Secret Santa

Steed follows a trail

Emma does the decorating

“Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas my boy. What would you like Santa to bring to you this year?”

John Steed felt himself stiffen at the sound of the toy store santa’s jolly laugh from across the shop. For just an instant he was drawn back into the nightmares of a year ago when an evil St. Nicholas pursued him through a forest of gaudy Christmas trees to a ghoulish premonition of death. Squeezing his eyes shut against the faint pressure of a surprise headache he reached out to hold on to the shelf in front of him, knocking over several elaborately dressed dolls.

“Ho, ho, ho –.”

“May I help you sir?”

A bright, concerned voice overrode the more distant, menacing laugh. Steed straightened and opened his eyes, focusing on regaining his composure. Then he turned a benevolent gaze on the shop girl.

“Yes. My niece is collecting these dolls. I would hate to get her a duplicate. Is there a ‘new model’ for this Christmas?”

“Why yes sir! This young lady is the new design for the season,” the clerk picked up one of the toppled dolls. She was dressed in a white gown with green holly and red berries around the hem and décolletage. She carried a tiny, bell-shaped handbag and wore perfect little dancing shoes. Steed thought she looked a little bit like Cathy Gale.

“She’s exquisite,” he said.

“Shall I have one wrapped for you – I mean for your niece – sir?”

“Yes please. And these as well,” Steed handed the woman the other items he’d gathered from the shelves – toys for his sister’s other five children.

“Very good sir,” she replied brightly, taking the toys into her arms. She smiled and turned toward the sales counter. Steed followed more slowly, St. Nicholas’s laughter growing louder with each step.

“Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas,” the rotund man chanted. He was seated near the cash registers – unavoidable if Steed was to complete his shopping. He found himself unable to avoid looking at the man. Porcine eyes stared at him from under bushy white eyebrows. Full, bow-shaped lips surrounded by whiskers pursed for a moment, then parted in a smile that emphasized high, cherry red cheeks. A little girl darted away from her mother and approached St. Nick, breaking the spell of his stare so that Steed could turn away.

He stood with his back turned, listening to the little girl describe her dream pony. When the sales girl had wrapped his packages and began summing up his total he extracted his billfold from his pocket. She presented him with his bill and he paid, quickly counting out the bills onto the counter.

“Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas little one!”

Steed took his packages and turned, avoiding looking at the man again.

“John, you have been a very good boy,” Santa said. Eyes narrowing in the slightest frown, Steed stopped, his head turning toward the man despite himself. “Very good indeed. Santa has a special surprise for you, John Steed.”

By the time he got home Steed had decided that the Santa’s words had been an invention of his imagination. The sudden memory of the nightmares combined with the stress of his most recent case had conspired to trick him into hearing something that had never been said. Somewhat reassured, he set his packages on the footman’s chair just inside the front door of his apartment and slotted his umbrella into the rack. He hung his bowler on the handle at a jaunty angle and stepped into the sitting room. Just as he caught a whiff of something familiar he noticed a white card propped on the mantle. He recognized the scent as Emma’s perfume and marveled at the comforting feeling imparted by the suggestion of her presence. If anyone else had been in his home while he was away he would feel that his privacy had been invaded – not that anyone else had a key. He crossed the room and picked up the card. The message was written in Emma’s clean, elegantly schooled handwriting:

A gentleman’s hideaway is no place for a dame,

But if you visit there you’ll find yours just the same.

“My dame,” he smiled. There’s only one person who fits that description. “I could do with a spot of lunch.”

The city was busy with holiday shoppers and celebrants. Steed was forced to park several blocks away from his club. As he strode toward it he made a mental note to vote yes next year on the annual proposal to offer valet parking during the holiday season. He took the front steps two at a time, buoyed by a tingling sense of anticipation. He looked forward to lunch with Emma in the ladies dining room followed by an afternoon together engaged in some diverting activity. He could think of several that would suit.

