The Stampedes

Steed Feels the Pressure Mounting,

Emma Goes for a Ride

Chapter 1

Charles Pinechester, World Cup champion, was riding Harpsichord to a sure victory. His nearest competition was two lengths behind and the last three obstacles were a breeze for the big, chestnut stallion. They plunged around a blind turn, horse and rider a perfect team. Charles crouched over Harpsichord’s neck, communicating with his horse through tiny movements of his hands holding the reins and weight shifts. Harpsichord focused on the racecourse just ahead, trusting his rider to signal him in time for the next jump and to guide him to victory. Neither team member had time to react to the unexpected obstacle on the track as they rounded the turn. A huge black and white animal charged at them, powerful hooves tearing up the turf, head lowered, short horns angled at Harpsichord’s heaving chest.

Horse and cow slammed into one another, the cow driving the horse down onto his side. The tremendous impact threw Charles twenty feet away where he lay dazed, shoulder aching, watching the cow gore at his horse’s ribs over and over again until the animal’s face dripped with blood.

* * *

Just as he did every morning, Carl Moore was fantasizing about the beach house he was going to retire to as he strode across the farmyard to the barn. He slid aside the simple bar on the barn door and swung open one side.

He was knocked to the ground before he could react. A heavy brown milk cow thundered past him, then swung around faster than seemed possible and charged back at him. His last sight was of the beast’s dripping nostrils as she trampled his legs and gored his chest with her short, hooked horns.

* * *

Gerald Finch, a man of means, finished his steak dinner and set his fork at the edge of his plate. Then he leaped up, stepped from his chair to the table and ran its length, lunging at his wife with his steak knife raised.

Screaming, she deflected him with her dinner plate. Gerald soared past her and landed on the floor with a thump. His wife fled from the dining room still holding the shards of broken dinner plate.

* * *

Emma Peel stood in a dusty, dim attic holding a clipboard. She flipped through the pages clipped to the board and checked off an item, then bent down to grab the edge of a drop cloth covering a rectangular object that was probably a painting. She drew off the cloth to reveal an ornate frame, but instead of an old master the canvas was painted with a simple phrase: “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed.”

On cue, John Steed stepped out from behind a huge chest-on-chest. Emma grinned and walked toward him. He grinned back, tipping his hat to her as she approached. She set her clipboard on a box and stopped in front of Steed, her hands reaching up to slide around his neck. His own arms slipped around her instinctively.

“It’s been weeks!” she said, bringing her face close to his.

“I’ve been traveling. And it appears,” he glanced around, then back at her, “you have been busy.”

“Very,” she acknowledged, “but not too busy for you. What’s happening?”

* * *

“My editor at Horse and Hound asked me to look into this incident,” Emma said, closing one of the reports that Steed had brought. They had moved to Emma’s office on the second floor of the big, old Peel house. Steed sat in one of a pair of padded leather chairs, Emma rose from the one across from him and strode over to her desk, which sat adjacent to a second, neater desk. She hunted around in the papers on her desk, found what she was after and returned to her chair.

“There were two similar incidents. In this one,” she tapped the report covering Charles Pinechester and Harpsichord, then looked at the draft of her article. Her expression turned sad. She glanced up at Steed, “champion horse and rider. They had to put him down.”

“The rider?” Steed’s eyebrows raised in mock alarm. Emma smiled.

“The horse. In the other one both were saved and the cow was shot by a course monitor. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I wasn’t thrilled about pursuing this for H and H, but I needed a break from all this,” she gestured around the room, meaning the entire estate. Steed nodded understanding, so she went on. “I found seven other incidents, involving other farm animals, both on the tracks and at farms and ranches. Not including these,” she held up the other files he’d brought.

“So you agree that it’s peculiar?”

“Very.”

* * *

The green Bentley sped along a country lane with a high hedge on one side and plowed field on the other. Steed glanced at his companion and smiled. The ends of Emma’s auburn hair fluttered out from beneath the colorful scarf she’d tied over her head.

“Sixteen of the eighteen farms where the incidents have occurred get some of their feed from this distributor,” he told her, slowing as they approached an intersection.

“They checked out – everything above board with permits and insurance,” she said. She’d read the ministry report on Twill and Merchant Quality Feeds that morning over coffee in Steed’s flat.

The previous afternoon he’d waited while she packed a few things and gave instructions to the staff. Then they’d returned to London and the ministry where they’d compared her research to Steed’s and made some calls to fill in the holes. The name of Twill and Merchant had come up over and over, so they’d set the ministry’s researchers on it. Then they’d stepped out to a quiet supper and ended up back at Steed’s flat. And they’d talked. They’d reminisced about past cases that this reminded them of, then they’d remembered parties they’d been to, and trips they’d taken together. Early in the morning Steed had lead her up the spiral staircase and bundled her into his bed where they giggled over non-sensical memories until they both drifted off to sleep.

Today Emma felt as if she was starting over. Second chances were rare, and she intended to make the right choices in her relationship with Steed this time. But first there was the case to be solved.

Steed pulled into a sizeable parking area and parked the Bentley far from the Twill and Merchant building. It was a warehouse-like structure with one undersized door near the left end. There were two cars, three pickup trucks, and a Rover parked near the building. There were several smaller buildings – storage sheds from the look of them – along the right side of the parking area. The buildings were surrounded by fields, and a grain elevator rose like a giraffe behind the warehouse.

“Well?” Emma asked, watching Steed study the buildings from the driver’s seat. He raised one hand to silence her, turning to look at the driveway. A van turned into the lot and drove toward one of the storage sheds. The van’s sides were decorated with a cartoonish farmyard image and writing in French. The driver got out of the left side and walked around to the back.

“Delivery from the continent,” Steed said. “Can you make out the writing?”

“It looks like ‘Agricultural Technologies,'” she replied, “en français, of course.”

The driver of the van unloaded three tall metal canisters onto a hand truck and wheeled them into the nearest storage shed. Then he drove the van over near the door in the warehouse and went inside.

“After he leaves, you go see what you can find out about what he delivered. I’ll see what I can learn inside.”

“Check,” Emma said, winking at him when he glanced at her.

The van driver came out of the building, got in the van, and drove out of the lot. As it disappeared, Steed and Emma both climbed out of the Bentley.

* * *

Emma skirted the parking area, hoping that her deep green cat suit blended in with the hedge that separated it from the road. The shed where the van had unloaded had a small sign on it that said “Additives.” The door was locked, but with a simple locking handle. Emma put her back to the door and glanced around the quiet parking area.

“Foolish of them not to have a few windows,” she muttered as she looked at the vast warehouse wall. Smiling to herself, she raised her right leg and slammed the heel of her green leather boot into the door just below the handle. Without turning, she reached behind herself and twisted the handle again. The door opened, and she slipped through and closed it behind herself.

The interior of the shed was gloomy, lit from above by a dirty skylight. Emma spotted the new canisters at the near end of a row along one wall. She stooped to examine them, reading the French label that identified the contents as a vitamin supplement. She unscrewed the lid on one canister and sniffed the contents. It smelled somewhere between rotting vegetation and yeast. Emma had no idea what vitamin supplement should smell like. She pulled a small vial out from where she’d tucked it into her wide belt and sank it into the viscous fluid to fill it. She capped it, capped the canister, and slipped back out of the shed. She checked the parking area to be sure she was unobserved, then closed the shed door. She paused near the thick hedge to wipe her hands on some leaves, then returned to the Bentley. She had just climbed in when Steed emerged from the warehouse.

* * *

“There was a receptionist,” Steed explained as he drove them back toward London. “I told her I was an inspector and demanded to see the man in charge.”

“Person.”

“Humm?”

“How do you know there’s a man in charge?”

Steed frowned at her, “Now look here, Mrs. Peel. In the farm business, there aren’t many women in charge.”

“All right, all right, go on.”

“So the receptionist, quite a lovely thing, actually – .”

“Ahem.”

“My job, you know, does sometimes require – that is, I sometimes find it easiest to achieve — .”

“Oh go on. You flirted with her. She was charmed and scampered off to find the boss for you.”

He sighed. “I convinced her of my authenticity. While she was away, I got a look at the manifest from the van,” he reached into his breast pocket and took out a slip of paper. “Here’s the address of Agricultural Technologies.”

Emma took the paper and read the address. “Oh goodie!” she said, smiling at Steed. He nodded and smiled back.

“Do you have everything you’ll need for Paris?”

Chapter 2

Emma had not packed an appropriate wardrobe for a visit to Paris, so Steed changed course and headed for the Peel estate. Once there she led him back up to her office where her secretary, Sally, was working at the neater desk.

“Good afternoon Madam,” Sally said, then noticed Steed following Emma and stared blatantly at him.

“Sally, this is John Steed. Steed, my secretary Sally Howard,” Emma walked over to her own desk as she spoke, her manner suddenly all business. He made a point of smiling warmly at Sally, who seemed unfazed by her employer’s formal manner. From behind her desk Emma addressed the young woman. “Sally, what are you working on?”

“Correspondence – the letters you dictated yesterday, plus RSVPs for the benefit on the twenty-eighth are coming in.”

Emma nodded thoughtfully, “take the rest of the day off – none of that is critical. I’m going to have to go away for a day or two — ,” she glanced at Steed, who shrugged, “perhaps for several days. You’ll have plenty of peace and quiet to finish those letters and take a crack at the seating plan for the benefit.”

Sally glanced at Steed, who maintained his warm smile, then back at her boss. “As you wish, madam. Thank you,” she said her voice expressing more curiosity than gratitude. As she collected her bag and took her jacket off the back of her chair Emma turned back to Steed.

“I’ll go pack. You can use my phone here,” she said, gesturing at the telephone on her desk. Steed looked at her over Sally’s shoulder – he had automatically taken the secretary’s jacket to help her put it on. At the sight of Emma’s raised eyebrows he stepped back from the young woman, who turned, smiled shyly at him, and slipped past him out of the office.

Emma stepped out from behind her desk and stopped in front of him.

“I hired Sally after Peter was arrested. I needed someone to answer the phone and deflect the press. She’s quite bright and she’s the daughter of my handyman. Please keep in mind that the staff here talks to their families, who talk to the people in the village — .”

“Who talk to their employers, your neighbors. Wouldn’t want to have a scandal,” he went on, smiling impishly to cover his surprise at her annoyance.

She frowned at him, not amused. “My divorce is not final. Peter is not lacking for legal representation, and they’ll do anything they can to discredit me.”

“Emma,” Steed took both of her hands in his and brought them up to his lips. She tried to maintain her stern attitude, but his gallantry always either melted her or made her giggle. Right now she was leaning toward melting. “I understand your desire to protect your reputation. But you hardly need Sir Peter’s financial support. Why press for anything in the settlement?”

Emma shrugged, staring at their entwined hands, then looking into his eyes. “Principle. He’s a criminal. You’re right about the money, but I want a clean break from him.”

Steed nodded, then squeezed her hands as he leaned close to place a delicate kiss on her lips. “I want you to have a clean break from him, too,” he said.

That did it. She freed her hands from his grasp and slipped them up his broad shoulders and around his neck. When her lips captured his, his arms slid around her drawing his firm body against hers. He eagerly returned her kiss. She reveled in his strength, the way the feel of his strong body made her feel stronger, too.

“For a moment,” Steed said at last, putting a few inches between them, “I thought someone had possessed you. Was that Emma Peel, business woman?”

“Yes. It’s time you met her, she’s likely to be around a bit more in future.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. But right now, Emma Peel, secret agent, needs to pack for Paris. Then there’s that sample to analyze. Shouldn’t you be checking in and booking flights?” She pulled away from him, pushing him slightly toward her desk.

Emma stepped out onto the back terrace and scanned the twilit grounds looking for Steed. She spotted him walking at the far edge of the sunken rose garden and set off toward him, the full skirt of her silky red dress swishing around her legs above strappy heeled sandals. He saw her coming and met her half way, raising his hands as she neared him, a single red rose extended. She smiled and took it, holding it to her face to inhale its delicate scent.

“That substance is made up of more compounds than I can identify,” she said, stepping to his side and slipping her arm through his to walk with him back toward the house.

“Any clues?” he asked.

“Well, it does seem to be vitamins, but there are other things. One of which looks like a virus.”

Steed’s eyebrows rose in alarm and she smiled reassuringly.

“Don’t worry, I wore my rubber gloves,” she said, wiggling her fingers in front of herself. But she was also glad she’d made Steed stop at a pub shortly after they left Twill and Merchant so she could wash her hands.

“We’ll need to get it to the ministry for analysis, the sooner the better,” he said thoughtfully.

“I thought we might stay here tonight and drive in tomorrow in time for our flight,” she said, her gaze drifting across the back façade of the house, its many windows softly reflecting the evening light. Steed stopped, turning slightly toward her. She smiled at him, her eyes sparkling like the windows, her lips colored to match her dress.

“Despite what the staff might stay?” he asked.

“There are many bedrooms,” she replied coyly. He couldn’t stifle a laugh. “After all, we’re hoping to make it an inn.”

“And that’s what you’ve been so busy with,” he added. She nodded. “Why you? I mean, it’s his family estate.”

“I’m very fond of Peter’s parents. They have always been kind to me. They’re very – old world. The process of taking this from an underused house to an inn and conference center is beyond them – the inspections, the inventories, the lawyers and investors. Peter betrayed them as much as me, and they understand it less. I can help make this place into something that will carry the Peel name forward. I want to do that for them.”

Steed nodded, his arm sliding around her to pull her to his side and walk with her. “They probably had something else in mind from you, to carry their name forward,” he said. She snorted and covered her face with her free hand.

“Probably!” she finally managed through giggles, “but since Peter was gone for several years, that was hardly possible!”

They walked a few steps in silence before he spoke, “would you have?”

“Have what?” she stared at his profile, but he didn’t look at her or answer. Then realization dawned. She took a deep breath. “Oh. Probably. It was what was expected.”

A few steps later they were at the edge of the sunken garden. They climbed the five steps up to the lawn and Steed stopped and turned to look back at the roses, nearly invisible now in the darkness. Emma noted that the gardener had followed her instructions and turned off the timer on the garden lights to help reduce electricity costs. Steed squeezed her hand as he began to speak.

“There’s an opening at the ministry, for a supervisory position,” he said. “Less travel, less danger — .”

“No, Steed.” He turned to look at her, his face in shadow. “Please don’t take it,” she added.

“Emma,” he said, his hands grasping her upper arms, “you are more important to me than this job. My work puts you in danger.”

“Steed, I usually find my own danger, thank you. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, I am capable of defending myself. You’d be miserable behind a desk. Don’t you dare do it ‘for me.'”

“It’s just that if we’re – involved – you’re in greater danger, whether you’re working with me or not.”

“I’m your weak spot,” she concurred, eyes flashing at him, capturing and reflecting the starlight. She took his breath away. Her challenging look seemed to say deal with it.

“You are many things to me, Emma Peel, but a weak spot is not one of them,” he said at last, reaching up to caress the side of her face. She leaned into his touch, her expression softening.

“Hadn’t we better get going?” she asked, “to the ministry with the sample?”

And that’s why I love her, Steed thought as he took her hand and they walked briskly into the house to gather her things. Romantic, feminine, brilliant, and a spy through and through.

“Wow,” Emma sighed as a liveried doorman opened the glass door of the hotel lobby. Steed followed her across the stone floor to the desk.

“Bonjour Madame, Monsieur, welcome to the Pavillon de la Reine,” an impeccably groomed male clerk greeted them in delicately accented English. Emma rarely appreciated Parisians who spoke to her in English. It always seemed as if they were showing off that they could recognize a Brit at twenty paces.

“Good afternoon. John Steed and Lady Emma Peel,” Steed said, placing his bowler on the counter. His French was a good as Emma’s, but his philosophy was that if English is good enough for her highness, it’s good enough for the French. The clerk examined a reservation book, then opened a drawer and removed two keys on big, plastic tags. Emma drifted across the cavernous lobby while Steed finalized the check-in. On closer inspection, the lobby lost some of its impressiveness. The huge oils on the walls were only adequate reproductions, the striped upholstery fabrics seemed ever so slightly shrill, and the beams did not seem authentic. Emma amused herself by trying to decide whether they were indeed decorative or structural. She had just about settled on decorative and started to wonder why they had bothered when Steed beckoned to her, heading for an elevator with a porter in tow.

The porter showed them their adjoining rooms and indicated a shared shower just down the hall. Emma’s eyebrows shot up at this, catching Steed’s eye. He frowned as well, then tipped the porter to dismiss him.

“I don’t object to the shower down the hall,” Emma explained, “But this does seem like a rather high-end establishment for it.”

“Indeed,” Steed nodded, opening the curtains in his room to look out at the street below. The narrow, uneven sidewalks of this very old neighborhood were fairly crowded with pedestrians. The only vehicle on the little street was a small black sedan idling near the curb. A man dressed in the hotel livery was leaning into the passenger side window. “I’ll withhold my judgment for the time being, but I’m not impressed.”

Emma crossed the room to stand beside him and survey the street below. The porter straightened and gave a little wave as the car drove away. Probably giving directions, Steed decided.

“So? Do we have a plan?” Emma drew his attention to her.

Steed produced the slip of paper with the address and held it up. “I had the ministry pinpoint this on a map,” he said. “It’s over near the Trocadero.”

“Good, then you can meet me after you check it out,” she leaned close and planted a kiss on his cheek, then swung around and headed for her room.

“Mrs. Peel?” Steed stared at her retreating back.

“I have an errand to run, Steed,” her voice emerged from the other room. “You can find the office and meet me, and we’ll decide what to do next,” she returned to his room with her handbag and a piece of paper from the bedside pad. “Here’s the address. I’ll see you in a couple hours?”

And she was gone, grinning at him as she shut the door to his room. Steed glanced at the paper before he folded it and put it in his pocket. The address looked vaguely familiar, but he was too vexed with her to think about it. An errand! Did she think he’d brought her to Paris so she could go shopping?

Steed exited the Metro at the Trocadero station and consulted the neighborhood map. He crossed the street to get away from the tourists visiting the Trocadero for the view it afforded of the Eiffel Tower. He walked southwest past a car dealership and two apartment buildings. The neighborhood was turning decidedly residential, which did not bode well for a business address, particularly a business that distributes farm animal feed additives.

In the next block, the scenery changed. The ground floors of the apartment buildings housed small businesses. He passed a doctor’s office and a boulangerie, and paused outside a small gallery displaying erotic primitives. He turned away still smiling privately and glanced up at the street number on the next shop. It matched his slip of paper. He looked in the storefront window, wondering if the building housed offices in addition to the store. Then he saw it: the shop was a mailing center – a business that provided mail boxes and mail handling services.

“Blast,” he muttered. Then he took a deep breath, pocketed the slip of paper, and opened the shop door.

“Bonjour Monsieur,” a portly, middle-aged woman wearing print dress acknowledged him.

“Bonjour,” he replied, removing his hat. “Je recherche cette — ,” he paused, fishing the slip of paper from his pocket, “um, this company,” he allowed his French to disintegrate, and sent the woman an apologetic smile accompanied by his best imitation of a Gaelic shrug. She took the paper and lifted glasses that hung on a chain around her neck.

