speak with Edmond Stanton. Emma had found it within herself to maintain her friendship with the man after finding out about his decades-long secret association with MI-6, but Steed had not yet managed to set aside his distrust of him. Perhaps Anthony Cruz, Knight’s general manager, could provide some insights.
“I’ll call them,” he said, having settled on Cruz. “But I think the best source on that front is Mrs. Peel herself. We’re due to meet them in two hours,” he added, glancing at his watch and then at Lee.
“That was delicious,” Emma said as she stepped down the two steps from the marina restaurant’s enclosed patio to the boardwalk. After a brief shopping trip in some Georgetown baby shops, Amanda had brought her to this modern marina full of residential buildings, restaurants, shops, and – almost like an afterthought — boats. Lunch in the seafood restaurant, which specialized in blue crabs and deep fried cornbread balls called “hush puppies,” had been much better than Emma expected. It was, Amanda explained, mid-Atlantic food, found all up and down the enormous Chesapeake Bay which lay a few dozen miles to the east of Washington.
“Some time when you’re here we’ll have to have a bushel of crabs in the back yard,” Amanda said and, seeing Emma’s puzzled look, added, “steamed. To eat. We do it outside because picking them is very messy. It’s much easier to clean up with a hose.”
Emma smiled to herself as she imagined hosing off her formally attired dinner guests after the meal. Perhaps she could just escort them out of the dining room and into the swimming pool.
They strolled along the boardwalk at the top of a seawall overlooking the marina. It was late winter, but there were already many boats in the slips. The day was bright, and the sun reflecting off of windows, chrome, and brightly varnished wood seemed to lessen the chill in the air.
A movement in her peripheral vision was all the warning Emma had before a solid arm caught her around the neck and dragged her toward a narrow space between two buildings. Her reaction was instinctive: a sharp jab with her elbow into the man’s gut, and a luckily placed stomp with her left foot, crushing his arch with her hard-soled boot.
She was vaguely aware of Amanda waging a similar battle with another man. The arm around Emma’s neck loosened enough for her to get a grip on it with both hands. Replanting her feet, she threw herself forward and down with enough momentum to drag the man off of his feet and roll him over her shoulder. He crashed to the boards. She spun around to see Amanda completing a similar move. As Amanda’s attacker hit the ground Emma slung her shoulder bag around and thrust her hand inside to find the gun she had not let Steed see her put in it this morning. Footsteps thundering on the boardwalk drew her attention as her fingers closed around the gun – two more men were running toward them, one carrying a handgun, the other a small, nasty looking automatic weapon. Outgunned and definitely outnumbered, Emma grabbed Amanda’s upper arm and tugged her in the opposite direction.
“Come on,” she said, noting that her opponent was getting up.
“Stop!” one of the newcomers yelled.
Emma and Amanda kept running.
Emma was looking for a corner to dive around when Amanda grabbed her hand and stopped her short, pulling her to the right through a wire mesh gate and down a steep ramp toward the docks below.
Emma followed her friend at a dead run along a wide dock, the boats on either side providing some cover. But she could see a flaw in Amanda’s plan.
“What happens at the end?” she asked, breathing heavily more out of surprise than due to the exertion. “We’ll be trapped.” Looking over her shoulder she could see all four men charging down the ramp.
“There’s a boat show this weekend,” Amanda explained as she made a sharp right turn and Emma, startled at the presence of an intersecting dock, swerved to follow. “They’re putting in a network of docks around the boats for the show.”
Emma wondered if Amanda had known that when she led them out there, but she decided that it was not the time to ask. Behind them the four men had split up, two following them, and two running along the inner dock toward the next perpendicular dock leading to intercept their prey.
“We have to get past the next intersecting dock before they get there or we’ll be trapped between them,” Amanda said, also watching their pursuers. Emma had diverted her attention to the boats on their left – the ones that were not yet enclosed by the temporary floating docks – looking for a likely candidate to borrow.
“They’re gaining,” Amanda said, her voice rising with tension, or perhaps fear, just as Emma spotted their salvation. She grabbed at Amanda, nearly missing her arm as she stopped beside a big cabin cruiser, its white fiberglass hull polished to a blinding shine.
A wiry man with a mop of sandy hair and wearing a stained sweatshirt and blue jeans was working on the side deck. Jeremy Barr looked up as Emma’s short stop nearly tripped up Amada. He gazed at the two women narrowly, and then his eyes widened in recognition as he took in Amanda’s breathless, flushed appearance. He inclined his head toward the gangway leading to the aft deck of the boat. Without a word Emma tugged Amanda on board and on into the cabin, closing the door behind them.
They stood in the middle of a richly appointed salon, panting as they watched through the windows. Outside, Barr continued sanding a teak handrail, glancing up again as two men came thundering along the dock.
“Hey you,” they heard one of the men say, “you see two women – real lookers?”
“Nope,” Barr half grunted, studying the two men for a moment, then returning to his sanding.
“You sure? They were running.”
“Nope. You chasing them?”
“Come on,” the other man growled to his companion, then to Barr, “Asshole.”
Barr made a noncommittal grunt and the two men trotted on down the dock looking at each boat that they passed.
Emma and Amanda waited, watching Barr through the cabin windows as he continued sanding. After a while he paused to examine his sandpaper, then set it aside, glancing up toward the boardwalk as he reached for a fresh piece. He resumed sanding while watching something up on the shore for several minutes. And then he stepped onto the aft deck and came into the salon, shutting the door.
“Ladies,” he said, turning to face them. “Your friends – there were four of them – went back up to the boardwalk. Then I lost sight of them.”
“Thank you Mr. Barr. You have no idea how wonderful it is to see you,” Emma replied, glancing behind her at an upholstered settee, then sitting down on it as the adrenalin of the brief chase wore off.
“Oh, I think I can imagine,” he replied with a crooked smile, his gaze following her. “And it’s just Barr. Please.”
“Right,” she replied, favoring him with an equally appraising look. He turned his attention to Amanda, who had taken a seat as well, her hands tightly clasped between her knees.
“Mrs. King, isn’t it?” he asked.
“It’s Stetson now, Barr. Thank you for letting us hide out. They had guns. We didn’t want to engage in a firefight.”
“Especially since we only have a tiny handgun between us,” Emma added, holding up her gun and then replacing it in her bag.
Barr returned Emma’s wry smile, recognizing and appreciating the understatement, then turned to look out the window at the dock.
“There’s a telephone in the marina office. I’ll go up and see what I see along the way. Shall I call the usual number?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at Amanda.
“Yes – tell them it’s code yellow and to inform Lee Stetson.”
“Be sure nobody hears you,” Emma added. Barr turned toward her, rolling his eyes. She was immediately chagrinned.
Two years before Jeremy Barr had been sent with his sailboat to pick up the four agents when they were stranded on an island in the Caribbean. He’d sailed them back to Puerto Rico, along the way helping defeat a band of attackers bent on killing all of them. Much like Emma, he was a civilian who stepped in to help when Amanda and Lee’s employers needed his particular type of assistance. Mostly that included discretely gathering information up and down the Caribbean island chain, but occasionally things got rougher, and Barr was known to be able to take care of himself as well as his crew.
“Sit tight,” he told the two women as he opened the door.
“I’m beginning to think,” Emma said, rising to watch Barr through the window until he was lost amid the boats along the dock.
“That it’s not Steed they’re after?” Amanda finished for her. Emma nodded, studying her friend. Amanda looked worried, but there was no anger in her expression – she didn’t blame Emma for getting them into this.
“Maybe Edmond wasn’t able to reach a new agreement with Exten,” she said thoughtfully. She had described her encounter with Alex Seton to Amanda over lunch, offering it as an anecdote about her experiences as an executive.
“Or maybe they’re just vindictive,” Amanda suggested with a shrug. Her eyes drifted to her toes and stayed there. Emma stepped over and sat down beside her.
“You’re worried about Grace,” she said gently.
“You can tell?” she met Emma’s sympathetic gaze. “I know she’s fine with Mother, but I can’t help it.”
“I can tell because I feel the same about John. He’s in the best of hands with Siobhan, not to mention your mother. But I can’t help worrying about what will happen to him and Steed if something – happens,” she paused to swallow hard, then went on, “ – to me. Look,” she impulsively seized Amanda’s hand. “Lee and Steed will bring in the cavalry as soon as they get the message. And if these men are after me they probably don’t know who you are – the children are perfectly safe at your house.”
“We just can’t go home to them,” Amanda added, sounding dejected despite Emma’s attempt to reassure her.
Emma could not think of a counter argument, so she stood up to pace. Looking around, she suddenly wondered why Jeremy Barr, consummate sailor, was sanding the brightwork on a big powerboat.
“Lee is so good with her,” Amanda interrupted her thoughts. “He was terrified at first – afraid to hold her.” She chuckled at the memory of her former playboy husband learning to handle his newborn daughter. “How was Steed when John was first born?”