They had completed an exhausting case a just a week before Christmas, but rather than seize a few days away together as they usually did, other commitments had drawn them apart. Emma was involved in a number of charity holiday activities and Steed had been asked to consult on another case. Now Christmas was just two days away. He’d concluded his involvement with the other case yesterday and telephoned Emma. She’d cheerfully described a gallery reception that he was not that sorry to have missed, and a dinner party he did regret having to be excused from. He told her that he’d gotten free of the new case and was going to devote the morning to shopping for presents for his nieces and nephews. He’d stopped short of suggesting they spend time together this afternoon when she did not bring it up herself. Something about her tone told him she was concealing something and he knew better than to pry. He was relieved to discover her secret now.

“Good afternoon Mr. Steed. Here for lunch sir?” Ralph, the porter, greeted him.

“With Mrs. Peel – she is here, isn’t she?”

“No sir. Shall I get you a table for two in the ladies?”

“She didn’t telephone to reserve?” Steed asked. Strictly speaking, ladies were not allowed to make reservations since they were not members. However, secretaries regularly performed this task for their male employers, and Ralph and the other staff knew Emma Peel. She was most certainly not a secretary, nor was she a spouse to be avoided, nor a mistress to be served but not acknowledged. Her special status as the welcome associate of a long-time member, along with her charm and beauty, afforded her a special status. Steed had been astonished to discover it some months ago, and it only made him prouder of her to know that she had subtly conquered his male bastion.

“No sir,” Ralph said. “I’ll ask the others.”

“Thank you Ralph. Meanwhile, I’ll take that table.”

A few minutes later Steed was trying to decide between the onion soup or green pea when Bill, the other porter, approached his table.

“I’m sorry Mr. Steed, I was upstairs when you came in. Mrs. Peel came by earlier and left this for you.” He handed Steed a sealed envelope, bowed politely, and walked away. The waiter appeared on Steed’s other side.

“I’ll have the pea soup,” Steed said, staring at the envelope and knowing without opening it that Emma would not be joining him. “And the grilled salmon,” he added. He was hungry, after all.

“Very good sir.”

Steed tore open the envelope and removed the white card, the mate to the one from his mantle. He expected an apology for being unable to meet him.

Your labors are performed in many a venue,

Except for this one that’s been set aside for you.

After lunch Steed decided to leave the car where it was and walked to Whitehall and into the ministry’s unmarked headquarters building. He unlocked his office, pausing to crouch down and study the lock. She’d picked it, he knew, but there was no evidence of tampering. He wasn’t surprised – she was an artist with a half-rake.

The card was centered on his doodle-covered blotter.

We’re snorting and stamping, impatient to run,

If you come visit us you’ll have even more fun.

He smiled happily. A good gallop had been on his short list of ideas for the afternoon. And Emma was probably already enjoying the fresh air on horseback. Three clerks and a fellow agent wished him happy holidays as he hurried back out to the street and he returned their greetings with a wave of his umbrella.

“Mrs. Peel? Why yes sir, she was ‘ere this morning,” Max the groom replied to Steed’s inquiry.

“She went riding this morning?” he asked with a frown. What is she playing at?

“No sir. She didn’t ride. She was in and out of here in a flash, sir. But she left an envelope. Said nobody was to touch it but Mr. Steed.”

“Me.”

“Yes sir. You sir,” Max nodded enthusiastically.

“May I have it?”

“Oh!” Max looked chagrined and turned on his heel toward the tack room. Steed followed, stopping in the doorway. Max took the envelope off a shelf and handed it to him. “Here you are sir. Nobody’s touched it, you can see.”

Steed could see that the envelope, which was larger than the note cards, was sealed with a dab of red wax embossed with an intertwined EP.

“Thank you Max,” Steed said, turning toward the Bentley.

“Will you be riding then, sir?” Max called after him. Steed stopped, his fingers under the flap of the envelope.