“Ah, oui,” she said, nodding and handing back the paper. “Nous acceptons leur courrier.” She peered at him, trying to determine whether he understood. He looked blank. She frowned, then walked along the counter and stepped out at the end. She went to a wall of metal letterboxes and patted one of them, looking at Steed inquiringly. “Voici leur lettres.”

Steed looked from her to the box she was patting then allowed understanding to dawn on his face. She smiled triumphantly, and he smiled back.

“Mais où est.. ah, their, their bureau?” he stammered. She shrugged.

“Ils viennent chercher leur courrier ici,” she replied, patting the box again. Then she shrugged again and walked back behind the counter. “Peut-être si vous leur écriviez..” she added.

Steed was flummoxed. He could fluently demand that she check her billing records for who paid for the mailbox. But then she might just mention the curious Englishman the next time someone came to retrieve the mail. As things stood, she’d forget the tourist struggling with the language as soon as he was gone. He decided to leave it that way, tipped his hat to her, and left.

“Write to them!” he muttered as he paused outside the boulangerie down the block. “Write to them,” he repeated, a slow smile curling his lips. He took another look at the shops in the area and spotted what he needed. Shortly he was seated at a small table in the boulangerie, a café crème and delightful little pastry beside a sheet of writing paper and a bright red envelope.

He held his Mont Blanc poised above the page for a moment, pondering what to write, then set it down and folded the paper. Why write anything? It was the bright envelope that mattered. He took a sip of his coffee and a bite of his pastry, then took up his pen and addressed the envelope.

When he’d finished his snack, he posted the envelope and, locating the paper Mrs. Peel had given him, found a taxi stand.

“Vingt-quatre Faubourg Saint-Honoré,” he told the driver, staring at the address as he said it. Why was it so familiar?

The taxi stopped on the wide boulevard across from the address. As he straightened and looked across the street he felt downright silly. When the traffic slowed he crossed the street. The doorman nodded as he pulled open the shop door for Steed. The differences between this shop and the one he’d just come from only started with the doorman. Steed took a deep breath of scented air. This shop, which he’d visited often, was something of a Mecca for the sophisticated gentleman or lady. Now where would Emma be?

He strolled past the scarf counter where a proper, unsmiling sales lady methodically unfolded and refolded beautiful silk squares for tourists. Emma was not among them. No, he thought, she could get a scarf at the London store. Through a doorway he caught a glimpse of another sales lady offering a bottle of scent for a man to sniff. Women’s perfume – she could also get that in London. He wandered on, forcing himself not to pause in the tie department with an admonishment that he did not need another one, no matter how clever the pattern. He turned right past luggage – no Emma there, and came to another doorway on his left.

“Yes, it’s fine,” she was saying. He leaned against the doorframe and watched her caress the seat of a saddle. A male clerk stood nearby, hands folded patiently, expression bland. She turned toward him and his face lit up, suddenly anxious to serve. Steed smirked, but didn’t’ interrupt. “I’ll take it, but I don’t believe I need the leather conditioners,” she said. The clerk nodded and reached past her to lift the saddle off of the wooden display frame.

Steed stepped in, clearing his throat. Emma and the clerk both looked at him, Emma smiling happily.

“Steed! You found me,” she said, stepping close to kiss him on the cheek. The clerk turned away.

“Yes,” he replied, “and you might have just told me what shop – I know where it is.”

She shrugged and cast him a playful smile, “it was more fun this way. How long did it take you to recognize it?” Then she turned to the clerk, who had produced a sales slip for her to sign.

“Merci, Madame,” he said, handing her a copy. “I will have it delivered to your hotel this afternoon. And here is this,” he handed her a tall, thin orange bag.

“Merci,” Emma replied, then turned back to Steed. She took his arm and steered him out the doorway and on through the rest of the store.

“Well?” she asked once they were on the street.

“I did not make the connection until I got here, I’m sorry to admit,” he admitted.

She laughed. “What about the other address? You were probably too focused on that.”

“I found it,” he said cagely.

“And?”

“Let’s walk,” he replied, guiding her in the general direction of the Seine.

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” she said.

“It’s more fun this way.”

They turned left, heading in the general direction of the Louvre. Behind them, a black sedan pulled out of a parking space and passed them.

“So had you planned on buying that saddle?” Steed asked after they’d walked for a few minutes.

“Yes. In fact I had spoken to that very clerk about it last week. I called him yesterday to arrange to pick it up, rather than having it shipped.”

“There are many fine saddles for sale in England,” Steed said. He had not seen the price on the saddle, but he imagined that it was the equivalent of a small motorcar.

“Yes, but not like that one. It’s rated very highly, despite being sold by a Paris boutique. They got their start as a saddlery, you know.”

“Yes, I was aware.”

They walked on in comfortable silence for a while longer, enjoying the late afternoon bustle, noticing that the bars and cafes were starting to attract clientele. Emma would have liked to stop at one and watch life go by for a little while, but Steed seemed to have a goal in mind. At last her feet starting to complain about the hard pavement so she decided to ask.

“I thought we might have an early dinner,” he replied, acknowledging with a wink that he had not answered her question.

“Very early, it’s only just six,” she agreed.

“We could start off with drinks,” he suggested.

“And a discussion of the plan?” she asked pointedly.

“And that, yes. Here, we’re almost there,” he said, steering her toward a wide porte cochere through a building. Emma realized that they had reached the Louvre and were passing into the courtyard.

They turned left once in the courtyard and Steed guided her to a set of steps between columns along the side of the building. A hostess guarded the top of the steps.

“Bonsoir Madame, Monsieur,” she greeted them brightly.

“We have a reservation for dinner later,” Steed said. “Perhaps we could have a drink outside?”

She nodded and looked along the terrace crowded with tiny tables and glamorous people. “Oui, Monsieur. I can seat you. What time is your dinner reservation?”

“Seven thirty.”

“Well then,” she glanced at each of them, “You shall enjoy one or two leisurely drinks, yes?”

“Yes!” Emma replied. She could easily relax here and wait for dinner.

A man dressed in black jeans and a leather jacket, a leather cap pulled down so that the brim shaded his eyes, strode out from the porte cochere and paused to light a cigarette. He studied the diners along the terrace as he took a long drag, his gaze pausing very briefly on Steed and Emma. Then the turned and walked across the courtyard to a bench where he sat smoking.

“So do you really think your envelope will be delivered to that box tomorrow?” Emma asked as they entered Steed’s room later that evening. Their dinner at Café Marly had been good, but not spectacular. They had agreed that the restaurant’s reputation was based on its location. Nonetheless, Steed had enjoyed exploring their cellar, ordering three half bottles to go with the various courses of their meal. Consequently, Emma went directly to the bottle of water on a dresser in Steed’s room and poured herself a glass.

“I have great respect for the French postal system,” Steed replied, joining her for a glass of water. “It could. More importantly, even if it isn’t we may be able to identify someone checking that box, if we have a good vantage point.”

He took his water to the window and opened it to let in the sounds of the Parisian evening. The Marais, the neighborhood of their hotel, was a lively place long into the evening. Emma joined him, sitting on the edge of the windowsill, her back to the street.

“And did you see any likely vantage points? An empty building across the street, for example?” she asked, half joking.

“Unfortunately not. So first thing tomorrow I’ll rent a car.”

“Ah, a mobile command post?”

“Exactly.”

“Oh!” she jumped up, setting her glass on the windowsill.

“Mrs. Peel! Did something — ,” Steed frowned at her. She headed for the door to her room.

“My saddle – they didn’t mention whether it arrived when we came in,” she said. She unlocked and opened the door, then stepped into the doorway and felt around on the wall for a light switch. “Steed?”

Her voice sounded quite stressed. Steed set down his water glass and hurried to her.

Her room was a mess. Her bag had been overturned, her clothes scattered. She had not had time to unpack, but the empty dresser drawers had been pulled out anyway. In one corner, a large box had been turned on its side and torn open. Emma rushed to it, crouching to inspect her new saddle.

“Is it – ?” Steed hesitated to say “damaged.” Although Emma could afford such an item, it would be very upsetting to find it destroyed before even using it. She rocked back onto her heels, then rose, the saddle in her hands.

“It’s fine,” she said, turning to him with a sheepish look on her face. He smiled reassuringly, then surveyed the rest of the room.

“I’ll just call and find out what time they delivered the saddle,” he said. “You see if there’s anything missing.”

She set the saddle on the bed and started gathering her clothes. She had put most of them back in order when he returned.

“They say they brought the saddle up at seven o’clock. I asked them to find the porter who brought it and ask about the room.”

“Surely if he found the room like this he’d have reported it,” she said. Steed shook his head.

“They see all kinds in hotels, this may not be that bad.”

Emma folded her last blouse and set it back into her suitcase. Steed noted that she had not unpacked into the dresser, but repacked into her bag. “So why,” she said, “did someone ransack my room and not yours?”

“Simple, Mrs. Peel. They’re not after me.”

Chapter 3

Steed signed the rental agreement and listened to the clerk’s directions to the car park, then gestured to Emma to follow him out of the train station. They crossed a side street and found the stairs to the underground garage, climbing down two flights and emerging in a well-lit space with a bright red rental car sign suspended over a glass-fronted office. Rows of parked cars filled the rest of the large space. Steed presented the contract to an attendant, who directed them to their car.

“We should reach the neighborhood just before opening time,” Steed said as he started the car and backed it out of its parking space. “I’ll take the first watch, if you like. You can go follow up on the company, then join me for lunch.”

“All right,” Emma replied.

The hotel porter had insisted that Emma’s room was in order when he put the saddle there around seven p.m. Steed had asked various hotel staff members about strangers in the building in the evening, but he had so little to go on the line of questioning was fruitless.

Back in his room, Emma had locked the adjoining door and slid a large chair in front of it. This seemed uncharacteristically cautious of her, but she had been a bit insecure since she’d walked back into his life a month ago. He intended to change that, although he realized that meant resisting the urge to let her lean on him. With her there in his room, pacing about like a cat, his resolve quickly melted. He caught her mid-pace and led her to the bed, pulling her down into a cuddling embrace. Her body was tense, her breathing shallow. She stared at the ceiling, clearly unwilling to make eye contact with him.

“Did you ask the porter if he ransacked my room?” she asked. He frowned.

“I hadn’t considered anything that direct,” he replied, remembering the bellman that afternoon leaning into the car window down on the street. It could have been the same man who delivered the package. He reached up and gently caressed a lock of hair away from Emma’s face. “But it’s possible. Even so, I don’t think any of the hotel staff is out to get you.”

“You think it’s my husband,” she said, her tone indicating that it was what she thought. He had to admit she was right, so he decided not to answer.

He stroked her face, applying gentle pressure to her temples and running his fingers into her hair. Her breathing slowed as she closed her eyes. He studied her perfect skin, drawing his thumb across her mouth. She sighed, lips parting ever so slightly. Steed inhaled a deep breath of her intoxicating scent and let his mouth follow his thumb, gently kissing her. His hand drifted down to cup her breast and she sighed again, shifting to face him.

“If it was someone sent by Peter,” she whispered, “there was nothing to find in my room.”

Nor is there anything now, Steed thought as he allowed himself to become completely absorbed in her kiss.

She seemed her old self again in the morning, rising before him to work through a series of stretches, which he watched surreptitiously from the bed, and then venturing down the hall to the shower. They’d breakfasted on baguettes, croissants, butter, jam, and coffee at a neighborhood café, then made their way to the station to rent the car.

Steed found a parking space on the street across from the mailing shop. He shifted to find a comfortable position in the driver’s seat then opened a newspaper that he’d picked up that morning, holding it on the steering wheel. It helped conceal him from pedestrians on the sidewalk, but allowed him full view of the shop. Seeing that he had settled in, Emma leaned close to kiss him on the cheek then opened her door and got out. She leaned back in to say, “I’ll be back at noon.”

Emma spent the morning making the rounds of French government offices inquiring about Agricultural Technologies. She learned that it was incorporated in France, and that it was a private company, so its stock was not traded on the Bourse – the French stock market. She located the names of its president and secretary, who was doubtlessly also its corporate attorney.

She was surprised not to find any address for it other than the mailing shop. She was fairly certain that French law required that the company’s actual location where business was conducted be registered. It meant that someone involved with the company had bureaucratic connections. She mentioned this to Steed over lunch and he laughed.

“Mrs. Peel, every businessman in France has ‘bureaucratic connections.’ There’d be no cutting through the red tape if they didn’t,” he sliced at the air with two fingers, “But it does signify something sinister: that perhaps they don’t want to be found,” he conceded.

Steed took the afternoon to meet with various contacts, including the ministry’s Parisian man. Who was, in fact, a woman.

“Well, Steed, you might have let me in on this before coming over here,” Tara King sat stiffly in a chair in the Palais Royal garden. Seated in another chair set with its back half turned to hers, Steed crossed his legs and snapped his newspaper.

“It was very sudden,” he replied. “Have you had an opportunity to look into it at all?”

“Yes, of course I have. The notion that the French are sabotaging English livestock got our attention immediately.”

“And?”

“As your Lady Emma has doubtlessly already learned, the company is private and not very well documented,” Tara stared off in a direction exactly opposite Steed as she mentioned Emma. Steed was not at all surprised that Tara was already aware of Emma’s morning investigations.

“Can you add anything to that?” he asked, forcing himself to remain patient. He knew he’d hurt Tara, even though he also didn’t believe she had a right to be hurt that he’d chosen to pursue his relationship with Emma. And she had recovered admirably, accepting this posting to Paris and throwing herself into her work here.

“François Durrand  **, the company president, is a member of a very old French family. They own a great deal of land in the Loire valley where they grow grapes and sunflowers, and raise cattle,” Tara reached into her tote bag and produced a large, unmarked envelope. It slipped clumsily from her hand and fell on the ground near Steed’s feet. He glanced around the park then bent to pick it up and fold it into his paper.

“Anything else?” he asked, leaning forward with his hands on his knees as if preparing to rise.

“Yes. There’s someone following Lady Emma.”

“I thought so,” he replied, sitting back in his chair. “Tell me.”

“Not much to tell. A man, slender, medium height dressed in black just like half the rest of Paris. Brown hair, but wearing a hat so it’s hard to see his face. He drives a grey scooter.”

“When did your people spot him?”

“This morning. Why?”

“Someone ransacked her room last evening.”

“Her room?”

“Yes, Tara, Mrs. Peel’s room.”

“Oh. Well, Steed, at least that makes it clear it’s her they’re interested in. . .”

“Do me a favor?” he asked, preparing to rise again.

“Of course,” she replied, her tone ever so cool.

“Have him picked up – for loitering or something. Then let me have a few minutes with him.”

“I’ll see what I can do, Steed. We don’t run the Paris police, you know.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

The Agricultural Technologies letter box remained unopened that day. When the shop closed Emma drove the rental car back to the hotel and handed it over to a valet to deal with.

She opened the door to her room very cautiously, but found it unmolested and empty – her belongings were still in Steed’s room. He was not there, so she took the opportunity to check in with Sally and take care of some business matters back home.

Out of habit, she unscrewed the telephone mouthpiece and inspected it for extra electronics, but found nothing. She felt stiff after sitting all afternoon, so she stretched, then began to work though a series of Kung Fu exercises. By the time she’d completed them she felt energized and she could hear Steed in his room next door.

Steed omitted Tara’s name from his report to Emma about the meeting. She took the news about being followed in stride.

“I suspected,” she said, “I thought I saw the same man several times this morning.”

“I’ve asked them to pick him up. I’ll have a word with him.”

“It might be better not to let him know that we know.”

Steed thought about it, then shook his head, “I want to know for sure he’s working for your husband. I’ll be careful about what I say.”

“I have a better idea. If they pick him up, I’ll talk to him. This is my business. It’s better if you stay out of it.”

Steed nodded, fully agreeing with her. His involvement was exactly what Peter Peel would want to find in order to discredit Emma.

The next day Emma took the morning shift outside the shop while Steed looked into François Durrand. A morning spent on the telephone failed to earn him more than the name of the family château and some society page details about the man’s lifestyle. He was an unexceptional, wealthy French farmer who maintained a flat in Paris and a country house in the Loire. The château (do a search-replace for that one.. ;o), built in the 18th century, was open to the public for tours. It housed family treasures, and the adjoining kennels housed a pack of hunting dogs notable for its own lineage and size.

Disappointed by his lack of progress – nothing that he’d learned suggested that Francois Durrand should have a grudge against British farm animals – Steed met Emma for lunch then took over watching the shop. Emma went off to look into the hunt, an area in which she had more expertise than she cared to admit.

Steed had finished the New York Times crossword puzzle, the paper picked up at some expense from an International newsstand that morning, when he noticed a flash of red through the shop window. It wasn’t the first time, but each time in the previous day and a half it had been someone wearing red clothing. Nonetheless, he focused his attention of the shop door as it opened and a young woman came out. She was dressed in tweeds, with close-cropped blond hair. The only red he could see about her seemed to be in the bundle of letters she was holding.

Steed put his paper aside and reached for the car key, ready to start the engine. But the woman started off on foot toward the Trocadero. He did not want to be stuck in the car unable to park it. He removed the keys and got out, stepped to the front of the car and, glancing around to see if he was observed, slipped the keys on top of the front tire.

He straightened, tugged his suit coat into place, and set out after the woman.

The woman entered the Metro and Steed managed to follow, riding in the same car as her. They changed trains – inevitable with the Paris subway system — and eventually got off at the Gare d’Austerlitz. Steed placed himself in the ticket line behind the woman and purchased tickets for the same train and compartment, destination a town in the Loire.

Steed had a moment to call the hotel, but Emma was not in. There wasn’t time for her to join him before the train departed anyway, so he would have to try again later.

“Fascinating research,” Steed said when the young woman glanced away from her magazine and out the window. She looked across the compartment at him, expression bland.

“Breeding for the hunt,” he said. “Amazing advances recently.” He was winging it, basing his vague observations on a conversation he’d had with Emma the other day. She’d been lamenting that the editor at Horse and Hound had published the article on equine genetics written by a non-scientist.

“Yes,” she replied, her face softening. Although she had been reading the English magazine, she had a French accent. “You’re interested in the hunt?”

“Fascinated,” he replied, “champion animals, fine people, excellent parties . . .” he winked.

She chuckled, and he took it as a signal. He switched to the empty seat next to her, asking if she rode, if she had her own horse, and any other question he could think of to draw her out. She responded easily, describing a recent visit to England to ride with a famous hunt, and speaking fondly of her two horses. She explained that she was going to the Loire to participate in a hunt with a well-known dog pack. Her horses, she said, were already stabled there, at Château Champchevrier.

Steed relaxed, continuing the conversation while allowing a plan to form in the back of his head. By the time the train pulled into their destination, he had received an invitation to meet her after the hunt tomorrow. The post hunt cocktail party, she explained, would be a large event and he’d have no trouble slipping in, even if he didn’t ride. She had vaguely suggested the he could use her second horse if he cared to join, but he’d deflected the invitation. The last place he wanted to be was out riding if the chateau was to be mostly deserted and easily searched, and he could not think of a way to accept and then give the mount to Emma.

In the hotel lobby, Emma asked for the key to Steed’s room rather than her own and was given it without question. The phone was ringing as she entered the room.