“He was trained to deal with babies by his sister,” Emma replied, stopping to examine the contents of a bar along the forward bulkhead of the salon. “He fell asleep with him in a chair in the hospital.”
“Oh no!” Amanda laughed hesitantly.
“Mostly he just avoids the messy duty. He is a master at avoiding changing nappies.”
“I’ll bet!” amusement was beginning to replace Amanda’s fear.
“And poor Siobhan still hasn’t learned how to manage him.”
“So long as she can manage John.”
“I’m leaving for the evening, Mr. Stanton,” Mrs. Emerson said, looking in at the doorway to Edmond Stanton’s office. He glanced up with a smile. They had worked together at Knight Industries for nearly three decades. Mrs. Emerson – he did not even know her first name – was the sort of co-worker he treasured: professional, intelligent, and possessed of a clear understanding of her role in the organization. And, as the executive secretary, it was a critical role indeed.
“Have a good night, Mrs. Emerson,” he replied as he glanced at the clock on his office wall. Quarter of eight. I should be going home too.
“Mr. Stanton, I know Miss Knight sometimes calls you late. If she calls this evening, would you tell her that Miss Grant asked to speak to her?”
“Certainly Mrs. Emerson. I know she intends to meet with Miss Grant when she gets back.”
Mrs. Emerson nodded, a non-judgmental gesture that she used to acknowledge statements without agreeing or disagreeing. Many a newcomer to the organization had misinterpreted it as agreement, to their dismay when the appointment with Miss Knight, Mr. Cruz, or Mr. Stanton that they thought they’d arranged turned out not to be scheduled. They quickly learned that when Mrs. Emerson wished to communicate, she did so very clearly.
“She said it was quite urgent, although I could not persuade her to give me the message to pass along should the opportunity arise,” the secretary said. Edmond’s eyes narrowed in a hint of a frown.
“Does Miss Knight generally communicate with Miss Grant when she is out of town?” he asked, tapping the point of the cheap ballpoint pen he favored on his blotter.
“Not that I am aware of. That is why I thought to bring it to your attention, Mr. Stanton.”
“Thank you Mrs. Emerson. Perhaps I’ll look into it.”
“As you wish sir. Good evening.”
Emma was pleased with herself for using Amanda’s own technique to distract her from worrying. She coaxed her into talking about how her boys had reacted to the news of the new baby, and to the baby herself. Their mutual worry was diminishing when their attention was drawn outside by the sound of running footsteps.
Barr came into view sprinting down the dock toward the boat. Emma opened the door and stepped half out onto the deck, afraid to reveal herself but desperate to find out what was wrong. Barr sprinted all the way to the bow of the long boat where he bent to uncleat the dock line and toss it onto the deck. Then he darted back, stopping amidships to free a line there, and finally to the stern to undo a third line.
“Get inside!” he ordered Emma, finally seeing her as he climbed aboard the now free boat and turned to pull the gangway – a varnished length of wood with a rope handrail supported by stainless steel stanchions – onto the deck.
Emma complied, stepping back into the salon and closing the door. Barr mounted a flight of steps at the side of the deck that lead to the bridge deck above them. For an instant there was a muffled buzzing sound and then the engine roared to life.
“What’s he doing?” Amanda asked, looking at the ceiling where Barr’s footsteps sounded like drumbeats.
“We seem to be leaving,” Emma replied, swaying slightly as the engine shifted into gear and the boat began to move away from the dock. Movement outside caught her eye and she focused her attention on the dock in time to see two of their pursuers running along it, guns held ready. “I guess someone heard Barr on the telephone after all.”
Barr accelerated and steered the cruiser out into the channel between the boats docked on either side. Frustrated by the limited view from the salon, Emma tried a door in the forward bulkhead and found herself in a wood paneled passage. Amanda right behind her, she found and climbed another flight of steps to a window-lined salon in front of the bridge.
From this height they could see the men on the dock running ahead of the cruiser. Emma looked further ahead and her heart skipped a beat. A few yards ahead the twin rows of docked boats on either side ended. Down on the water, men in a pair of small workboats were maneuvering a length of floating dock up the channel, angling one end toward bare dock ahead of the last boat on the right. Although it was free-floating, the section of temporary dock nearly blocked the channel.
“They’re going to try to jump aboard,” Amanda said, drawing Emma’s attention back to their pursuers. “And there are the other two.” Amanda pointed out the port side windows at their other two pursuers charging along the dock on that side.
Up ahead the men maneuvering the section of floating dock had noticed the approaching cruiser and started shouting. One stood up in his boat and waved his arms like a semaphore. Emma could picture Barr perched on the seat behind the helm calculating the odds of fitting the big cruiser through the increasingly narrow space between fixed and floating docks ahead, and of injuring the men in the small boats in the process.
“We’re going to have to deal with them if they get aboard,” she said, watching as the cruiser got closer to the left hand dock and the two men on that side. “Barr has to concentrate on driving.”
No sooner had she spoken than the sharp report of a gun echoed across the marina, frightening seagulls into screaming flight. There was a thump in the bridge behind the salon.
“Oh no, Barr,” Amanda said, dropping to her hands and knees instinctively and scrambling toward a door in the aft bulkhead. Emma crouched too, poking her head up just high enough to watch the men on the left-hand dock. They had not shot at the boat, so it had to be the men on the right.
Before Amanda could get to it the door to the bridge opened wide enough for Barr to poke his head around it at the same level as Amanda’s.
“Are you hit?” Amanda asked, rearing back onto her knees to look at him.
“No. But I have to stay down. I can’t see to steer. You’ll have to direct me.”
“I’ll try,” Amanda replied, looking over her shoulder toward the forward windows.
“Get up there,” Barr urged her, pulling back into the bridge but leaving the door open. Emma could see that he was crouched down behind the helm, able to steer and manipulate the engine controls, but unable to see ahead. Amanda scrambled to the forward windows and poked her head up just enough to see.
“You did see the floating dock?” Emma asked.
“Yes. But it’s got rubber bumpers on it,” Barr’s reply came through the open doorway. Emma couldn’t help grinning at his bravado. “We’re probably going to have visitors,” she said. “I’ll go down and welcome them.”
As she climbed down the stairs she heard Amanda calling out the distance to the floating dock and her estimation of the width of the opening between it and the dock on the left. “I don’t think we’re going to fit through there,” was the last, worried warning that Emma heard as she stepped back into the lower salon and shut the door to the inner passage.
The gunmen on the left dock were converging on the cruiser just as her broad stern cleared the bow of the last docked boat. Now Barr would have to steer the cruiser even closer to the dock and, although he was still accelerating, Emma could tell that the men would catch up and leap on board.
Another shot rang out accompanied by a jarring crash to her left. She dropped to the floor, gulping a surprised breath as she looked up through the shattered window. The glass was tinted dark, but apparently not dark enough. Sound carried through the opening now – the shouts of the unfortunate workmen in the small boats turned to frenzied screams that blended with the seagulls’ renewed cries. Emma crawled across the salon floor to her handbag and shoved her hand into it just as the whole boat shuddered with a frighteningly loud crash. At the same instant there was a lesser thump on the rear deck and a gurgling scream. Gripping her own gun while it was still in her bag, she rolled onto her back and aimed at the window, just able to make out a big, dark shape rising from the deck outside. Ignoring the contents of her upturned bag falling all around her she fired through the leather and watched a spiderweb of cracks form instantly in the big pane of smoked glass. She was glad it didn’t shatter, but the cracks made it impossible to tell if she’d hit her target. She shook her handbag off of the gun and re-aimed it as she got to her feet in a crouch. The dark form outside had dropped to the deck and was not moving. Emma edged to the left to the shattered window, absently realizing that their pursuers weapons must be much higher caliber than hers to do that kind of damage. She peeked out through the opening and exhaled a relieved sigh. The man lay prone on the aft deck. Then she frowned, scanning what she could see of the side deck through the windows – where’s the other one?
“Lou!” outside a frantic voice screamed.
Emma held her gun near her face as she pressed herself to the bulkhead beside the shattered window and peeked out toward the right dock at a chaotic scene. The men on that side had run all the way to the end of the floating dock, perhaps intending to leap onboard the cruiser too. But the impact of the cruiser’s hull with the free end of the dock had rocked it violently, swamping one of the two workboats and throwing the workers as well as one of the gunmen into the water. The other gunman stood balanced on the floating dock in a wide-footed stance peering into the roiled water, his gun aimed haphazardly downward. As Emma watched two of the workers heaved themselves out of the water on either side of the floating dock and tackled him. With a wan smile she returned her attention to locating the missing pursuer.
“Good evening Steed – or afternoon where you are, isn’t it?” Anthony Cruz’s rich Hispanic accent always put Steed in mind of sunny afternoons sipping sangria in the shade.
“Yes Anthony. I’m sorry to bother you at home, but something’s come up here and I thought you might provide some insight.”
“Anything I can do, friend,” Cruz replied. “Just ask. Emma is well, I trust? And young John?”
