This story copyright © 2003 Mia McCroskey
The characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.
Steed takes a fall
Emma takes a delivery
“Miss Knight, can you describe for the court the events of the afternoon of April twenty-third, nineteen seventy-two?” The prosecutor’s sonorous voice reminded Emma of a minister delivering a sermon. Ignoring the twinge of her baby kicking within her she cleared her throat to speak.
“I was meeting with two of my senior staff members – Mr. Benson and Mr. Harper. Miss Howard, my newly hired assistant, arrived at my office to speak briefly to me, so I asked the gentlemen to continue their discussion while I spoke to her.”
The lawyer nodded encouragingly and Emma thought back once again to that awful day. She had rehearsed this mentally over and over again since receiving notice of the trial, but it had not gotten any easier.
“Miss Howard and I sat on the sofa in my office. Mr. Benson and Mr. Harper stayed in the chairs in front of my desk. We heard a disturbance in the outer office – Miss Howard had left the door ajar.
“Mrs. Emerson, my secretary, was trying to prevent Mr. Birch from coming in, but he ignored her. He was carrying a gun that he aimed at me.”
Emma’s heart pounded and a lump formed in her throat. She put her hand over the top of her belly and swallowed hard, then took a deep breath.
“Are you all right, Miss Knight?” the judge asked quietly. She turned her head toward him and saw concern in his eyes. She nodded, then looked back at the jury. Evan Birch had tried to kill her. She had every intention of telling them about it.
“Mr. Birch said that he had tried to discourage me from getting involved with Knight Industries, but –.”
“Objection! Hearsay, my lord!” the defense attorney barked.
“My lord, Miss Knight has been asked to tell us her recollection of events – she must include what she heard the defendant say. He will have his opportunity to speak,” the prosecutor said calmly. The judge nodded, the corners of his eyes pinching as he squinted at the defense attorney.
“Objection overruled. Go on, Miss Knight.”
The prosecutor smiled encouragement at Emma and she took a breath to go on.
“He said he had tried to discourage me from returning to Knight, but that I hadn’t listened. I told him I would not give up. He said he would not either.”
“Were those his exact words, and yours?” the prosecutor asked, and Emma sensed a trap. She quickly thought back over what she’d just said, and realized she’d said it differently the first time. She honestly could not remember the exact words that she and Birch had exchanged that day. He had called her a foul name – perhaps a bitch – but she really didn’t remember exactly what. The ministry knew, of course, because there had been a bug in her office that afternoon and they had a tape of the entire episode. But they had not released it to the court. There were enough witnesses to Birch’s actions to convict him without it.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t remember the exact words that either of us said.”
“Very well, Miss Knight. Please continue.”
“He raised his gun toward me and Mr. Benson tried to stop him. Mr. Birch shot Mr. Benson in the leg and Mr. Benson fell back onto Mr. Harper. I took the opportunity to attack Mr. Birch.”
There was a low murmuring among the spectators and several of the jurors exchanged puzzled glances.
“You believed you had a good chance of overpowering Mr. Birch, Miss Knight?” The prosecutor interrupted her.
“Mr. Birch was distracted. I gained the advantage of height by climbing onto the coffee table before he could return his attention to me.”
“Miss Knight,” the prosecutor asked, “Is it true that you are an expert in martial arts and other forms of self defense?”
This satisfied the puzzled jurors, although several seemed to be amused at the vision, inaccurate as it was, of the pregnant woman hurling herself across a coffee table.
“Thank you Miss Knight. Please go on.”
“I tackled Mr. Birch, but he regained his feet and threw me into the chairs by the fireplace. And then he shot me.”
The prosecutor let the silence that fell in the courtroom draw out. Emma shut her eyes and took a deep breath, struggling to suppress her memories of the next few moments.
“Can you tell us what happened next, Miss Knight?”
Emma’s eyes shot open and she glared at the lawyer. He had not warned her that he would ask her to go on. She felt her heart begin to race again as the suppressed memory surged forward. The words spilled out unbidden.
“Steed was there, so I remember thinking that everything would be all right. He helped Sally cover the bullet wound in my chest, to try to stop the bleeding. And then he had to leave,” she frowned for a moment, and then the reason rushed back. “He had a prisoner with him, and the prisoner escaped so he had to go after him. I passed out after that.”
“Miss Knight,” the prosecutor placed his hand lightly on hers on the edge of the witness stand. Emma looked up at him, her expression slightly dazed. Her head was buzzing with the same rushing she’d felt on that day. She realized as she looked at the lawyer and the rushing faded that she was feeling faint. He squeezed her hand ever so slightly, tugging her back to full consciousness.
“Miss Knight, tell us who ‘Steed’ is.”
“John Steed,” she said, understanding why he was asking. “He is my husband. He was my fiancé at the time.”
The prosecutor nodded at her and turned back toward the jury. “We will hear from Mr. Steed, who is involved in security, later,” he explained. Emma followed his gaze and realized that several jurors wore satisfied expressions or slight smiles. They were wondering if I’m unmarried and pregnant, she thought, astonished. As if it matters!
The prosecutor asked Emma a few more questions to tie up loose ends in her narrative, then dismissed her. She stepped out of the witness stand, helped by the bailiff, and then walked through the courtroom. She was well aware of all the eyes upon her, but such attention was much easier to endure than the spotlight of the witness stand.
As she stepped out of the courtroom Steed arose from the bench across the corridor where he’d been seated. He stepped to her and guided her to the bench to sit down.
“Well?” he asked, “You look drained.”
Emma leaned back on the uncomfortable seat and shut her eyes.
“I can’t believe how tiring it was,” she said, then opened her eyes to look him.
“Well, it’s over now,” he offered.
“The defense questioning will be worse.”
Steed slipped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed, unwilling to make a more demonstrative gesture in such a formal, public space.
“They’ll call me next,” he said, and as he spoke the courtroom door opened and his name was called. He pressed a kiss on her temple and got up to go inside. Emma remained seated for a few minutes, then got up to find the toilet. Steed found her back on the bench a half hour later.
“How did it go?” she asked, rising to meet him.
He shrugged. “I’m used to these things,” he said, and she realized that he must be. It was another aspect of his business that he had always shielded her from – only rarely had she been called to testify in the trial of one of their suspects.
“It’s late in the day,” he said. “The judge will probably adjourn until tomorrow.”
“So we’ll have to come back,” she sighed and he nodded, wrapping his hand around hers.
“Look on the bright side,” he suggested, “They’ll call Sally tomorrow, so you’ll have her to keep you company.”
The courtroom doors opened and the spectators began to come out. A bailiff crossed to Steed and Emma to tell them that the court had, indeed adjourned for the day. Steed guided Emma toward the courthouse entrance. They were quite distinctive as they stepped outside, Emma in her navy blue linen maternity dress and Steed with his bowler and umbrella in hand. The reporters lingering on the steps couldn’t miss them. They swarmed like pigeons on breadcrumbs, blocking Steed and Emma’s descent to the sidewalk.
“Miss Knight, was it difficult talking about that day?”
“Miss Knight, do you think Mr. Birch will be convicted?”
“Miss Knight, is this your husband?”
“When is your baby due, Miss Knight?” Emma glanced toward these last two reporters and recognized them as from society papers. The rest were hard newsmen. Steed stood on the step behind her, his hand resting discretely on the small of her back, his face a neutral mask.
“It was difficult to speak of the events prior to Mr. Birch’s arrest, but I am dedicated to seeing justice served,” Emma said. Steed was relieved that she had regained her composure – perhaps it was the reporters that brought out her executive instincts.
“So you believe he’ll be convicted?”
“I believe he is guilty of several crimes, and I have faith in the jury to reach the right decision. And yes,” she looked toward the society reporters, “this is my husband, and my baby is due at the end of September. If you don’t mind, I really do wish to get off my feet.”
The reporters parted for them and they descended the steps to the black sedan waiting by the curb.
“Stable Mews, please,” Steed told the driver as they pulled away, then he glanced at Emma for agreement. “We do have to come back in the morning,” he added.
“I shall have to make some calls,” she said. “Mrs. Emerson will have to cancel my meetings for tomorrow afternoon – just in case this thing drags on. You don’t mind my not introducing you to that lot, do you?”
Steed reached over and took her hand, an amused smile curling his lips. “You know I prefer anonymity, darling. I’m sure my role in all this will be in the papers anyway – there were reporters in the courtroom, too.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m not sure how I feel about the world knowing that I’m married to a spy,” she said carefully. Steed studied the side of her face for a moment, trying to decide how to take that. “I’m thinking of the shareholders, darling, and other companies. Competitive companies will always assume I have inside information on government contracts. I shall have to continue to rely on Edmond as a negotiator. Now there’s irony for you.”
Steed raised her hand to his lips, understanding dawning and sympathy for her awkward position helping him to suppress a little spark of anger. His being a spy had never bothered her before. He wanted to point out that an enterprising researcher could easily discover her own intelligence career, but he refrained. He knew it was the stress talking.
They had recently discovered that Edmond Stanton, Emma’s chief negotiator at Knight, had lied about ending his career in military intelligence with the war. He was active after that, and could still be. Steed didn’t want to pursue that line of conversation with Emma just then, both because the ministry driver could overhear, and because he had not yet had a chance to follow up on the matter.
“If anyone asks those at the MOD with whom Knight negotiates, they will attest to your absolutely above-board dealings,” he assured her. And if they don’t, I’ll see to it that they never negotiate another contract again.
“Comfortable Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked, handing her the glass of soda with lime that she’d requested. To his eye she looked positively regal, ensconced in their box in a linen suit that managed to make her pregnant form look alluring and a daring hat of formed straw that shaded her without hiding or detracting from her beauty. She took the glass from him with a happy smile and he settled down beside her.
“Certainly darling,” she replied. “It’s a perfect day. I was afraid it would be brutally hot, but it isn’t.”
Steed nodded, scanning the crowd of race-goers all around them. He had rather enjoyed dusting off his morning suit and top hat for the day at Ascot. And if he’d been a little concerned that his pregnant wife would feel awkward amid the glamour and finery he’d been quickly disabused of the idea. She’d attracted admirers as they’d strolled in her hand resting formally on his arm. Old friends and acquaintances hurried to greet them and comment on her condition. And shortly their growing escort began to include complete strangers who were drawn to the bevy of activity around them. Some clearly thought they must be royals or television celebrities for all the attention they were receiving. Steed was amused by the disappointed expressions on the strangers’ faces when they realized, sometimes after strolling with the group for quite some time, that the focus of all the attention was “not anybody special.” He heard the phrase muttered more than once, and he hopped Emma did not. She is someone special, and not just to me.
As if to prove his silently made point, a reporter with a camera had pressed into their little crowd and asked her for a photograph and a quick word. He addressed her by name, clearly recognizing her as the head of Knight Industries. Steed stepped away from her as she posed for the photograph straight on so that the bulge of her pregnancy was not so obvious. When the reporter was done she reached for Steed and he realized as he retook her hand that she was not as steady and composed as she appeared.
He’d squeezed her hand against his arm and guided her to their box, expressing final greetings to the hangers-on who trailed along until they all dissipated – some by choice, some because they lacked the proper credentials to enter the box seats. And then, once they were seated, it had started all over – a ceaseless parade of well-wishers from among the boxes came over to greet them. Emma had begged Steed to fetch her the soda, and he’d come back to find her blissfully alone.
“What have you done to them all?” he asked quietly, leaning close.
Emma smiled slyly. “I sent them on errands. We should have champagne and biscuits shortly.”
Steed chuckled and looked out across the racecourse.
“I’m afraid I shall have to leave you to it for a few minutes,” he said. She nodded, also scanning the course and the crowd.
“I’m sure I’ll be looked after,” she replied, then faced him with a brilliant smile. “It’s lovely to be out. Thank you for bringing me.”
“My dear, I couldn’t have appeared here without you! Imagine the gossip that would have generated. I’d be branded a heel, enjoying myself here while you’re at home pregnant.”