“Mrs. Peel, I’m so glad I caught you,” Steed said.

“I’ve just come in,” she replied, sitting down on the bed and glancing at a note she’d been handed with the key.

“Pack all our things and check out. The car is outside the shop, keys on the left front tire. Someone picked up the mail and I followed her to the station. We took a train into the Loire.”

“We?”

“I had a pleasant chat with the young lady during the trip. Very enlightening.”

“All right. You’ll have to give me directions,” she looked again at the note, a wry smile curling the edges of her mouth. “And Steed, there’s a note for you here.”

“Yes? Read it to me, will you?”

“It says, ‘Steed, we have the item you requested. Call me as soon as you can.’ It’s signed ‘Tara,'” She smiled with satisfaction at the brief silence on the other end of the line.

“That would be your shadow,” he finally said. “They’ll just have to keep him for a day or two.”

“Are you sure? Perhaps I should call Miss King,” Emma said wickedly.

“I think it would be best if I take care of it,” he replied. “Now find a pencil. Here’s where you need to go,” Steed gave her basic instructions, which she jotted down. They both knew she’d get a map and have no trouble finding him.

“I’ll get there as quickly as I can, Steed,” she said. “Perhaps two hours. I’ll be expecting dinner.”

“Very well, the hotel has a fine little restaurant. I’ll make a late reservation. And Mrs. Peel, be sure to bring your saddle.”

Emma rang off, puzzled by his last instruction. As if she’d entrust the valuable item to the hotel or a locker some place! She packed their bags and slipped her saddle into the cotton bag that came with it, since the box was rather large. She checked out, agreeing that Steed would be billed for that night, and had them call her a taxi.

Thirty minutes after Steed’s call she got out of the taxi next to the rental car. She found the keys where Steed had left them and quickly loaded the luggage into the boot. Glancing around one last time, she got in the car and started the engine. If Tara really had caught the man who’d been following her, then she would have to thank her. Emma turned on the radio and hunted for some cheerful music to take her mind off of it.

Steed’s directions took her to a hotel in a small, quiet Loire village. She found a parking space on a narrow street around the corner and unloaded the car. Steed met her outside the hotel and took the bags from her, letting her keep the saddle. He led her through the small lobby and up a flight of stairs. In the upstairs corridor he hit a light switch with his elbow, then walked half way down to a door. He set down the bags to unlock the door then led her inside.

“They only had one room available,” he said, setting both bags on the bed and turning to face her. She set the saddle down on an uncomfortable looking chair and looked around.

“Cozy,” she said, then looked him in the eye. “It’s fortunate that Tara arrested my stalker. Now tell me about this new friend of yours, Pauline, was it?” Her eyes narrowed into a suspicious expression.

Steed glanced at his watch, “Let’s go downstairs – I got us the latest possible reservation and it would be rude to keep the kitchen waiting.” Emma nodded – she was rather hungry and the lobby had been suffused with very enticing food odors when they passed through.

The small dining room was occupied by one other couple several tables away. They were in the middle of their meal. Steed immediately ordered a bottle of very good local wine while Emma surveyed the menu.

“The woman who collected the mail will be riding in the Château Champchevrier hunt tomorrow,” Steed said when the waitress, a matronly woman who seemed to be the proprietress, had gone. “You’ll be riding too.”

“Really? I wasn’t aware I’d joined – I’m sure there’s an organization one must be a member of.”

“It’s been arranged. And so has a horse.”

“You’ve been busy.”

“Yes I have. A friend from down the valley is bringing one of his hunters for you first thing in the morning. You will be the guest of a minor member who’s connected to the Ministry.”

“I’ll need riding clothes – that’s one costume I didn’t pack.”

“Coming with the horse.”

“Right then, so why do I need to help chase down some innocent fox?”

“Mrs. Peel, the fox is hardly innocent! But in any case, your target will be Francios Durrand. Be your charming self. Express your need for good feed additives…”

“And see if he takes the bait, hummm?”

“Precisely.”

Chapter 4

Although the château was only a half-hour away, Steed and Emma departed the hotel at dawn in order to meet Steed’s friend and prepare the horse. For privacy, the friend had identified a pasture on the outskirts of a tiny village a mile or two from the Château. They found it easily and parked on a dirt farm road to wait. The sun was just beginning to burn off a pre-dawn mist. And the air smelled fresh and moist. Emma got out and leaned against the car, watching four cows chew on the grass in the pasture. Steed joined her, standing comfortably close. He was alternately thrilled and terrified by the level of intimacy they shared. Although she had protested the idea, he knew that in order to be with her he would have to change his lifestyle. The most disturbing part of it was that he wanted to. When he imagined himself managing field agents and coming home to evenings with Emma, he didn’t recoil from the image. He craved it.

“I don’t suppose these cows are fed Agricultural Technologies products,” she said, interrupting his train of thought. He looked at the French cows, which looked a great deal like every English cow he’d ever seen.

The sound of a truck motor rumbled through the morning calm and they turned to see a truck towing a horse trailer. The vehicle stopped beside the pasture and a man got out of the truck. Steed and Emma walked toward him, meeting him at the back of the trailer.

“Good morning, Gérard. Thank you again for this,” Steed said, shaking the man’s hand. Gerard was a wiry fellow, wearing twill trousers and a threadbare cardigan, his head topped by an equally worn beret. Steed introduced him to Emma, who found his handshake remarkably strong.

“It is my pleasure, Steed,” Gerard said, sliding the bolt on the door of the trailer. “It was a pleasant change to be up and out before madam arose.” He chuckled to himself, and Steed and Emma exchanged a startled glance. Then Gerard slid a ramp out of the floor of the trailer and climbed inside. The rump of a big bay, nearly black tail done up in a tight queue, soon backed toward Steed and Emma. Steed stepped aside, but Emma put her hand on the animal’s rump, then his back as he stepped trustingly down the ramp.

Gerard emerged at the horse’s head and Emma saw him slip a bit of carrot into its mouth as he spoke softly near its ear. Then the Frenchman turned to Emma.

“This is Shallot,” he said. “He’s four years old and loves the chase. Steed says you’re a good rider,” he paused, waiting, so she nodded.

“I’ve ridden all my life, monsieur Gérard,” she stepped closer to Shallot’s head and reached up to rub behind the horse’s ear, “I’m sure Shallot and I will get along fine.”

Gérard handed her the lead rope and stepped aside, allowing her to step in front of the horse and look him in the eye. Shallot raised his head and snorted at her. Unflinching at the misty horse breath, she cupped her hand under Shallot’s chin and blew gently into his nostrils. He snorted again.

“Well, Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked, “is he acceptable?”

Emma flashed a bright smile at Gérard, the Frenchman nodding at her. “He’s lovely, Monsieur Gérard,” she said, noting Steed’s approving nod.

Gérard patted Shallot’s withers and turned to Steed, “Your Mrs. Peel is indeed a horsewoman. And Shallot appreciates good manners, Mrs. Peel. Here,” he extended his closed hand and she reached out and took another chunk of carrot, palming it to conceal it from Shallot. Then she stepped away from him, tugging on his lead rope.

“Come on, Shallot let’s see you move,” she said, tugging again. The horse followed her as she led him along the dirt road a few yards, then came back. She stroked him, spoke encouragingly, and then gave him the carrot. He chewed, bobbing his head up and down, then rubbed the top of his head against her chest. She laughed.

“Lucky horse,” Steed said as the horse nuzzled at her.

“Steed!”

Gérard and Emma put saddle and bridle on Shallot, with Gérard making admiring noises as he helped cinch up the saddle girth. Then they left Steed holding Shallot while Gérard showed Emma the riding clothes he’d brought, which belonged, he said, to his three daughters. Although Steed had been fairly specific about sizes, he’d brought an assortment. Emma took a few moments inside the horse trailer to change into a suitable outfit. The boots, which she’d been most concerned about, were almost as comfortable as her own. Satisfied that his horse was in good hands, and with an arrangement to meet them in the same spot late that afternoon, Gerard drove off.

“It’s nearly eight,” Emma said, “I’d better get to the château.”

Steed stood beside her stirrup, one hand on her thigh, the other on Shallot’s neck. “Please ride carefully,” he said. She covered his hand with her own and gave it a squeeze.

“I always do, Steed. I’ll see you at the party.”

Emma had been concerned that her arrival on horseback would draw attention, but as she approached the long drive she saw other riders converging on the château. At the end of the drive a car park was crowded with horse vans. She wondered absently whether they belonged to the hunt elite or just early arrivers.

She could hear the baying of the famous hound pack from across the car park, and as she got closer she realized that a vast outbuilding complex housed the kennels. She followed other riders across a wooden bridge over a moat and past the kennels into the hunting crowd. More than a dozen horses and riders milled around on a gravely area outside of a stable building. Formal gardens lay between them and the house itself.

She walked Shallot around the outskirts of the crowd assessing the participants. She identified all of the usual types – old sportsmen, wild young men, horsewomen, and non-horsewomen here for the wild young men. She spotted three women who fit the description Steed had given her of Pauline. Nobody seemed to be the center of attention, so she surmised that François Durrand was not yet present. The other element missing from the crowd was protestors. Not a single “Ban Blood Sport” banner was in evidence.

“Pardon, madam,” a high pitched voice called out, drawing her attention to the ground to her left. A small man dressed as a hunt official, curls of bright red hair peeking out from beneath his hat, stood there with a clipboard and pen.

“Oui?”

“Have you checked in?” he asked, switching to English, based, she supposed, on her accent – since her horse, costume, and tack were all French.

“Not yet,” she replied. I’m Lady Emma Peel. Guest of – .”

“Oh yes, Lady Emma. Welcome to Champchevrier,” he waved toward a boy standing nearby with a bag slung across his shoulders. The boy came over, reaching into the bag. He pulled out an envelope and handed it up to Emma. “These are the rules and area map, and the social schedule. You will start with the main group. Have a good hunt.”

Emma walked Shallot away from the milling crowd, keeping him on the gravel to avoid grass nibbling, and opened the envelope. She was delighted to find a list of organizers that included Monsieur Durrand and Mademoiselle Pauline Duchamp – doubtlessly Steed’s new friend. She examined the map, noting that it was entirely contained on Durrand lands – no need to get permission from the neighboring farms.

As she tucked the envelope inside her coat the master of the hunt sounded his horn. Shallot’s ears pricked up, swiveling toward the sound, then back at his rider. Emma touched her heels to his sides and guided him toward the main group.

A dozen riders milled about, twice that many dogs mixing perilously with the horses’ hooves. At the far edge of the group, the master sounded his horn again and started off at a trot. The hounds immediately sorted themselves out from among the horses and moved ahead of the master. The riders followed, their pace picking up to follow the pack.

They crossed the moat by another wooden bridge behind the stables and set off at an easy canter across a grassy meadow. Emma worked her way to the front of the group until she was riding near Francois Durrand. He had a good seat, but kept a tighter hold on the reins than his horse liked. He glanced her way and smiled a greeting. The hounds had not yet scented a fox when they came to the first gate. They all slowed to a walk while an official rode forward to open it.

“Good morning. I am François Durrand,” her host said as their horses walked side-by-side.

“Lady Emma Peel. And a fine morning it is.”

“Welcome to Champchevrier, my lady. I hope you find our hunt exciting.”

“I’m confident that I shall.”

“Do you ride often?”

“As often as I can, which is not enough I’m afraid. I am delighted to be included today.”

“It is my pleasure, madam. I hope you will do me the honor of a drink after the hunt?”

“That will be my pleasure, Monsieur Durrand.”

“After you, then, madam,” he waved her through the open gate ahead of him. She pressed Shallot through and let him lengthen his stride to a canter behind the wide-ranging dogs.

Steed was surprised to find a public telephone in the tiny village, mounted on a wall outside the post office. He rang through to the ministry’s office in Paris and asked for Miss King.

“Steed, where are you?” her voice came on the line without greeting. “You’ve left your hotel.”

“I had a breakthrough, so we’ve decamped to the Loire. How long can you hold on to our man in black?”

“French Immigration is interested in his visa situation,” Tara replied, her tone suggesting that the real French officials had never heard of the prisoner.

“Fine. We may be back this evening. I’ll contact you. Do you have anything for me from London?”

“Yes, analysis of a compound you left with them,” Steed could hear paper shuffling as Tara paused. “Here it is. Vitamins, glycerin, oh, now that’s nasty — .”

“What is it?” Steed interrupted impatiently.

“A genetically altered virus.”

“Pardon?”

“It says someone tinkered with a rather uncommon virus, made it more virulent and resilient – it’s nearly indestructible and it affects both animals and humans.”

“Drives them to madness and violence,” Steed said.

“Yes. And in a very short time it kills them.”

Steed took a moment to digest this information.

“Steed, is there more of this stuff on its way to Britain?” Tara asked.

“I don’t know, but I aim to find out presently. I’ll get in touch this evening,” he started to hang up the receiver, but her voice carried thinly to him.

“Steed, tell me where you are, just in case. That is procedure, you know.”

“We’re at Durrand’s château, Champchevrier.”

Steed located a farm road near the château were he parked the car, then he walked back to the main road and onto the chateau grounds through the car park. He disregarded the ticket office, where a sign informed him that the chateau was closed for tours today, and headed toward the kennel. The hunt had just moved out, the hunting pack’s distant call answered by those left behind baying excitedly.

The château grounds had very little cover, so Steed fell into his most determined stride and set out across it toward what appeared to be the stables, which were attached to a long wing of the chateau. A few other people were moving around the grounds, but none of them were nearby, and none took notice of him. He paused to listen at the stable door, then, hearing nothing that sounded human, slipped inside.

The dozen stalls were occupied by just two horses, looking somewhat forlorn at being left behind. One of them, Steed supposed, was Pauline’s second horse. Steed made his way to a door at the end of the stable that was connected to the château. It was not locked, and he slipped through into another stable. Here the stalls were occupied by automobiles. Steed did not allow himself to stop and admire the little Austin Martin or the lovely Bentley, let alone the Jaguar and Mercedes Benz. He did stop short at the last car stored here: a Mini, it’s paint so oxidized he couldn’t tell what color it once had been.

“Hang in there, old girl,” he said, glancing back along the row of sophisticated machines, then back at the Mini. (that’s cute.. I like it.. :o)

Another door lead from the garage to the next chamber. Steed slipped through it expecting still more storage. It was, but of a new sort. The large room housed an eclectic collection of vehicles, each with a small sign describing it. He moved gracefully between a carriage and a rigged daysailor on a trailer and past a big old Rolls Royce touring car toward a pair of curved staircases at the end of the room. The staircases framed a door at ground level and led up to a landing with a door at a higher level. Steed was about to head up one of the staircases when something thunked, followed by a creak. He ducked behind the Rolls.

Two men wearing coveralls had come in through an outside door. They closed and locked it, then made their way through the vehicles to the lower door.

Steed counted to ten then followed them through the door.

He found himself in the kitchen. Not a modern, industrial kitchen, but a facility used in the chateau for perhaps the last fifty years, in a space that could well have been the kitchen for a hundred years or more. A door in the far wall was open revealing stairs leading down. Mechanical sounds drifted from it.

Steed crept down the stairs and into a large chamber filled with stainless steel casks connected by hoses to spigots on mechanical devices. There was no sign of the two men he’d followed. A conveyor belt system carried large canisters like the ones Steed and Emma had seen at Twill and Merchant. Each canister received a portion from each cask then moved through an opening to another room.

Steed followed using a human size door.

The canisters received one last ingredient, this one delivered by a device that sealed around the top of the container. The final step was, to Steed’s surprise, handled by people, who took the canister from the last device and screwed on a lid. Steed stepped back into the other room before he was seen, or so he thought.

Something large and heavy slammed into the back of his neck, dropping him to the floor. Dazed, he still managed to role onto his back, dodging the canister that was about to slam into him again.

“Didier!” the shout came from a great distance. The canister paused mid-air. Steed started to inch away, his consciousness slipping as well.

Hands grabbed him under the arms and began to drag him, and he blacked out.

Chapter 5

Some distance ahead the hounds’ voices signaled that the hunt was near its end. The master’s horn accompanied the dogs, urging the riders to hurry. Emma was torn between her preference not to be present for the kill and her cover of enthusiastic huntress. Her conflict was resolved for her as the group of riders approached a stone wall at the base of a hill. The hounds were in a stand of trees covering the top of the hill. As they cantered across a meadow toward the wall, Shallot adjusted his stride, preparing to gather himself for the leap. They were amid a group of riders just behind the leaders, who had just cleared the wall. Suddenly another horse lunged diagonally across Shallot’s path, aiming for a slightly lower spot in the wall. Shallot veered. Emma instinctively squeezed her thighs, gripping her saddle to keep her seat as the horse pulled up short of the wall.

Emma regained her breath, then patted Shallot’s sweaty withers. “Thanks, Shallot,” she said as the dogs cried out their victory from the top of the hill. Shallot looked across the wall and snorted, then stamped one fore hoof. Emma understood that he was disappointed – but probably at being out maneuvered, not at missing the kill.

She turned him to walk along the wall, disinclined to have him take a second run at it. There were a few other riders who’d fallen behind scattered across the meadow, stopping now to exchange a few words or rest their horses. She turned Shallot away from the wall and back toward the chateau.

Rounding an old wooden barn, the slate roof of the chateau gleamed blue behind a row of cypress trees on the far side of a fallow field. Pleasant as the long ride had been, and comfortable as her new saddle was, Emma was looking forward to getting out of it. Keeping Shallot to a walk to cool him down, she studied the massive building as it gradually become more visible between the tall, gracefully thin trees. Movement near ground level caught her eye. There was a drive between the trees and the house. A white truck with a familiar emblem on the side was driving along it, turning at the corner of the house toward the car park and, ultimately, the main road. Emma resisted the urge to spur Shallot in pursuit.

“He’s fairly cool, but walk him a bit. He can have food and water, but leave him saddled – I’ll be riding home,” Emma instructed the groom who greeted her outside the stable.

“Oui Madame.”

Emma dismounted and walked over to a stone bench under a tree. She stretched first her legs, then her back, and finally her arms. She tucked her gloves into her belt and massaged her hands, which were stiff from clutching the reins. Finally feeling loose again, she strode toward the main wing of the château, following other riders. They clomped up worn marble steps and through the building’s grand front doors, propped open by heavy urns planted with ivy.

A liveried groom directed her to the left through a grand interior portal into a breathtaking ballroom. Linen covered banquet tables had been set down the center of the extravagant room. Equally extravagant savory, sweet, refreshing, warm, and cool appetizers – many local specialties – were interspersed with stacks of plates, linen napkins, and silver forks along the table’s length. Emma realized that she was famished, so she made herself a plate of creamy fois gras on toast points, warm duck breast on salad greens in a delicate vinegarette, and slices of poached pear with crème anglaise. Miraculously, a waiter appeared at her elbow with a tray of champagne flutes just as she turned her mind to beverage selection. Thus equipped, she retired to a side table to eat and survey the crowd.

A few of the women had changed out of their riding kit, including one of the possible Paulines. As luck would have it, she and a female companion paused to speak with a third woman near Emma’s table.