“Yes, they’re both perfectly fine. In fact she is off having fun with a friend here and left me to track down the source of our little problem. I’ve delved to the bottom of my own recent activities and come up dry, so I’m turning to you as a representative of Knight Industries. Perhaps something going on there might have attracted unwanted attention?” Steed knew that Cruz was aware of his profession, and was counting on him to understand without requiring further detail.
“I don’t understand, Steed,” Cruz said. Steed suppressed a frustrated groan.
“We’re being followed, Anthony. By parties unknown. I can’t think of a single thing that I’ve done to garner such attention. We thought that perhaps some business at Knight might be the cause.”
“Some Knight business that would make someone follow Emma?” Cruz summarized. He was not, Steed knew, a stupid man. But he could be dreadfully unsubtle when he thought he was out of his depth.
“Yes. She couldn’t think of anything, but that was before I exhausted my possibilities so I did not press her. She did mention a minor contract dispute, but she said Stanton had dealt with it.”
“Yes, the Exten matter. Stanton has dealt with it – everyone seems to be happy now.”
“Well that’s good, but it doesn’t solve my problem. Anything else – anything like that, where someone outside of Knight might be angry with the CEO?”
Anthony fell quiet as he paced back and forth in his kitchen, the long telephone cord whipping along behind him. On the other end of the line Steed waited patiently. “I’m sorry Steed, I can’t think of a thing. Knight has been blessed with remarkably smooth business recently. Even our competitors have been kind to us.”
Steed knew that Cruz was referring to an industry award that Knight Computing had recently received for advances in data storage technology accomplished in partnership with a big American firm. Cruz could not resist a bit of public relations – or in this case investor relations – even when he was preaching to the converted.
“Very well Anthony. If you think of anything, you will telephone, won’t you?” Steed gave him the Agency phone number. “Ask for me, or if they can’t find me ask to leave me an urgent message – be sure to specify that it’s urgent.”
Cruz agreed and Steed ended the call knowing that he should be relieved that it was unlikely that Emma was in any danger, but instead feeling even more frustrated.
“Port ninety degrees. Quickly! Good that’s it. Hold this course,” Amanda’s commands were delivered in an unnaturally high, fast tone, but they were clear and precise. Barr tried not to think about the possible damage to the cruiser’s lower hull from striking the dock. After executing the turn to port that he knew put them into the main channel running along the marina’s outer protective sea break he realized that he hadn’t heard a shot since they’d crashed past the floating dock. The next bit – getting out of the marina – was tricky. It would go much better if he could see what he was doing. He got his feet under himself and carefully poked his head up. Glancing aft first he saw the same chaotic scene Emma had watched a moment before: men were in the water and climbing back onto the empty docks, and newcomers were arriving on the scene to help. But nobody was aiming any guns in their direction. Then he glanced down at the aft deck and his eyes widened at the sight of a body sprawled there.
“Get ready to turn to starboard,” Amanda called, drawing his attention back to the boat he was supposed to be driving. He climbed up onto the helm seat and got his bearings, oblivious to Amanda’s repeated warnings of the approaching turn as he visually plotted his course himself.
Emma opened the door to the aft deck and stepped out, her gun held ready, her head low as she moved in a crouching stance. She crossed the deck and extended one long leg to kick aside the gun that her victim had dropped. Scanning what she could see of the side decks, which were empty, she touched the man’s neck with her left hand. A weak pulse made her frown with a mixed reaction: she was glad not to have killed him, but if he was alive they would have to keep him that way, and keep him subdued. She looked down into half open eyes and realized that her conflict was needless – there was no life in them. Even as she realized it the pulse in the vein in his neck stopped.
She removed her hand from him as if scorched and bit her lower lip. On a day that had started out with casual shopping and a social lunch she had taken a life. Once such drastic shifts had been all in a day’s work. But somewhere in the course of marriage and motherhood she had lost the ability to take killing in stride. Somewhere, someone would mourn this man and she regretted being the cause of that pain, no matter that he was a villain who would have killed her if she had not fired first. She shut her eyes for a moment and forcefully squelched the notion that this could be Steed, bravely doing his job, defending his beliefs, shot by an adversary who knew nothing of the grief his death would cause his loved ones.
A grunt followed by a moan brought her back to the moment. She looked up, impulsively aiming her gun despite her regrets of a moment before as a figure loomed up over the stern of the boat.
He was soaking wet, straight, dark hair plastered to his forehead around a bloody gash. He caught sight of her as he heaved himself up onto the stern rail, and without hesitation raised the gun he was clutching. She fired at his chest. At such close range her little handgun was lethal. The impact threw him back and he fell with a splash into their churning wake. Emma sucked in a deep breath as she watched him bob to the surface behind the boat. Her previous regrets were dulled by a flash of pride at her quick reflexes and survival instincts. Emotional turmoil aside, she still had the edge that Steed had recognized in her years ago. It had served her well in his business and she’d used the same killer instincts in her own dealings with Knight. It would not serve her to go soft now.
“I can see now, Mrs. Stetson,” Barr called, forestalling Amanda’s next command.
“What?” she looked back over her shoulder from her position at the forward end of the salon.
“They’ve stopped –,” a single, small caliber shot rang out making both Barr and Amanda duck instinctively. “Shooting.”
Barr leaned back to look down at the aft deck just in time to see a man splash into the water.
“I don’t think so,” Amanda called out as he watched Emma pick up a large handgun from the deck. “Barr?”
“It’s all right,” he said, returning his attention to their course. “That was your friend.”
“Emma? Who was she shooting it?” Amanda’s voice crept back up to the high range.
“Boarding party,” he replied curtly, his attention almost wholly diverted to steering the big boat through the narrow marina entrance.
“What happened back there – why did they chase you, Barr?” Emma asked, coming through the door to the bridge from the outside steps a moment later. Amanda had come to stand in the salon door, ready to return to her post should the need arise.
Barr’s gaze was focused ahead. He reached up to run one hand through his hair. “They didn’t hear me on the telephone, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he smirked without looking at Emma. Then his expression turned serious. “I didn’t make it to the phone. They saw me going that way and I guess they decided that it was too much of a coincidence. I figured if I fought them and lost, or I didn’t fight them all, they’d come to the boat looking for you, so I decided to run.”
“Good thing you’re fast,” Amanda observed.
“Good thing you can steer without seeing where you’re going,” Emma added. “But now what?”
“Well,” Barr paused to look around and the women followed his gaze. They were motoring across the wide Potomac River. “First off, we need to assess the damage. If we aren’t holed from hitting that piece of floating dock, then we have options. There are a lot of other marinas along the river. If we are damaged we need to get to one of them immediately. How many guys do they have? Because if they have a lot, they’ll check every marina.”
“I have no idea,” Emma said, only then absorbing the news that Barr had not managed to telephone Steed. She sucked in a deep breath, battling the wave of anxiety that washed over her.
“If one of you can take the helm, I’ll go check things out below,” Barr said.
“You’re the expert at powerboats,” Emma said to Amanda, referring to their adventure together on a boat much like this one two years ago.
Amanda nodded. “I can take her,” she said. Barr quickly changed places with her, pointing out a buoy far in the distance to aim for.
“Don’t throttle her up until I check below.”
Amanda’s grim nod was all the answer he got, but she appeared to be comfortable at the helm so he nodded to Emma and headed into the salon to the inner stairs.
“I’ll help him,” Emma said, then followed.
“Ah hell,” Barr groaned, taking in the sight of Emma sweeping up shattered glass in the aft salon. She straightened up holding the dustpan and whisk broom and shot him an apologetic look.
“I’m sorry to have gotten you into this, Barr,” she said.
“It’s not that,” he replied, studying the tracery of fine cracks radiating out from the bullet hole in the other window. “It’s just that the guy who owns this boat is going to be furious.”
“I was wondering,” Emma said, emptying the glass into a wastebasket inside the same cabinet where she’d found the broom. “Where’s your sailboat?”
“Down island. I didn’t have any charters for a couple weeks, and Roger asked if I could deliver Capriccio here and spruce her up for the boat show.”
“I guess new windows was not what he had in mind,” Emma aid.
“No, and potential charterers don’t like to trip over corpses on the after deck, either,” Barr replied, looking pointedly outside. Emma winced and avoided looking out.
“I take it we’re not sinking?” she asked.
“No, although I can only imagine the nasty gash on the topsides where we hit. Well, all in a day’s work for you people, I guess,” he sighed, then smiled warmly at her. He was not flirtatious, but when they’d first met two years ago she’d felt the same buzz of chemistry when she was alone with him. She was attracted to him, and he to her.
“I try not to kill people regularly anymore,” she replied stowing the broom and dustpan.
“I wouldn’t have guessed. You handle yourself like a pro.”
“Thank you, I think. But I’d appreciate your not talking me up as an assassin. I wouldn’t want it to get back to my son.”
She watched the effect of her words. His eyes narrowed for an instant, then he nodded, a flicker of disappointment quickly replaced by a wry smile.