“I’m grateful just the same,” she said, looking out at the racecourse again. She knew that the Steed she’d first met, the one Cathy Gale had described to her, would not have given it a second thought. He’d have come to his meeting and reveled in the fine company, flirting with every woman in sight without a thought for his female partner. Just then, out of the corner of her eye she caught him smiling at a pretty young woman two boxes over and one down. Some things will never change, she thought as she overtly smiled at the young woman too. That will confuse her.
“You have a malicious streak,” Steed nearly whispered near her ear, and she realized he’d seen her smile.
“Just keeping you in check, darling,” she replied, still smiling. He picked up her hand and brought it to his lips, capturing her gaze as well, his grey eyes sparkling with affection and amusement.
“Here comes your friend Freddy Leighton – he’s the one you sent for champagne?” Steed’s brows rose as he watched Emma’s old friend approach with an ice bucket in one hand and several champagne flutes in the other.
“Yes darling, he was quite willing.”
“I’m sure he was,” Steed made a show of looking jealous, but he couldn’t carry it off. Lord Freddy had deeply disapproved of Emma’s attraction to Steed, but he had come to accept it in the weeks prior to their wedding. Emma ignored Steed, flashing Freddy a welcoming smile as he neared them. Steed stood up, leaning close to Emma’s ear, “I’ll leave you to visit – I shouldn’t be long,” he said. Then he straightened and greeted Freddy, gesturing at his seat. “I have to attend to some business, my Lord, will you take my seat and entertain my lady?” he asked.
“You hardly need ask, Steed,” Freddy replied, handing Emma the ice bucket with its chilled bottle in order to shake Steed’s hand. Steed left the box disappointed that he’d miss out on the champagne Freddy had brought. But duty called.
“Yes sir, he’s a powerful one,” Mike Gambit drawled, sucking on the bit of straw in his mouth as he stroked the horse’s forelock. Steed stood rigidly in the straw, feigning slight discomfort with his surroundings. They were in a barn with grooms coming and going all around them.
“But is he fast, Mr. Hamilton?” Steed asked stuffily. He very much wanted to stroke the horse’s sleek neck to feel the hard muscle underneath, but he stayed his hands. “Torcello,” he said much more quietly.
“Oh, fast as can be, I’ll wager,” Gambit said, and then, sotto voice: “What of it? I’ve been out of there for months.”
“Yes, I’ll bet you do wager. But what about his record?” Steed said, taking a stiff backward step as the horse, which seemed quite docile, snorted. “But what did you learn? What’s there?”
“It’s solid enough, sir. Eighteen races, five firsts,” Gambit stroked the horse’s muzzle. “It’s in my report, I’m sure you must have read it, Steed.”
“And the other thirteen? Reports rarely tell the whole story, Gambit. I want your personal observations.”
“He got a second last month,” Gambit said, sounding like he didn’t want to answer the question. “Monks who grow herbs, Steed, that’s what I observed. I delivered supplies and took off the goods they make.”
Steed eyed the horse, stepping further away on the pretense of walking around it. It was a beautiful animal, and Steed felt the usual temptation to acquire it. But he’d learned to suppress that desire during his years of bachelorhood. And now his stable didn’t really have room for any additions. Besides which, flat racing, aside from the pageantry of the viewing stands at Ascot, was not really his thing. He withdrew a card from his inner coat pocket and extended it toward Gambit.
“Have the owner telephone me,” he said, then added quietly, “come out to my house tomorrow afternoon.”
“Yes sir. Shall I tell him you’ll be making an offer?” Gambit asked, reaching for the stall door. “Tomorrow’s my first day off in four weeks,” he grumbled quietly.
“Yes I know,” Steed smiled. “Just let him know I’m interested.”
Steed had seen the agent’s report, and it had read just like one of his – concise, specific, and lacking in any useful speculation. Last fall Steed and Emma had concluded a case that had included a clue related to a much earlier case of theirs. They had both been dissatisfied, years ago, when they’d been unable to trace the forger who’d produced key documents. At the end of the second case when Steed begged the dying villain to reveal the source of his forged documents he’d said one word: Torcello.
Since the first set of forgeries had appeared in Venice, Steed had decided it was not a coincidence. So Mike Gambit, a fairly junior operative, had been set up to infiltrate Torcello, an island in the Venetian lagoon inhabited by a monastic community. He’d been set up as a boatman and started making deliveries to it on a daily basis. Steed was sure he had more to reveal than was in his report, but he’d been unable to meet with Gambit for months. The junior agent had been sent from one posting to another, constantly working undercover. Noting his endless, exhausting assignments Steed had wondered if Gambit had done something to offend Mother. And when Steed had learned that Gambit was working on a case with the English racing authorities he’d grabbed the chance to track the man down.
That he was now going to impose on Gambit’s rare day off did not concern Steed at all. Feeling buoyed by his success at making contact with the other agent, Steed returned to the viewing stands where the first race had just concluded. Emma was surrounded again, looking an awfully lot like she was holding court. Steed hoped that the real royals, seated not all that far away, were not offended by the competition.
“Is this an interview, Mrs. McCall?” Sally asked, sinking into the rigid chair facing Tara’s desk. She had received instructions that morning to go immediately to Paris for a meeting with the Paris bureau chief, who had instructions for her. This was, James had warned her, the last phase of training – real fieldwork, albeit minor stuff, performed on her own. She was grateful to him for having taken her to a few meetings before this. Seated on the airplane – she’d elected to fly in order to get there faster, since the instructions seemed to stress immediacy – she mused about how not so long ago – less than eighteen months – she had been excited about venturing up to London on her own.
Now Tara’s round, blue eyes regarded her for a long moment. Sally sat still, enduring the other woman’s gaze by imagining it was Emma she sat across from. Emma’s scrutiny was much harder to sit through, but she’d learned to do it. So she could handle Tara.
“Call me Tara, Sally,” she finally said, opening an upper desk drawer, then closing it a bit fast. Sally suppressed a puzzled frown.
“Tara,” she repeated with a nod. She’d been more formal because this was business, but she was by nature an informal person, and she felt that she knew Tara well enough to be on a first name basis.
“It is not an interview per se,” Tara went on. “But you have listed Paris as one of your desired assignments, so I have a small job for you.”
“So it’s a test.”
Tara inclined her head, her hand reaching for the drawer again before she stopped it, pressing it into her lap. This time Sally did frown and Tara caught the look.
“I have promised my husband that I will quit smoking,” she explained. “I used to keep cigarettes in that drawer. He pasted a picture of a tubercular lung inside. It’s quite off putting. Here, look.” She opened the drawer and beckoned Sally to come around to her side of the desk. Sally got up and looked at the photograph of the shriveled black lung inside the drawer.
“You could just cover it over with papers,” she said.
“Or my cigarettes!” Tara barked out a laugh. Sally moved back to her chair. “No,” Tara went on, “I’m really trying. He’s right, it is a bad habit.”
“I never liked it – I tried it for a while, but I don’t like the smell,” Sally said. “I can smoke, if I have to,” she added hastily. Tara nodded.
“One of the many things you need to be able to do and look like you’re enjoying it,” she agreed. “Now, about the assignment.”
Tara went on to describe what Sally was to do, omitting a great deal of detail. Sally soon realized that the test was of her resourcefulness as she found her way around the city based on Tara’s relatively vague direction and identified contacts based on sketchy descriptions. She absorbed everything Tara said, committing it to memory using techniques she’d been taught. Eventually Tara glanced at her watch and stood up.
“You need to get going. I’ll walk out with you. I have to go walk Pierre.”
Sally followed her out of her office. “Pierre?” she asked.
“Robbie’s annoying little dog. He adopted him from outside a café the last time he was here. I told him he’d have to take him back to Nice, but somehow the damned thing seems to have stayed with me.”
“It doesn’t sound like you’re very happy about it,” Sally said sympathetically as they reached the street. Tara adjusted the knot in the colorful scarf around her neck and smiled.
“He needs walks and feeding and cleaning up after,” she said. “And all the time I’m doing it I’m thinking of Robbie.” She shrugged and glanced up and down the street, then leaned closer to Sally. “The truth is, I think he planned it that way. Either that, or he thinks I’ll get fed up and come to Nice to bring the dog to him. Now, here’s a clue – you need to go that way.” She pointed to the left, grinned, and headed off in the other direction, then she stopped and turned back toward Sally, “And by the way, you passed the first test by getting here so fast. Congratulations.”
Sally sucked in a deep breath, smiling as she looked in the direction Tara had pointed. Then she stepped back into the building entrance to get out of the way of other pedestrians and pulled a small Paris street map from her bag.
Mike Gambit stopped his Jaguar on the road outside the gate and looked again at the address on the card Steed had given him. He knew Steed by reputation only, and the house that he could barely make out through the trees matched the descriptions he’d gotten from other agents. Some of them called Steed the Old Fox, a reference both to his skill as an agent and his good fortune at marrying his beautiful one-time partner, Emma Knight.
Much as he resented being called to this command performance, he was very curious to see Steed in his home. And Gambit was far too smart not to realize that Steed as an ally was infinitely better than Steed as an adversary. The Old Fox had the power to make or break him.
The big, ornate front door squeaked open to reveal a cool, elegant entry hall inhabited by a very pregnant Emma Steed. Her appraising stare stopped him in his tracks. He had never thought of pregnant women with anything but filial respect, but Mrs. Steed’s gaze radiated such intelligence and her features were so lovely he hardly noticed her swollen form. He flashed her his signature flirtatious smile and her face split into a wide grin. He suddenly had the impression that she was amused by him.
“You must be Mike Gambit,” she said in a friendly tone.
“Yes ma’am. And you must be Mrs. Emma Steed,” he replied, going for smooth but not sure he hit it. Her continued good humor suggested that he looked to her like a schoolboy called to the headmaster’s office. It was certainly how he felt.
“Come in. He’s in the library,” Emma said, making it sound as if this should have some significance. He stepped inside and Emma shut the squeaky door. “This way,” she said, turning to lead him through the house. He followed, intrigued by the way her hips swung as she walked. She did not look awkward. In fact, from the rear he could not even tell she was pregnant. His face turned crimson when he realized she had stopped and was looking at him.
He cleared his throat, struggling for something to say. But she spoke before he could.
“Whatever you’ve heard about him,” she said, her voice slipping down an octave, all breathy and seductive, “is entirely true.”
His eyes locked with hers and she winked, then pushed open the door she’d stopped in front of.
“Steed?” she called, looking around the room. Over her shoulder Gambit saw that the walls were lined with books. Heavy, comfortable looking furniture formed two seating areas – one was a collection of chairs and a sofa grouped for conversation. The other was defined by a big old desk with guest chairs facing it. At first he thought the room was uninhabited, but then a movement halfway up the far wall caught his eye. John Steed was descending a library ladder, a book in his hand.
“Mr. Gambit is here to see you,” Emma said as Steed reached the floor.
“Excellent. So good of you to come, Gambit,” Steed said, setting the book on the desk as he crossed the room. Emma stepped aside and Gambit had the sensation of being exposed by her to her husband, although he hadn’t thought he was hiding. Steed seized his hand and shook it, then, glancing at Emma, guided Gambit into the room.
“Have a seat,” he gestured at the seating area and Gambit exhaled a small sigh. At least it wouldn’t be like an interview, with Steed behind his big desk. Gambit sat down in one of the armchairs. Steed crossed the room to a small wooden trolley bearing decanters and glasses. “What’s your tipple?” he asked amiably. Gambit realized he was watching Mrs. Steed, who had crossed the room to the desk. Steed followed his gaze.
“Emma is fully versed on the details of this case,” he said. “And since I’ve already evicted her from her desk for half the morning, it’s only fair to allow her to get back to work while we talk.”
Emma smiled at Steed as she pulled out the big desk chair and sat down. Gambit felt his mouth hanging open and closed it, forcing his eyes to return to Steed. The senior agent held up a glass and smiled inquiringly.