“I’m not sure, Max. I’ll let you know when I’ve looked at this.”

“Yes sir,” the groom said, sounding puzzled.

It was a map. Steed unfolded it on the passenger seat and looked at the whole of southern England. She had clipped her face out of a photograph and celotaped it to the map, then drawn an arrow from her smile to a specific location in Suffolk that appeared to be in the middle of a forest.

Her detached face gave him a chill, and for the first time he wondered if this trail of riddles and clues was not her idea at all. But Max and Bill knew her, and neither had reported that she had behaved oddly when she’d left her notes. Of course, he had not actually asked. He got out of the car and returned to the stable where Max was harnessing a team of black horses to a sleigh. A group of children stood nearby singing snatches of Christmas carols directed by a man in a top hat and red scarf.

“Unusual?” Max repeated at Steed’s question about Emma. He slipped a strap into a buckle and paused to look at Steed. “No sir. Just in a hurry is all.”

“She was alone?”

“Far as I saw. She was driving that little car of hers.”

“Thank you Max. I won’t be riding, I’m afraid.”

“Very good sir,” Max nodded, then looked at the group of youngsters. “All right, it’s ready for you,” he called out to them. The children erupted in happy shouts and giggles as they approached the sleigh.

Steed got back into the car and refolded the map to focus on the marked area. She was alone here, and she had to have been alone to get into the ministry and his office. Unless she was accompanied by someone else with the proper identification. But even if she were being forced, he was sure she would have found a way to let him know by now. And what could possibly be the motive? To get me out of the way? From what? My apartment? They’re welcome to it. I’m going to find Emma.

He realized as he studied the map that it was so large scale it only included major roads. The location marked in the forest was undoubtedly served by some sort of road. He needed a more detailed map. He could go back to the ministry for one, or he could just drive to Suffolk where he was sure he could find one for sale at a service station.

Act II

“Mrs. Peel?”

Steed smiled at the crunch of snow under his boots. The sound carried loudly in the cold, crisp air, fracturing the unnatural stillness of the frosted forest. He followed a single set of footprints – size eight narrow. Most certainly Emma’s, and all alone.

A deep green fir shivered in a gusting little breeze and showered its frosting of snow all over Steed.

“Mrs. Peel?” he called again, brushing the flakes from his shoulders. He was sure she was there – he’d parked the Bentley right next to her little Lotus. He was just beginning to regret not having inspected her car more closely when her clear voice reached him from deeper in the forest.

“Here Steed,” she called out.

He felt himself smile again as he followed her footprints off of the trail and in between the trees. “Over here,” she called out, guiding him with her voice. Then he caught sight of her, a flash of deep purple amid the jade green firs, inky black trunks, and clean white snow.

“What do you think of this one?” she asked, coming around a perfectly shaped tree of about six feet. He set the tip of his umbrella onto the snowy ground and leaned on the handle to study it.

“That would depend on your purpose, Mrs. Peel,” he said, letting his gaze flick to her lovely face then back to the tree. “Building? Burning? Nesting?”

She passed behind him, continuing to circle the tree.

“Decorating, Steed,” she said wryly.

“Oh, a Christmas tree is it? Won’t the owner of this land object to your playing lumberjack?” he asked, amused that her elaborate game had been to get him here for this.

“This is Knight land,” she said. Steed let himself grin. He’d suspected as much. The Knight family owned a significant portion of this part of England. And Emma was one of only a handful members of her generation of the Knight family. If she did not personally own this little patch of forest, then a cousin probably did.

“It’s a comely specimen, Mrs. Peel. Would you like a hand cutting – .” His question was drowned out by the sound of a chain saw roaring to life. The sound grew even louder as Emma came back around from behind the tree, revving the small gas motor menacingly. Shooting Steed a smug smile, she dropped to her knees and parted the low branches with her left hand to press in between them. Steed watched her shapely behind as she extended the chainsaw in under the tree. The sound changed to a labored buzz as she sliced through the tree’s trunk. It toppled to the left and Emma turned off the saw then climbed to her feet.