“You married that fellow Steed,” he said, watching her nod in reply. “Good. I have terrible luck with women, and you’re just the sort I get into the worst kind of trouble with.”
Emma couldn’t suppress a laugh, glancing at the broken windows and the dead body out on the deck. “I’m not sure I see how my marital status matters – it looks like we’re in the worst kind of trouble anyway!”
He laughed too, grateful to her for covering his moment of emotional exposure with a blanket of humor.
“Shouldn’t we go tell Amanda there’s no damage – no serious damage, I mean?”
“And you can explain what’s going on so I can figure out what to tell Roger.”
“We can just keep going – we’ve got a nearly full fuel tank. But there aren’t many boats on the river, so if they have air support they’ll be able to track us easily,” Barr said a few minutes later. Emma had told him about being followed from New York, and how they had been certain it was related to Steed’s business until she and Amanda were attacked less than an hour ago.
At Barr’s words Amanda compulsively scanned the sky visible out the windows, but all she saw was an airliner leaving a thin white vapor trail against the blue.
“Let’s say they don’t have an airplane,” Emma said, following Amanda’s gaze. “Where can we go that’s not so easy to get to by land?”
“Wouldn’t it be better to go somewhere that is easy to get to by land, so that we can go ashore and get back to D.C.?” Amanda countered.
“But somewhere that they might not expect us to go?” Barr added, nodding.
“Right,” Amanda looked from Barr to Emma. Barr looked at Emma too.
“All right. Where?”
Barr pursed his lips, peering off into the distance. The women knew he was thinking about the waterway ahead. Emma looked to Amanda, hoping she’d have a suggestion. But her friend just shrugged.
“It’s very suburban, rural actually, down this way,” she said. “Lots of windy back roads. The highway is further west.”
“We could go down the river into the bay and then go north to Annapolis,” Barr finally suggested, looking to Amanda for her reaction.
“I don’t know, Barr, that’s a pretty long way,” Amanda said, sounding very skeptical.
“Yup. I’d have to check the tide tables, but at this boat’s cruising speed it’s probably ten hours.”
“Midnight,” Amanda said thoughtfully.
“You have a radio, don’t you? We can make a ship-to-shore call.” Emma asked Barr. He nodded, his eyes flicking to her then back to the waters ahead.
“It isn’t secure,” Amanda pointed out. Emma nodded.
“I think I can encode a message that Steed will understand,” she said.
“Stetson, there’s a ship-to-shore call for you or Steed,” a junior agent from the Agency bullpen poked her head into the conference room where Lee, Steed, and Billy were once again reviewing Steed’s case report.
“Ship-to-shore?” Lee exchanged a puzzled look with his companions.
“Put it on the speakerphone in here,” Billy instructed the agent. She nodded curtly and withdrew. A moment later the speakerphone on the conference room began emitting static.
“This is Lee Stetson,” Lee said, eyes locked with Steed’s.
“Hi Lee, it’s Emma. Is Steed there?”
“Here darling, you’re on a speakerphone,” Steed replied. “Melrose is with us.”
“Oh, hello all. We wanted to check in with you. I’ve seen an advert for a gallery that I just have to go visit. They’re featuring works of an artist who specializes in naval warfare scenes.”
“Really?” Steed replied, eyes wide in disbelief although is tone did not belie it.
“Yes darling. We’re heading there now. We thought you could meet us and then we can all go to dinner.”
“Yes, we can meet you – where is it?” Steed leaned closer to the speakerphone, concentrating on the tone of his wife’s voice as much as her words. Is she being held by someone? Is someone listening in on her end? No, she’s on a boat using the VHF radio. Anyone could be listening.
“I don’t have the exact address just here. It’s the Academy. On Spa Creek Road. You’re very resourceful — I’m sure you can find it.”
“Yes, not to worry. What time do you –.” Steed stopped speaking as the connection went dead with a series of clicks followed by the dial tone. He frowned worriedly across the table at Stetson.
“No times!” Barr snapped, yanking the microphone from Emma’s hand and replacing it on its hook. “If they’re listening they still have no idea where we’re going — and how long it will take to get there. I guess you think your husband is very good at puzzles.”
“I know he is,” Emma replied, looking back down at the chart showing the area of the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland. Buoys, currents, docks, and depths were all painstakingly printed on the watery portions of the chart, but the only identifiers she could see to use in her clues were the neatly printed “United States Naval Academy,” over the eastern side of the town, and “Spa Creek,” which bordered the town on the south and west sides. But he’d known she was giving him hints – she could tell by the tone of his replies. He’d have everyone at the Agency studying maps by now – and since it was a ship-to-shore call they’d probably be looking at nautical charts, too. She was confident that by the time they got to Annapolis Steed would be waiting.
“There is no Spa Creek Road on this map,” Steed grumbled, his face just a few inches from a big, detailed map mounted on a wall in the Agency bullpen.
“He’s right sir,” the junior agent told Billy Melrose. “There’s no such road in the directory anywhere in D.C. or the surrounding communities.”
“And no Academy Gallery,” Lee added, turning away from a computer terminal, then standing to come look at the map with Steed.
“No, there wouldn’t be,” Steed replied, craning his neck to study the northern suburbs on the map. “Mrs. Peel would never make a trip to a gallery to look at paintings of naval battles. Naval warfare and the Academy Gallery are clues that –.”
“Steed,” Lee interrupted him.
“– she’s certain I’ll be able to interpret. I –.”
“Steed,” Lee repeated, a little louder. Steed stopped speaking and looked at him expectantly.
“Over here,” Lee said, pointing at a different section of the enormous map. Steed stepped to his side and looked where he was pointing.
“Why on earth are they going by boat to Annapolis? How long will that take them? And why did she cut off the call when I asked what time?”
“So that anyone listening would not have that as a clue. As for how long, it depends on the boat.”
“I’ll lay you odds that it’s a sixty-five foot cabin cruiser named Capriccio,” Melrose said, joining them at the map with a computer printout in his hand. “Washington PD are investigating a shooting at a marina on the Potomac. Several armed men were seen pursuing Capriccio’s master down the docks. He boarded the boat and departed the marina with the pursuers firing at him. Several men ended up in the water and a small boat sank.”
“When was this?” Steed asked, taking the report from Melrose.
“An hour ago,” Melrose replied, turning to look at the wall map.
Lee turned to the junior agent. “Get me registry information and any specs you can on the yacht Capriccio.” Then he turned back to Steed. “Amanda said she was thinking of taking Emma to Mack’s. It’s a seafood restaurant we like. It’s in a marina.”
Steed nodded, handing the police report back to Melrose. “I think we can safely say that it’s not me they’re after. Whoever they are.” I’m going to have to call Edmond Stanton after all.
“Boss, this is Remo. We’re gonna’ need refueling. Over.”
“Where are you Remo?”
Floyd Peterson scowled toward the radio in his dingy office at Floyd’s Fuel and Bait. Blasted landlubbers don’t know how to use the radio proper, he grumbled to himself.
“Hell, I dunno boss. A couple miles downstream from the marina and going like hell. No telling how far that big cruiser can go. We can’t stop to fill up – we’ll lose ‘em. Over.”
Floyd grunted in disgust and reached for the radio microphone.
“You fellas’ oughta know that you’re usin’ the emergency hailin’ channel here. This kind a’ conversation is illegal, not to mention that language,” he said, replacing the microphone with a satisfied nod of his head.
“Yeah sure pops, whatever. So what do you say boss? Over”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll send out Mick –.”
“This is harbor police Alexandria. You are illegally using the emergency hailing channel. Cease this communication immediately or you will be cited.”
Floyd chuckled and slapped his hand on the worn surface of his desk. “Go get em’ boys!”
“Yeah? How you gonna’ do that Mr. Harbor Police?” Remo’s boss replied with a dark laugh. “Remo, you just keep on ‘em and I’ll get back to you when I have it arranged.”
“Okay boss, standing by,” Remo’s reply was fainter, but Floyd thought he sounded just a little bit intimidated by the harbor police’s warning. He hoped to heck that the patrol would follow up and get their hands on the clowns. People’s lives depend on the emergency channel.
“Stanton, it’s Steed. I know it’s late – I hope I didn’t wake you or June,” Steed forced himself to smile as he spoke, knowing it would lighten the tone of his voice.
“No Steed – I’m on my own this week. I just got in, actually,” Stanton replied, a hint of weariness in his voice.
“Out on the town? When the cat’s away…”
“No, Steed, at the office taking care of Knight business,” Stanton replied curtly. Steed swallowed down a terse retort, knowing that Stanton was not out of line to be annoyed by his taunt.
“Of course,” he said, resorting to his most soothing voice. “We’re having a bit of trouble here. Someone seems to have targeted Emma, but we haven’t been able to figure out who it might be.”
“Please explain,” Stanton replied. Steed recognized and appreciated his shift to concerned seriousness. He described the situation briefly, in much the same terms that he would use in his written report, when he eventually prepared it. If he said too much, he knew, his emotions would begin to take over. He must maintain control, especially with Emma’s life at stake.