“Scotch. Please,” Gambit managed. Now he had the feeling that both of the Steeds were amused at his expense. He lowered his eyes to his hands in his lap and tried to breathe normally. Shortly a glass was being held in front of him and he took it, smiling with mild embarrassment at Steed. But the other agent had grown serious. He crossed to the other armchair and sat down, crossing his legs, his own glass held in his lap.
“Several years ago Mrs. Peel and I became involved in a blackmail scheme while visiting Venice,” Steed said, his eyes flicking to his wife as he referred to her, then back to Gambit. He paused, waiting, Gambit thought, to see if he would question who “Mrs. Peel” was. But at least he had been prepared for that – several people had warned him of Steed’s penchant for referring to his wife by her former formal name. “It was an unfortunate episode in which both the victim and the blackmailers were killed, and the forged documents were destroyed, although not before we had a good look at them.”
Gambit nodded, knowing there was more. He took a sip of his drink and felt himself smile. It was excellent scotch, much better than he typically bought. Steed obviously read his impressed expression and nodded acknowledgement of it.
“Ten months ago another case included forged documents. They were supposed to be of the same era as the previous batch, and they had a look and feel that was similar. We – Mrs. Peel and I – were convinced that both sets of documents were produced by the same forger. The villain in that case was also killed, but before he died I asked him where he got the forgeries. All he said was Torcello.”
“So I was sent there,” Gambit said, the scotch lending him a bit of confidence.
“You were sent there,” Steed confirmed.
“And I filed a proper report,” Gambit added. Steed sighed, taking a sip of his drink and peering at Gambit from beneath his expressive eyebrows. Gambit felt like a slow pupil again.
“My written reports rarely come close to describing the experience, wouldn’t you say so darling?” Steed smiled at his wife. Emma, who held a pen over a pad while studying an open file, glanced up and smiled back.
“Definitely. Dry and factual, that’s what you seem to strive for. If I weren’t there with you, I’d think your work was most exceedingly dull,” she said.
Steed looked back at Gambit. “So let’s take it from the start. Tell me about your days on the lagoon.”
“He’s a nice fellow, if a bit of a playboy,” Emma said some hours later. Steed had kept Gambit talking for so long Emma had gone to the kitchen and prepared a light supper for them all. She served it at one end of the table in the big dining room, and while they ate Gambit seemed to relax and enjoy himself. After supper Steed had ushered him into the study for a cigar and a final chat. Emma had stayed away, having sensed that Gambit was not entirely comfortable with her listening to ministry business. In any case she’d heard more than enough already about the workings of the monastic community on Torcello.
After Gambit left Steed had sought her out in the family room and she’d made room for him on their favorite divan, setting aside her book to lay her head in his lap and enjoy his light touch on her belly.
“Yes, once he got over being intimidated,” Steed agreed.
“Steed, I did not try to intimidate him,” Emma declared. Steed grinned at her.
“I meant me,” he said. “Apparently he asked everyone he could buttonhole what to expect of me.”
“He’s been in the field for a long time – since completing training, right? You can’t blame him for doing some background work before coming here.”
“No. In fact, I give him credit. I have a feeling Gambit will go far.”
“What do you want to do about Torcello?” Emma asked.
“I’m not sure. I’d still like to get someone really inside. Gambit skirted the edges and made good contacts, but I think we need to send someone who can actually join the order.”
“Steed, you can’t ask someone to swear holy vows for a case,” Emma said her voice carrying a familiar hint of rebuke behind amusement – she didn’t really think that’s what he meant. Steed stroked the side of her face with the back of his hand and slowly shook his head.
“No, no, I wouldn’t ask that. I think we can make arrangements for a transfer from some obscure order. Then we can send Gambit back to be our inside man’s contact,” Steed paused, thinking about his blossoming plan. Emma watched him for a moment, then pulled herself up into a sitting position, her hands on his shoulders.
“Steed,” she said softly, catching his eye. He focused on her. “I wonder if you might leave off work for a little while?”
His arms came up to hold her and he smiled.
“You have a better idea?” he asked.
“Much, much better,” she whispered, drawing him into a slow, cigar flavored kiss. He returned it, drawing her lips between his and caressing them with his tongue, then letting his mouth wander over her face. Her fingers twined into his hair and she sighed against him.
Ascot had worn her out: she’d come home yesterday evening and slept through until mid-morning. Now her body was exhibiting a familiar craving, one that only Steed could satisfy. As he indulged her, pressing kisses down her neck and stroking her back, his other hand buried in her silky hair, she felt the little tingle of desire growing. How she loved him for loving her even in her condition. For putting up with her mood swings and cravings, for making love to her when she asked, and understanding when she simply couldn’t tolerate being touched.
He reached between them now to open the buttons on her sweater, following his hand downward with his lips, cool and hungry on her throat, her collarbone, the tops of her breasts. She hated the maternity bra that her swollen breasts required, but Steed never seemed to notice how unattractive it was. He eased the padded shoulder strap down her arm and nuzzled her, his tongue flicking out to taste the puckered skin of her aureole. She gasped, nails digging into the back of his neck. He nipped her in response, gentle teeth leaving a double crescent mark on her breast.
“Let’s go to bed,” he suggested, his voice husky. She nodded, sitting up and putting her feet on the floor. She was too awkward, her burden too precious, to make love there on the divan or the floor. And the little prickle of desire in her loins would survive the walk to the bedroom. Steed cupped her behind with his hand as they walked, fanning the flames.
She savored undressing, reining in the urge to forcefully remove his clothes as she watched him. He went about at it with typical efficiency, hanging his coat, waistcoat, and shirt with care, then sitting to remove his shoes and socks, and finally unzipping his trousers, only then revealing the evidence of his arousal as he eased his briefs off over his erection. She smiled, admiring his control, his seeming cool despite the pull of his loins demanding attention.
She happily freed herself from her bra, then slipped out of the skirt that all day had kept slipping down her belly. She took less care with her clothes, laying them across a chair while Steed was hanging his trousers. She slipped in between the sheets and as she was reaching for the lamp she felt him climb in behind her. She turned off the light and leaned back against him, sighing at the feel of his body against the length of hers, his solidness pressing into her, his arms encircling her to caress her breasts, her belly, and, gradually, her thighs.
His cool skin soon turned warm against hers, his hands left hot trails across her flesh and his mouth on her shoulders and the back of her neck was like a delicate flame. She wanted to roll over to face him but he held her, raising his head to suck gently on her earlobe, reaching down to caress the curly hair between her legs.
“Slowly,” he murmured, his breath like hot tendrils. “Make it last.”
She exhaled a long shiver and reached back to caress his head. His hand came up to cup her breast and flick a single finger over her taut nipple. He was right. Each time they made love now it must be like the last – or at least the last for some time. It would be weeks – until after she delivered — before she could do this again. She dispelled the unpleasantness of this realization by thinking about how they would do it – how she would finally be able to face him again without the mound of her belly in the way.
He touched her all over, sometimes barely making contact, other times stroking her hard, pinching her nipples, tugging at the lips of her labia. She touched him as well, finally rolling him onto his back so that she could reach him. She pressed him down and sat up over him, stroking his erection and using it to caress her breasts. They both moaned at the feel of her nipples against the tip of his penis, and they both smiled at their mutual pleasure. Emma leaned down to kiss him and he rolled her to her back, rising to kiss her mountainous belly, his head soon disappearing down the other side.
He parted her legs with his hands, stroking her firmly, and then placing a row of kisses from the inside of her knee to her genitals. He parted her gently and lowered his lips to her, sucking gently, his tongue caressing her clitoris as it rose to him solid and warm. Emma moaned, her loins anointing Steed with a rush of fluid. He slid his tongue inside of her and sucked her hard as she shivered against him. He licked her tenderly, his tongue caressing and teasing her intimate places until she gasped and came once again. Steed kissed her belly, pressing his ear to it to listen for the faint beat of their baby’s heart.
Emma lay still, sated, at least for the moment, by his ministrations. He moved up to stretch out beside her, slipping one arm under her neck to pull her close. His other hand ranged down her body to his own. He wrapped his fingers around himself and caressed the head of his penis with his thumb. Emma snuggled against him and he stroked himself again, his organ trapped between his hand and Emma’s thigh.
“What are you doing?” she whispered, stirring against him.
“I thought you might not want any more,” he said, his hand leaving his own flesh to stroke her belly.
“Did you really?” Emma chuckled. “And when have I ever fallen asleep and left you wanting?”
Steed felt himself smiling, and felt her fingers wrap around him. Then she sat up, pressing him onto his back as she rose to her knees to straddle him. He gasped as she stroked the tip of his penis against her clitoris, her heat transmitting into his super sensitive flesh. All at once she engulfed him, sitting up straight as she pressed down onto him. He sucked in a sharp breath as she moved, then reached up to caress her breasts. She leaned forward to caress his, lightly pinching his nipples so that he cried out and his pelvis surged up against her. She cried out too, releasing his sensitive nipples to lean back, bracing her hands on his thighs. They moved together as one, the friction of their combined flesh pushing them beyond conscious thought to the raw emotional connection that bound them to one another. His orgasm began and triggered hers and they rode together through an endless series of jolting, delicious thrusts until they were too spent to move any more. Emma slid off of him, ending up on her side, her hand twined with his, soon blissfully asleep.
“How are your connections in MI6 personnel?” Steed asked James. They were sitting in Steed’s mews apartment, where Steed had lured Bond with some fresh Dominican cigars and a particularly fine brandy. Emma was at the house, but Steed was spending the night in town so he’d decided a boy’s night in was in order. He’d invited a couple other friends for poker, but they were due later.
“Not as close as they used to be,” James replied, paying far more attention to his brandy than it warranted.
“Staffing change?” Steed asked, knowing that like his own, most of James’s internal connections were based on flirtation and fraternization. A new girl could take months to cultivate. He caught James’s little smile and realized his error. “Or have you been finding less time to keep the connections tight?”
“Something like that,” James nodded. “Less inclination, really. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“Yes. But I’m sure you know that it doesn’t pay to let your personal life interfere with your work.”
James shifted in his chair and stared at Steed. “When was the last time you used sex to succeed on a case?” he asked pointedly.
“What’s your definition of sex?”
“Not flirting, not a little peck or pat on the fanny,” James shook his head slowly. “I’ve slept with more women than I can count in the execution of my duties. Enemy agents, allied agents, victims, suspects,” he shrugged and sipped his brandy. Steed waited, sensing that James had more to say. “It’s my job. But in the last year it’s become harder.” He smiled wryly at his unintended pun.
“I have rarely gone to those lengths,” now Steed paused, hearing his own unintended bad pun, “in the line of duty. But I don’t condemn you or anyone else who does. I’ve been accused of employing much worse techniques to achieve my goal.”
“I supposed it depends on the source of the accusation,” James said thoughtfully. “I think the source I’ve come to be most concerned about would be far more upset to know that I slept with a soviet agent last month in order to go through her handbag than that I tricked the same agent into shooting her superior.”
“You resigned once, didn’t you?” Steed asked, knowing the answer, but sensing that James wanted his advice, or at least a supportive listener. The other agent nodded, then looked up at Steed.
“I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t be married and keep working. I took my marriage vows very seriously, and my work requires violating them. But then Tracy wasn’t Emma,” he paused thoughtfully. “There are similarities. But your Emma has an edge that Tracy did not. She took you as you are, but I couldn’t have asked that of Tracy.”
“Emma did not,” Steed said quietly, drawing James’s eyes back to his. “I changed in order to keep her, in many ways. You and I are no different, except that I manage to avoid breaking my marriage vows in the line of duty – or outside of it. Emma demands that. As you said, Emma can accept my work, or at least she believes she can. I pray every day that we’re never tested in that regard.”
James nodded. “And in the end, for me, it didn’t matter that I’d quit, the past reached out and caught us. I might as well have never resigned.”
“And now Sally has re-awakened some of the feelings you had for Tracy,” Steed finally said.
“For years I believed it wasn’t possible,” James swirled his brandy and watched it as if mesmerized.
Steed nodded, knowing exactly how James felt.