“Catherine! I was just telling Annabel about the gentleman I met yesterday – you remember? On the train?” Catherine nodded – clearly Steed had made an impression on Pauline, Emma thought. “He had very interesting opinions about horse breeding. I thought you might like to talk with him. He promised to come this afternoon, but I haven’t found him yet.”

“How disappointing!” Catherine replied coolly.

“Yes. Perhaps he is only detained. He seemed quite sincere,” Pauline said with a sigh.

Emma suppressed a guffaw, turning away from the women to hide her face in case they should glance her way.

“Or rude,” Catherine suggested, then finished off her champagne and went looking for a waiter.

“Speaking of rude!” Pauline’s companion, Annabel, said. The two moved away and Emma allowed her amusement to show in a wry smile.

She wondered idly how Steed had convinced Pauline of his sincerity, and felt a surprising pang of jealousy. Come on, old girl, you know it’s his job. Doesn’t signify a thing, she chastised herself. But the feeling was there nonetheless, and she had to accept that their relationship had changed. The detachment that had once protected her at the deepest level had evaporated the moment Steed had uttered those three words at the door of his flat one morning a few weeks ago. Remarkable, she thought, how important it is to hear it. As if I hadn’t known it all along. But you didn’t, a deeper, unsentimental, analytical voice, put in.

Frowning at herself for indulging in such introspection when there was work to do, she finished her own champagne and left her empty plate and glass on the table. Pauline did have a point – where was Steed?

She had just acquired a fresh glass of champagne when Francois Durrand beckoned to her from the edge of a nearby group. She walked to him, allowing herself to survey him as she approached, and letting him see her observation. He smiled appreciatively at her – a man who enjoyed being admired.

“You missed the kill, Lady Emma,” he said. She inclined her head in silent agreement.

“My horse was – distracted,” she said. He nodded knowingly.

“Refused the wall, humm?” he said.

“You could say,” she replied, not caring to complain about the other rider’s discourtesy.

“Too bad. Well, better luck next time. There will be a next time, I hope?”

“If it can possibly be arranged.”

“I will see to that,” he said, lifting his glass up to touch hers. She put on her most coy smile.

“Your property is most impressive,” she said. “I saw grapes, sunflowers, grains – is that for animal feed, or bread?”

“Most of the grain is for animal feed,” he replied with an appraising look – but this time his appraisal was not physical. “Of course, the grapes are for the château winery – in the Loire everyone makes wine.”

“Of course,” she said, “and every wine wins awards – somewhere. And yet, you chose not to serve yours,” she held up her champagne glass. She had noted that the sparkling wine was a good, well known vintage from the Champagne region.

“Astute of you to notice,” he said, his pleasant tone failing to mask annoyance. “Unfortunately, our production has been low – bad luck with several seasons’ harvests. I did not feel that we had enough of a proper vintage.”

“Too bad,” Emma purred, “It’s fortunate that you aren’t financially dependent on the wine.”

“Yes,” he replied, practically purring back at her. “It’s a hobby, really. Will you excuse me?” he asked, looking beyond her at someone across the room.

“Of course,” she replied. He strode away and she turned to watch him meet a man near a side door. Emma had not seen him during the hunt. The two men exited together through the side door. Emma sipped her champagne, giving them a head start. Before she moved, Pauline slipped out through the same door.

Showing your true colors, Emma thought as she wandered to the door. She turned her back to it, one hand on the handle, and regretfully placed her half empty champagne glass on a passing waiter’s tray. She opened the door and slipped through, turning to see where she was as she quietly closed it.

She was relieved to find herself in a narrow corridor – she’d been prepared to make excuses about looking for the loo if she found herself face-to-face with Durrand. She strolled along the corridor, glancing at portraits that lined the walls. She noted a few empty spots where the shadows of frames marked the walls. Relatives in disfavor, she wondered, or sold for upkeep costs? The portraits that were present were unremarkable – no hidden gems by well-known portraitists.

Half way along the corridor two doors faced one another. The one on the right was slightly ajar. Tsking at Durrand’s carelessness – or perhaps it had been Pauline’s – Emma pressed herself against the wall beside the door, listing to the voices that carried through the narrow opening.

“. . . on its way this afternoon, just before you got back. It will reach the feedlot tomorrow, just in time for the livestock for the banquet. We’re already dismantling the facilities,” a man, not Durrand, was saying. “There was one problem.”

“Oh?”

That was Durrand.

“We had an intruder this morning. Crighton found him. He had English identification, so we thought it best to ship him home.”

There was a grunt, probably Durrand again. The other man went on, “We searched the château and didn’t find any other strangers. But we did find a car. It was parked between fields south of the château. We relocated it into the Loire.”

“Unobserved, I trust?” Durrand said in a disinterested tone.

“Certainly.”

“What was his name?” Pauline’s light voice contrasted with the mens’, “the intruder?”

The man did not respond immediately, but finally said, “John Steed. His identification is odd – looks like government, but it’s vague.” There was a small thump and Emma imagined Steed’s billfold being dropped onto a table.

“Does that name mean something to you?” Durrand asked.

“Non,” Pauline replied, her voice tight, the single word clipped even shorter by her accent. She might have carried it off if she hadn’t added, “I was just curious.”

“I am disappointed,” Durrand went on, “I would have liked another test subject.”

There was a pause, then the other man replied, “we’ve performed more than adequate tests, François. This man made me uneasy. Better that we simply remove him.”

“Yes, well, still. . .” Durrand’s voice trailed off. Emma tried to imagine what was going on in the room, but her limited view through the slightly open door was of floor-to-ceiling bookcases. There was a tapping sound – a pen on a desk? “I shall have to be content with one final equine test,” Durrand went on.

“What?” Pauline hissed. Emma cringed, thinking of Pauline’s lovely chestnut mare. “You bastard! How could you?” There was a crash of furniture being overturned, then the door was flung open and Pauline ran out. She turned right, away from the ballroom, and didn’t notice Emma, who was to the left of the doorway.

Fearing that one of them men would follow Pauline, Emma hurried back to the ballroom, slipping in through the door and leaning against it to survey the room.

The crowd had thinned a little, but the party was far from over. She took a glass from a waiter, depending on the familiar feel of the cool crystal and taste of the wine to calm her. As with the pang of jealousy earlier, she was taken aback by the depth of concern she felt over Steed’s fate. She forced herself to consider the facts: they had not killed him, or given him a dose of their foul substance. The longer they held him, the more likely he was to find a way to escape. And if he didn’t, she would rescue him. Her certainty about that helped her focus. She wanted to leave, to go in pursuit of the truck that she was certain Steed was in. But leaving without thanking Durrand would be impolite, and it might just draw attention to her before she could actually get away from the château.

So she lingered, sipping her champagne and nibbling on a few grapes, unwilling to commit to another plate of food. Durrand reappeared in the ballroom about ten minutes later. She restrained herself from approaching him immediately, allowing two other riders to make their farewells before approaching him.

As it was his farewell was perfunctory. He acknowledged her thanks with a polite word and vacant eyes. She imagined that he, too, was mentally following the truck full of poison threading its way northward. Relieved not to have to exchange witty banter, she slipped out of the château and strode quickly along the gravelly path to the stables at the end of the side wing.

Shallot bobbed his head at her as she came up behind him and patted his rump. He was saddled and bridled and seemed to have been partially groomed. Three other horses were tethered beside him in similar condition. As she reached up to pull down the stirrup, Shallot started at a loud crash within the stable. This was followed by a distressed whinny and a woman wailing wordlessly. Shallot snorted, clearly agitated by the sounds emanating from inside.

“Wait here,” Emma said to Shallot with a pat on his withers as she slipped between his and the next horse’s heads and stepped over to the stable door. It was open enough for her to slip inside. She paused, letting her eyes adjust to the dimness while listening to the distressed horse kick his stall once more. She noticed several crops hanging on hooks near the door and took one, holding it behind her as she stepped further into the stable.

There were about a dozen stalls and only a few were occupied. Pauline stood outside one near the end of the row, reaching over the gate toward the animal within.

“Coco my poor darling,” Pauline sobbed. “I’ll get that bastard for doing this to you.” The gate shuddered with a loud crack and Pauline jumped back, emitting another wail.

“Is there an antidote?” Emma asked, stepping closer to the other woman.

Pauline spun toward her, looking rather like a startled colt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, drawing the back of her hand across her eyes.

Emma took a step closer, and glanced into the stall. The horse – not, she realized, the chestnut Pauline had ridden in the hunt – stood rigid, bathed in sweat. Suddenly he lunged at the gate, his neck stretching across the barrier toward Pauline, his lips peeled back from snapping teeth.

She jumped further away from him, narrowly escaping his bite, then looked unhappily back at Emma.

“Is there?” Emma pressed, “Or does he plan to let his little bug run rampant over the English countryside? And who’s to say your Coco here won’t pass it on to this fine mare?” She nodded at the horse in the stall beside Coco, noticing that it was, in fact, Pauline’s chestnut.

Pauline followed her glance, and Emma hoped that would push her over the edge. But to the contrary, she seemed to pull herself together.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said sharply.

“People are going to suffer the way your horse is. Tell me where he’s sent it.”

Pauline shook her head mutely. Emma took another step closer just as Coco slammed his rear hooves into the stall again.

“You can stop this,” Emma said. “you can save the people that he’s trying to kill.”

Shaking her head again, Pauline turned back to her horse. Emma reached into her pocket for a small slip of paper with Tara’s Paris phone number on it. She looked at the number for a moment, memorizing it, then reached out and pressed it into Pauline’s hand. The other woman ignored her, absorbed in watching her horse as he dropped to his knees.

“If you change your mind, call this number. Tell them you have information for John Steed.”

Pauline did not respond, may not have heard her, but Emma did not want to linger any longer. The virus, and Steed, were half-way to the channel by now and she needed to find some help.

She and Shallot reached the main road unhindered, but she was confident that Pauline would eventually react to her questioning. She directed Shallot off the main road, threading their way across the countryside, occasionally jumping obstacles and climbing through gullies. Shallot seemed to enjoy the adventure, and soon was snorting in anticipation when he saw Gerard and his horse trailer waiting for them outside the tiny village.

“‘ere you are!,” he said warmly as they reached the vehicles. Emma had to rein Shallot in to prevent him from climbing right into the trailer. Gérard took the horse’s bridle in hand and Emma slipped off. She immediately uncinched her saddle, noticing that Gérard was trying to discreetly inspect his horse.

“He was a pleasure, Gérard. Merci,” she said. The little man grinned proudly.

“Oui, he is a fine fellow, isn’t he?” he replied. Then he went on with his inspection more overtly. Emma removed the saddle and stepped into the trailer to find the bag.

“I’ll just go ahead and change,” she called out, seeing her clothes folded where she’d left them. Moments later she stepped back out into the gathering dusk, back in the jumpsuit that she’d put on that morning. She was glad that it was both clean and versatile, since she no longer had any other clothes – unless she wanted to go on a search and recovery mission in the river. This train of thought led her to a sudden realization – she’d not gotten around to giving Steed the gift that she’d bought him. Now it was lost with everything else in the car. That loss was more grieving than her favorite shoes and nice lingerie.

“Lady Emma?” Gérard touched her arm. She looked into eyes full of concern. “Something is wrong? Where is Steed?” She realized that Shallot was stowed in the van, the doors closed behind him. She had allowed herself to drift in thought for several minutes.

“Oui,” she sighed. Then she explained that their car had been stolen, and Steed was in trouble. “Could you take me to a town where I can catch a train back to Paris this evening?”

“Oui, of course,” he replied, escorting her to the passenger side of the truck. She appreciated his protective behavior, seeing that she was safely seated in the truck and closing the door for her. She could barely admit to herself his tiny gestures made her feel looked after, and were comforting.

Gerard drove the truck and horse trailer at a safe, steady pace, navigating from the rural road that went past the château to a busier highway heading east.

“Steed has been in trouble before,” Gérard ventured once they were moving along with the moderate traffic.

“Oh yes,” Emma replied ruefully.

“But you are concerned, this time,” he went on, sneaking a glance at her.

“There is particular danger,” she said, realizing as she spoke that it was probably no more particular than usual, “I’m just — ,” she tried to explain, but couldn’t.

“In love with him,” Gérard supplied, a sly grin distorting his leathery face. Emma could not prevent a matching smile.

“Oh, but dear Gerard, I have been for so very long, it’s nothing new,” she said, hardly able to believe she was saying it. The little man chuckled, then reached out and took her hand.

“Do not be distressed, madam,” he said, “Perhaps it’s because I am a papa. My girls will speak to me, will say the things they do not to others. Even those they should tell.”

“Steed knows,” she said lightly, thinking again about how differently she’d been feeling lately, ever since his confession of love for her.

“Perhaps, yes,” Gérard said gently, “but he would like to hear it, I think. When you find him.”

Emma silently watched the scenery – long stretches of forest were broken up by farmland that transitioned into light industrial. Commercial barns, processing plants, and manufacturing facilities drifted by. Gradually there were more clusters of houses, gas stations, and then genuine suburbs.

She was lost in thought again, trying to imagine the perfect circumstances in which to tell Steed in no uncertain terms how she felt about him. She had settled on a cozy evening in front of the fire in his flat and was imagining their conversation when she realized that the truck was stopping.

“Madame Emma,” Gérard said, half turning toward her. They were stopped in front of a train station. Streetlamps twinkled against the gathering dusk, and a bright red and green sign advertising beer glared harshly at her from the station café.

“Merci, Monsieur Gerard,” she said, taking his hand in hers.

“Travel safely, Madam,” Gerard said, “and when you reach Steed, ask him to phone me – so I too will know he is well.”

“I will,” she said. Taking the bag with her saddle, she climbed out of the truck. Gerard waved farewell and drove away. Emma realized as the trailer moved off in traffic that she had not said a final good-bye to her partner for the day. “Take care, Shallot,” she said softly, then turned and pushed through the door into the station.

Chapter 6

Emma had thirty-five minutes before the next train for Paris. She purchased a ticket and located a telephone, dialing the number she’d memorized. A young, English, male voice answered the call.

“Bonsoir, je peux vous aider?”

“Bonsoir, this is Lady Emma Peel. Is Miss King available?” Emma replied, more comfortable using a language that passersby might not understand.

“Oh, yes, Lady Emma. Please hold,” the young agent sounded flustered.

“Mrs. Peel?” Tara’s voice came on the line. Emma’s eyebrows arched at the use of a name that she was accustomed to hearing only from Steed.

“Miss King, Steed and I have run into some trouble. I’m catching a train back to Paris in a half hour. Meanwhile, can I ask you for some help?”

“Tell me what you need,” Tara replied without hesitation.

Encouraged by Tara’s willing cooperation, Emma explained Steed’s predicament and described the truck. She mentioned that their rental car had been sunk, and asked Tara to book her on a late flight back to London, or first thing in the morning if necessary.

“Come here when you get in,” Tara instructed Emma when she’d taken all of the information. She gave Emma the address. “Do you have money? Identification?”

Emma was impressed at the other woman’s thoroughness. “Yes, I had carried essentials in my pockets today. But that’s just about it,” she replied, nudging her saddle with her toe.

“Right, then. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”

Emma climbed out of the taxi and slung the saddle in its white cotton bag over her shoulder. A light rain had just started to fall, so she dashed across the broad sidewalk into a small vestibule and rang the bell as Tara had instructed.

“Miss King,” Agent Nelson leaned in through Tara’s office doorway, “I think Lady Emma is here.” Tara looked from the report she’d been staring blankly at to the small monitor mounted on the wall. Emma Peel was unmistakable, even from the odd angle of the ceiling-mounted camera. As Tara observed her, she glanced up at the lens and cracked a crooked smile. She stood with a strange bag slung over her shoulder.

“Who does she think she is, Father Christmas?” Tara muttered. (LOL)

“Miss King?”

She realized Nelson was still waiting.

“Bring her here, then,” she said dismissing him with a flip of her hand. “And bring the prisoner to the examination room,” she added at a shout. She suppressed a yawn and stashed the report she’d been looking at in a drawer, leaving her desk clear.

“Here we are, Lady Emma,” Nelson’s voice carried in from the outer office, “Can I get you anything? We have Perrier, and Vichy water, and tea, of course -“

“No, thank you. You’re most kind,” Emma’s voice interrupted him. Behind her desk, Tara stiffened her spine and forced herself not to think about her last encounter with the other woman.

“Miss King,” Emma stepped into her office, forcing Nelson to move away or appear to be eavesdropping.

“Lady Emma,” Tara replied, “Please sit down,” she indicated the chair in front of her desk. Emma set the strange bag on the floor and seated herself, looking around the office as she did so.

Ministry austere, Emma thought, and Tara hasn’t spent any of her own money to spruce it up. I wonder if it’s lack of funds, or that she doesn’t realize that’s how it’s done.

“Thank you for waiting for me this evening, Miss King,” Emma began. “I owe you an apology. I’m glad to have an opportunity to make it.”

Tara was too surprised to speak. She stared at Emma, wondering what could possibly come next.

“I pride myself on not making snap judgments about people,” Emma went on. “You are a good agent. You’re intelligent, creative, and attentive. And you’re loyal. I allowed myself to think poorly of you, for personal reasons that had nothing to do with you. I hope you will allow me to correct my error now.”

“Mrs. Peel, I — I’m not sure what to say,” Tara stammered.

Emma leaned back and crossed her legs, her expectant smile encouraging Tara to think of something. Tara took a slow, deep breath, looking at the other woman. That’s how she’d thought of Mrs. Peel for the past three years: The other woman, who held Steed’s affections even from a distance. And just three weeks ago, this other woman had stepped back into Steed’s life and taken him. Just like that. But in her heart of hearts she knew that she’d never had a chance with him. His heart had followed Mrs. Peel out the door that morning when Peter Peel returned, and although he’d been affectionate with Tara, there’d never been anything more. After working with him for three years, she was not even sure that he was what she wanted.

Now Emma Peel, her rival, sat on her turf, seeking her help, and offered her an apology. Damn the woman and her upper class manners! Tara leaned back, nervously swiveling her chair back and forth.

“I owe you an apology, as well,” she said. “For that morning. I was out of line, coming upstairs and confronting you.”

Emma nodded, politely agreeing. Tara had half expected her to dissemble, to offer a mutual apology, to tell her it was understandable. But she did not. Tara, in her own office, her own Ministry branch, had been undercut with a simple nod of the woman’s head. My God she’s good, Tara thought.

Recognizing surrender in Tara’s eyes, and realizing it was what she’d been looking for, Emma uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, crossing her arms on the edge of Tara’s desk.

“Have you received any reports on the truck?” she asked. She wasn’t proud of the sense of victory that suffused her, but it certainly was sweet.

Tara seized the opportunity to change the subject. “We’ve put out a bulletin across northern France. All the ferry operators have been alerted. It’s just a matter of time.” She looked out the open office doorway, then pressed a button on the corner of her desk. Agent Nelson’s head popped through the doorway.

“Yes Miss King?”

“You’ve made Lady Emma’s travel arrangements?”

“Yes Miss King, Lady Emma, you are booked on a flight in,” he paused to glance at his wristwatch, “three hours. You’ll need to leave in about sixty minutes, to be sure to catch it. I’ll order a taxi.”