“I don’t know of anything that would explain it, Steed,” Stanton said when Steed had finished. Steed’s heart fell and he shut his eyes tight to fight off the anxiety that threatened to break him. “But there is one curious thing I should check on.”
“One of our vice presidents asked that Emma contact her. That’s an unusual request, as you may know – when Emma is away most communication with her is handled through Mrs. Emerson unless Emma calls me or Anthony directly.”
“Yes, I see,” Steed said, mostly to move the conversation along. He was aware that Emma rarely took calls from her subordinates when she was on holiday.
“She told Mrs. Emerson it was urgent, but refused to explain. I was going to speak to her this evening, but to be honest I was just too tired. I wouldn’t assume a connection to what’s going on over there, except that she was involved with the little contract dispute we just settled and the customers in the contract are based in New York. I’ll telephone her now. She made it clear to Mrs. Emerson that Emma could call her at any time, so she’ll just have to put up with me doing the same.”
“Thank you Stanton. Let me give you the best number to reach me at, in case anything comes of it,” Steed replied, ignoring his pounding heart. Something told him that this was the breakthrough they needed.
“Roger Olson!” Francine Desmond, Lee and Amanda’s fellow agent stopped beside their makeshift command post in the Agency bullpen and took the eight by ten color photograph from Lee’s hand to smile flirtatiously at it. Then she looked up at Lee, and from him to Steed and then Billy. “Is he in trouble?”
“You know him?” Lee asked, although it sounded more like a statement with of course silently appended. Roger Olson, the owner of Capriccio, was rich and handsome. Francine made a practice of knowing such men.
“He’s rich, handsome, athletic, smart – of course I know him,” Francine confirmed without a hint of embarrassment. Steed couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly at her ego. It reminded him of himself.
“What’s his story, Francine?” Billy asked, retrieving the photograph from her to study the brief, typed biography affixed with cellotape to the back. Records had delivered the thin file containing the photo moments before Francine happened along.
“He’s a sailor. He was the tactician for the American team in 1970. I think he’s skippering a boat in the defender trials for this year’s race.” Francine noted the mens’ blank looks and added, “The American’s Cup? The sailing race?”
“Ah!” Steed replied, adopting an appropriate look of embarrassment for his countrymen who had lost the Cup to the Americans more than a hundred years ago and never won it back.
“Sailboat racers can make enough money to buy sixty-five foot luxury yachts? I picked the wrong business,” Billy observed, looking again at the photograph.
“Sailboat racers – at least the ones who skipper boats in the Cup races – tend to come to the sport well financed,” Francine said. “Roger’s father backed him when he was starting out. And then Roger inherited.”
“The best kind of money,” Steed said. The others looked at him questioningly. “Old,” he added with a sly smile.
“So do you think whatever business he’s involved in may have something to do with Knight Industries?” Lee asked, trying to steer things back to the problem at hand. “We think that Amanda and Emma are on board Olsen’s boat, heading for Annapolis. We’re not sure if they’re there by choice, or being held.”
Francine frowned, then reached into her handbag and turned to a telephone on an unoccupied desk.
“One way to find out,” she said. The three male agents watched her flip through a small address book, stop on a page, then pick up the telephone receiver and dial.
“Mr. Steed? There’s a call for you,” the junior agent who’d been sticking around to assist them all afternoon said, holding up another telephone receiver. Steed took it, watching Francine begin to speak into her phone as he put it to his ear.
“Steed here,” he said, then turned away from the others, mentally shutting them out so that he could concentrate.
“Mr. Steed, this is Tasha Grant from Knight Weaponry.”
Steed managed to keep his temper under control as he listened to Miss Grant’s flimsy explanation. He could tell that Stanton had put the fear of Emma in the woman, and as far as he was concerned she deserved it. Her motive was completely transparent to him — she had not conveyed the information about Emma’s pursuers to Mrs. Emerson or Stanton because she wanted credit for delivering it directly. He maintained a strict policy of staying out of Emma’s business at Knight, but he was going to find it very difficult not to suggest that Miss Grant be dismissed, vice president or not.
With growing apprehension he made hasty notes about Exten and their client. Every intelligence agency in the world had a thick file for Villairs Armaments: they had been involved with just about every gangster-backed military coupe in the last fifteen years. Not that Miss Grant should be expected to know that, but Steed did not hesitate to make it clear to her that her selfish motive left Emma exposed to extremely dangerous people. To her credit, she maintained her professional demeanor, although she also stuck to her excuse that the information had been delivered to her as confidential and for Emma’s ears only. He ended the call with an insincere thank-you at nearly the same moment that Francine ended her conversation with Roger Olsen.
“Roger is leaving to train with his crew in Florida this evening,” Francine said before he could speak. “He charters Capriccio most of the year. He had asked a friend to bring her to DC for a boat show.”
“So Olsen is not on board, but this friend might be?” Lee asked. “Who’s the friend?”
Francine shot him a smug grin, “Captain Jeremy Barr.”
Emma glanced at the chart in her lap, folded to a square showing the area through which they were passing. They were about to exit the Potomac River and enter the Chesapeake Bay. The sun had set behind them long enough ago that the waterway ahead was no more than a black path outlined by flickers of lights from homes along the riverbanks. Not far ahead a single red flash pierced the darkness every four seconds. Compulsively Emma looked at the chart again – yes, the buoy was marked on it. They were where they were supposed to be.
Earlier Barr had scrounged around in Capriccio’s galley and come up with crackers, peanut butter, and sliced ham. Amanda had turned over the helm to Emma and taken him back below to help her put together a more palatable meal. Emma had told them go ahead and eat, then one of them could relieve her. Now she was beginning to regret not accepting their offer to bring her dinner to the bridge. Her hunger pangs were assuaged when the door opened and Barr stepped in from the forward salon.
“Throttle her up,” he said, moving to the back of the dimly lit bridge to peer out the windows there. Emma took hold of the twin levers that controlled the engines and inched them forward gradually, watching the needle in the tachometer approach the red zone. The boat obligingly surged forward, the pattern of small jolts changing as they hit the slight swells harder and faster.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, gaze fixed on the water ahead.
“There was a boat behind us earlier – just before dark. Now I see lights of two. And there –,” he paused, cupping his hands against the window to peer through them, “there’s a third one coming out of that marina we just passed.”
“You think they’re following us?”
“I think it’s possible and we shouldn’t take any chances. Here, I’ll take her. You go get something to eat. Mrs. Stetson managed a much better meal than I did.”
Emma slipped off of the helm seat to let him take over. He reached out and flipped the switch for the dim lights she had been using. The bridge went completely dark.
“Makes me feel a little less like a target,” his voice sounded calm, even slightly amused, in the darkness. Emma smiled, slipping through the door to go below for dinner.
“Folks, we need to move this operation to Annapolis,” Billy Melrose announced, walking back into the bullpen from his adjacent office. “Assuming she’s cruising at near top speed, Capriccio will get there around midnight. It’s eight-thirty now and I want us in place and the Annapolis waterfront secured by eleven.”
Steed felt a mix of relief at the American’s management of the situation and annoyance at having to let someone else take charge. He smiled to himself as he placed files in a box to be transported. I am getting used to running operations. But he trusted Billy Melrose, and as this was Washington not his home territory; he couldn’t very well take over.
“Melrose, when you said you want to secure the waterfront, did you know just how much of it there is?” Steed asked. They were sitting in a standard issue dark American sedan parked on Annapolis’s Dock Street, so named because it ran beside the town dock. That, however, was only a fraction of the usable waterfront in this charming Maryland city.
“When Emma specified the Naval Academy, that seemed to limit it,” Melrose replied, looking from the map in Steed’s hands out the windows at the confusion of docks and moored boats on both this side and the opposite bank of Spa Creek. The Naval Academy campus was off to their left with its own collection of moorings and docks. Lee was waiting at the Academy gate, just around the corner from where they were parked. Billy had made several calls to gain access and alert security at the Academy, and now he was chafing at the typical military bureaucracy that was causing the delay.
“There really shouldn’t be any trouble,” Steed pointed out. “They’ll motor up, we’ll secure the boat. And by tomorrow our people will have found something in our files on Villairs that we can use to call them off.”
“If the women really did use Capriccio as an escape vessel. If they’re being held and Emma’s call was made in secret, or –,” Melrose’s voice trailed off. They had discussed the possibility that Emma had been forced to deliver her message as a diversion, but Steed had denied it. They had, he insisted, private codes for just such situations. Emma had not used any.
Presently Lee appeared at the corner beckoning to them. Steed and Melrose got out of the car and joined him returning to the open gate, waving at the four agents in another sedan to follow.
“Steed, Billy, this is Midshipman Sussman, officer of the day. He and his guard unit are at our disposal,” Lee introduced a young man dressed in the starched navy blue everyday uniform of a Naval Academy student. Behind him a row of six more students stood at parade rest.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Midshipman Sussman,” Steed said in his most genial tone. “I’m an army man myself, but I’m sure we can get past that.”