“And even when it started, it was just supposed to be an exercise. She wanted to learn, I saw no harm in teaching her,” he noticed a shadow pass across Steed’s face. “Better she learn from me than that boy she was seeing, not that he knew anything. He would have ruined her.”
“Perhaps,” Steed said quietly. James had misinterpreted his expression. He did not disapprove of the other agent’s actions, he was thinking of a similar situation he’d once been in, and how it had ended.
“There’s something about her I couldn’t ignore,” James was going on, “She got under my skin and I don’t want to get her out.”
“So don’t,” Steed shrugged, rising to get the brandy. James watched him and held up his snifter for a refill. “I don’t think Sally would have the same requirements as Emma, at least not right now – she’s of a different generation, and she has her own career in mind. From what I see, she knows what you do, how you do it, and the risks. She’s not thrilled by it, but for some reason,” Steed flashed the other man a wolfish grin, “she feels that you’re worth it. She’s not pressuring you, is she?”
“To settle down? To marry her?”
“Far from it. She’s doing everything she can to get posted to Paris.”
Steed sat back down and squeezed his temples with one hand. When he opened his eyes again James was grinning at him knowingly.
“That’s one affair you seem to regret,” he chuckled.
“It – she – was what I needed at the time. But I used her, which is something I had vowed never to do to a woman.”
“Tara’s over it, Steed. She’s completely wrapped up in McCall now.”
Steed shook his head in wonderment at Tara’s impulsive marriage, and wondered when the notion would finally cease to amaze him.
“Why did you ask about MI6 personnel, anyway?” James asked, intruding on Steed’s thoughts. He snapped back, having to think for a moment to remember his original question.
“There’s a file I need to see. A sealed file.”
“Can you help?”
“It’s someone who I know was in military intelligence in the war, who claims to have gotten out when it ended. But I recently came across evidence that he was still involved in intelligence after that, and has connections with Six.”
“Why do you care?”
Steed weighed his options. If he told James who, he was assured of having the other agent’s help – James cared for Emma and was a Knight Industries shareholder. But he’d have to tread very carefully in order to avoid revealing his evidence: an assassination contract countersigned by Emma’s chief negotiator, Edmond Stanton, several years after the end of the war. That document was so potentially damaging to the other man who’d issued it that Steed had kept it a secret until a few months ago. When he’d shown it to Emma, she had recognized Edmond Stanton’s signature.
“It’s someone close to Emma,” he said at last.
“So you’re concerned for her safety?”
Steed winced, unable to disagree with James, but not wanting to make that his sole motivation. “She wants to know whether the man she thinks she knows has been concealing this from her all these years, especially since he’s been aware of her involvement with me.”
“She knows about this?”
“Well, I haven’t sent flowers to Julia Mueller in personnel for several months. That would be a place to start,” James said thoughtfully. “But a sealed file will require more than that.”
“Bill me,” Steed replied with a chuckle, imagining himself financing a string of expensive dates. Then he thought of Sally and his humor evaporated. He didn’t want to encourage James to date another woman, no matter how open Sally seemed to want to keep their relationship.
“Tough, isn’t it?” James asked as if reading his thoughts.
“Just do what you can to get close,” Steed grumbled. “When you think you can get in, I’ll tell you who we’re looking for.”
“Fair enough. But I’ll need another of those cigars, just as an inducement.”
Steed picked up the box and extended it toward James, wondering just how much this was going to cost.
“Good night Bond, sorry about your luck tonight,” Steed flashed James an impish grin and shut the door. James shook his head ruefully as he trotted down the internal stairs and out into Stable Mews. He’d only lost nine pounds, hardly a fortune. But Steed had won that much and more from the other three players, so it was only right that he be courteous about it.
James slipped behind the wheel of his Austin and sat for a moment before starting the engine. Although his conversation with Steed earlier about his feelings for Sally had stuck to indirect terms, the emotions it had stirred in him had continued to brew all evening. He didn’t fancy flirting with Julia Mueller in MI6 personnel, although he’d do it for Steed. He did want to see Sally. Tonight.
He started the engine and pointed the car out of London. The trainees were being tested yet again tonight, in night maneuvers at the facility known only as The Estate. It housed the mechanized test range and obstacle course along with various settings where agents could practice all manner of skills. It also housed Mother, when he chose to leave his apartment in the ministry’s Whitehall headquarters.
At this late hour it took less than an hour to reach The Estate. James parked along the road and walked up to the wrought iron gate. It was locked, of course, but within moments of his arrival the groundskeeper appeared on the other side.
“Mr. Bond,” he greeted James as he unlocked the gate. James was always impressed that this man seemed to know every intelligence agent by appearance. “Trainees are playing king of the hill. Targets only, but I’d stay on the main paths.”
James thanked him for the warning and started for the command center along the wide drive. “Targets only” meant the trainees were not to attack anyone other than other trainees. “King of the Hill” was the informal name of the exercise they were engaged in. They were competing in teams of two to reach a goal – probably the old stone tower on a hill on the grounds. First team there won top marks, with extra points for whatever techniques they used to achieve the win.
He reached the command center without seeing any trainees, although he had the distinct impression some of them had seen him. Rustlings in the bushes, an out-of-place owl’s hoot, and the distinctive click of a weapon being cocked had all told of their presence. He hoped Sally hadn’t been among those who’d betrayed their presence – he’d have to report the sounds, and the technicians running the test would be able to identify who had made them based on surveillance tapes.
The technicians welcomed him – agent observers were not unusual during trainee testing, although this night exercise had not attracted any others. James quickly found Sally on the monitors and discovered that she was working with Matthew, whose rangy good looks assured him of a career in glamorous undercover work. The exercise had been going on for three hours already. They were near the tower, but another team – the tall blond woman named Purdey and a shorter brunette – were in a better position. James felt himself tensing as Purdey caught sight of Matthew and aimed her weapon at him, but the man must have sensed her presence on the ledge above him; he dropped and rolled so that the dye pellet fired from her gun struck the ground where he’d been. He and Sally responded to the near miss by tightening their coordination. They used hand signals to communicate as they slipped past Purdey and her partner Millicent. They disappeared off of one set of monitors and reappeared on the next set, those linked to cameras mounted on the stone tower.
James felt himself grinning as he watched Sally crawl up the hill on her belly beneath the sparse cover of bushes. She and Matthew darted the last few yards, barely avoiding a barrage of dye pellets fired by Purdey and Millicent from below before they plunged through an arch that led to the tower stairs. A moment later Sally’s proud face filled one of the monitors – she was looking right at the camera mounted on the top of the tower, making sure they knew she was there first.
“Good show,” one of the technicians said with a chuckle at Sally’s audacity. “She’s a tiger, that one.” Another technician snickered and glanced at James, but he ignored them, his eyes locked on Sally’s happy face.
At the back of the group of trainees heading for the vans that would carry them back to London, Sally rotated her sore shoulder and listened to Purdey and Matthew’s exchange.
“I’m telling you, I heard you, Purdey.”
“Can’t have, I didn’t move a muscle.”
“You did. I heard your clothes rustle.”
“Oh come on,” Purdey looked at her snugly fitted cat suit.
“What can I say? I heard you, I moved, and you missed.”
Sally wasn’t sure how Matthew had known Purdey was about to hit him, but she was glad. His reaction had saved them a four-point penalty, and the discovery of Purdey and Millicent’s presence so close to their goal had galvanized her and Matthew. She’d realized almost instantly that they had thought themselves ensured of victory and gotten lax. They refocused and worked as a tight partnership to gain the tower. It had been a powerful lesson for Sally, and she was grateful to Purdey for teaching it. But she was also sore and tired, and as proud as she was of winning tonight, she wanted more than anything to get into her bed and sleep.
When an arm shot out from around the corner of the building they were walking next to, she was too startled to react. James pulled her around the corner and wrapped his arms around her as she cried out in surprise. He stilled her cry with a solid kiss that she immediately surrendered to. She was unaware of her friends turning to see what was wrong, then grinning and turning to walk on toward the van.
“Were you watching the whole thing?” Sally asked when James allowed her to take a breath.
“Only the last hour or so,” he replied, stroking her brow with one finger, then touching the remnants of black greasepaint she’d mostly removed from her face. He slid his finger under her chin and lifted it to his for another kiss. He felt her relax in his arms, her own hands sliding from his shoulders up around his neck.
“Take me home?” she asked, eyes closed tight, head bending to rest on his shoulder. He nuzzled her hair and neck, absorbing the scents of greasepaint, perspiration, and shampoo. She felt so good against him, so solid and real, an enduring element in a life that was so often dangerously transient.
“Let’s go,” he whispered, shifting his hold to turn her so that they could walk.
“Do you think it’s really injured?” he asked, standing behind her in the bathroom watching her knead her shoulder. She was wearing his dressing gown and her face was freshly scrubbed, all evidence of dark makeup gone. “I’ll take you to a clinic.”
“No, I think it’s just sore,” she replied. “Do you have any aspirin?”
James put one hand on her good shoulder and reached around her to open the medicine cabinet, pressing himself against her back in the process. He took out the bottle of aspirin and handed it to her, then bent to kiss her collar above the sore spot.
She put water in a cup from the counter and took two tablets from the bottle. She swallowed the pills, then let her eyes meet his in the mirror.
“I should let you rest,” he said, understanding her regretful expression. Her lips curled in a small smile and she turned her head to look at him.
“I’m sorry James. But I’m sore and tired. I should have had you take me to my flat.”
“Sally, I don’t want you to think you can only be here to sleep with me. Come on, let’s just go to bed – it’s nearly four.”
“Is it that late?” she sighed as he guided her back into the bedroom. He tucked her into the bed, laying his dressing gown over a chair, then he undressed himself and slipped in on the other side, reaching over her to switch off the bedside lamp. He kissed her forehead, then settled down on his side of the bed, surprised at how comforting her presence beside him felt.
“James,” Sally whispered his name into his ear, her lips so near he could feel her warm breath. She had molded herself to him, slipping her small hand around his waist to run her fingers through the hair on his chest.
“Ummm,” he purred, torn between rolling over to face her and staying right where he was to see what else she would touch. When he opened his eyes he could tell it was late morning from the pattern of light on the wall. And with vision came sound – even in his penthouse the sounds of a big, busy city filtered in.
Sally’s fingers teased his nipples and he let himself focus on the growing heat in his loins. She slid her hand over his ribs and down his belly, stroking it like she might a contented dog. He sighed again, anticipating her touch on his genitals. And then it came, light fingers slipping over him, caressing him, sliding down his thigh and back up to cup him. He inhaled a long, luxurious breath and gave in to the need to touch her.
She snuggled in against him when he turned, her lips meeting his. Her kiss demanded more and he gave it eagerly, exploring her face with his lips and her body with his fingers. She writhed against him sighing when he touched her most sensitive places, groaning when he slipped his fingers through the light red curls between her legs to stroke at the moist lips they protected.
“Oh yes,” she sighed, parting her legs to him.
“Feeling better?” he said with a smile, pressing one finger deeper into her.
“Oh yes,” she repeated, caressing his upper back with one hand, his chest with the other. Her lips parted in a sigh as he stroked her slowly, and she shivered with pleasure against him.
“Good,” he said as he pressed her onto her back and rose above her, replacing his finger with his hot, solid penis. She was warm and moist as she opened to him, pressing her hips up to engulf him. They were one, sliding against one another, licking, nipping, touching, and thrusting, seeking and finding new pleasures as their loins ground together.
James felt his climax coming and shifted within her, bracing his arms on either side of her and driving deeper, his entire being focused on the blinding heat rising behind his genitals. Sally drew her legs up and moaned at the changing pressure of his organ as he thrust again. He was all raw masculine energy, a single minded being with only one goal. She slipped into a similar state, countering his intensity with her own feminine animal. Deep muscles contracted on him, holding him, squeezing him, surging against him in a long, wet contraction. He filled her in a series of hard strokes, roaring with pleasure as his body exhausted itself. She roared back until the thrumming in her groin subsided into contented stillness. She was unable to contain a contented grin as he hovered above her, panting, waiting for his head to clear enough to maneuver to the side. She raised her head a little and kissed him lightly. He responded with a kiss of his own, and it seemed to restore him to his senses. He shifted to her side and stretched out beside her.