“I don’t suppose you were planning on driving it home in your car?” Steed asked as she brushed the snow from her trousers. She smiled enticingly at him, then bent to pick up the saw with one hand and take hold of a low branch of the tree with the other.

“Come on,” she said, “I’ve prepared a small incentive for your assistance.”

She set off through the trees dragging the tree, which slid along easily on the snowy forest floor. Steed followed her, wondering optimistically just what she meant by incentive.

She led him to a rustic stone house tucked in among very old trees facing a small clearing. He could well imagine that in spring and summer the views from the front windows were of glorious wildflowers and browsing deer. Today tiny ice crystals sparkled from the cheery sunshine striking the surface of the blanket of snow. Two sets of tracks – coming and going – told him that Emma had already been inside. The wisp of wood smoke rising from the chimney was further confirmation that she’d been busy inside.

She dropped the tree near the front door and opened a wood box on the small porch to set the chainsaw inside with the dry firewood. Then she opened the unlocked front door and he followed her in. The interior was a cross between vacation cottage and hunting lodge. A proud ten-point buck presided over the greatroom from above the fireplace. Illumination was provided by the windows, oil lamps, and candles, their warm yellow glow giving the ancient wooden paneling a luminescent depth. No electricity and probably well water and a septic field – Steed well knew this sort of house. There was a thick wolf pelt rug in front of the fireplace surrounded by a leather upholstered sofa and a pair of club chairs that looked as if they’d been imported from some aged London establishment. A shelf of children’s books and games on a bookcase told him that this house did not belong to Emma as he’d at first suspected. But the pine garland on the mantle and jolly springs of holly and berries tucked everywhere told him that she’d contrived to have the use of it for more than just the afternoon.

Emma stripped out of her purple down-filled jacket and soft woolen scarf and hung them on one of a row of pegs on the wall behind the door. Steed also disrobed while she went to the hearth and knelt down to add a fresh log to the fire.

“I hope you don’t have any plans for the evening,” she said over her shoulder.

“If I had, I would go find the nearest telephone and cancel them immediately,” he replied quite sincerely. She grinned and adjusted the fire screen.

When she rose and turned around her violet colored blouse parted in front below her bosom to reveal her navel and a stretch of creamy white stomach above her very low-waisted, hip hugging trousers. He smiled in appreciation. No matter that she often dressed provocatively, it never failed to ignite a little spark deep inside him. He admired her daring, and he appreciated the results.

She shot him a knowing look as she crossed from the hearth at one side of the room to the kitchen area at the other. She had laid a white linen cloth at one end of a trestle table and set two places. A plain silver candelabra held three red tapers, unlit, at the edge of the cloth. Steed followed her, placing himself close behind her when she stopped to open the lid on a pot on top of the wood fired stove. He felt rather than saw her smile as he stood so close they were nearly touching, but not quite. He looked over her shoulder into the pot, then turned his face to look myopically at the side of hers, letting his breath caress her skin.

“Something smells divine, Mrs. Peel,” he said. And something did. He thought it might be quail, or perhaps partridge, roasting in the oven. The pot, he saw, contained green beans. Emma smiled and stepped back just enough so that he had to move to give her room, subtly bumping his groin with her behind in the process. He grinned and made a show of moving out of her way, but it was lost on her as she bent to open the oven and look inside.

“Game hens stuffed with mushrooms,” she said, reaching in with a potholder to pull the roasting pan part way out. A pair of hens sat in bubbling juice, potatoes and carrots around them in the pan, herbs baked onto their golden skin. Steed’s mouth watered. “Not quite done yet, I think,” Emma added, pushing the pan back into the oven and closing the door. She straightened and turned to him with a warm smile.