“Yes sir,” Sussman replied with a hint of a smile. As Steed had guessed, Army versus Navy rivalries were universal.
“You’ve been briefed, Midshipman?” Billy asked.
“Good. We’ll use your men along with ours to secure your docks. We want the boat to get to shore and we want to secure her quickly. Chances are the crew will disembark and all will be well, but there’s a chance that there’s a hostile presence on board. We are to avoid casualties at all costs. Understood?”
“They’re college kids, they aren’t even armed,” Lee said with a quiet snort of disgust to Steed a few minutes later. They were walking along examining the Naval Academy pier.
“Neither am I,” Steed shrugged, “I wouldn’t discount the value of their enthusiasm at helping in an intelligence operation.”
Lee snorted again, but did not express any further disregard for the contribution that the midshipmen could make.
“They’re moving in,” Amanda said anxiously from her position at the back of the bridge.
“They’ve suddenly realized that we’re nearly there,” Emma suggested, turning her head from the bright lights of Annapolis just ahead to the red, green, and white running lights of the boats behind them. Amanda was right, they were getting closer.
“I think they’re pushing as hard as they can,” Barr said from behind the wheel. “If they could have caught us back out on the open water they would have.” As he spoke he inched the throttles forward a little bit more, driving the tachometer well into the red. He glanced over at Emma and shrugged. “She can take a little abuse.”
“What is that?” Emma asked, peering ahead into the darkness at a hulking shape on the water.
“A light – not manned,” Barr replied as they came up to the structure.
“I should hope not. It looks very inhospitable!” Emma said, studying the spidery shape outlined against the city lights. And then they were past it and Barr was aiming the big cruiser between a pair of red and green buoys. Beyond them the channel through Annapolis Harbor was crowded on either side with dock complexes. It looked terribly narrow.
“That’s the Academy Pier,” Barr said, pointing ahead and to the right. “If Steed understood your message, he should be waiting there.”
“Doesn’t it belong to the Navy?” Amanda asked, her eyes fixed on the pursuing boats.
“Right,” Barr replied. “That makes it all the more attractive to me, what with our entourage back there.”
“Agreed,” Emma added, trying to make out the features of the Naval Academy waterfront. She thought she could distinguish the pier, and it looked like there were some figures standing on it near the end.
“Okay, now things will get interesting,” Barr said as Capriccio passed between another pair of buoys, her massive wake washing over their big, buoyant bases so that they swayed wildly. Barr gradually pulled back on the throttles and turned to starboard toward the Naval Academy pier. Behind them the three pursuing boats began to close the distance very quickly.
“Barr,” Amanda hissed.
“They have to slow down too,” he said.
“You mean they should slow down too,” Emma said. “Somehow I don’t think they’re as conscientious about the rules are you are, Barr.”
He glanced back over his shoulder at the boats, the first of which was throwing up a wall of water higher than the buoys as it turned between them. It showed no sign of slowing.
“Dammit. He’ll crack us wide open if he hits us,” Barr said, his innate calm finally breaking.
Emma looked ahead at the pier; a forest of thick pilings supported a solid cement slab at the level of Capriccio’s bridge. Even though Barr had slowed her, Capriccio was approaching it faster than seemed safe. The captain of the boat behind them appeared to have a death wish.
“They’re not alone,” Lee said, taking a final look through night vision binoculars before handing them to Steed.
“I count four boats, and I assume the big one in the lead is Capriccio. I suppose it’s a good thing – if they’re being chased then Emma will bring them to this pier, not the public ones where innocent citizens could be hurt.”
“If Emma’s in control,” Lee said. Steed lowered the binoculars to glance at the other agent, fearing that Lee had taken offense on behalf of his wife. There was little doubt in his mind that Emma would take charge and Amanda would let her, but he could understand if Lee felt the need to defend his wife.
But Lee’s quick glance back showed no sign of insult. “We still don’t know if they were taken captive on the boat,” he said. Steed nodded, although the pursuing boats would seem to counter that viewpoint.
“All right, let’s get into position,” Lee said, directing his orders at the other agents not already posted along the waterfront. Billy had retreated to a makeshift command post in a second floor classroom that overlooked the harbor.
“Shall we join the welcoming party?” Steed asked as he and Lee watched the others move away. Midshipman Sussman and his guard were positioned at the end of the pier, each one holding a coil of line to use to tie off the Capriccio.
“Might as well,” Lee agreed, and the two agents strode side-by-side out the pier.
As they walked they watched Capriccio round the last pair of buoys entering the harbor and adjust her course toward them. Steed felt himself breathe a sigh of relief as the boat made the turn.
“That’s Lee on the pier,” Amanda nearly shouted, “and Steed.”
“Thank heavens,” Emma breathed, recognizing the two men who appeared to be casually awaiting their arrival. The half a dozen young men with ropes standing nearby looked like so many yacht club dock boys.
“I’m going to slew her around to the other side of the pier,” Barr said. “He’s coming too fast to turn that tightly, so if he tries to follow he’ll overshoot.” Barr glanced again at their closest pursuer. “Dammit!” his head snapped around to the front.
“What?” both women asked in unison.
“He’s too close on my port quarter. I can’t swing left to go around the end of the pier. You ladies go down below. I’ll put us next to one of the ladders on this side of the pier and you climb off. No –,” he raised a hand, one finger in the air, “do not ask ‘what about me.’ Just get down to the deck.”
“Yes sir!” Emma snapped tossing him a playful smile as she followed Amanda to the stairs. He smiled too, refocusing on the pilings that seemed practically on his bow, his hand hovering over the throttles.
“That boat is coming too fast,” Lee observed, feeling frustrated and helpless as they watched Capriccio slow to a safe speed while her pursuers roared up in her wake.
“Barr’s turning,” Steed pointed out. He could tell it was a man at the helm of the cruiser. The big boat made a surprisingly elegant turn, momentum slewing her sideways toward the pier once she was broadside to it. Barr’s landing would have been perfect – was perfect – until the pursuing boat made a similar turn several yards closer to the pier and sent a wall of water and a tremendous wake crashing over Capriccio’s stern.
“Amanda!” Emma’s scream carried easily over the roar of diesel engines. It was drowned out by the crunch of fiberglass against seasoned wood and over that the sharp crack of gunshots. Lee and Steed both dropped to their bellies on the pier.
Emma gripped the stairway railing with one hand and Amanda’s fingers with the other, but the cold seawater that had washed over them and swamped Capriccio’s aft deck was like oil. The frothy wall of water had lifted Amanda and dropped her over the side so quickly all Emma had managed to do was reach out and, by sheer luck, catch hold of her friend’s fingers. Now their grips slipped, and Emma felt a horrified scream rise in her throat as her friend disappeared over the side.
At the same moment there was the sharp crack of a gunshot and a massive crunching sound. Miraculously, the pursuing boat had not hit Capriccio when it spun around and splashed her, but it had smashed its stern into the pier. Ignoring its looming topsides immediately aft of Capriccio, and putting the gunshot out of her mind, Emma lunged for a boathook mounted on the bulkhead and thrust it over the side into the water like a fishing spear.
“Amanda! Grab this! Can you hear me?”
Something tickled her head as another loud gunshot shattered the night. She dropped the boathook, diving across the deck as another shot followed. As she scrambled through the door into the salon she caught sight of the other two pursuit boats roaring up as if to pin Capriccio to the pier.
“Take them. Secure all the boats,” Billy Melrose’s order crackled over the radios held by the various agents on the pier. Lee had taken cover behind a huge wooden bollard. Steed inched over to the edge of the pier on his belly to look down at Capriccio’s deck.
“What do you see?” Lee asked anxiously, rising enough to aim his gun across the top of the bollard and fire at the man on the side deck of the first pursuit boat. Off to his right an agent who had been stationed at the end of the pier fired as well and glass shattered on the boat’s other side. She was already listing heavily aft, a large portion of her transom ripped away.
“A body on the deck – a man,” Steed said. “And more men with guns on the bows of those other two boats,” he added, rolling back behind Lee for cover as a bullet ricocheted off of the cement edge of the pier. Lee fired at one of the men on the two newly arrived boats and the bridge window behind him shattered, exposing the helmsman inside.
“What happened to Amanda?” he asked before aiming again.
“I’ve no idea, but I’m going down there,” Steed said, rising up behind Lee enough to survey the situation. “Cover me,” he added before ducking again and running along the pier to the top of the nearest ladder leading down over the side.
Lee glanced after him, then re-aimed at the gunman on the side deck of the first pursuit boat and fired again. His lips curled in a grim smile as the man collapsed. But before he could be too pleased another shot from one of the other two boats rang out and a bullet glanced off the bollard sending splinters of hard, seasoned wood flying.
Lee adjusted his position, fired, and missed. Two more shots followed his as two of the agents on the pier found good firing angles. A movement below caught Lee’s eye. Dark uniformed figures swarmed across the rear deck of the sinking boat, two of them detaching themselves to jump from it to Capriccio’s deck. The midshipmen. Lee suppressed a wave of apprehension at exposing them to a firefight.