“It’s late – I hope you weren’t supposed to be anywhere this morning,” he murmured.
“Not after last night,” she said, reaching out to stroke his chest contentedly.
“I’ll take you to brunch,” he offered.
“I’ll eat it,” she replied.
Emma took a bite of buttered toast and picked up the newspaper, scanning the headlines. She was glad that the one she was looking for was buried several pages in. Knight Industries had several deals in the works that would not have benefited from Birch’s conviction on the front pages. Seventeen months had passed since Birch and the other two Knight board members who had conspired with her ex-husband to keep her out of the company had been exposed. All three had now been tried and convicted of crimes ranging from embezzlement to attempted murder. Birch was the last, and his sentencing was likely to place him in jail for the foreseeable future.
In that time Emma had identified and invited three executives from the technology and communications industries to join Knight Industries’ board. She wanted to expand Knight in these industries and away from the shipping and heavy industrial holdings that her father had pursued after Knight Weaponry was established. The new board members lent authority to Knight’s dealings and provided invaluable expertise to her, her brother-in-law Harry, and the members of her management team negotiating within their industries.
Emma had moved on to another section of the paper when Steed came in from the stable where he’d been talking with their stable boy.
“Well?” Emma asked when he’d poured himself coffee and put bread in the toaster.
“We’re changing their feed mix,” he said. “He said he’d noticed that Dancer was a bit slow when he exercised her. I think she just misses you.”
“I’ll make a point of calling on her this afternoon,” Emma said as Steed took up the section of the paper she’d finished. She watched him begin to page through it, waiting for him to find the article about Birch. He was about to turn to the proper page when his toast popped. Emma waited impatiently while he retrieved it and returned to the table to butter it. Finally he returned to the paper and turned the page.
“Ah, so this is what you’re fidgeting about,” he said with a smug smile.
“I am not fidgeting.”
“Ah. Well, it’s reassuring to see that our justice system works.”
“I’ll feel even better about it when he’s sentenced,” Emma said, taking a sip of her coffee.
“If his cohorts are any sign, he’ll receive very severe sentence,” Steed assured her. Birch’s associates had each received multi-year sentences, and their convictions had not included attempted murder. “Does it bother you that your ex-husband hasn’t yet been tried?”
Emma’s eyes widened in surprise. A day did not pass when she did not think of Peter Peel. His attorneys had filed motion after motion in US courts where he’d been arrested. Then, when he’d finally been tried and convicted of fraud there and extradited for trial in the UK they’d used the same tactics to delay the start of his trial for embezzlement, fraud, treason, and escape from custody. After his trial in Britain he’d probably be sent back to the US to serve his time there, so Emma could not understand the point of the attorneys’ delaying tactics. Her deepest fear was that Peter was biding his time, trying to stay in jail and out of prison for some reason – perhaps a scheme for escape.
Her gaze locked with Steed’s and she knew she conveyed her uneasiness to him without saying a word. He nodded, his expression concerned.
“His lawyers’ maneuvering is all legal. But I assure you he’s well guarded. Nobody is going to get him out,” he said.
“Ever?” she asked, voicing her deepest fear for the first time.
Steed reached out and took her hand. “Even if he ever is released, I promise you he shall not spend a day unwatched. Nor shall you, if you want.” Steed was shocked by the fear in his wife’s eyes. He would promise her anything to banish it. And as he spoke he watched it go, replaced by affectionate confidence and — far more important to him — trust.
“Are you serious?” Robert McCall paced back and forth across the tile floor of his cottage, the telephone in his hand trailing its cord as he walked. “This is not an assignment for a married man. Who?”
Tara watched him over the top of her book. Beside her on the sofa Pierre watched him too, his expression guarded until Tara scratched behind his ears, then he wiggled his stump of tail.
“I see. It figures. Yes. I’ve got it. Fine. Tell him I’ll be there.” Robert replaced the receiver on the phone and crossed to the sofa. Her brow knit in a slight frown as he approached.
“Hey!” she squealed as he planted the telephone on her lap. Pierre jumped to his feet and barked at him, his ears and tail rigid.
“You have to call him.”
“I have to call whom?”
“Steed. This is his doing. He wants me to go undercover in Venice.”
“Venice isn’t so bad, Robbie.”
“As a monk!”
“Oh!” Tara clamped her lips tight so as not to laugh. Beside her Pierre maintained his alert vigil, his light brown eyes fixed on Robbie.
“You have to call him. Get him to find someone else. It’s hard enough to live with you in Paris and me here. I don’t want to go undercover in a monastery for months.” As he spoke his expression turned from annoyance to sorrow, and even though she knew it was mostly self-pity, it touched Tara to see him so miserable. She picked up the telephone receiver and concentrated for a moment, dialing the UK country code and then the number of the Steed home. Looking relieved, Robbie sat down at the other end of the sofa and reached out to Pierre. The dog caught one side of his upper lip between his teeth and inclined his head, his big round eyes studying Robbie. Behind him Tara gave his rump a push toward Robbie, and he walked across the sofa, gingerly stepping into his master’s lap.
“Steed residence,” Emma’s delicately cultured voice rang in Tara’s ear.
“Hello Emma. It’s Tara.”
“Tara! What a delightful surprise. I understand congratulations are in order.”
“Thank you Emma. And the same to you – you must be due soon.”
“Another three weeks. I’m counting the hours.”
“I can imagine. I don’t suppose Steed is there, is he?”
“He’s on his way. I’m expecting him within the hour. Shall I have him ring you?”
“Yes. It seems he’s requested Robbie for an assignment that’s rather inconvenient.”
“Did he?” there was a distinct hint of amusement in Emma’s tone.
“You know about it?”
“I know about an assignment he was trying to find the right man for. Does your husband speak Italian?”
“And he was raised a Catholic?”
“Yes,” Tara said slowly, her eyes locking with Robbie’s.
“Then he’s ideal for it. So we’ll be seeing him here in a few days for a briefing.”
“I see. Well, have Steed call me, will you?”
“Of course, Tara. Are you in Paris?”
“No, we’re in Nice. I’ll give you the number.” Tara recited the cottage telephone number and said good-bye to Emma.
“What did she say?” Robbie asked the moment she had hung up the telephone.
“That Steed needs a Catholic who speaks Italian for this job. You fit the job description.”
“I can’t be the only man who does!”
“You’re going to London in a few days to meet – right?”
“She told you that?”
“She is apparently involved with the case.”
“Logistics said he’s briefing the team in three days. At his house.”
Tara nodded, “That’s Steed for you – hates using his office. We can fly direct from here, can’t we?”
“Oh, you want me to come along, darling.” Tara flashed him her most knowing smile. Robbie frowned. He still did not have a real sense of his wife’s current relationship with John Steed. She had convinced him that she no longer felt any emotional connection to the man, but it was clear to him that he still had some sort of influence over her. Whether it was simply the influence of a senior agent over his junior, or something else was what Robbie wondered.
“You’re right, Tara. I do. I’ll book the flight,” he said, reaching for the telephone.
“You win again,” Emma dropped her ornately decorated cards on the table in front of her and smiled at Mike Gambit.
“Just luck this time,” he replied, collecting the cards. “Where did you learn to play scopa?”
“We had an Italian cook when I was a child. My father encouraged me to learn.”
“What else did your Italian cook teach you?” Gambit asked, knowing he sounded flirtatious. Somehow it seemed safe to flirt with John Steed’s pregnant wife. She wasn’t offended, in fact she seemed to enjoy his attention, although Gambit did not think for a moment that she was inclined to stray from her husband. She was playful, a woman comfortable with male friends. He had, he realized, quickly become one of her many admirers.
“Marinara,” she replied, standing up. “I should check it – wouldn’t want it to stick.”
“Marinara,” he repeated, watching her leave the game room. He knew that the Italian card game had been a test. Steed had told him what time to come, and then been absent himself at the appointed hour. Emma had invited him to play – she’d just come across the cards, she’d said, and hadn’t played in ages. He wondered whether he’d have been dismissed from this assignment if he’d claimed not to know how to play.
He got up and went across the entry hall to the formal sitting room, refilling his glass from the decanter of scotch there. Returning to the game room he studied its décor, wondering how much was Steed, how much was Emma, and if any predated them both. There was a rather bedraggled deer head, complete with a magnificent rack, mounted over the fireplace. A brown teddy bear sat on the hearth – the ironic contrast between the real game and the fake was not lost on Gambit. He smiled and looked at a hunt painting on one wall. It depicted a group of hunters on leaping horses in pursuit of a pack of dogs. The fox, he eventually realized, was perched on the limb of a tree near the center of the painting watching the chase with a bemused expression, clearly having shaken the dogs off his scent. Gambit knew that both Steed and his wife rode, and most certainly had hunted. But apparently their view of the sport was not quite so traditional.
In addition to the finely inlayed antique card table where he and Emma had been playing, the room was furnished with a massive billiards table. Its green felted surface looked perfectly level, and the rack of sticks mounted on the wall included several very ornate models. No half measures for the Steeds.
The squeak of the front door warned Gambit of Steed’s arrival. He stepped to the game room door to greet him.
“Gambit,” Steed said pleasantly as he entered. “Sorry I’m late. Has Mrs. Peel been amusing you?”
“We’ve been playing cards,” Gambit replied, taking a sip of his scotch as he watched Steed hang his umbrella and hat on the hall tree. There had not been the slightest hint of rain in the forecast.
“You didn’t let her win, I hope,” Steed said.
“No. Not every hand.” It had been a challenge to beat her, but Gambit suspected that Steed knew that.
“Good. Mustn’t spoil her. Where is she anyway?”
“In the kitchen, checking on the sauce.”
“That’s what I smell! And probably making enough to feed an army. Well, we’ll have us plus McCall and Tara, so we’ll put a dent in it I suppose.”
“Tara? I wasn’t aware of a woman in the operation.”
“No, she’s not. But she’s McCall’s wife, and she’ll come along to the briefing, even uninvited.”
“You don’t mind?”
“I don’t think I could stop her. She’ll expect me to be surprised, so I shall be. And I can’t really blame her for wanting to know what her husband will be doing. I suppose I’ve gained a bit of sympathy for that sort of concern. In any case, she’s got the proper clearances, and who knows, we may need her somewhere along the line.”
Gambit nodded, following Steed toward the kitchen as he spoke. He realized that although the senior agent appeared to be easy going, he actually anticipated and planned every detail. It gave Gambit a strong sense of comfort to know that this man would be looking out for him.
“Jeez, that’s their house?” Robbie gripped the steering wheel of their rental car and stared at the Steed home.
“Come on Robbie,” Tara opened her own door and got out, waiting for him to follow. She’d been anticipating his reaction to the Steed’s property for the duration of the trip. She had hoped that their example of wealth well used would be an inspiration to him. His little rental cottage in a vineyard outside of Nice was cozy, but he could do much better if he’d just open up his wallet a little bit. Or at least he could get a place with reliable septic system.
Robbie pressed the doorbell and they heard the distant echo of bells inside the house. Tara stood to the side so that she would not be immediately visible to Steed when he opened the door.
She remembered the squeak as the door opened and marveled that they hadn’t done anything about it yet. Steed greeted Robbie and asked him in. He was about to shut the door when Tara placed herself in front of it.
“Tara!” Steed said, and she knew immediately that his surprise was feigned.
“Come to protect your husband?” he asked, then leaned a little closer, his voice assuming a more intimate tone, “I don’t bite, you know.”
“Yes you do,” Tara replied pertly, then added, “I thought it might be nice to have a long chat with Emma.”
Steed’s expression grew apprehensive, although Tara could not tell if he was faking it or not. She’d thought it was an empty threat – how could he possibly still be concerned about his ex-partner talking to his wife? But perhaps she’d underestimated her power over him. Even as she thought this his smile returned.
“She’s helping with the briefing,” he said amiably. “So you might as well sit in, too.”