“How did you know what time I’d arrive?” he asked, trying to look suspicious, although he was mostly just delighted with her elaborate surprise. She shrugged and took his arm, guiding him toward an interior door opposite the front door.

“I knew you went shopping for your sister’s children. You do not care for the young crowds in the toy store, so you make a point of arriving there at nine-thirty – a half hour after opening so the clerks are ready to help you, but before most mummies and nannies can manage to get the little ones up and out of their houses. It takes you an hour, with the clerk’s assistance – a perky blonde, I believe – to purchase six presents.”

She paused to open the door, but it didn’t budge at her light touch. She released Steed’s arm and tried again, pressing her shoulder to it. It popped open with a squeak.

“It’s been sticky since the foundation settled in 1740,” she quipped, stepping into an alcove with three more doors. She opened the one on the right and looked into the room beyond. “This was my grandfather Knight’s private hunting cabin – strictly for family, unlike the big one where he entertained guests. I think before that it was a woodman’s house for several hundred years. My aunt Elise liked to hunt with my grandfather, so he left it to her. She and uncle Dave used it more when my cousin Dave was younger.”

The room was a tidy, unadorned bedroom. A gaily painted toy chest suggested that the usual occupant was a child, but the large single bed opposite bunk beds indicated that it could serve as an adult bedroom too.

Emma opened the next door to reveal a utilitarian bathroom.

“My aunt had it put in. Not very fancy,” she conceded, “but more convenient than the old outhouse. Still, I’m sure grandfather Knight would not approve.”

Steed smiled appreciatively and looked pointedly at the third door. She returned his smile and opened it to reveal another bedroom, the large bed made up and the sheet and coverlet turned down invitingly. There were holly sprigs in a vase on the bedside table and unlit candles on the battered old dresser. An old washstand with pitcher and bowl in one corner verified her claim that the bathroom was a late addition. Leaving the doors open to allow the heat from the fire and stove to circulate, Emma escorted him back toward the kitchen. Before he could ask she went on with her explanation.

“Leaving the toy store you stopped in at the fragrance shop two doors down where you purchased perfume and cologne for your sister and her husband, and perhaps something for someone else as well.” She paused, looking inquiringly at him, but his expression remained maddeningly impassive. Smiling resignedly she went on. “So you arrived back at home at about eleven and found my first note. You were by then quite famished, not having had any breakfast. So you went to your club for lunch and received my second note.” She picked up a bottle of wine and handed it to him along with a corkscrew.

“By a quarter to one you reached your poor, neglected office to find my third message, and you reached the stable by half one – longer than usual with the holiday traffic. You don’t have a detailed map of this area in the Bentley, so when you received the map from the grooms there you drove out this way and stopped at a service station to buy one. And that placed you in my little patch of forest by three o’clock.”

“You’re very good, Mrs. Peel. I’ll give you that. But you missed one detail,” Steed said.

“Yes?”

“I bought petrol at the service station as well. That put me approximately five minutes off of your schedule.”

“Actually, I knew the old girl was low the day before yesterday. I allowed five minutes either way, on the chance that you hadn’t already refueled her.”

Steed shook his head and chuckled. Emma nodded at the bottle he was still holding.

“Open that for us.”

Steed recognized the label of one of their favorite chateaux and noted that the year was a good one. He set about opening the bottle while Emma stirred the green beans and checked the hens again.


Act III

“So tell me Steed, did you enjoy my little chase?” Emma asked some time later. They had eaten her delicious dinner and left the dishes in the sink for later. Emma distributed the last of the wine between their glasses and Steed followed her to the hearth.

“It was an amusing adventure, but I have a feeling the best is yet to come,” he said. “I have to admit there were a few moments when I was put in mind of other less happy chases.”

She knelt on the wolf rug and opened the fire screen to add another log. Steed looked around at the various seating options and elected to drop to the floor on the rug behind her. He stretched out on his side, head on his hand, and watched her prod the smoldering embers back to life. She sat back and took a sip of wine, then set her glass on the hearth and stretched out on her back looking up at Steed.