A larger figure – Steed – moved aft on Capriccio’s deck and jumped over into the water sloshing around the stern of the first pursuit boat. Seeing a man lean out of the bridge above Steed aiming a small machine gun Lee took a wild shot that hit the boat near the man’s head.
Ignoring the freezing water that instantly soaked his shoes, and the gunshot that had just passed above his head, Steed mounted the ladder to the bridge of the sinking boat. He’d seen no sign of Amanda or Emma as he landed on Cappricio’s deck, and desperate as he was to find them, he had to see to the gunmen before a search of the boats and water could be made. Decades of such work, of insulating his emotional response from his conscious actions, allowed him to keep going without succumbing to the desperate need to know that his partner was all right.
“One of the women on Capriccio went overboard,” Midshipman Sussman told his guards, speaking over his shoulder from his position belly down at the edge of the pier. The rest of the midshipmen were also either lying flat or crouching behind bollards.
“Anderson, Carlisle, you two get in that dinghy and work your way along under the pier. She only has a few minutes in this cold water. If she’s been able to stay afloat, you may find her in time,” Sussman watched the two students scramble across the pier to a ladder on the end – out of the line of gunfire — and start down to the dinghy tied at the bottom. “Peterson and Chang, you go down this ladder – the agents took out the man who was on this side of the boat that took the damage. Secure her any way you can to the pier so if she sinks we’ll have a line on her.”
As the two students scrambled down the ladder Sussman glanced at the other boats, watching agents exchange gunfire with the men on board. Almost four years of Naval Academy education had not prepared him for this sort of command, but he had a childhood of watching war movies to draw upon. He turned toward his final two guards and found them watching him expectantly.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We’ll get aboard the other two boats – climb over the bows and subdue the gunmen there, if the feds don’t take them out before we get there.”
The guards looked eager as he led them to the ladder. Plebes! They have no idea how insane this is. The guards were only freshmen, after all.
One of the men on the drifting boats aimed down at the boys who were crossing Capriccio’s aft deck. Lee quickly aimed and fired, striking the man’s arm badly enough to make his shot go wild. To Lee’s dismay, one of the midshipmen grabbed the bowsprit of one of the free-floating boats. As he heaved himself up Lee fired at the gunman on the deck. The boat pitched and Lee’s shot went wide, but it distracted the gunman long enough for the midshipman to gain the deck and roll across it into the man’s legs. They engaged in a wrestling match that would have ended badly as another man came up along the side deck, but one of the agents on the pier got a shot off that sent him overboard.
Another of the midshipmen scrambled across Capriccio’s aft deck to loop a line around a cleat on the free-floating boat’s bow. He tossed the line to a companion who secured it to the pier, then moved on to the other boat, picking up a line from Capriccio’s deck as he went.
Lee watched with growing respect as the midshipmen guards scrambled over the boats deploying lines like so many spiders. In one case a particularly muscular midshipman landed a solid punch to an enemy’s jaw sending him flying from an upper deck to a lower one where he hit with a painful grunt.
Emma found her gun in the salon and checked it – she had six bullets left. She crawled along the floor, glad that she’d swept up the broken glass, and looked out through the open door. A figure jumped from the ladder on the pier to the deck and she took aim, then lowered her gun with a relieved smile. But Steed did not look toward her hiding place, instead turning toward the chase boat just aft. She started to call out to him but stopped herself, realizing that he mustn’t lose his concentration with bullets flying all around.
“I could motor us along the pier,” Barr’s voice from the back of the dark salon made her jump. “Get us out of the way so that the guys on the pier can take care of the guys on the boats.”
He came over to her to look out the windows. She shook her head, watching several midshipmen dodging bullets as they tied lines on the boats.
“Amanda went overboard,” she said. “She could be hanging on to the boat – I couldn’t see her. They started shooting so I had to come in.”
“Hell,” Barr said. “Where did she go in?”
“Right by the ladder, when the other boat hit the pier and splashed us.”
“Between Capriccio and the pier?” the tension in his voice made her shudder with fear for her friend. She knew what he was thinking – that Amanda could have been crushed between the boat and a piling. She had put the notion out of her thoughts.
Just then a round of automatic weapon fire was cut short by a single shot, and a body fell with a heavy thump on the aft deck. The gun landed just outside the salon door. Without hesitating Emma opened the door and retrieved it, automatically checking the clip and snapping it back into place. She caught Barr’s eye and smiled at his impressed expression.
“My company makes these,” she said with a shrug, then she stepped out the salon door and scanned the surrounding boats and pier, weapon ready. A figure appeared on the side deck of the boat aft of them. She raised the weapon, but stopped at the sight of raised hands and a sheepish smile.
“Not me, darling,” Steed called out, lowering his hands to the railing as she lowered the muzzle of her gun.
“Steed, on the bow!” Lee’s shouted from the pier above. Steed and Emma both looked toward the bow of the boat but only Emma could see the man who had climbed from a hatch and was inching around to the side deck to fire at Steed. Without hesitation she raised her weapon and fired, bullets stitching along the bulkhead, shattering another window as she perfected her aim. The man dropped his gun and went stumbling across the bow as two bullets hit him. Emma stopped firing, disliking the sense of overkill that automatic weapons always gave her. She deeply regretted their necessity in modern warfare, if for no other reason than because they found their way into the hands of evil civilians like these men.
As the echo of her shots faded the night grew suddenly quiet. The grumble of Capriccio’s idling engines became noticeable, and then another much happier sound.
“Can we get a hand here?” a young man called from somewhere under the pier. Emma dropped the weapon and went to the side of the deck with Barr on her heels. One midshipman sat with his arms around a shivering Amanda while another worked the oars of a dinghy, struggling to maneuver it through the pilings.
“Take a line,” Barr said, taking a large coil from where it was stowed under the railing. The oarsman stopped and half turned in his seat, reaching up to catch the line when Barr heaved it. He secured it to the bow of the dinghy and shipped his oars. Barr pulled the small boat bumping against the pilings until it was alongside Capriccio. Emma tried to help, but the midshipmen and Barr muscled her out of the way, nearly competing to get Amanda to the relative safety of the bigger boat’s deck.
Emma let her gaze drift back toward where Steed had been, but he was gone from the deck of the pursuit boat. Up above on the pier two figures were silhouetted against the starry sky.
“Is that Amanda?” Lee called down.
“Yes. She went overboard, but they got her,” Emma replied, watching Barr wrap a blanket that he’d grabbed from inside the salon around Amanda’s shoulders.
“Tell them we have emergency services on the way,” Billy, the other man on the pier, told her. “Don’t make her climb up the ladder.”
Emma nodded and forced her way back in between the hovering men. They had settled Amanda down on a deck chair. She looked like a waif wrapped in the blanket, still shivering. But her smile for Emma was bright.
“Hey, you know I almost had that boathook,” she said, her teeth chattering.
“I’m sorry I dropped it, darling. But they were shooting at me,” Emma winced, still regretting failing her friend.
“I know. Aside from the cold, I think the water was the safest place to be,” Amanda chuckled half-heartedly.
“Just sit tight. We’ll have you warmed up in no time,” Emma assured her.
Emma smiled warmly at Midshipman Sussman, then impulsively leaned close and placed a kiss on his cheek. As she stepped back she could see that he was struggling to keep a straight face. It amused her.
“Thank you Midshipman,” she said with an impish grin, then she turned, took a step, and turned again to face the first of the guards. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, once again enjoying the effect on the surprised boy. She worked her way along the line, each young man seeming to find it more difficult than the last to accept her chaste little kiss with the straight face that protocol demanded.
Emma reached the end of the line and took one final step, placing herself in front of a smiling Steed, who was leaning comfortably to the side on his umbrella handle, his eyes twinkling with affection and pride. She stepped close to him, one hand on his lapel, the other sliding up and around to the back of his neck as she pressed a kiss to his eager lips.
Beside them the last midshipman turned his head toward them, his lips parting in a grin.
“Carlisle!” Midshipman Sussman barked and the young man’s head snapped to the front. Steed’s arms encircled Emma as they continued to kiss and Midshipman Sussman ordered his guard to return to their post, double time.
How big everything is in America, from the cars to the roads to the shopping mall. Being shown around with Mrs. West was fascinating, as much because of her dynamism as for the sights she showed me. She is fiercely patriotic – at times I felt as if she were trying to convert me to Americanism – and definitely relies on the strength of her convictions. She is so outspoken, her family and friends must always know where they stand with her. And yet she does not seem rude or overbearing. If anything, she seems like the ideal grandmother. And she adores little Grace. She was also wonderful with John, and he really seemed to take to her. But it was an exhausting day, and it only got worse when we got back and Mrs. Steed did not return on time. Then the men called to tell us something was wrong and I could see that Mrs. West was very afraid for her daughter. How hard it must be to know that your child is involved in a dangerous business and could be killed any time. I’ve come to accept it as a possibility for my employers, but what if they were my own family? It’s an entirely different prospect, I think. Entirely different.