They were soon settled in the library, Steed having made introductions all around. Neither Tara nor Robbie had met Mike Gambit before. He’d finished his training last year and, because he exhibited considerable talent in various roles, had been working undercover ever since. It was clear he was a loner, happy to be sent to distant corners of the world to labor alone, gathering intelligence and making brief contact with other agents to send it home. The ministry, and Mother in particular, loved his type. They avoided emotional attachments, were low maintenance, and did their job well. The occasional expensive bonus was well worth it to keep them happy. Steed, Tara knew, had been the same way once. She wondered if that was why he’d recruited Gambit. Perhaps he saw his younger self in the man. It would amuse Steed to run an agent like that, it would be like watching himself, which Steed would certainly enjoy.
Tara realized immediately that Gambit and Emma had already developed a rapport. Just how much time has Gambit been spending here?
Robbie was disappointed at the simplicity of the case. He had hoped that it would be an opportunity to get Mother’s attention and gain the leverage to get himself or Tara reassigned. But looking for a forger among a bunch of monks didn’t even sound dangerous. And he was sure the food would be awful. He envied Gambit, whose role was to return to being a boatman and act as Robbie’s contact. At least Gambit would be living in Venice proper, not on some sinking island in the lagoon.
After they’d reviewed their covers and the details of the previous cases where the forged documents had turned up, they moved to the dining room where Emma and Steed served them a feast of pasta followed by salad, finished off with lemon ice and coffee. Chianti flowed, Steed retrieving one bottle after another from a store of them somewhere in the depths of the house. It had grown dark soon after they’d arrived, but Robbie had caught glimpses of the grounds through the windows. The Steeds lived well. If only he and Tara had the kind of fortunes they both possessed, they could entertain this way too. The Secret Service paid generously, but not at this level.
The plan was to spend the night and review the plan again in the morning. As Steed showed them to a richly appointed guest room on the second floor Tara broached the subject that Robbie was too intimidated to bring up.
“Steed, this will help our standing with Mother, won’t it?” she asked, placing a hand lightly on his chest. There was something seductive in her body language that gave Robbie a twinge of jealousy. And Steed’s expression as he looked down at Tara — fondness mixed with a sly knowing smile — only fanned the flames.
“You two are very unpopular in that quarter just now,” Steed said gently and Robbie saw his wife adopt a moue that he’d never seen before. Steed’s smile widened – clearly he knew the expression.
“We never meant to anger Mother,” Tara said.
“Indeed. Well, if McCall successfully identifies the forger, or forgers, it will go a long way toward pleasing me. And that’s almost as good,” Steed said. As he spoke he took Tara’s hand from his chest and gave it a squeeze, then let go.
“Is it?” Tara asked, all pretense of sensuality dropped. She sounded calculating now.
“Do a good job and find out,” he replied, grinning at Robbie. “Good night.”
“What did that mean?” Robbie asked when the door was closed.
“That he can sway Mother’s opinion, if he wants to.”
Tara shrugged, wandering across the room to the window. She remembered that Lee Stetson and Amanda had had this room during the wedding. “Steed rarely brags,” she said. “No, I take that back. He never brags. So yes, he probably can.”
“He’s that powerful now?”
“Mother’s been running the show a long time. I’d say if he’s looking for a successor he’d certainly consider Steed. The question is,” she sat down on the bed and bounced a couple times, “would Steed consider the job?”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
Tara lay back, wishing Robbie would join her on the bed. “I’ve always thought they’d have to drag him out of the field. But lately I’ve started to see him in a new light – when he came to Paris to run the show and get that bomber, and today – he’s enjoying being the mastermind behind the rest of us.”
She raised her head to watch her husband pace nervously. Sighing, she lifted up on her elbows, and then when he passed close to the bed she put her legs up and caught his. He nearly lost his balance.
“Come to bed.”
“This is our room.”
“I mean, in their house, you want to …”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Robbie,” Tara stood up and pressed herself to him, smiling at the uncontrolled reaction of his body as his arms wrapped around her. “What you have to understand is that one thing Steed understands is sex,” she said, her lips nearly touching his as she spoke.
“He’s so formal. So reserved.”
“Oh Robbie,” Tara let her lips close on his, felt him respond to her, remembered why it was she’d married him so impulsively. “That’s just what he wants you to believe. Forget him. I want all of your attention on me.”
Robbie could hardly refuse.
“What’s this?” Gambit whispered as McCall pressed a small paper-wrapped package into his hands along with a box of dried flowers.
“Sunflowers,” McCall replied.
“Not the flowers,” Gambit nearly growled.
“Forgeries?” Gambit couldn’t believe McCall had cracked the case after only a week inside the monastery.
“Caligraphy. There’s a whole room of calligraphers making copies of scripture.”
“How many monks?”
“Holy — ,” Gambit shut his mouth as a pair of monks walked past the landing where McCall was loading his boat. McCall reached for another box of flowers.
“Got any football scores?” he asked as he leaned back toward Gambit.
“No, but I have a message from your wife.”
McCall looked momentarily guilty. “Yes?”
Gambit rolled his eyes heavenward and imitated Tara, “tell him I miss him, and to be careful.”
“Hey, mate, I’m not kissing you, no matter how nicely she asked.”
“Blast it,” Steed muttered, dropping his binoculars on the passenger seat of the Bentley and getting out. He trotted up the steps and onto the platform of the suburban train station just as the train rolled to a stop. At the other end of the platform, agent David Barth stepped on board, so Steed did too.
He’d had a tip that an agent with secrets to sell was catching this train to meet a contact who hailed from somewhere east of the iron curtain. It pained him to see Barth there: they had trained together years ago. But a traitor was a traitor.
Steed strolled through the cars as the train started to roll again, scanning the passengers in the compartments as discretely as he could. In the second car a conductor sold him a ticket to the last stop. The third car was the café. When he entered he spotted Barth immediately, seated in a booth at the far end across from a large man whose shaved head shone in the sunshine coming through the windows. The car was otherwise empty, as it was not quite lunchtime and the train was uncrowded. Steed continued to stroll calmly down the car, pausing at the serving counter to study a menu. He leaned on the counter holding the menu so that he could watch as Barth pushed an envelope across the table. With a quiet sigh Steed set down the menu and walked on toward the back of the car.
“Dave?” he said as he approached the booth, “Well, isn’t this a delightful surprise!”
Barth’s head shot up, his eyes widening at Steed.
“Hello,” Steed said, looking at the bald man. “John Steed. Old friend of David’s here.”
The bald man shoved the envelope back across the table and rose, pressing his sizeable bulk between the end of the booth and Steed.
“Wait!” Barth cried, drawing both Steed and the bald man’s attention. Now Steed’s eyes widened when he saw the small handgun Barth had pointed at him. “Sorry Steed, but I can’t afford to lose this,” he said. Steed raised his hands, bowler in one and umbrella in the other.
“Now Dave, no need to act rashly,” Steed couldn’t believe he’d let Barth get the jump on him. The bald man, who Steed had expected would leave, pressed closer to Steed, fording him to move further back in the car.
“I’m not acting rashly at all, Steed. I’ve had this planned for months. You’re not going to spoil it. Open the door,” Barth nodded at the door leading out of the back of the car. Switching his hat to his left hand Steed opened the door, which led into a small vestibule with doors on either side. “Go on,” Barth said, poking Steed in the ribs with his gun. Steed considered trying to attack, but even as he tried to think through his best move, the bald man squeezed up against him, forcing him through the door.
“Go,” the bald man grunted, shoving Steed to the left toward the door. Steed fell hard against it and it popped open under his weight. He felt himself falling backward and tucked his head against his chest. His arms flailed out and he hit the ground hard, his left ankle twisting painfully as he rolled several times down the slope away from the tracks.
Emma listened to the technician from the American computer firm explain why the project schedule had slipped two more weeks. He sounded defensive, which was appropriate. Angus Benson’s voice broke in, his thick Scotts accent soothing the agitated American and making Emma smile. Angus might sound soothing, but he’d extract a better schedule, or compensation for Knight Computing, before he was done. A sudden, ache in her nether regions made Emma suck in a sharp breath. It was like no other cramp she’d ever felt. She punched the “mute” button on her speakerphone and allowed herself to groan and lean forward in her chair until the pain faded.
Steed struggled to his hands and knees and watched the train vanish around a curve. He was going to have several big bruises and cuts on his right hand and face were bleeding. But at least his head felt all right. Hardheaded, Emma’s sweet voice echoed in his mind. As he tried to draw his left foot under himself to get up the wrenching pain he’d felt as he’d fallen reasserted itself. His left ankle was twisted, maybe broken. Searing pain shot up his leg even after he carefully set it back on the ground. He grit his teeth and managed a wan smile at himself for hanging onto his umbrella during the fall. Putting his weight on his right foot, he endured the agony with each movement of his left leg as he used his umbrella to get himself up. He looked around, balancing awkwardly. His bowler lay just up the hill, a crumpled mess. Must have rolled on it. Annoyed, he found his handkerchief and wiped the blood from his face and hand. Then he turned away from where the train had gone and started hobbling back toward the station.
The conference call went on as Emma panted for a few seconds and felt the pain pass. When it had she stood up and walked around the big library table she used as a desk at home. The American agreed to bring in more engineers for the next phase and make up the delay. Angus thanked him as if he hadn’t essentially demanded the action. Emma smiled again, thinking that Angus was learning from Edmond. The pain came back and she bent over it again, panting in short gasps until it passed.
“Here, sir, what are you doing?” the station manager spotted Steed and hurried down the platform steps to meet him.
“Thank you,” Steed said, truly grateful as the manager put his shoulder under Steed’s arm to help him climb the steps and hobble toward his office. Every halting step sent bolts of pain shooting up Steed’s leg. He knew well how to suppress pain, how to put it in a compartment and work around it, not ignoring it but not giving it the attention it demanded. But even so, with each step he could not help but think of the time in the near future when he’d have to give in and experience its full force. He could only keep it at bay for so long.
“It’s your ankle, then?” the station manager was saying. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
“Please, allow me to call – it’s rather urgent,” Steed said. The manager shrugged and pointed at the telephone on his desk. Steed balanced on his right foot, unwilling to sit down and then have to stand back up. “How long until that train reaches its next station?” He asked as he dialed, fearing that it already had.
The station manager consulted a schedule board on the wall. “That was an express, sir. It won’t stop again for another twenty minutes. At East Landsdown station.”
On the other end of the line the ministry emergency operator had answered. Steed recited the proper codes and gave his location. The operator assured him that an ambulance would be there in five minutes and a team would be dispatched to meet the train. Steed replaced the receiver and took a deep breath, allowing himself to focus on the ambulance now that his duty was done. He could let go of the pain when it got here. They would give him something and it would be all right.
“They’ll be here in a few minutes,” he told the station manager. “Can you help me get out front?”
The manager got him settled on a bench facing the village, then returned to greet an arriving train. Steed watched the arriving passengers come from the platform and cross the parking area into the village, or get into cars and drive away. The Bentley sat far down the platform where Steed could barely see it. It didn’t matter, there was no way he could drive her. His ankle was horribly swollen now, the flesh puffing out above his shoe. He wanted to take it off, but he knew he’d never get it back on, and it would probably be misplaced between here and the clinic. He hated to lose Swiss made oxblood wingtips.
They’re contractions, Emma finally admitted to herself. For a moment she considered breaking into the conversation to beg off, but it was not the right moment. Angus was on a roll and she didn’t want to interrupt him. Another contraction came and went before the meeting concluded. Emma turned off the muting to thank them and say good-bye. As soon as she had disconnected the telephone rang. She picked up the receiver and listened, sinking into her chair as a calm voice informed her that Steed had requested medical assistance in the field.
Emma replaced the receiver and bent over another contraction. She had not yet managed to time them, but they were several minutes apart. “Damn it Steed, why today?” she groaned. “He’s gone for months without an injury, and the day I go into labor he gets hurt.” That he had called for help meant it was more than a scratch. But that he had called himself meant he was conscious and able to get to a telephone. She suppressed any thought that he might be seriously injured; she was simply unable to consider it.