“Thank you, Nelson,” Emma replied, then turned her gaze back on Tara. “What about the man who was following me?” she asked. It was a bit of business she would rather forget, in light of more recent events.

“Nelson will take you to him,” Tara replied, nodding at the other agent.

“Yes ma’am. This way, Lady Emma,” he said. Emma rose and followed him out of Tara’s office. When she was gone, Tara picked up the telephone and dialed an international number.

“Mother,” she said.

The man in black, as Emma had come to think of him, was a hard nut to crack. He flatly denied following her. He demanded a lawyer, and threatened to contact the British Embassy. They both knew they were empty threats, but he maintained them for the half hour Emma spent with him. She finally gave up, stalking out of the bare room and slamming the door. She strode right up to the desk where Nelson sat outside Tara’s office.

“Release him in the morning,” she said.

“Yes ma’am,” Nelson replied. Emma looked past him into Tara’s office. The other woman hung up the telephone and waved her in.

“The British authorities are also alerted for the truck,” she said as Emma sat down.

“There’s something else,” Emma said. “I gave your number here to a Pauline Duchamp. If she decides to help us, she’ll call here and say she has information for Steed.”

“Who is she?”

“I’m not sure. She’s the woman that picked up the mail. Steed followed her to the château. She’s involved – maybe Durrand’s girlfriend. She knows the plan, and Durrand’s hurt her.”

Tara nodded. Nelson poked his head in the doorway, “Lady Emma’s taxi will be here in fifteen minutes,” he said.

“Thank you, Nelson, that will be all,” Tara said pointedly. The younger agent straightened abruptly, then vanished. Tara shook her head and sighed.

“They study you, you know,” she said, seeing Emma’s surprised look. “Your investigative techniques, your combat style. Among the female agent’s there’s a little acronym, ‘WWEPD’-.”

“Weeped?” Emma sounded it out, looking puzzled.

“What Would Emma Peel Do,” Tara explained. Emma’s brows rose in surprise and, for the first time in hours, she laughed. She fell back in her chair, covering her mouth as a second peal of laughter erupted from her. It was infectious – Tara joined in.

“So Agent Nelson, there, will have currency with the others for months to come. He called a taxi for Lady Emma Peel.”

“And booked a flight,” Emma added, causing them both to laugh more. “Oh my dear, I’m so sorry,” Emma sputtered, glancing out the door to see if Nelson might be within hearing range. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“It’s why I met with Steed in the park the other day,” Tara went on. “I can only imagine what would have happened if both of you turned up here during the day. I’d get no work out of them for weeks,” she shook her head, smiling at the other woman, genuinely enjoying the conversation.

“You can’t be serious,” Emma shook her head. But Tara shrugged.

“I’m afraid so. Don’t get me wrong – I love this assignment. But it is much, much harder than I expected. Of course, I always appreciated Steed, but in the last few weeks I’ve learned just how good he is,” she stopped, watching Emma’s face grow anxious.

“I’m sorry. I’m worried, too. And I talk when I’m worried. It’s a bad habit,” she said quickly, “Not very ‘WWEPD’,” she added. She rose and stepped around the desk. Extending her hand, she said, “I think it might be good for us to start over. We’ll need to keep in touch, until we get him back, and I’d prefer that we don’t leave things hanging.”

Emma rose too so that she looked down into Tara’s big eyes. She took Tara’s hand, forcing her unhappy features into a friendly smile. She sensed that, somehow, she had gained a friend. “Emma Peel would like that very much,” she said softly. Tara smiled, almost shyly, and squeezed Emma’s hand.

Emma opened the door to Steed’s flat using the concealed release. She set her saddle on an armchair and climbed directly up the stairs to his bedroom. Everything was tidy – his Ministry-bonded cleaning lady must have been in. She stripped off her now travel-worn jumpsuit and put it on a hangar pilfered from his closet. She hung it in the bathroom and drew a hot bath. The water felt like heaven, soaking off the sweat, grime, and fear of the last eighteen hours. She wanted more than anything to keep going – to get into a car and start driving the roads of southern England searching for the Agricultural Technologies truck. But she knew that was impossible. So she forced herself to relax in the water, to scrub away at her old skin and reveal a bright, thick new coat. One that would protect her in the coming days.

Chapter 7

Emma put Steed’s Bentley in reverse and eased up on the clutch. The big, old car bucked backward out of the garage. She simultaneously depressed the clutch and slammed on the breaks, stopping the car halfway into the alley. Blowing a wisp of hair off her forehead, she repeated the process, releasing the clutch much more slowly and depressing the throttle much harder. The engine raced as the car eased backward. She cut the wheel to the right and the car swung out into the alley. Engaging the handbrake, she hopped out and went to close the garage door.

Much as she enjoyed riding in the Bentley with Steed, it handled like a truck compared to her Lotus, so driving it was not much fun. But it was the only vehicle available to her at the moment, short of taxis or the tube, and she wanted the flexibility of a private car. It also was remarkably comforting – Steed’s confidence seemed to emanate from the upholstery.

Emma had slept later than she’d intended, awakening to the ring of the telephone at a few minutes before nine a.m. The call was from the Ministry. Mother wanted her. She didn’t even bother to wonder how they’d guessed where to find her.

A warm shower had revived her enough to realize that she simply could not face yesterday’s underclothes. Wrapped in Steed’s bathrobe, she plunged into the upper drawers of his antique dresser. Reaching under several pairs of snowy white briefs, she felt something silkier. She grasped the soft fabric and pulled it out from underneath the more utilitarian garments. A grin lit her face as she held up black silk boxers.

“You devil,” she muttered to her absent lover, then stepped into the shorts, which barely clung to her slender hips. They were not the best fit, but once they were on, she would not consider removing them. On an impulse, she picked up a bottle of his cologne and applied a touch behind each ear. Still smiling, she finished dressing in her own clothes.

The temperature had dropped overnight. She looked through the downstairs closet, pulling out a thick, dark grey wool greatcoat. She wrapped herself in it, cinching the belt around her waist, and took an umbrella from the stand by the door. She’d been out of the flat by half-nine.

“Lady Emma,” Mother rolled toward her behind the agents already seated at the long conference table. “So good to see you again – I’m sorry about the circumstances.”

“I am too, Mother,” Emma replied.

“We’re all here to put our heads together. Please have a seat and we’ll begin,” Mother said, pivoting around and rolling back toward his place at the head of the table. Emma followed, taking the only empty seat, on his right. “First, Lady Emma will present the background,” he said.

Emma’s brows shot up in surprise. Nobody had warned her that he’d be calling on her. She would have concentrated on a summary while driving. Someone slid a stack of folders toward her. She opened the top one and found herself staring at Charles Durrand. As good a place to start as any, she thought.

Once started, her summary flowed easily. She began to remember the types of details the other agents would want, and out of habit omitted things she knew they would find distracting like Shallot’s name and her saddle purchase.

She concluded with her departure from Paris last night. The other agents were not shy with questions, and began pelting them at her the moment she stopped speaking. Mother watched and listened in silence, a small smile on his face. Emma fielded each question with a concise answer, sometimes leafing through the files to locate photographs or documents. She was impressed with the files – Ministry researchers had been very busy over the last two days collecting information about feedlots, distribution of animal feeds and additives, and animal viruses. One of the most interesting items in the file was the profile of Pauline Duchamp. She was a geneticist employed by a French agricultural firm – not Agricultural Technologies. She specialized in animal diseases. There was little doubt in Emma’s mind that Miss Duchamp was behind what the Ministry had dubbed the “mad cow virus.”

Emma set aside the profile and picked up the biochemists’ report on the virus as Mother carried on with the meeting.

“Your top priority is locating the truck carrying the canisters and Steed,” he said.

“Excuse me, Mother,” a dark suited, anonymous looking agent stood in the open door, a telephone in his hand.

“Yes?” Mother peered up at him from across the room. The rest of the agents swiveled their heads toward him as well, putting Emma in mind of a tennis match.

“Miss King is on the line. She has an update.”

“Very well. Put her on a speaker,” Mother grumbled, watching as the agent brought in the telephone and plugged it into a socket mounted in the table. He pressed a button on the phone.

“Go ahead, Miss King,” he said, then stepped away from the table and left the room. Tara’s voice crackled from several speakers mounted on the walls.

“Mother? Who else is in the meeting?” she asked.

“Good morning Tara,” Mother replied, “Lady Emma has just finished her report. The rest of the team is here – too numerous to list. Go ahead with your report.”

“Please forgive the poor connection, I’m on a pay telephone at a gas station. The Agricultural Technologies truck has been found in Brittany.”

A murmur in the room drowned out the next thing she said. Emma craned her head toward the telephone, forgetting that the sound was coming from the walls. Mother shushed the other agents.

“. . . didn’t trust the French authorities to handle it properly, so I’m bringing a team to it.” Emma’s fists clutched the arms of her chair. She glanced at Mother, silently appealing to him to ask Tara to repeat herself. What doesn’t she trust them to handle? Please don’t let there be a body.

“Can you repeat that last, Tara?” Mother asked, nodding at Emma. She forced herself to sit back in her chair.

“The truck has been unloaded, it’s empty. I don’t trust the French authorities to analyze the scene – we need to look for tyre tracks and witnesses. Someone must have seen them offloading all those canisters into another vehicle,” Tara said. Emma drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Or multiple other vehicles,” she said suddenly, glancing at Mother, then back at the phone, which helped her picture Tara standing at a phone in some dingy French gas station.

“Yes, you’re right, Emma,” Tara replied. “They could have split the shipment. It may have multiple destinations.” Emma caught Mother’s surprised look at Tara’s familiar use of her first name, and smiled inwardly. You don’t know everything, you old crow.

“That doesn’t fit with what I overheard at the château,” Emma replied and noticed a couple of the agents nodding – they’d been paying attention, then. “The man with Durrand said the shipment would get to the feedlot – singular – in time for the banquet — also singular.”

“Yes, the banquet . . .” Mother said thoughtfully.

“I need to get moving,” Tara said. I’ll report again when we reach the scene.”

“Thank you, Tara,” Emma said, seeing that Mother was lost in thought. He jerked to attention as a loud click indicated that Tara had rung off. He turned his piercing gaze on Emma, clearly annoyed at her usurpation of his role. She cocked one eyebrow at him and shrugged ever so slightly. She was certain that he was committed to stopping the virus from being delivered, and coincidentally rescuing Steed. But her priorities were the reverse, and she would not hesitate to drive the investigation if necessary in order to recover Steed — alive. She doubted Mother was threatened by her – he could shut her out with the flick of a wrist — but she hoped he was challenged.

Mother made quick work of doling out assignments to the agents. A team would concentrate on high-level social events within the next week – the amount of time it would take for the virus to develop in the animals before they were slaughtered. Several teams were dispatched to make the rounds of feedlots, starting in the south and working north. Analysts had already developed a search pattern based upon major transportation hubs and the location and business partners of Twill and Merchant, the distributor Steed and Emma had visited. They theorized that the ultimate target would be related to that business. Other agents were assigned to work with customs, which had been alerted last night to look for the canisters, not to mention Steed.

Each group of agents took their assignments and left the room until only Emma was left with Mother. He rolled back from the table and swiveled to face her more directly.

“I know you want to be out there searching,” he said gently. “I am not oblivious to the – attachment – you and Steed share. But you are the thoroughbred in this hunt. It will do none of us any good to send you thrashing about in the brush with the rest of that lot. Let them scent the trail first.”

Emma straightened in her chair, swallowing hard to stifle a groan at his extended hunt metaphor. When he paused, she leapt in.

“I wanted to talk with you about something, actually,” she said. He nodded, so she proceded, “The rental car — .”

“Don’t give it another thought. Miss King’s staff has already taken care of it,” he replied soothingly.

“Yes, of course, I assumed so,” she said. “But I was more referring to Steed and my luggage that was in the car. We’re both left with just the shirts on our backs, so to speak. It was a bit of a loss . . .”

“Don’t tell me you had valuables?”

“No, I learned long ago not to bring my favorite tiara on a trip with Steed,” she said with a smirk, “but I don’t have a thing to wear here in London, and I don’t want to take the time to go home and re-pack.”

“So that’s it!” Mother snorted. “Fine. Pick up what you need and bring in receipts. No fur coats and feather boas, mind you – unless you lost …?”

“Only one evening dress, Mother. Thank you. Now, what can I do to further this investigation?” She could think of a number of things, and if she didn’t like what Mother suggested she fully intended to do them.

“François Durrand,” he said simply. “You left him at his château yesterday afternoon. Where is he now? What’s he up to. And why the hell does he want to drive our livestock, not to mention as yet unidentified humans, mad? Find him, get his story.”

Emma nodded thoughtfully. Durrand had been on her personal list, along with Pauline. So, for the moment, she would take direction from Mother.

Steed gradually became conscious of constant vibration and motion, and a strange irregular clanking. Opening his eyes made no difference – wherever he was, it was pitch black. The bumping, rocking sensation made him feel slightly queasy. He was not prone to motion sickness, so he attributed it to the blow that had knocked him out. He could be concussed. He tried to feel the back of his neck where the soreness was the most painful, but realized after a moment of trying to raise his arm that his hands were bound behind his back. He tried moving his feet and found, not surprisingly, that his ankles were bound together too.

The motion stopped abruptly, but the sound and vibration went on. As if a few more synapses in his brain came on, he realized that he was in a vehicle that had just stopped. He was lying down on a hard surface, but he sensed space about himself, so it was probably not the boot of an automobile. And that clanking sound – what is that?

The vehicle started forward again and a concerted series of clanks rang out all around him. It’s the canisters. You’re in a truck with them.

Over the next few minutes Steed concentrated on remembering what had happened that morning, and on flexing his stiff muscles despite the restraints. Eventually the truck stopped again, and this time the vibration stopped too. The engine had been turned off. Can we be in England already? How long was I out?

A knife of light – doubtlessly dim, but blinding to his unaccustomed eyes – sliced across the ceiling of the truck as the double doors at the back were opened. Squinting, he could see the towering shapes of the canisters all around him. He was on the floor in a pocket of space among them.

French voices echoed in the truck, and canisters clanked. He could also hear a fainter sound of cars and trucks moving fast. We’re near a highway, then, he thought. He caught a few words and surmised that at least two men were unloading the canisters. It was only a matter of time before they found him. Do they know I’m here? Or am I somebody’s idea of a surprise?

By the time the men were ready to move the last row of canisters between him and the door, Steed had managed to get his feet under himself. He crouched uncomfortably, his bound ankles keeping his feet close together. Even if he managed to take out the men he would still be awkwardly bound. But it was a step – so to speak — in the right direction.

The two men were silhouetted by the light – not daylight, but bright electric lights, he could tell from the color — coming in the door. Steed could easily see them approach the next row of canisters. He waited, barely breathing, until they were reaching for the cylinders. He launched himself at the canisters, turning sideways in order to hit as many as possible. The drove the heavy metal cylinders into the men, bowling them over. Steed landed on his side amid a pile of canisters and bodies, his face against a cool, oozing substance on the floor of the truck. One of the canisters had come open.

He rocked up into a sitting position and rubbed his cheek on his shoulder then spat the substance off his lips. One of the two men moaned and stirred, climbing to his knees, dislodging one of the canisters from the back of his legs in the process. Steed rolled onto his back and positioned his feet, then sent them slamming into the top of the man’s head. The man collapsed, his face in the spreading ooze.

“Arrête!” the other man growled. Steed groaned, then looked over his shoulder at his other opponent. The man had gotten to his knees and held a revolver pointed at Steed. “Henri?” he said, glancing at his fallen companion. Henri didn’t move.

“Vous payerez pour ça. Maintenant je dois effectuer tout le travail,” he spat as he climbed to his feet. He grabbed Steed by the upper arm and hauled him to his feet. Steed saw the blow coming an instant before it landed on the side of his head bringing back the blackness.

“British Embassy, how may I direct your call?” Emma recognized Agent Nelson’s voice on the line and identified herself. “Lady Emma!” Nelson’s bureaucratic drone brightened. “You got home safely then?”

“Yes, quite. Thank you again for your help. But I’m calling to ask you another favor.”

“Of course. I’ll do all I can.”

“Our file on François Durrand says he has two residences – one’s a house somewhere near the château and the other is a flat in Paris – but no telephone numbers. Can you get them? I need to reach him.”

“We have complete directories, so it will just take a bit of hunting, if he has telephones.”

“Very good. I will be here, at the ministry, or at one of these numbers,” she dictated the phone number of Steed’s flat and of the Peel estate.

“I’ll telephone you as soon as I find something, Lady Emma,” Nelson assured her.

I must do something productive until I can reach Durrand, Emma reasoned as the Bentley accelerated. And I can only borrow so much of Steed’s wardrobe. She also needed to check in with Sally, who would certainly need her guidance, if not her signature. If it were anyone but Steed, she reflected ruefully, I’d never have abandoned everything at the estate.

“Steed? Come out, come out wherever you are. . .” Steed tried to sit up at the sound of Mrs. Peel’s voice. But his equilibrium was off and he fell on his side. “Steed darling,” her voice was fading, “It’s really not fair of you to disappear like this, not now, after we’ve only just . . .” She was gone.

“Mrs. Peel?” he called out. Where has she gone. She must hear me!

But it was no good, she was gone and he was, he realized, fully awake again. I was dreaming. She wasn’t really here. He realized sadly. And where is here?

His head was pounding, his whole body sore. He was once again in darkness on a hard floor. There was movement, and the clanking of the canisters, but no droning engine. As he contemplated this the floor seemed to fall out from under him, then swoop back up. His stomach lurched. He sucked in a deep breath and waited for it to settle. Just as it did, the floor fell away again and his stomach fought back. Fortunately, there was little in it to give up, and after a few dry heaves he felt slightly better.

So I’m back in the truck – no, it’s not the same. The floor has a different texture. But the canisters are still here. And we’re not driving, but we’re moving. The floor pressed upward this time, then fell away. A boat. We’re on a ferry crossing the channel. But who’s we?

Steed tugged at the bonds holding his wrists. They seemed looser than before. Sweat from his wrists and hands had made the nylon cords slippery. If he could just wiggle his wrists about like so . . . His right wrist came free and he brought both hands around to the front. The pounding in his head grew faster as he leaned forward to untie his ankles.

Sorry Steed! Emma sent a silent message to the Bentley’s owner as she took the turn into the estate grounds too fast and the car’s tyres squealed in protest. She quickly navigated the curves on the drive through the grounds. A little blue Renault sat in the drive in front of the house, it’s driver side door slightly open. The Bentley threw up a hail of gravel as she slammed on the breaks behind it. She climbed out of the Bentley and glanced at the Renault’s French license plates before sprinting through the drizzle that promised to develop into rain soon. She threw open the front door.

Sally was sitting in a chair placed in the doorway of the front parlor. She was holding a book and peering at a page. At the sound of the front door she jumped up and turned to face Emma.

“Oh madam,” she cried, “thank goodness you’re here!” Then she burst into tears, dropping the book as she brought her hands up to cover her face.

Emma strode toward her, pulling off her gloves as she walked and stuffing them in the pockets of Steed’s coat. Whatever is the matter with the girl?