“Roger’s not at all upset about Capriccio pulling out of the boat show,” Barr said, shaking salt on his mashed potatoes as he spoke. “He said that just today someone called his charter agent and booked the boat for a good part of the summer. So he’s all set, once the repairs are made.” Barr smiled across the table at Emma, who inclined her head in acknowledgement.
She had assured him that Knight would take care of the repairs before they’d left Annapolis the previous night. And to reassure him, she’d contacted Mr. Lanier this morning and arranged for him to contact Barr directly to work out the details.
Although she’d been hospitalized for the night to ensure that she was not suffering from hypothermia, Amanda had insisted that they all come to dinner – including Barr and, because she heard about it and invited herself, Francine.
Last night Steed and Emma had ridden back to Arlington with Billy Melrose to pick up Siobhan and John from the Stetson home. Throughout the hour-long car ride they’d sat in the back seat with their hands clasped, desperate to cling to one another but unwilling to make such an overt show of their emotional state in the car with the other agents. They’d finally crawled into bed and one another’s arms at the inn around three a.m. and slept well into the morning.
“That’s great news,” Amanda said. “I’d feel awful if the boat didn’t get chartered because of us.”
“So maybe you’ll stick around to skipper her?” Francine asked, shooting Barr a flirtatious smile. “Since Roger will be busy sailing?”
Barr shrugged as he chewed and swallowed a bite of steak. “Maybe. It’s the slow season in he islands, so if Roger can pay me…”
“I have the impression that he can,” Lee said with a sly smile that Steed and Billy shared. Francine rolled her eyes at them, then returned her attention to Barr, who was dousing the rest of his steak with bottled sauce.
He was not the only one enjoying Amanda’s home-cooked dinner as they freely discussed the events of the previous day. Amanda’s mother and her sons were all out, and Siobhan was happy in front of the television with John, so there were no secrets to conceal. At least not many. Steed had not discussed the telephone call from Miss Grant with the other agents, other than to convey the identity of the men pursuing Emma. He had resolved not to butt into Emma’s business, but he did intend to make his feelings known about her subordinate’s behavior. Later.
For her part, Emma had a much more pleasant secret that eventually would be revealed. She was not surprised when Steed guessed it when they were back in their room at the inn.
“So how much time should I plan to spend aboard Capriccio this summer?” he whispered into her ear before moving her hair aside to place a row of kisses along her spine. She sighed into the pillows and lifted her head to turn it toward him.
“Knight Industries will be using the boat for several corporate functions,” she replied in her most professional tone, but the effect was spoiled by a sudden giggle in response to his nuzzling the back of her knee. He laughed as he moved to straddle her thighs, running both hands up her back from her ass to her shoulders so that she sighed again with deep pleasure. “It was the least I could do after hijacking it from the boat show,” she added.
“Not even a week – just you and me basking in the sun . . .”
“And Captain Barr.”
Now Steed sighed, falling silent as he caressed her arms.
“About Captain Barr,” he finally said.
“I don’t like the way he looks at you.”
Emma concealed her smile in the pillows. Steed rarely expressed overt jealousy. When he did it was usually so misplaced she found it amusing. This was no different, although she gave Steed credit for sensing the attraction between his wife and the sailor. She wondered if he’d noticed it during their previous encounter. If so, he’d not mentioned it, perhaps because their relationship had already been strained at the time.
“Not to worry, Steed. He’s a gentleman,” she said. He brought his hands back to her shoulders and began massaging them in earnest.
“And how do you know?” he asked, clearly implying that she should not have had reason to find out.
“Do you really imagine I don’t realize just how loaded that question is, darling?” she replied.
He snorted in defeat, bending down to kiss the back of her neck.
“I don’t know why I bother to engage in a battle of wits with you,” he whispered, adjusting his position to stretch out beside her, one hand still caressing her back, the other supporting his head.
She rolled onto her side to face him, seeing in his eyes that the shadow of jealousy was not entirely banished despite his concession.
“He is an attractive man, and he did express some interest in me. But only until he learned that I am now married.”
Her eyes narrowed at him. So he did notice two years ago. “His flirtation was lost on me with you around,” she replied smoothly, watching the edges of his mouth curl. Her words sounded like flattery, but they both knew that they were true.
“Perhaps we could persuade Miss Desmond to come along and entertain Captain Barr,” he whispered, bringing his hand up to caress her temple lightly. Her lips curled in a contented, kissable smile. So he did, exploring her face, placing feather-light kisses across her cheek and down the side of her neck. He inhaled the velvety, herbal scent of her shampoo and lotion and felt a shiver run down his spine as she ran her fingers lightly over his ribs. He reciprocated, fingertips playing over her breast and down her side, barely more than a tickle.
Her mouth sought his, her kisses growing more urgent as she stroked his back. He felt himself sigh as he melted into her, light touches turning stronger, his big, capable hands stroking from her underarm to her ass and back.
The telephone on the bedside table erupted with a loud, mechanical ring that blew them apart, mouths half open, eyes wide as they stared at one another in surprise. And then as it rang again Emma’s smirk met Steed’s resigned half shrug and she rolled onto her back to reach for the receiver.
She untangled her other arm from under the pillows and Steed and used it to drag her hair behind her ear, then pressed the receiver to it.
“Hello,” she said, unwilling to offer her identity to the caller when not in her home or office. Smiling to himself, Steed reached out and rubbed his hand in slow circles on her bare stomach. “Hold please,” she said, placing her free hand on top of his and extending the receiver to him. “For you.”
He took it and rolled away from her onto his back.
Feeling that turnabout was fair play, Emma rose and bent over him, kissing his stomach and then following the trail of hairs downward.
“I see. Good,” Steed said, absently reaching down to stroke her hair. His penis stiffened as she tickled the hairs at its base with kisses. “What did he say?” Steed’s voice deepend a notch, making her smile. Not for the first time she noticed grey amid the dark pubic hair. Rather than emphasize his age — or the fact that he was aging — they made her rejoice at having him, at the life they had that she had once given up on.
Behind her Steed laughed into the receiver. She kissed the side of his thick, hard shaft, then turned her head to look at his face. He was nodding at whoever was speaking, but his eyes locked with hers, an amused twinkle not masking the underlying desire.
“Thank you Frankie. When I can repay the favor I hope you’ll call. – Yes.”
Emma sat up so that Steed could stretch across the bed to replace the receiver.
“Vixen!” he growled as he turned back toward her, grabbing her with both arms and pinning her to the bed across its foot. He took her grinning mouth with hungry, grasping kisses, his hands roving over her body in the complete antithesis of his earlier light touches. She responded in kind, spurred by his sudden passion. Her legs parted beneath his. Her hips rose to him, burning for him, found him, quenched him inside herself.
They moved together, slowly at first, mouths roaming over faces, down necks, biting nipples, breathing into ears, shivering and panting and gasping. And moving faster, harder, the raging need building. There were times when they spoke as they made love – words of passionate encouragement, gratitude for pleasures given and received, and of love – and there were times like this, when words could not contain the messages they exchanged.
Steed’s thrusts drove them across the bed until Emma’s head was hanging off the edge, her mouth open in a long, throaty, orgasmic moan. He rose above her on stiff arms, unaware of the deep breath he sucked in to fan the flames in his loins. She gripped his forearms, fingers digging into flesh as his orgasm took him. She raised her head to watch him shake his head from side to side in rhythm with his pulsing organ, gasping, and then groaning as he lowered himself, spent, to his elbows. She ran her fingers through the hair at the back of his neck, smiling contentedly despite the effort to keep her head raised. After a moment he raised his own head to smile back.
“Oh,” he said, “Here, love, get up.” He rose off of her, backing across the bed, extending his hand to her to draw her with him. She took it and followed him to settle in against the pillows wrapped in his arms. He kissed her temple, then her cheek, sleepily stroking her shoulder with one hand.
“What was the call about?” she asked, stirring him a little.
“Oh that,” he chuckled so that she felt the comforting rumble in his chest.
“You drove it completely out of my mind.”
He chuckled again. “It was a friend who works for a certain organization here in the states.”
“An organization associated with yours?”
He nodded. “Our fellows sent over some information that Frankie found very useful. He paid a visit to Remo Mastrontoni at his home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It seems there was a terrible misunderstanding. Mr. Mastrontoni expressed his sincere apologies, through Frankie, for any inconvenience that his associates may have caused.”
Emma shook her head, smiling ruefully. “I wish I could prevent Knight’s detonators from ending up in missiles bought by those people,” she sighed. He studied her profile for a moment, fascinated as always by the keen businesswoman who shared his bed.
“You could acquire the missile manufacturer.”
Her slow smile as she turned to look into his eyes was genuinely flattering. She thought it was a good idea. He tightened his hold on her, pressing his lips to her forehead.
“Now, if I may meddle a tiny bit further in Knight business, I’d like to discuss Miss Tasha Grant.”