“Like my non-existent uncle Jack’s will?” she asked. “Or Sir Cavalier’s invitation?”

Steed smiled and stroked her hair away from her face although it hadn’t needed it. He just wanted to touch her, his dear, delicious Emma.

“Of course, because of them you knew I wouldn’t fail to follow your trail,” he said.

“I knew I could count on you, Steed,” she agreed, her voice growing soft and husky. His own breath caught in his throat as the smoldering look in her eyes sent sparks of desire through him. The fire in the hearth wasn’t the only flame she’d fanned. “I know you’ll be going to your sister’s for Christmas. I selfishly wanted you to myself for a bit.”

“Emma,” he sighed, suddenly wishing he could ask her to go with him, but knowing that it would be too much, too nearly a sign of commitment, no matter how well she knew that it was not intended that way.

The firelight flickered in her mysterious eyes, concealing whatever emotion she might be feeling. He was glad. He was too cowardly to look her love in the eye and try to deny it. Smiling seductively he let his hand move from the side of her face over her breasts to the bare skin where her blouse parted. It was much easier by far to make love to her than to speak of it.

Her fingers slipped around the back of his neck and she pulled his face to hers for a long, luxurious kiss. Kissing Steed was the best reward for her long day laying the trail and preparing the supper. His lips were tender, but his mouth was deceptively hard. She could kiss him for hours – she often had – drifting along on a current of passion seemingly unrelated to more intimate physical contact. Decidedly chaste compared to the other acts that their passion indulged in, and intensely sensual, his kisses perfectly represented their complicated relationship.

She’d seen in his eyes the guilt over not inviting her to his sister’s. And yet the idea of actually going, of meeting his family and seeing him among them, was inconceivable. It had not crossed her mind through her long day of preparations to be angry at being excluded from that part of his life. She knew he was incapable of it. She had long ago accepted it and stowed the regrets and resentment away in her deepest places. She wanted Steed, and she had him. But on his terms. For now it was enough, and one of the first, best lessons Steed had taught her was to live within the moment.

His warm hand stroking her stomach felt delicious. She longed for him to move it up and touch her breasts, but he did not. He was demonstrating his mastery of patience, his understanding of building desire, and of her. He paused to take a long breath and smile into her eyes. She smiled back, one hand stroking his cheek, the other slipping down to caress his waist.

“Don’t stop,” she pleaded, knowing without moving her hand any nearer that his body was responding to hers. He lifted his head from his hand and snaked his arm around under her head, then pressed his lips to the sensitive skin of her throat. She sighed contentedly, luxuriating in being trapped in his powerful embrace.

The log burned down beside them. Emma fantasized that they drew its flames into themselves with their urgent kisses. Gradually they gave in and touched the sensitive places they both knew so well. Wordlessly they rose and made separate circuits of the room to douse all but one of the oil lamps and blow out the candles. They met at the bedroom door, Emma holding the last lit lamp. She carried it into the bedroom and set it on the bedside table beside the vase of holly. She turned to watch Steed undress, her own hands moving slowly to the zipper at the back of her trousers. He was soon naked, having dressed simply and casually for his shopping expedition. He faced her, waiting. She wiggled out of her tight trousers and pants and the shearling slippers she’d changed into earlier. Then she unbuttoned her blouse and shrugged it off of her shoulders. She twisted her hands in back to unhook her bra and let it fall. As it hit the floor he was there, his big, solid body wrapping itself around hers, his solid groin smashed between them, his mouth seizing hers in a kiss that was the antithesis of those they’d been indulging in before.

Her body surged with hot, driving desire and she moaned into him, one leg rising to wrap around him, opening herself to him. He laid her down across the bed and hovered over her on hands and knees for a moment like a hungry man trying to decide which course to begin with. Catering to her impatient nature at last, she reach between them to take hold of him and draw him to her. He obliged, but at his own pace, smiling triumphantly at her long, deep moan as he slowly filled her.