Resigning herself to a solo trip to the hospital, and not at all happy with her husband, she picked the phone back up and called the local taxi company.
A generically marked ambulance pulled into the parking area and two medics hopped out. Within moments they had loaded Steed into the back with a minimum of impact to his ankle. One got behind the wheel while the other examined Steed. He cleaned the cuts on Steed’s face and hand, then picked up a pair of scissors and reached for his pant leg.
“Wait!” Steed lifted his shoulders and head. “This is a hand made suit.”
The medic pulled at the fabric beside Steed’s knee to show him that it was torn wide open. He hadn’t noticed. He let himself flop back with a sigh and tried to ignore the sound of his pant leg being cut.
“It’s very swollen, Mr. Steed,” the medic said and Steed felt his shoe being removed. This is getting to be an expensive case. I should have just gone home for lunch with Emma.
“Emma!” Steed half sat again, startling the medic who was wrapping his ankle with an elastic bandage.
“Sir, please lie down.”
“You have to call my wife. Tell her I’m all right.”
“You’re not exactly all right, Mr. Steed,” the medic said.
“But I’m not dead, and I’m not likely to die. She needs to know.”
“An A-list message has gone out, Mr. Steed,” the driver said over his shoulder. The medic working on Steed nodded.
“Yes I know,” Steed seethed. “But the message told her I’m down, not that I’m going to be all right! My wife is nine months pregnant. She needs to know!”
The medic with Steed looked alarmed. Behind him Steed heard the driver call in his message on the radio, including their destination – by coincidence, it was the secure clinic attached to the large medical facility nearest the Steed home.
Emma pulled the big front door shut and reached for her bag, but the taxi driver, seeing her condition, had come to carry it to his car. She followed, trying to ignore another contraction as she walked, and far too focused on her condition to hear the faint ring of the telephone in the house.
The medic laid an ice pack over Steed’s ankle and he allowed himself to relax, closing his eyes and contemplating the pain, although still not really feeling it.
“I’m in shock,” he heard himself say. The medic laid a thin woolen blanket over him and offered him water from a bottle with a straw. He sipped it and realized that he was very thirsty. He let himself drift, and was barely aware of it when the ambulance stopped. The medics unloaded the stretcher and moved him onto a hospital trolley. He felt as if he was floating on the rolling bed’s soft rubber wheels.
As the taxi rounded the corner Emma studied the plainly marked ambulance parked beside a side entrance to the hospital. She knew those markings. The door it was parked near was unmarked. Could it possibly be? she wondered as the taxi driver stopped outside the emergency entrance. I thought he was joking when he said he might come home for lunch. Her line of thought was interrupted by another sharp pain, and she had to sit in the taxi until it passed. The driver went inside to get help.
Before she knew it she was being wheeled in a chair past injured and sick patients waiting their turn.
“Hello,” a portly nurse, made larger by her white uniform, greeted Emma. “Is it time then, dear?”
“I’ve been having contractions for about two hours. They’re a few minutes apart. May I use your telephone?”
“Name?” the nurse turned all efficiency.
“Emma Knight, ah, Steed. I really must reach my husband.”
“Which is it, madam? Knight? Or Steed?”
“Steed. Mrs. Emma Steed.”
As the nurse selected several forms from various files Emma doubled over in another contraction. The nurse glanced at her.
“Has your water broken, Mrs. Steed?”
“No,” Emma grunted.
“Very well. We have time then.”
“Please,” Emma groaned, “can’t you find me a room so I can lie down?”
“Yes of course, madam. As soon as I have your information. You will let me know if your water breaks, won’t you?”
“Count on it,” Emma hissed, straightening. “Have you any idea how much this hurts?”
“Yes dear. I’ve had four. Now, address?”
Emma gave up. She answered the admitting nurse’s questions and waited while the woman contacted her obstetrician. Finally she was on her way again, wheeled by an orderly to the lift, and from it along a corridor where a long window revealed a nursery full of newborns. Emma caught her breath at the sight, realizing that very soon her own child would be in that room.
“Here you are, Mrs. Steed,” the orderly said as he wheeled her into a room. “A nurse will be in to time your contractions and prepare you.” He helped her up and into the high hospital bed. “Is there anything you need?”
“A telephone. Please.”
Emma panted through another contraction before the orderly returned with a telephone that he plugged into a socket on the wall behind the bed.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the instrument eagerly.
Gentle hands manipulated Steed’s leg, supporting it while asking him to turn and hold still, then turn again. X-rays, he realized, opening his eyes. They’d laid a heavy lead shield over his torso that made him think about the uranium he’d recovered from the museum a few weeks ago. How is Mrs. Gale, I wonder?
“Good news, Mr. Steed,” a friendly voice intruded on Steed’s daydream about Emma and Cathy Gale. They were talking about him, which was delightfully flattering. He forced himself to open his eyes and look at the doctor, who was studying a series of x-rays hanging over a light box.
“It’s not broken?”
“Oh, not that good, sorry. But it’s just a fracture, and it will set just fine on its own – no need for surgery.”
“Oh,” Steed looked where the doctor was pointing at a thin white line on the side view x-ray. “That is good news.”
The doctor cast him a dark look. “You’ve seen the inside of enough operating rooms to know that any injury that doesn’t require it is a good one,” he scolded.
Steed adopted a pained expression, both at being lectured and at the doctor’s annoying good cheer. He’s not the one with the fracture.
Before he knew it the doctor was wrapping his ankle with something warm and wet. He raised his head to look.
“The cast will need to be on for at least four weeks,” the doctor said. Steed shut his eyes and flopped back down. Emma’s going to be livid.
“I need to contact my wife,” he said, raising himself up on his elbows. The doctor scowled at him for inadvertently shifting his ankle, although the pain it caused was punishment enough.
“Please hold still, Mr. Steed. Your wife has been notified.”
“I need to speak with her, doctor. Not send an official message!”
The doctor wiped his hands on a cloth and looked down at Steed’s wrapped ankle.
“Wasn’t there a message for Mr. Steed?” he asked the nurse who had been assisting him.
“Oh!” she said, reaching into the pocket of her apron. “Yes.” She withdrew a slip of paper. “But it seems to be garbled. It says Mrs. Steed is at Creighton, but that’s where you are, Mr. Steed, so it must mean you, and –.”
Steed sat up and snatched the slip of paper from her. “It says,” he growled, “that Mrs. Steed is in labor at Creighton. Do I look like I’m in labor, nurse –,” he paused to read her name tag, “—Anderson?”
“Why no of course not, Mr. Steed.”
Steed swung his legs off of the table and paused to wait for the resulting pain in his ankle to subside.
“Hey, you have to let it dry!” the doctor said, reaching out to try to swing Steed’s legs back up.
“No, you have to let me go to my wife,” Steed replied, sliding to the floor and onto his right foot. “Am I going to have to hop?”
The doctor reached out to steady Steed with a hand on each shoulder. Their eyes locked, and Steed’s glare quickly melted the doctor’s objections.
“Orderly!” he shouted. A big man in a white uniform stepped into the examination room. “Get a wheelchair. Take Mr. Steed over to the hospital – the maternity ward.”
“Thank you Doctor,” Steed said. “And may I have some crutches?” he asked, seeing several pair leaning against a wall.
“You’re to keep all weight off of it, you understand?”
“Yes doctor. I’ve been through this before,” Steed said, taking the crutches. The orderly reappeared pushing a wheelchair. Steed was tempted to tell him not to bother, but his ankle throbbed, so he sat down holding the crutches.
“Raise the left leg,” the doctor instructed the orderly, who did so. Steed had to admit the pain diminished.
“All right, go. And Mr. Steed,” the doctor smiled down at him, “Congratulation!”
“You’re progressing nicely, Mrs. Steed,” the maternity nurse said, lowering the sheet over Emma’s spread legs. “Your water just broke.”
“It did?” Emma frowned, trying to feel the difference. Then she noticed that her buttocks felt warm and moist. She couldn’t stop an involuntary grimace.
“An orderly will come make you comfortable,” the nurse smiled, apparently recognizing Emma’s expression. “It won’t be long now.”
Emma closed her eyes and covered them with one hand. Where is he? Damn him, I never expected to have to do this alone.
“Steed. Mrs. Emma Steed. Where can we find her?” Steed asked the maternity nurse. The nurse looked from the hulking orderly down to Steed with his crutches and cast.
“The waiting area is over there,” she indicated a seating area with a big aquarium on one wall.
“Perhaps I wasn’t clear,” Steed said with a smile. “I’m looking for my wife. She’s in labor.”
“Yes sir. The expectant fathers waiting area is there. You’ll find refreshments there, our compliments.”
Steed and the orderly exchanged a look, and the orderly shifted the wheelchair away from the desk. “Try down there,” Steed said, pointing down the hall.
The nurse didn’t hear or notice, so Steed and his orderly were half way down the corridor when she called after them. Just as she did, Steed’s chair came abreast of an open doorway and he looked inside.
“Mrs. Peel!” he cried, lurching up out of the wheelchair and onto his crutches. The orderly moved the chair back and watched closely as Steed swung into Emma’s room.
“Mrs. Peel!” Emma looked up through the haze of pain of her latest contraction. They were getting closer and harder, so she thought she’d imagined it. But then Steed’s arms were around her, gathering her against himself, abandoned crutches clattering onto the floor.
“I’m here darling, I’m here,” he was saying, over and over. She clung to him until the contraction passed, then pulled back to rest against the elevated mattress.
“You’re late,” she said, her eyes radiating relief, her best vixen smile gracing her lips.
“I had to take a short train ride,” he shrugged, wrapping his hands around hers.
“It looks like you took a long walk off a short platform,” she giggled. He gave her a pained look, then bent over to kiss her on the forehead.
“So where are we?” he asked.
“My water broke a little while ago, but I’ve been having contractions for hours.”
“Hours? Why didn’t you call earlier, get a message to me? I might have sent someone else to get on that train.”
Emma shrugged and flashed him her crooked, apologetic smile, “I was on a conference call.”
“Sir, expectant fathers are to wait outside,” the nurse had tracked him down. Emma’s eyes locked with Steed’s, their understanding complete.
“Not this one,” she said, reaching up to stroke the hair at his temple. For the first time she noticed a few strands of grey there. How long has he had them? she wondered.
“Really, ma’am, this is highly unusual.”
“Oh, I’m not squeamish,” Steed said reassuringly, eyes still locked with Emma’s.
“He started this, and he’s going to see it through,” she said, grinning. “Ooph!” She drew her legs up and sucked in a long breath as another contraction wracked her.
“Emma!” Steed sounded frightened.
“It’s just a contraction,” the nurse said, her tone carrying a clear “I told you so” message.
“Can’t you give her something? She’s in agony.”
“No,” Emma gasped. “Not yet. I can take it.”
“Don’t be silly darling. You don’t have to suffer.”
But I am. My God she has a powerful grip.
“All right Mrs. Steed,” a new voice broke through the pain. Steed looked up at Doctor Warner, Emma’s doctor. “Hello Mr. Steed,” the doctor added, looking Steed up and down. “Had an accident?”
“He won’t leave the room, doctor,” the nurse said pointedly.
“No, I’m not surprised,” the doctor said absently, studying Emma’s chart. Sensing that the nurse was not satisfied, he glanced at her. “It’s all right. He can stay.”
The nurse pivoted on her heel and stalked out. Only then did Steed notice that his orderly had left too.
“Let’s get you to the delivery room, Mrs. Steed. It won’t be long now,” Dr. Warner set down her chart and left the room. Shortly two orderlies pushed in a trolley and put it next to the bed. One of them picked up Steed’s crutches and handed them to him with a friendly smile. Steed stepped back, leaning on them as he watched them shift Emma onto the trolley. He followed as they wheeled her out of the room and down the hall into a tile and stainless steel delivery room.