Evie appeared from the side hall and rushed over to wrap her arms around Sally. Reaching the doorway, Emma glanced into the parlor and saw a woman — Pauline Duchamp — lying on a sofa. When she saw Emma, the other woman sat up and put her feet on the floor, but did not rise. Emma looked back at Sally and Evie.

“She’s quite ill, madam,” Evie said, “She arrived about a half an hour ago. She keeps asking for you, but we don’t know what else she wants – none of us speaks French, madam. We couldn’t see sending her away. Sally’s tried to reach you, madam.  We gave the lady some tea,” Emma followed the cook’s gaze into the parlor where a tray with tea things sat on a table.

“That’s fine, Evie,” Emma said. “Sally?”

Her secretary disengaged herself from Evie’s protective embrace and wiped at her eyes. Evie pressed a dishcloth into the girl’s hands and looked at Emma, “It’s the strain, madam,” she said. “She’s been sitting here trying to talk to the woman – with the dictionary there,” she nodded at the fallen book. Emma crouched to pick it up. It was indeed an English – French language dictionary. She imagined poor Sally trying to construct sentences using it. What is wrong with our schools? Why don’t they teach French any more? She wondered, then brought her attention back to her secretary.

“Sally,” she repeated, setting the book on the chair. The girl finished drying her eyes with the towel and managed to look directly at Emma, her whole body tense. “You did well. Thank you.”

Sally visibly relaxed and for a brief instant Emma feared that the girl would try to hug her. But Sally quickly regained her composure. She made the tiniest of curtseys and said “Thank you, madam. I did my best.”

Emma turned back toward the parlor. “I don’t understand, though,” she said to nobody in particular, “she speaks English.”

“You know her then, madam?” Sally asked.

“Yes. She’s a suspect in an investigation — ,” she stopped mid-sentence, realizing that her staff would have no idea what she was talking about. “I should explain,” she said. “Is Anna here? Good, go and fetch her too.”

Evie scurried away and Emma entered the parlor.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle Duchamp,” she said, stopping a few feet away from the sofa. Pauline rose unsteadily and held up her hands, palm outward.

“Non, ne venez pas plus près,” don’t come any closer. She sat back down and cradled her head in her hands, moaning softly.

“Can you understand me?” she asked. Pauline nodded, slowly raising her head.

“Oui, but I am – confused. My English is difficult.”

“D’accord. Alors je vais parler en français. Pourquoi êtes-vous venue ici?” Why are you here? Do you know where they’ve taken Steed? (ya haven’t translated that one, she’s just thinking it?)

“Il a tué mon cheval, et il m’a empoisonné aussi.” He killed my horse and poisoned me as well. She went on, seeming to ramble, then forcing herself to focus. Now I am going mad. Somehow you know about this, so I’ve come to you. It was hard to find this house, these confusing English addresses, I could feel myself slipping. 

“My lady,” Evie’s interrupted Pauline’s ramblings. Emma turned to her. Anna the maid was now standing just outside the parlor with Evie and Sally. Emma turned back to Pauline.

“Please lie down. I must speak to the staff for a moment,” she said, then stepped out of the parlor and closed the door.

Her three employees looked at her expectantly.

“Sally, you’ll remember my friend John Steed, from the other day?” she began.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Evie, Anna, you may remember him too. He was here when Hughes was arrested.”

“One of them policemen?” Anna asked. “The Americans?”

“No, not the Americans. One of the British agents who rescued me.”

“Agents, ma’am?” Sally asked. Anna and Evie exchanged a glance that Emma couldn’t read.

“Yes, government agents. I have known Steed for a long time. I used to work with him, before Sir Peter returned. He asked me for some help in an investigation the other day. Miss Duchamp is a suspect in the case. Her illness is what we’re investigating – what we must stop from spreading.”

“Is it – serious?” Evie asked, obviously substituting a less dire word at the last moment.

“Yes. Miss Duchamp will probably die — .”

“Oh madam!” Anna interrupted. Emma wondered if she seemed terribly unfeeling to these women.

“-and she knows it. She may have come here to tell me whatever she knows, and if she hasn’t I must make her tell me anyway, in order to save Mr. Steed, as well as many other lives. I must speak with her before she becomes any sicker. But first I’m going to call London for help. They’ll send someone who can take care of her.”

She studied each of their faces. Anna looked confused, Evie frightened. Sally looked thoughtful, and Emma instantly reassessed her opinion of her secretary. The girl had been caught off guard, but she had recovered and was absorbing this rather surprising news. Emma realized that she held others to her own high standards – she expected them to be as level headed and calm in the face of danger as she was. It wasn’t exactly fair – domestic staff could hardly be expected to have nerves of steel. But it was something she needed in a secretary.

“Anna, we’re moving Miss Duchamp to a guest room. Evie, some sort of broth – something mild and warm for her, please. Sally, come help me.”

Training and tradition asserted itself in the older women and they immediately set out to follow her commands. Sally followed Emma into the parlor.

“Mlle Duchamp, nous allons vous porter à une chambre à coucher,” she explained as she and Sally approached the couch where Miss Duchamp lay. The ill woman did not resist their efforts to help her sit up, then stand.

Together Emma and Sally helped Pauline into the foyer and up the stairs. They put her in the bed in a guest room, then Emma went to her office to telephone the ministry.

Emma returned to the guest room where Sally was hovering near the doorway. Anna and Evie were not visible, but Emma suspected they weren’t far away. Emma dragged a chair next to the bed and sat down. Pauline’s face was pale and moist. Emma had been astonished at how warm her skin was when she and Sally had helped her upstairs. She was burning up with fever, and twenty-four hours ago she had seemed fine.

“Vous avez créé le virus, n’est-ce pas?” You created the virus, didn’t you? She asked, and then, without waiting for an answer, “Where has Francois Durrand sent it?”

Pauline’s hazy eyes locked on Emma’s as she spoke. She said that she had inadvertently developed the virus while working in the research division of an animal feed manufacturer. She showed it to her managers, suggesting their competitive marketing department might have a use for it. She was fired. Pauline paused in her story, drawing in several ragged breaths. Despite the illness, Pauline’s bitterness was tangible. Durrand had approached her. He said he’d heard of her work and was interested in it. He wanted to increase his exports to England, and her virus could be the key. What did she care about some English cows? She agreed to refine the virus for him. But then, when the work was done and the virus being tested, she’d learned that he intended to do the opposite – have infected meat fed to a group of English officials.

“What officials?” Emma asked.

An ear-splitting bang shattered the quiet room and Pauline slumped in the bed. Emma swung around to see a man holding Sally with his hand over her mouth and a gun to the side of her head. Sally’s eyes strained sideways to look at the gun barrel, then focused on Emma, then strained to the left, looking out into the hall.

“Let her go,” Emma said, “Libérez-la.”

As the man backed toward the door Sally looked directly at Emma, then strained her eyes back toward the door. Something – or someone – is in the hall, Emma thought, But is it friend or foe? She stood frozen, unable to approach the killer as he dragged Sally through the door. The pair disappeared and there was a loud crash. Emma dashed to the doorway.

Evie bent over Sally, who was sitting on the rug amid shards of pottery and crushed paperwhites. The cloying scent of the flowers permeated the air. Emma looked to the right to see the man nearly at the top of the stairs. She sprinted after him, reaching the landing as he was half way down to the foyer. Without allowing herself to think, she hurled herself over the railing, flying the twelve feet to the thick oriental rug below and curling into a roll as she landed. She somersaulted, crashing into the back of the man’s legs as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He was knocked flat, the gun sliding across the floor ahead of him. Emma scrambled over him, elbows and knees digging into his back as he tried to rise. She lunged for the gun as he tried to throw her off. Her hand closed around it and she rolled sideways and into a sitting position, aiming it at him.

“Hold it,” she said, taking one hand off the gun to sweep a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. “On the floor,” she added, getting her feet under herself and rising. She was aware of Sally and Evie watching her from the top of the stairs. “Sally, get two of Sir Peter’s belts,” she said, not looking up.

She waited, noting that the man turned his face to see that she was holding the gun on him. Shortly Sally came down the stairs with two belts and held them out. Emma shook her head. “Wrap one around his ankles and buckle it tight. That’s right,” Sally quickly secured the man’s ankles. “Now his wrists – behind him.”

She could see that the man was resisting Sally’s attempts to pull his arms behind him. She crouched down and pressed the muzzle of the gun against his temple. “Your choice. Belt or gun,” she said quietly. Sally looked alarmed, but Emma smiled with satisfaction as the man relaxed his arms and allowed the girl to secure them with the other belt. She’s probably telling herself I wouldn’t have shot him, Emma thought. Just as well.

She rose and stepped over the man, pocketing the gun, and bounded back up the stairs and past an unmoving Evie. Sally trotted after her. She touched Pauline’s throat and felt an inconsistent flutter in her vein.

“Pauline!” she said, gently squeezing the other woman’s shoulders. The wound in her chest was marked by a bloodstain spreading into the bedclothes. Pauline’s eyes slitted open.

“Get … François,” she whispered.

Emma leaned closer, “Tell me where,” she hissed. “Pauline, please.”

“Willows — ,” she whispered, her eyes closing as she spoke. Emma checked again for a pulse and found none. She straightened, looking at the dead woman as she searched her memory of the case file for the word Willow.

“Madam?” Sally’s soft voice reached her from across the room. Emma glanced over her shoulder at the girl, then reached down and pulled the sheet up over Pauline Duchamp’s still form.

She pulled the gun from her pocket and beckoned to Sally.

“I’m sorry I don’t have time to help you practice with this. But this is the safety,” she showed her how is worked, “Leave it on, but if you think you may need to use it, be sure to take it off before too late,” she said, pressing the gun into her secretary’s hands. “I think he was alone, but check all the windows and doors – be sure they’re locked.”

“What about her?” Sally asked, glancing at the bed, then quickly looking back at Emma. She held the gun awkwardly, but didn’t try to refuse it. Emma shook her head. “The team from the ministry will be here in about an hour. They’ll take care of her, and her friend downstairs.”

Emma threw a few days worth of clothes into a bag, dragging the telephone around her dressing room as she worked. She reported what Pauline had told her and asked the agent coordinating the case to search for references to “Willow.”

“There are three,” he said almost immediately. “We’ve fed all the case information into the new computerized data system to sort and analyze it. I have an alphabetical listing here.”

“What are they?”

“Three Willows Meats is a feedlot in the lowlands. Willow Lane Inn and Conference Center is hosting a holiday party for a group of agricultural industry leaders next week. Wind in the Willows is a caterer for a large party tomorrow night where the Minister of Agriculture is speaking.”

Emma paced back and forth between the racks of clothes, thinking out loud, “She told me to get Durrand. I asked her where, and she said ‘Willows.’ I don’t know whether he’d go to the feedlot where his virus is being fed to the animals. And Pauline could have been telling me where the event is, or even the caterer.”

“I can redirect our teams to these targets immediately,” the agent told her.

“Fine. I’ll meet the team at Three Willows Meats. Tell me their address.”

She took the address and hung up the telephone. Finally she stripped off the jumpsuit she’d been wearing for two days and changed into snug black slacks, a wool turtleneck, and a short, tailored black leather jacket. She slipped on black boots and put her small pistol in her jacket pocket. She carried her small bag back downstairs and found all three of her staff in the foyer. Evie was locked in a staring contest with the assassin, who had wiggled into a sitting position at the base of the stairs.

“I must go,” she said. “The ministry people will be here shortly. They’ll take care of Miss Duchamp, and him.” She nudged the man with her pointed toe. “I’ll call later,” she noted Anna’s fear and Evie and Sally’s concern. “I know this is upsetting, but please don’t worry. Everything will be fine here.” But not for me, not if I don’t find Steed.

Evie, Anna, and Sally stood on the front porch watching Emma speed away in her Lotus.

“Lady Emma is a spy,” Sally said thoughtfully, then glanced at Evie.

“It seems so,” the cook said, frowning.

“Do you think she married Sir Peter just to catch him?” Anna asked. Sally and Evie glanced at her, then at one another and smiled.

Chapter 8

The truck, which had been motoring steadily for about an hour, stopped with a clank of the canisters. Steed waited for it to move again as it had several times during the trip. But this time the engine was shut off. End of the road, Steed thought as he stifled a cough. He was sick, there was no doubt about it. He tried to recall what Tara had said about the virus. How long do I have before I go mad? A few days? Maybe less.

The truck has left the ferry some time ago and everything had been so quiet Steed had drifted off. He’d been awakened by the sound of the loading door slamming shut. He realized that he’d heard voices – probably the customs agent speaking to the driver. He chastised himself for not staying alert – he might have made contact with the agent and gotten the shipment seized. But the truck was starting up again before he could gather his wits, and then it was too late. 

This time Steed was wide awake when the loading door rolled up with a rumble. Steed climbed to his feet for a better view through the tall canisters. Two men began unloading, speaking very little as they worked. He couldn’t really tell if they were the same men as before. They removed the tall cylinders row-by-row, taking two away, then coming back for two more. Steed timed them between trips. They were away for an average of twelve seconds. Steed had no way of knowing whether they left sight of the truck, but he had no choice. As the men reached the row in front of him, he lay down and put his hands behind his back as if he was still bound and unconscious.

“‘ere ‘e is, then,” one of the men said as he shifted one of the canisters directly in front of Steed. They were different men, then, not the Frenchmen from before. So at least they wouldn’t hold a grudge.

“Still out cold,” the other said. “That’s convenient.”

Steed felt the familiar movement of the truck as the men rolled their canisters on handcarts down the loading ramp. The instant they disappeared around the side of the vehicle he rose and crept to the truck door. It was parked in a u-shaped loading dock surrounded on three sides by the wings of a large building. His watch said it was mid-day, but there was no one else around and the sides of the building facing the loading dock were windowless. The men had gone to the right toward an open door. He went left, heading across the loading area to another door. It was not locked.

He was shocked to find himself winded after the short dash. He closed the door and looked up and down a corridor that ran parallel with the outside wall. There were windows in the corridor looking into inner rooms – the one immediately across from the door he’d come in was dark, but he could make out desks and other office furniture. An inner door let in to the office. He tried it and it opened. He felt a tremendous need to go to ground – find a hiding place to rest. Never mind that he’d been “resting” for the last day and a half.

Another door in the office opened to reveal a custodian’s closet. Steed gathered the strength required to shift several boxes of cleaning supplies. By moving them away from the corner he created a relatively concealed hiding place. He closed the closet door, which appeared to have been cannibalized from somewhere else: it did not fit very well.

No sooner had he closed it than the office door opened and the lights came on. He slipped into his hiding place and waited.

Emma climbed into the Lotus and slammed the door. She grabbed the top of the steering wheel with both hands, gripping it tight, then releasing her right hand and pounding the wheel once. Hard. She leaned back in her seat and took a deep breath, watching the members of the ministry team through the windscreen as they climbed into the two black sedans that they’d come in.

Three Willows was a dead end. There was no sign of the virus canisters, no evidence that the feedlot did business with Agricultural Technologies. And no sign of Steed.

The other two Willow connections had also been false leads – teams had visited both and reported their results to the ministry. Emma started the Lotus and pulled out ahead of the sedans, quickly losing them on the winding road leading back to the highway and, eventually, to London. She returned to the ministry, barely pausing to show her identification in the reception area and striding purposefully to the bullpen where the coordinating agents were working. It was late in the evening; only a few desks were illuminated by individual lamps.

“Lady Emma,” Agent Smythe beckoned to her from a desk. He handed her a note. “You had a call from Nelson in Paris. He left this phone number, for Francois Durrand.”

“Thank you,” she glanced at the note and saw that it contained a Paris phone number – that was all. Durrand certainly had covered his tracks. She turned back to Smythe. “I would like to review a copy of the case file.”

“All right,” Smythe swiveled in this chair then rose. “We’ve continued to compile additional reports since this morning – each new datum is reproduced and filed here,” he lead her to a bank of filing cabinets. She looked skeptically at the carefully labeled drawers as Smythe went on, “Complete case files are compiled and updated for each team, here,” he pulled out one of the drawers and walked his fingers through the files within. He extracted a thick file and held it out to her. “This is your copy.”

“Thank you,” she said, sliding the folder into her tote bag. “I’ll be at Steed’s.”

Emma ate take-out curry as she read through the file. Reports from the agents eliminated one after another of the possible feedlots and events. She had to admit that they had covered a lot of ground that day, but in the end her clues from Pauline Duchamp were the most concrete information anyone had gathered. When she’d read through everything she tried Durrand’s Paris phone number – intentionally calling late to catch him at home. There was no answer. She lit a fire and moved to the sofa to start at the beginning of the file again.

Half way through she set it aside. She was too tired and worried to focus on the dry words on the pages, and her mind was wandering. She stared at the fire, momentarily lost in the yellow and red ribbons of flame. Then she noticed a cardboard box on the floor at the edge of the hearth. The word “Christmas” was written on the side in Steed’s neat hand. She swung her feet to the floor and examined it.

The top flaps were tucked under one another, but it was not sealed. Shrugging away any guilt over snooping – Steed had always welcomed her to make herself at home – she pulled open the flaps. A coil of artificial pine garland studded with pine cones and bits of holly surrounded a pair of angel figures and other Christmas decorations. So here’s Steed’s holiday display. Rather minimal.

She lifted the decorations out of the box and set them on the hearth. Then she rose and cleared the mantle of its clock and framed photographs. There was one of her and Steed holding croquet mallets at a garden party. It had been a friend of Steed’s party, and they had been an unbeatable team on the lawn. There was a top seeded tennis player who turned out to be a very sore loser. She smiled at the memory, touching Steed’s hands in the photo with her index finger. Then she placed it with the rest of the pictures in the box. She arranged the garland on the mantle with the angels and bright red ball ornaments. Tucking the box under the armchair, she settled back on the sofa to regard her work.

“Much better,” she said. And the simple decorations did make her feel better – hopeful, in a way. They implied that Steed was expected to return, that he would be pleasantly surprised, that the holidays would go on and they would be together. But none of that will happen if you don’t help him, she told herself. She picked up the file and tried to focus.

“Begin feeding the supplement to them immediately,” a French accented voice said. “The tests suggest that a few may advance more quickly, but you can butcher them early and use them as you wish, so long as we have enough for the banquet.”

The ill-fitting closet door allowed Steed to hear quite well.

“Sure, Mr. Durrand. We’ll add it to this afternoon’s mash,” an English man replied.

“Bon. Your lab is prepared for the blood tests?”

“We’ve scheduled staff round the clock – samples to be taken every hour. We’ll have no out-of-control animals here.”

“And where have you put the Englishman that my people put in the truck?”

“Ah, well, about him, sir. I’ve got my boys looking for him now.”

“What?” Durrand’s voice rose an octave and several decibels.

“My boys said he was there, tied up and unconscious, when they were unloading. But when they went back for him he was gone. Must not have been unconscious after all . . .”

“Indeed.”

“But he can’t have gone far – if he’s tied up and all . . .”

“IF he’s tied up. Your men are imbeciles. Let me see the truck,” Durrand’s voice grew fainter as he spoke, probably leaving the office.

Steed grimaced. They’d find his untied bonds in the truck. Then his grimace became a smile – any sane man would have taken off at a dead run if he could. They were not very likely to search for him in their own office.