“So good,” she groaned, her hips pressing up against him.

“Oh yes,” he sighed back, already half lost in the trance that was the joyful result of complete trust. They moved together, stimulating with their hands and mouths and the fiery contact of their joined bodies. Faster and faster, nipping and grinding, gripping at shoulders and arms and asses until neither knew where they ended and the other began within their writhing, wet center. They erupted in blinding, carnal fulfillment, lost in physical ecstasy as their bodies shared the devotion that their minds refused to speak of.

“What was that?” Emma started awake, rising up on her hands to stare around the pitch-black bedroom. The sheet slid down exposing her naked breasts. Beside her Steed lay perfectly still but she knew he was awake. Even while she listened she chastised herself for not learning to do the same – to lie perfectly still in case whatever made the sound was in the room with them.

The sound came again – a series of muffled thumps on the roof. Steed sat up, one hand protectively on her shoulder, and looked up, then toward the bedroom door. There were more thumps, and then a strange draft of cool air, and then the door to the greatroom slammed shut. Emma sat up too, running both hands through her hair as Steed climbed out of bed and went around it, feeling in the dark for his clothes, which were on the dresser. Emma followed suit, dragging on her tight trousers and loose blouse. They arrived at the door together and Emma pulled back as Steed reached for the knob. Even in the dark, with only the faint reflection of starlight on snow coming in the windows, she could read his plan on his face. She took cover in the doorway of the other bedroom and he turned the knob and pulled. The door did not move. They exchanged a startled stare, and then realization.

“Stuck,” she mouthed. He nodded and gripped the handle with both hands. He pulled with all of his considerable strength. The door did not budge, but to Steed’s alarm the knob itself came away in his hands. He staggered back against the jamb of the bathroom door staring at the antique hardware, and then looking up at Emma. She looked as startled as he felt. But then her lips quirked in a little smile and she shrugged, turning her attention to the stubborn door. Time for plan B.

He grinned at her resilience, then crouched down to examine the hole where the knob had been. It had come clean through – he could see the dark room beyond. And as he looked out through the two-inch opening with one eye he saw a shadow pass between him and the embers of the fire. He pulled back from the door and before he could stop her Emma had taken his place. After a moment she pulled back as well and looked at him.

“Someone’s out there,” she whispered so quietly it was barely louder than her normal breathing. He nodded and looked again. A shadow obscured the embers again, and then there was an odd scraping sound. Above them the thumping was repeated, seeming to come from several places on the roof. And then it stopped. The house grew so silent Emma was sure she heard the faint jingle of sleigh bells somewhere in the distance.

Steed peered through the hole in the door again.

“Gone I think,” he whispered.

Emma stood up and ran her hands over the door. Steed moved away, watching her curiously. She turned around, flashing him a smile, and kicked with the bottom of her bare foot at the lower right corner of the door. It creaked and swung open a few inches.

Steed inclined his head in acknowledgement of her success, then stepped aside so that she could open the door the rest of the way. As she strolled into the greatroom he bent to put the heavy doorknob on the floor as a doorstop.

“Hey!” she exclaimed, hurrying toward the hearth. Steed followed.

Two boxes sat side by side on the hearth, small gift cards inscribed with EP and JS dangling from ribbons. Steed smiled at her final trick. He had to admit that she’d contrived a very diverting holiday adventure. She knelt down on the wolf pelt rug and picked up her present. He joined her, examining the card on his in the faint light of the fire. On the reverse side was inscribed “from Santa.”

He smiled at Emma and was surprised the see the baffled expression on her face. She’s acting. Play along.

“Shall we open them?” he asked.

“It’s a day early,” she replied, turning the small box in its bright red paper over in her hands.

“But they were delivered to us here. Aren’t you the least bit curious? In my family we’re allowed to open one present a day early.”

Emma turned her most adoring smile on him, then slipped the ribbon off of the box in her hands. I’ve no idea how he arranged it, she thought. But it’s typical Steed. He probably even knew that the door would stick while his delivery boy was here.

While she unwrapped her gift Steed retrieved one of the oil lamps and lit it with a fireplace match. He set it on the hearth and watched as Emma opened the unwrapped box.

She drew aside sheets of white tissue to reveal dark green leather. Smiling with childish excitement, she turned the box over so that the single small book came out in her hand.

“Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” she read from the spine of the slipcovered volume. She slid the book out of its box and opened it. “A 1930 edition,” she added, reading the publisher’s information. Then she turned to the page in the middle of the book where the bound in marker ribbon lay.

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,

Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,

She paused and looked expectantly at Steed – after all, he must have placed the marker on this page. He didn’t fail her. Peering into the glowing embers he recited the next lines:

Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d,
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.

How, he wondered, did she manage to pick one of the few sonnets that sticks in my head from prep-school?

She read the rest in a voice warmed by her smile:

Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv’d;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv’d:
For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

“Bravo!” he said, reaching up to stroke her cheek with the back of his hand. She leaned into his caress and he turned his hand over to cup her face, then drew her close for a kiss.

“Open yours,” she urged him when they parted. He picked up the package wrapped in green. The wrapping came off to reveal a white box marked with Waterman on the top. He opened it and removed a hinged wooden box, which he opened to reveal a sleek gold pen.

“Beautiful,” she breathed as he lifted the writing instrument from it’s cushion. It was heavy – it must be solid gold.

“Yes,” he agreed, removing the cap to reveal the delicate golden nib of a fountain pen.

“No poison gas?” she asked with a sly smile. He chuckled, understanding her reference to the pen he’d given hear a year ago. What a weak gift that was! He thought unhappily. And how lovely of her to counter it this way.

“You could write a Christmas greeting in the front of my book,” she suggested, opening it to the title page.

“That would devalue it, my dear,” he pointed out. She shook her head, holding it out to him.

“I never intend to sell it, John,” she said. “Write something to remind me of this moment.”

Steed took the book and stared for a moment at the yellowed page. He could not claim to be presenting the book to her, but he did want to acknowledge this remarkable holiday in a very personal way. Suddenly inspired, he put pen to page and wrote:

My darling Emma, thank you for a most joyous Christmas – JS.

He handed the book back to her and a smile as joyous as his words suffused her face as she read his inscription. She closed the book and slid it into its box while he replaced the cap on his pen.

“Let’s go back to bed,” she suggested, rising and holding out her hand.

“That should hold it, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, patting the final knot on the rope securing her Christmas tree in the back of the Bentley. It hung out over the boot at an acute angle, so Emma had tied a scrap of red cloth that she kept in her car for just this purpose to the tip.

“Thank you Steed. I knew the old girl would come through,” she replied. “Shall I lead you out, or did you study the map thoroughly yesterday?”

“I’m completely familiar with the roads,” Steed replied, opening the door and getting in behind the wheel. Emma trotted back to her own car and got in. Maneuvering it out onto the road she paused next to the Bentley when Steed motioned with his hand for her to wait.

“By the way Mrs. Peel, it was devilishly clever of you to hire the toy store Santa to warn me, even though I didn’t grasp his meaning at the time,” Steed said. Then he disengaged the handbrake and hit the accelerator, pleased with himself for having caught her out.

Behind him Emma frowned in puzzlement as she watched the big old car with the tree sticking up pull away. What toy store Santa? she wondered.

CIV

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d,
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv’d;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv’d:
For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

CII

My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear;
That love is merchandised, whose rich esteeming,
The owner’s tongue doth publish every where.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops his pipe in growth of riper days:
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
Therefore like her, I sometime hold my tongue:
Because I would not dull you with my song.

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