The men returned some minutes later and Steed listened to Durrand berate the other man for his sloppy operation and vow not to leave the premises before the beef was ready for the banquet. Good boy, Steed thought. Won’t have to track you down later.

The outer door opened and closed, then Steed heard the sound of the telephone being dialed. He was suddenly preoccupied with stifling a coughing fit, and only able to concentrate on listening again after Durrand started speaking.

“– she’s dead,” the Frenchman was saying. “Oui. At the Peel estate.”

Steed stiffened, staring blankly at the boxes of floor cleaner that concealed him. She’s dead? Not my Emma. He shuddered, pressing a fist against his forehead. Get a hold of your self, man. You have to get out of here.

“No, our man was caught, but his backup took care of it. He saw the body removed… Oui… Oui… D’accord.”

A rattle indicated that the receiver had been hung up, then a chair scraped on the floor and creaked. Steed felt impossibly hot, his clothes constricting. He loosened his tie, which was already nearly undone, and tried not to breathe heavily. Perhaps I’m dreaming. A fever dream, he let his eyes close, realized he was letting go, realized he wanted to. Emma.

Emma started awake, realizing that the file she had been holding had slipped to the floor. Still reclining on the sofa, she rolled groggily onto her side and reached down to gather the scattered papers. A sheet from the middle of the long list of feedlots lay at the top of the pile. In the middle of the page, McCormick Purveyors, 11 Willow Alley, Salisbury popped out at her. She snatched up the sheet and brought it closer to the lamp. Willow Alley. She sorted through the rest of the papers to find the alphabetical listing of data from the ministry’s computer. She found the Ws. Willow Alley wasn’t listed. Reaching around the end of the sofa she found the telephone and dragged it to the floor. She dialed the ministry and asked for the coordinating agent.

“Good morning, Philip Decker here.”

“Agent Decker, this is Emma Peel… Good morning,” she frowned, then brought her wristwatch to her eyes. It was four a.m. Not what she considered morning. “Yesterday I asked for all references to ‘Willow’ in the files -.”

“Yes, Mrs. Peel, there’s a note here. Agent Ellison referred to the sorted data list.”

“I see. Well, I have here a reference to ‘Willow’ in the file that I was not given yesterday. Tell me, Agent Decker, did your computer not consider street addresses to be references?”

“No, ma’am. That is, I don’t believe street addresses were input into the sort field . . .”

“Indeed. Well I am going to McCormick Purveyors. If Durrand is there, you’ll want a team there, too.”

“McCormick Purveyors,” Decker repeated, then paused. “Oh yes. Here. They’re rated moderate, Mrs. Peel. We don’t have a team scheduled to go there until this afternoon.”

“I see. They’ll be rather late then, if it is the right place.”

Emma hung up the telephone receiver and swung to her feet.

Steed was certain that his head was in a vice. He opened his eyes to darkness and breathed deeply through his mouth several times, but the vice did not open. His legs were cramped under him and he couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep in such a position. Then he remembered. Emma. A cough racked him, his lungs rattling and phlegm rising in his throat. When the cough subsided he froze, listening. Silence.

He used the boxes to heave himself to his feet, then waited several minutes for circulation to return. While he endured the tingling in his toes he assessed his condition, and his situation. Feverish. Dehydrated. Splitting headache. Alone behind enemy lines. He stretched first one leg, then the other. A few challenges. He stepped to the closet door and cracked it open.

The office and the hallway beyond were dark and quiet. Steed went to the desk and picked up the telephone receiver. He preferred to handle things his own way, but he also knew he couldn’t rely on his reflexes or strength. He needed help.

The dial wouldn’t turn. Holding the receiver aside he bent to peer at the instrument. A small cylindrical lock in the first hole prevented the dial from rotating. Bloody hell! He hung up the receiver and turned toward the office door.

The next door down the corridor opened into an employee canteen. He made a beeline for the sink and filled a mug with water. He nearly choked on the first gulp, then downed three more mugs. Finally he looked at the mug, which had been sitting by the sink.

“McCormick Purveyors,” he read the logo on the side. Then stifled a laugh at himself. If he had been able to call the ministry, what would he have told them? I’m in a dark office in an unknown feedlot? He really did need some help.

He refilled the mug once more, drained it, and went back to the corridor. He already felt better. What did Durrand say? They’re analyzing samples in the lab every hour, and he isn’t leaving until the beef is ready. We’ll see about that.

The streets of London were very still as Emma navigated the Lotus through them to the outskirts and then south on the highway. The sky was turning grey when she pulled over along Willow Alley – which was, it turned out, lined with willow trees on each side – just down the road from a large building with a McCormick Purveyors logo on it. Cattle stood in large paddocks to either side of the road beyond the willows.

She left the car, top down despite the winter cold in case a quick getaway was necessary, and trotted up the road using the willows for cover. You’re being paranoid, she told herself as she studied the front of the building from behind the nearest tree. The windows were dark. There was one car parked in front, also dark. She darted across the open space out front and tried the front door. Locked.

She skirted the building, climbing a paddock fence and grimacing at the squishy ground on the other side. Over another fence a door in the side of the building was ajar. She peeked in to a dimly lit hallway, then entered.

The laboratory was the fourth door down the hall, Steed soon discovered. He stepped inside to the brightly lit room, blinking his eyes. The light hurt them more than it should, forcing him to squint. He almost missed the short, stocky man who stepped out from behind a storage cabinet across the room.

“Who are you?” he asked, accent identifying him as François Durrand. Steed drew himself up, knowing he looked disheveled.

“John Steed. Pleasure to meet you,” he strode purposefully toward Durrand, extending his hand. Durrand recoiled, eyes widening.

“Non!” he said, “you are ill!”

“It seems so,” Steed said. “That’s one of the things I want to discuss with you.” Summoning all of his strength, he clasped his hands and thrust his left elbow into Durrand’s abdomen. 

She’d taken five steps when a rough looking man wearing work clothes and a cowboy hat stepped out of a side door. He looked her up and down, a sly grin splitting his face, and reached for her. She dodged under his arms and drove her shoulder into his chest. He reeled back. She followed him, raising both hands to chop at either side of his neck. He staggered, and she followed up with a solid punch to his jaw. He collapsed on the floor. She bent to pick up his hat, started to put it over his face, then changed her mind and put it on her own head.

“Ooooff!” Durrand bent over from the blow, and if Steed had had the strength to follow it with another the Frenchman would have been finished. But Steed’s own head felt as if it was exploding, and he staggered back, clutching it with both hands. He felt Durrand grasp his shoulders and shove him toward the metal lab table. His head hit the edge and he fought to regain his balance as Durrand landed a punch to his stomach. He doubled over, another coughing spasm destroying any chance he had to retaliate. Durrand’s next blow was to the back of his neck. He lunged, grabbing Durrand around the waist in an attempt to knock him off balance. Durrand stayed upright, wrapping strong horseman’s hands around Steed’s throat. What airway he had left in his swollen head was instantly restricted.

A gunshot sounded, then another. Durrand’s grip loosened and Steed caught himself on the table, pulled himself upright. Durrand had fallen to the ground. Steed looked toward the source of the gunshots, still squinting at the light.

Emma blew on the muzzle of first one gun, then the other, then pushed the hat to the back of her head with one of them. Steed couldn’t help returning her sassy grin. Then another fit of coughing racked him.

Emma hurried to him, bracing his shoulders and looking into his face.

“Mrs. Peel,” he said between ragged breaths.

“Oh no,” she said.

Chapter 9

Emma strode purposefully through the bullpen full of ministry workers and made a sharp right down the hall toward Mother’s office. The guard outside his door saw her coming and opened it so she needn’t slow her pace. Watching her approach he had the impression she would walk right through the door if he didn’t open it. Fortunately, she was expected. She didn’t pause for long at the inner door, either, opening it herself despite a weak protest from Watkins at the adjacent desk.

“Emma!” Mother didn’t miss a beat at her abrupt entrance. He sat behind his immaculate desk, which was empty except for a sleekly modern phone finished in burnished stainless steel.

“Where is Steed?” she asked, stopping in front of the desk and planting her hands on its glossy surface in order to lean over it. She loomed over Mother, who did not appear to react. He smiled genially at her.

“Nasty business,” he said, sounding regretful. Emma’s nostrils flared as she glared at him. “You’re to be congratulated for solving the case, by the way.”

“Thank you. Where is he?”

Early that morning she’d half carried Steed to the front of the feedlot where, to her surprise, they were met by a team of ministry agents and specialists. Before she could react, Steed was bundled into one of their ubiquitous black sedans and carried away. The ministry people quickly turned the feedlot into a crime scene, impounding the laboratory, the feed, and the cattle. Emma had cooled her heels in the office for thirty minutes waiting for one of them to debrief her. Finally she had left. She’d returned to London and called the ministry to ask where Steed had been taken. She’d been told that there was no information available. She knew better than to call hospitals – they would not put him with the general population, not with the virus. So she’d made a courtesy call, warning the ministry that she was coming to speak to Mother. She was operating on auto pilot, exerting all of her energy toward the goal of finding and being with Steed. She knew it was irrational, but she believed that if she were with him, he’d hang on, pull through, and get better.

Mother gazed up at her, his seeming complacency contradicted by the intensity of his eyes. They drilled into her, seeming to read her thoughts. She didn’t flinch, returning the stare with an equally searching one. At last he broke eye contact and reached for the telephone.

“Give Lady Emma a medical pass and directions to the unit. Yes I know.” He replaced the receiver and looked back at her as she straightened and stepped back from the desk.

“Thank you,” She said.

“He’s in poor shape, they say. You should be there,” Mother replied. Emma’s hadn’t thought it was possible for her heart sink lower. She forced her expression to remain unchanged, nodding curtly and turning away. Only then did she allow herself to clench the inside of her lower lip between her teeth.

Watkins handed her a card and a piece of paper. “The medical unit is in this building,” he said, showing her the rather complicated directions. “This pass is very, very hard to come by,” he added.

“I understand,” she said, concentrating on the pass, and on keeping herself under control. “Thank you Watkins.” She turned away from him, regretting the seeming rudeness of not making eye contact. But she knew his face was filled with sympathy and she could not bear to look at him.

As promised, the medical unit pass raised a few eyebrows as she used it to get through two checkpoints and finally presented it at a nursing station in a buried section of a buried floor that looked exactly like a hospital. The white uniformed, pale complexioned nurse whose name tag said “Ripley” studied her pass, tapping one edge with an index finger and “tsk-tsking.”

“This is most unusual,” she said, handing it back and looking up at Emma inquiringly. “This patient is tagged ‘top hush, highest restrictions.’ And he’s very ill.”

“Nonetheless,” Emma managed, indicating the pass and raising her eyebrows in an inquiry of her own. The nurse pursed her lips and turned away, gesturing for Emma to follow. She stepped to a door behind the nursing station. A mesh-reinforced window revealed a patient in a bed surrounded by monitors and attached to several devices via plastic tubes.

The nurse peered up at Emma, trying to assess her. The last thing she needed was this – what? Agent? Family member? – passing out or turning into a weeping wreck. Emma looked calmly through the window at what she could see of Steed. One of the monitors beeped regularly in sync with a jagged green line jumping up and down across a screen. Seeing evidence that he was alive unaccountably raised Emma’s hopes. The nurse reached out and opened the door, waving Emma inside.

“We have not determined the vector for the virus,” she warned. “you should keep back, and don’t touch him.”

“I already have,” Emma said, walking directly to Steed’s bedside. The nurse frowned, then shrugged and closed the door.

He was breathing through his mouth with a damp, rattling sound. There were tubes in his nose and an IV taped to the back of his left hand. An oxygen mask lay on the pillow near his head. His eyes were closed, and his skin was yellowish grey darkening to a bluish hue around the eyes.

“Steed?” she said softly, touching the back of his right hand, which lay across his stomach. His eyelids slid slowly upward, then a small smile curled the corners of his lips.

“Mrs. Peel,” he whispered, “I thought I might have dreamt you, before.”

“I’m not that easy to get rid of, Steed,” she replied. Suddenly the despair and fear overwhelmed her. She dashed at her eyes with her left hand, leaving the right touching his. The contact was everything.

“Nor am I,” he said, reaching up to her face to wipe a tear off her cheek. She took his hand in both of hers and kissed his palm.

“This is so unfair,” she muttered, placing his hand gently back on the bed, but not letting go. She remembered, for a moment, the scene she had constructed during the drive with Gérard. Champagne, a warm fire, his arms around her. Whispering the simple little phrase that she had been withholding. She wanted that moment so badly, but now it might never come. He might never hear her say it. “Steed,” she whispered, bending closer to his face, “there’s something I must tell you.”

His eyes had closed, but he smiled again, “yes my dear?” His whisper was nearly inaudible. She was losing him, she was certain of it, despite the steady beeps from the machines.

“I love you, Steed,” she said, then touched his dry, warm lips with her own. There was no change. The beeps continued, his eyes remained closed. She straightened, giving his hand a last gentle squeeze, then backed away from the bed.

There was nothing more she could do but wait.

“Nurse, is there someone here for Mr. Steed?” a white-coated doctor glanced up from Steed’s chart he was studying. Nurse Ripley looked pointedly at the figure lying on the threadbare couch in the small seating area near the nursing station. She felt sorry for the tall brunette who’d arrived yesterday afternoon and never left. She’d gone off duty last evening certain that things would have changed by morning, but she’d returned moments ago to find her asleep on the couch. She’d just finished tucking a spare blanket around the woman – more than the night shift had done, apparently.

“Shall I wake her, doctor Harms?” she asked.

“No, that’s all right. I’ll take care of it,” he replied. He walked over and sat down in an armchair beside the couch. Oh dear, Nurse Ripley thought, it can’t be good.

The doctor reached out and gently shook Emma’s shoulder. “Hello?” he said, glancing back at the chart, “Are you Lady Emma Peel?”

Emma felt herself rising out of a deep, troubled sleep. Someone was shaking her. “Steed?” she muttered, wishing he’d stop and let her sleep.

“Yes, it’s about Mr. Steed,” doctor Harms said.

Emma’s eyes shot open. She sat up, rubbing her hands up over her face and through her hair. Then she focused on the doctor – a young, attractive man in a lab coat. He had a rather dark suntan, she noticed.

“What is it?” she asked, her voice nearly breaking as all the misery of the last day washed over her again.

“The lab has provided some more information about the virus that Mr. Steed is suffering from,” he said, putting the chart in his lap and looking into her eyes.

His were a lovely shade of green. Why am I noticing these things? She scolded herself.

“What information?” she asked, clearing her throat to stop her voice from cracking.

“We think Mr. Steed ingested the animal form of the virus,” he began.

“Yes, I suppose so,” she replied. During their short walk back at the feedlot Steed had said something about a canister spilling.

“The virus was designed to sicken, and then madden animals, primarily cattle. It also would have that effect, to varying degrees, on sheep, goats, and less effectively on horses,” he went on. She wanted to ask him to drop the biology lesson and tell her whether Steed was alive or dead, but manners, and an inability to focus her thoughts, prevented her.

“I’ve seen it have a nasty effect on a horse,” she said instead. He frowned at her as if wondering if she was quite awake, then went on.

“The virus mutates in the infected animal, and when the animal’s flesh is consumed the mutated virus affects the human who eats it. I believe there have been some cases of this process documented . . .”

“And if a human consumes the animal form of the virus?” Emma interrupted, patience at an end.

“It is not, necessarily, fatal. It does not seem to lead to the madness. It’s rather more like a very, very bad case of influenza combined with pneumonia.”

“So Steed . . .”

“Is much improved. Perhaps you’d like to see him?”

Emma tossed aside the blanket and dashed across the corridor to Steed’s room. She swung open the door and stopped just inside.

“Good morning Mrs. Peel!” he said brightly. He was sitting up in the bed, the monitors pushed back against the wall, the tubes gone from his nose. He was holding a folded newspaper in one hand and a pen in the other. “What’s a five-letter word for aeroplane?”

She leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed, regarding him.

“Do you have any letters?” she asked.

“Afraid not – I’ve only just begun.”

She pushed off from the doorframe and walked to him with measured strides. He clipped the pen to the paper and set them down on his lap, then reached out to take her hands. Their eyes locked in a shared gaze much different from the one she’d exchanged with Mother the day before.

“How do you feel?” she asked at last. His complexion was more normal, and his grip was stronger. In fact, it felt as if he might never let go.

“Weak as all hell,” he sighed, the jovialness replaced by resignation, then almost as quickly by something much sweeter. He brought his right hand to her face to caress her temple then slip under her hair at the back of her neck to draw her closer. She came willingly.

“They’ll probably scold me for this,” he whispered before kissing her. She savored his touch, but cut it short, bringing her fingers to his lips and smiling playfully.

“I’m sure they’ll scold me even more,” she said. “Do you remember that I was here yesterday?”

“I dreamt you several times over the last few days,” he said, shuddering at the memory of hearing Durrand say she was dead. It made him think of what he’d been pondering before she came in. “Now, about that desk job –.”

“No.”

He shook his head, forcing a smile at her stubbornness. She shrugged, and her expression suggested that there was something else on her mind — that she was disappointed about something. But she didn’t say anything. She leaned close again and placed a kiss on his forehead.

“I should go get your flat ready,” she said, both hands caressing his shoulders and sliding along his arms as if she wanted to be sure he was all there. “I’ll get some provisions in – you’ll need taking care of.”

“And you’re just the woman to do it, eh?” he asked.

“Just,” she agreed, squeezing his biceps, then stepping away.

“Mrs. Peel,” he called out when she was at the door. She paused, one hand on the doorframe, and looked back, “Mind that you store things in their proper places in my kitchen.”

She smirked at him, then walked away.

It was the following afternoon before the ministry doctors released Steed into Emma’s care. When they finally did, she helped him into clothes that she’d brought and drove him home. She had supplied his kitchen with soups and juices, brought in wood for the fire, and made sure the wine and liquor supplies were adequate. Of course the doctors told him no alcohol for a few days, and of course she knew he had no intention of following their orders.

She settled him on the sofa and made a fire, then brought him a bowl of soup, pre-made from Harrod’s food court. He ate it hungrily, and she was gratified to see color return to his cheeks. He urged her to join him in the meal, so she did, and did the dishes when they were done. Finally she succumbed to his requests that she keep him company. He shifted to the inside of the sofa so that she could take her accustomed position opposite him. They talked about the case, telling one another their individual adventures. She remembered to tell him that Gérard was concerned about him, and he picked up the telephone and called his friend.

“He’s invited us for a visit,” he said hanging up the telephone. “Fancy a bit of cycling in the Loire?”

“I fancy a bit of wine tasting in the Loire,” she replied with a smile. “I’ll do the cycling if that’s what it takes to earn the wine.”

He nodded, chuckling, “I think the cycling is to earn the pastries, actually,” he said, reaching down to caress her bare foot. She flexed it, encouraging him and he complied with stronger, massaging strokes. She watched him, her own hand idly stroking his calf through the blanket she’d tucked around him. She realized that they had come to the moment she’d pictured after all – they were cozy together in front of the fire. Tell him, she urged herself. The hospital doesn’t count.

“Where are you?” he asked, his voice soft as if trying not to intrude. She swung her legs off the sofa and rotated her position, snuggling in with him as he accommodated her by rolling onto his side, his back against the sofa back. He wrapped his arms around her, gathering her against him so their faces were nearly touching.

“Right here,” she whispered, holding her head back so she could look into his eyes. The twinkle was back, and the passion that threaded it’s way through her, warming her soul. “I love you, Steed,” she said, letting her lips brush his, then unable to stop them from a real kiss. He responded, his hand sliding up to cup the back of her head, pulling her close, demanding more. Her lips parted against his and they explored one another with intensity and familiarity. She lightly stroked his jaw with her fingertips, working them back to caress his earlobe. His sharp intake of breath told her that nothing had changed between them. And everything.

“I know,” he whispered, and she pulled back a little, frowning. “I heard you the first time.”

She reared away from him, hands against his chest, putting herself nearly off the edge of the sofa. “You’re a rat, John Steed,” she said, not meaning it. He chuckled, smiling evilly, and tried to pull her back, but she pursed her lips and shook her head. “No, you don’t deserve any more kisses,” she said, rolling over to put her back to him, then snuggling up against him just as close as she’d been before. He held her tight and touched his lips to the nape of her neck.

“You can’t blame for wanting to hear it again,” he said.

She sighed and closed her eyes, amazingly, deeply contented.

“What sort of house do you fancy,” he whispered, his lips tickling her ear distractingly. “Big, like the estate? Surely not that big.”

 “Ummm,” she agreed sleepily, “I need an office — room for Sally,” she said.

“How many bedrooms?”

“Enough,” she sighed, wondering what they were really talking about. “for Albert, Gordon, Julia, and Baby Brian,” she giggled. She felt him laugh too. She turned her head to look back over her shoulder at him. He smiled, pecking her on the cheek. “What are you talking about, Steed?”

“Just thinking ahead,” he whispered. “Go to sleep darling, I know you’ve not gotten enough rest the last few days.”

She frowned at him for a moment until he reached up and smoothed her brow with his finger, smiling encouragingly. Houses, she thought as she turned back toward the fire. And bedrooms. What do I want?

Steed awakened in his own bed for the first time in a week and stretched luxuriously. He was alone, and he didn’t hear water running in the bathroom, so Mrs. Peel must be up and about. She had sleepily protested sharing his bed on the pretense that he needed to rest, but he’d convinced her that he needed her close as well, and the sofa was so darned uncomfortable for really sleeping – which is what they’d done.

He got up and put on his bathrobe, which he found lying across the foot of the bed, then slipped his feet into slippers and ambled down stairs. He felt remarkably better until a round of coughing stopped him at the bottom of the stairs. Mrs. Peel poked her head out of the kitchen and studied him with concern.

“I was about to ask how you feel,” she said when he’d recovered. “Come have some tea. And there’s toast – I heard you coming.”

“Thank you Mrs. Peel,” he said, sitting at the small breakfast table as she set a mug of tea in front of him. He sipped and found it properly milked and sugared. She set a plate of toast in front of him; the marmalade and butter were already on the table. Hands wrapped around her own mug, she sat across from him and watched him butter his toast.

“I have some errands to run,” she said as he took a bite. “I’ll be back later to check up on you. I’ll call first, to see if there’s anything you need.”

He flipped through a pile of mail that he’d left on the table last week, pulling out a creamy white envelope.

“Do you have a party dress about?” he asked, opening the already unsealed envelope.

“Why?”

He held up an invitation and smiled, “The ministry holiday party is tonight. I thought we might go, then have some supper somewhere small, intimate, and very good.”

She took the invitation and read it. “Are you sure you’re up to it?” she asked.

“I think so. I can always cut it short, if not.”

“I think I can manage something to wear,” she said, mentally juggling her schedule for the day to include a bit of shopping.

Unlike many women, Emma did not think of clothes shopping as a hobby, but she did make a point of being fashionable and aware of where to find what she wanted. Between her meeting at the bank and a working lunch with her broker, she acquired several shopping bags containing a daringly sexy black dress with a trail of red stones from shoulder to hem like shooting stars, sheer black hose, and even sexier shoes. Arriving at her lawyer’s office in the afternoon she tucked them into a corner under his secretary’s watchful eye.

“Mrs. Peel, so good to see you,” Mr. Pennington rose and took her hand as she entered his office.

“And you too, Mr. Pennington. I’m sorry to have had to reschedule our appointment. Something came up last week.”

“Not at all, my dear. Your Sally is quite efficient, according to my Grace. Please sit down. Can I get you anything?”

“No, but thank you.”

“Well then, let me see what we have to discuss,” Pennington sat down behind his desk and opened a file that had been set squarely on the blotter. “Ah yes!” He looked up and smiled.

“Good news?” she asked.

“I think so,” he handed a sheaf of papers across the desk. “Your divorce. Your husband has signed the preliminary papers.”

Emma took the papers and leaned back in her chair to stare at the top page. There it was: Peter’s signature at the bottom. She flipped through the documents, noting his signature at each spot where it was required. No fight over property, no meetings around a stark prison table. She realized that she had been anticipating – dreading – having to participate in angry, bitter negotiations.

“How about that drink, then?” Mr. Pennington asked again. She nodded, unable to restrain her smile of relief.

“A brandy, please, Mr. Pennington,” she said. He pressed a button on his phone and asked Grace to bring one for each of them.

“Now then, I’ll file these. It will still be a few months before it’s final in the eyes of the government, of course. But that will give us time to conclude related matters.” Seeing her questioning look he went on. “Your in-laws have drawn up a contract for you to receive fifty percent of any profit from the Peel estate, once it opens to the public.”

Emma laughed, shaking her head at Mr. Pennington. Grace came in and set a snifter of brandy in front of each of them then withdrew. Emma took the moment to recover and think about what to do.

“It will be a very long time before the place turns any sort of profit,” she said, “the investors I’ve been working with, and the management company, will get most of it for a very long while. And after that, I don’t want it. It isn’t mine.”

“Well, it seems your in-laws are very grateful for all you’ve done, that’s what they say in the cover letter that came with the contract. What do you want to do?”

“I want any proceeds that are a result of that contract to go to charity.”

“Any charity in particular?”

She thought for a moment, then nodded. “The local school – in the village. In fact, I may want to contribute something myself. For language education.”

“All right. I’ll make inquiries,” in years of working for Mrs. Peel, and the Knight family, he had learned not to question seemingly capricious decisions like this. He was certain she had a good reason. “If there’s not a suitable charity in place, I’ll see about setting it up. It shouldn’t be difficult.”

Emma and Mr. Pennington reviewed the rest of their business as they sipped their brandy. When they finished he rose and came around the desk to take her hand.

“You seem well and happy, Mrs. Peel, I’m glad.”

“Thank you, Mr. Pennington. I am. And I think I shall be even better when this business with Knight Industries is concluded.”

“In your favor.”

“Yes, of course. I’m not willing to contemplate what I’ll do if it doesn’t go my way.”

“I shouldn’t worry, my dear. You’ve a tremendous capacity for new things. We’ll work something out to keep you occupied.”

Steed had just summoned the energy to examine his tuxedo when the telephone rang. The flat had been so quiet all day it startled him.

“Hello, Steed here.”

“Mr. Steed, it’s Amanda King.”

“Mrs. King! What a delightful surprise,” he sat down, knowing that any conversation with Amanda King would not be a short one.

“For me, too, sort of. I mean, Lee and I were called over quite suddenly. I was actually looking for Emma. I tried her home, but they told me she had not been in for several days.”

“Did they?” he drawled, unconsciously matching her speech pattern. “We’ll have to speak to them about that,” he added, not meaning to say it out loud.

“Pardon?”

“Oh, never mind. It’s just her staff shouldn’t tell unknown callers her business. I’ll suggest she speak to them about it.”

“Well, I wasn’t exactly an unknown caller. I mean, I introduced myself, and her cook remembered me, and we chatted a bit.”

Steed smiled. One of Amanda King’s talents was drawing information out of people. “I see. Well, in any case, Cook was correct. Mrs. Peel has been in London for a few days. But she’s not here just now.” He noted as he spoke that he hadn’t actually said she had been staying in his flat. As if Mrs. King wouldn’t assume it. Silly. “I’m expecting her shortly, but then we’re going out.”

“So are we, actually. You wouldn’t happen to be going to the ministry holiday party, would you?”

“Yes, we are. Are you?”

“Yes, since we’re here they invited us. Perhaps we can surprise Emma.”

“We could do – I won’t mention you phoned, and we’ll see you this evening.”

“Wonderful! I’m looking forward to it.”

When Emma stepped through the door Steed couldn’t help thinking there was something different about her. She looked radiant, although she was essentially the same as when she’d left that morning. She strode in and set down several shopping bags and her handbag, then held him at arm’s length to inspect him.

“Do I pass?” he asked, posing for her. He’d had to iron his jacket and he was, actually, a bit worn out. She leaned close to kiss him on the cheek.

“You look perfectly dashing,” she said, then scooped up her shopping bags and headed for the stairs. “I won’t be a moment.”

“Don’t rush. We have time. I’ll pour you a brandy.”

Steed held Emma’s arm as they entered the party more for his own security than hers. The swirl of gaily dressed guests and sparkling decorations was a bit overwhelming, reminding him that he was still recovering from the virus.

“Are you all right?” Emma asked, stopping him at the edge of the crowd. She looked concerned, which just wouldn’t do at such a lovely party.

“I’m perfectly fine,” he assured her. “Shall we find the bar?” she inclined her head in tacit agreement, but her expression remained slightly worried. He steeled himself against the sensory overload and guided her across the room.

The party was in the ballroom of a big, modern hotel. While the setting was not architecturally interesting, the holiday decorations combined with the music from the jazz combo and lighting effects made it quite festive. They had been fashionably late, so the crowds of agents and less covert ministry employees was already rather thick. They had progressed about half way to the bar, skirting the edge of the main crowd, when Steed spotted two familiar faces. He diverted Emma with a light pressure on the small of her back. She caught sight of Amanda and Lee and her face lit up.

“There you are!” Amanda declared as they approached. She took Emma’s hands and gave her a social kiss, then shook Steed’s hand.

“It’s good to see you both again so soon,” Lee said as he shook Emma’s hand and then Steed’s.

“And quite a surprise,” Emma said, glancing sideways at Steed, then at Amanda, “for some of us.”

Amanda laughed, “I called Mr. Steed’s apartment this afternoon hoping to find you,” she admitted. “We realized that we’d all be here, and decided it would be fun to surprise you.”

“And it’s a very pleasant surprise. Will you be in London long?”

“Oh I hope not,” Amanda sighed, then realized how ungracious that sounded and glanced at Lee. He shook his head ruefully.

“Probably not,” he said, “but you know how these things go. Steed, I suspect you were on your way to the bar. Why don’t we go get drinks?”

The two men departed, leaving Emma and Amanda to exchange knowing looks.

“I didn’t mean it’s not nice to be here,” Amanda explained. “It’s just so close to Christmas. My family really notices that I’m gone. And I miss them.”

“I understand,” Emma said, although it had been a very long time since she’d felt the tug of family during the holidays. “Parties like this are such an awful place to talk. Are you free at all tomorrow? Maybe lunch?”

“I’d love that – you know how nosey I am, I’d like to hear about how things are going with you. If you’d like to talk.”

“I think I would,” Emma nodded, thinking about Steed’s strange discussion of houses last night. “Yes. Shall I call you in the morning? Or you can reach me at Steed’s. I have some appointments in the afternoon.”

“I’d better call you. Who knows where we might be? And I can’t be positive I’ll be able to — .”

“Say no more. It’s understood,” Emma scanned the crowd, “for just about everyone at this party.”

Steed and Lee returned with glasses of champagne all around and they toasted one another’s good cheer. Shortly Lee spotted someone entering and excused himself and Amanda to go meet him.

“Do you know what they’re here for?” Emma asked when the Americans were gone. Steed watched the other couple greet a naval officer near the door.

“No, but I can guess. That’s Admiral Partridge. He heads up a special undersea unit.”

“Submarines?”

“More like special gadgets and goodies that go inside of them.”

“Hummm. Fun.”

“If you’re on his side. Quite likely our friends are here to oversee transfer of a prototype we’re sharing.”

“And who is that?” Emma nearly interrupted, indicating a new arrival coming through the door. Steed followed her gaze and groaned. What had caught Emma’s eye was a short man in a burgundy velvet suit over a white ruffled shirt. His shaggy brown bangs brushed the top of thick, black-framed glasses, and his crooked smile revealed badly kept teeth. Emma’s eye had also been drawn to his companion. Tara King was beside him. As they entered, several young women detached from the crowd and went to meet them.

“Powers,” Steed grumbled.

“And what is a Powers?” Emma asked, tossing Steed a sideways smile. He caught it and sighed, then took her arm and started toward the newcommers.

“An agent. NOT in my department. I can’t imagine what Tara is doing with him. Perhaps we can rescue her — if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all. I’m fascinated.”

“By him?”

Emma laughed, and the sound carried to Tara, who was looking everywhere but at her companion and the other women who were now surrounding him. She saw Steed and Emma approaching and left Powers’s side to meet them.

“Tara, baby, where are you going?” Powers called. She glanced back at him with an apologetic smile and hurried to meet Steed and Emma.

“Tara, what ever are you doing with him?” Steed asked, for the moment too surprised by the situation to remember to be concerned about Tara and Emma meeting.

“Mother’s orders,” Tara replied with a carefully schooled expression.

“He called you over from Paris for this?” Emma asked.

Tara chuckled, glancing at Powers, who was making his way through the room with a growing entourage. “No, I came over this morning to close some matters related to your case, actually,” she looked from Emma to Steed. “I understand it was a near thing. I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“You know I can’t resist a good party.”

Tara nodded, giving Steed an appraising look. “Well, Mother said Austin was distraught because his favorite girl in the secretarial pool got engaged. Mr. Exposition is on vacation, so Mother felt responsible. He asked me to see that Austin got here. I think my responsibilities have ended, though,” she watched Powers coming toward them with a drink in each hand.

“Maybe not,” Emma said, her arch tone drawing both Tara and Steed’s eyes. She shrugged and smiled at them, then nodded toward Powers, who seemed to take it as a greeting.

“Well hello!” he said, winking salaciously. He handed Tara a drink, then tipped his glass to Emma, “To you, my lady.”

Steed cleared his throat, “Lady Emma Peel, Austin Powers. Powers, Lady Emma,” he performed curt introduction. Emma gifted Powers with her most brilliant smile and offered him her hand.

“Lovely,” he muttered, bending over her hand and planting a moist kiss on the back of it. “Can I see you later?”

“No.”

Powers straightened, eyes wide with surprise. Emma retrieved her hand, her smile never fading. Tara’s face split into a grin, but Powers didn’t look at her. Instead he turned to Steed.

“Bit icy, is she?” he asked.

“Indeed. Sad thing,” Steed agreed, “But I think that little lovely over there is making eyes at you,” he pointed across the room at nobody in particular.

“Really?” Powers swung around, making a beeline for a group of women, Tara, and Emma’s rejection, completely forgotten.

“Good heavens!” Emma said when he was out of earshot. Steed cocked one eyebrow at her and Tara giggled.

“That was one for the WWEPD handbook,” she said. Emma grimaced and glanced at Steed, who had gone a bit pale. She had glossed over her meeting with Tara in Paris, and he had not asked about it. But it looked as if he, too, was familiar with WWEPD. And he never told me. That deserves repayment, when the opportunity arises.

“Can you explain to me what women see in him?” Steed asked.

Emma shook her head, “No. He’s definitely not my type.”

“He does remarkably well, though,” Tara added, watching Powers work his way through introductions with the group of women Steed had set him on.

Steed noted that his and Emma’s glasses were empty. He looked from Emma to Tara, realizing for the first time that they were in close proximity and no sparks were flying. “If I can trust you ladies to continue in this cordial vein, I will go find us another round,” he said.

“Dear Steed,” Tara said, mock pity in her voice as she smiled at Emma.

“Tara and I have reached an understanding,” Emma said. “I’m afraid you’re stuck with me, though.”

He cocked one eyebrow at her, then studied Tara’s knowing smile. “Then I’m not sure I should leave you two alone after all. It could be quite dangerous,” he said, taking Emma’s glass. Tara withheld hers, which was still half full, and watched Steed walk away.

“He’s not at all well, is he?”

“No. But he will get better, if I can keep him in bed — ,” she stopped short and looked embarrassed. Now it was Tara’s turn to cock one eyebrow at Emma. Emma was saved by a young man who was wending his way through the crowd toward them. He chose that moment to call out to Tara.

“Robbie!” she greeted him happily, winking at Emma as she turned away from her. Emma took the opportunity to melt into the crowd, meeting Steed on his way back from the bar and taking her glass.

“Let’s get a bite to eat, to absorb this,” she suggested.

They shared a plate full of mediocre appetizers and exchanged standard holiday party conversation with various other guests. Emma tried not to be obvious a she watched Steed, but he was clearly flagging. When the opportunity arose, she put her arm through his and leaned close to his ear.

“You’re exhausted, let’s go.”

He sighed and she felt his body relax. “I promised you dinner –.”

“I’ll take a rain check. I’m taking you home.”

He offered no resistance as she guided him to the door. They stopped at the coat check behind a man who was just arriving. He accepted his ticket from the attendant and turned around.

“Steed!” he said, a bright smile filling his handsome face. Brilliant blue eyes shifted from Steed to Emma and paused there.

“Good evening, Bond. I’d heard you were back,” Steed said. “May I introduce Lady Emma Peel. Lady Peel, this is James Bond, an associate.”

“How do you do, Mr. Bond,” Emma said. Steed was a touch put off by the sincerity of her greeting. It was the antithesis of the one she’d favored Powers with. The last thing he needed was James plying her with his not inconsiderable charm.

“The pleasure is mine, my lady,” Bond said, his brows knitting in concentration, “Have we met before?”

“I don’t believe so,” Emma replied.

“Hummm. Peel,” his expression changed to one of recognition, “Any relation to the Sir Peter Peel that — .”

“My ex-husband,” Emma replied quickly.

“I see. Just as well, I suppose,” he nodded, then glanced at Steed, who was staring intently at Emma. “So, who’s inside?”

Steed started, turning his attention back to the other man, “quite a crowd. You’ll find that tiresome Powers fellow in the middle of things.”

“And the more interesting characters around the edges,” Emma added. Bond chuckled, peering through the open ballroom doors.

“I’ve not heard much good about this Powers fellow, and now you’ve added flame to the fires. M’s asked me to take him under my wing.”

Steed’s eyebrows rose in alarm, “You refused, I trust.”

“I tried, but you know how persuasive –.”

“It’s inconceivable. You’ll understand when you meet him.”

“Which I suppose I should get over with,” Bond sighed. He faced Emma and took her hand raising it to his lips. “My lady.” He nodded a farewell to Steed and strode into the ballroom. Emma watched him go while Steed retrieved their coats. She seemed lost in thought until he set her coat – his coat, he noticed now – around her shoulders. She slid her arms into it and turned to face him.

“Now he’s my type,” she said as he shrugged his own coat on.

He stopped, hands on the middle button, looking at her, “EX-husband?”

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