“You’ll have to put these on,” the nurse had reappeared, this time with a surgical gown and mask in hand. Steed leaned his crutches against the wall to put them on, then hobbled over to Emma’s side. He leaned the crutches against the end of the table where Emma had been placed. The nurse was in the process of putting Emma’s ankles in the raised stirrups and draping her knees with a sheet.
“I feel so exposed,” Emma whispered, drawing Steed’s face close to hers.
“Next time we could arrange for you to deliver at home,” he suggested.
“I don’t want to discuss next time right now, if you don’t mind.”
He smiled and pressed a kiss on her forehead. One of the orderlies appeared on her other side with a cup full of ice chips.
“She can suck on these,” he said as he handed the cup to Steed.
“Want one?” Steed asked Emma.
Steed slipped an ice chip between her lips just as she stiffened with another contraction. Doctor Warner came in and settled onto a stool at the end of the delivery table.
“You’re exceptional, Mrs. Steed,” he said. Steed smiled down at Emma, but she was too engulfed in the pain to hear.
“Can’t you give her something?” Steed asked again. Emma’s grip on his hands hurt, but seeing her in such pain hurt more.
“I just did,” the doctor said. “A very local anesthetic.”
Emma relaxed and Steed offered her another ice chip.
“All right now Mrs. Steed. The next time I want you to push,” the doctor said. “I think your baby wants to make an appearance.”
It didn’t take long since the contractions were only a minute apart now.
“Very good, Mrs. Steed. Excellent. That’s it, your baby is crowning.”
“How much longer?” Emma moaned.
Doctor Warner grinned at Steed. “Get ready to push again,” he said.
Emma gulped and, as the contraction began, pushed hard. She couldn’t suppress a wail as the pain seemed to go on and on.
“That’s it, keep pushing. Very good Mrs. Steed. Very Good!”
Emma’s wail became a sob as she clutched at Steed’s forearm and kept pushing. “Get it out,” she groaned. “Get it out of me now.”
“Yes, Mrs. Steed. That’s it. He’s out. You have a little boy,” the doctor was working beneath the draped sheet. Shortly he handed a bloody shape to the nurse and returned his attention to Emma. Steed watched, fascinated, as the nurse took the infant to a counter and cleaned it with quick, efficient strokes of a soft cloth. The infant coughed, then emitted a quiet wail.
“Not quite finished, Mrs. Steed,” the doctor was saying. “Push again, that’s it.”
Emma panted through another contraction and Steed frowned. The doctor noticed his expression.
“Not another one, Mr. Steed,” he said with a smile. “It’s just the afterbirth.”
Steed let out a relieved sigh and Emma chuckled at him. “You thought there might be twins?” she asked. He shrugged, quickly shedding his embarrassment as the nurse came over with the infant.
“Here he is,” she said, handing Emma the tiny, white bundle. “All fingers and toes accounted for.”
“He’s so wrapped up,” Steed said. After all these months he wanted to see his child. My son.
“It’s for his comfort, Mr. Steed. He’s used to being surrounded by his mother’s womb. The swaddling simulates it.”
“But how long are we to leave him wrapped up like this?” Steed asked, carefully extending a single finger toward the baby’s face, then pulling back. Emma smiled up at him and took his hand, bringing it to the baby’s face.
“We’ll unwrap him later, John,” she said, after he’s gotten used to the idea of being out here with us instead of in there.
“With us,” he finished her thought, stroking his son’s cheek with one, huge seeming finger.
“Time of birth, three forty-six,” the doctor said. “Does he have a name yet?”
“John,” Emma said, eyes fixed on the baby. “John Wickham Gascoyne Berresford Steed, the second.”
“You aren’t serious?” Steed asked, flattered, but not believing she really wanted to name him that.
“Why not? It’s an honorable string of names.”
“How about John Knight Steed? Much easier to remember.”
“We don’t have to fill this part out now,” the nurse said, pen hovering over the form.
“John Berresford Knight Steed,” Emma suggested. “I’ve always liked your mother’s family name.”
Steed nodded. “John Berresford Knight Steed,” he repeated, smiling at his son.
“Is that it then?” the nurse asked. “Can you spell Berresford please?”
Emma shifted on the hard bed and her whole body ached. I must have dozed off. She rolled her head to the side and saw Steed seated in a chair with another one drawn up to support his injured leg. The baby, their baby, was cradled in his arm, a small white package against the green surgical gown still covering his wide chest. Steed’s head was resting against the back of the chair, his eyes shut and his mouth slightly open. Smiling to herself, Emma found the call button on a cord near her hand.
A nurse, not the one who had assisted with her delivery, poked her head in a moment later. Emma nodded toward Steed and the baby and the nurse’s eyes widened. She went to Steed and gathered up the infant, rousing Steed in the process.
“You fell asleep, Steed. Not terribly safe for the baby,” Emma answered his confused expression.
He pulled himself up in his chair, his face filling with guilt as he watched the nurse carrying his son away. Emma had to giggle.
“You’ll have a second chance, darling,” she said.
“I’ll bring him back in a bit,” the nurse said. “The pediatrician is here to examine him.”
Emma watched her take their son away, then looked back at Steed.
“Still in shock?” she asked.
“In more ways than one,” he agreed with a genial smile.
“We should call Caro,” she said, referring to Steed’s older sister.
“In a bit,” he agreed. She watched him pick up his crutches and stand, swinging his injured leg as he crossed the room to her bedside.
“You should go home. Get some sleep, rest your ankle.”
“In a bit.” He stroked the side of her face with the back of his hand, then cupped it, his pale eyes so filled with love they overwhelmed her. He bent close and captured her lips in a long, soft kiss. They both let it deepen, knowing that the mild desire it sparked was not so much physical as emotional, and would have to wait. Accepting it, they enjoyed the sensation.
“Keep that up and you’ll be back here in no time,” an amused voice said. Steed and Emma jerked apart, Steed nearly losing his crutches as he looked toward the door.
“How are you Emma?” Sally asked. Behind her, James, who had spoken first, carried a big bunch of flowers. They moved in beside Emma’s bed opposite Steed.
“More exhausted than I thought I could be,” Emma admitted, taking the flowers from James and holding them to her face. “Ummmm,” she sighed.
“We won’t stay long then,” Sally said.
“Oh no, I didn’t mean you should go. I’m so happy to see you.”
“Isn’t someone missing?” James asked, making a show of looking around the room.
“They just took him for a checkup,” Steed said.
“So it’s a boy?” Sally looked excited.
“Yes – is that what you were betting?” Emma asked.
“Betting? No!” Sally’s face colored and James’s smug grin gave her away. “Well, yes. Actually.”
“How did you know, anyway?” Emma asked.
“Your message to Steed. The dispatcher at the ministry couldn’t resist telling someone. You know that nobody can keep a secret at Whitehall.”
Steed laughed, wrapping Emma’s hand in his reassuringly. He was sure she wasn’t happy that her delivery was already known throughout the ministry.
“He’s a beautiful baby boy,” Emma said. “I’m sure they’ll bring him back in a few minutes. But listen, James, do you suppose I could ask you a favor?”
“Take Steed home. He won’t go on his own, and he needs to get some rest – and a change of clothes.”
“I don’t –.”
“You do darling. Have you taken anything for your pain? Do you realize your trousers are torn?”
“Scandalous,” Sally agreed.
“Please Steed. Go home and rest. Come back in the morning. I’ll – we’ll — be fine here – it is a hospital.”
“Come on Steed. Emma’s right. You should get off that ankle,” Bond put in.
Steed looked from Emma to James and back, then sighed and nodded. “All right. You win. I’ll call Caro from home – anyone else?” he asked, pulling his crutches under his arms.
“There’s a list on the refrigerator – names and numbers,” Emma said, reaching out to pull him back for one last kiss.
“I don’t suppose you know whether anyone was able to catch that train I fell off of?” Steed asked Bond once they were in his car.
“Yes, actually. The local police. Logistics called them. They arrested Barth and his contact. Too bad – Barth was a good man in his day.”
Steed nodded silently. In his day. We trained together. Bond glanced at him and back at the road ahead.
“I thought he had a bright future, too. Six has been looking at him,” he said. Steed’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Bond.
“Thanks,” he said wryly. James didn’t respond.
“You’re here!” Caro burst out through the front door of the Steed home and ran to the black sedan bearing Steed, Emma, and the baby. Steed maneuvered himself out of the car and around it on his crutches, raising the camera to film Emma getting out. She paused to wave at the camera and hold the baby up, then walked toward the house. Steed kept filming as Caro engulfed her in a motherly embrace half way there.
“Shall I film for you, sir?” the driver asked, holding his hands out for the camera.
“Yes, thanks!” Steed said, giving it to him and quickly maneuvering on his crutches to join his family.
“He’s gorgeous!” Caro said as she peeked at the baby’s face, which was all that was visible.
“Well,” Emma tried to sound modest.
“Oh come on,” Caro grinned at her, “every mother thinks her baby is gorgeous. Admit it.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Emma laughed, admiring her son.
They moved on into the house and the driver traded the camera for armloads of flowers and stuffed animals, making two trips from the car to unload it all.
“The nursery is all ready, and there’s a pot of soup on for us when we’re ready. Are you tired? Do you want to take a nap?” Caro talked non-stop all the way up the stairs and along the corridor to the nursery, but her words trailed off as Emma carefully placed the baby in the cradle prepared for him. Steed balanced on his crutches and filmed the moment.
“He’s real,” Emma said softly, turning to look at Steed and, by coincidence, the camera. She didn’t appear to notice it. “It didn’t seem real until now. Now that he’s here, in our home. Oh John, we have a son.” Steed clicked off the camera as she stepped to him and pressed herself into his arms. Caro caught the camera as his crutches fell.
“We have a son,” he repeated, stroking her back, the side of his face pressed against hers.
Caro leaned over the cradle, loosening the blanket wrapped around the baby so that she could offer him her finger. He gripped it and gurgled, and she smiled. Behind her Emma loosened her grip on Steed and bent to pick up his crutches. The baby gurgled again and she turned to the cradle with a smile.
“He’s probably hungry,” she said. “It’s been about two hours.”
“Would you like some quiet time with him?” Caro asked and Emma nodded.
“That would be nice.”
“Come on Johnny, let’s give them some time alone.”
“It’s incredible, Caro. I know our mother did it, and you did it. But watching Emma nurse him is just so – so…” Steed trailed off, remarkably unable to express himself. The thought that Emma was upstairs nursing their son made him feel warm all over.
“Harry said something like that,” Caro nodded. “The first time.”
Steed smiled appreciatively.
“Now about that ankle,” Caro went on, placing a bowl of soup on the table in front of him.
“Line of duty, Caro.”
“I’m sure. My point is, I’m going to have to stay longer than we planned. No,” she raised a hand to silence his objection, “you have no idea how much you need me. I know what you’re like when you’re down, and I daresay Emma does too. But she’s not going to have time to coddle you. All I was going to say is that I should stay longer and help you hire a nanny – that is your intention, isn’t it?”
Steed picked up his spoon as she spoke and now he tasted the soup. It was marvelous.
“A nanny? Yes.” Steed watched for Caro’s reaction, expecting disapproval. His sister was raising her six children without any domestic help, and although they had been raised with a nanny, he suspected that she objected to the idea. But she merely nodded over her own bowl of soup. “You don’t object?” he finally asked, unable to let it go.
“That’s hardly my place, Johnny. You and Emma know your lifestyle – Lord knows it’s nothing like mine and Harry’s. I loved nanny Adams, and I believe she was a good influence on you.”
Steed smiled, her words conjuring fond memories of their nanny. And then he realized that finding the right woman to help raise their son was very important.
“We would appreciate your help, Caro,” he said. “And I promise to try not to be too difficult.”
“See that you do.”
“He’s asleep, Emma. Come to bed,” Steed raised the covers over her side of the bed. Emma took one last look at their son, then joined him. They had moved the cradle into their room because Emma had come to realize in the hospital that, at least for the near future, she’d be feeding and comforting their infant frequently. At least that’s what she told Steed. The truth was she simply did not want to be parted from him, not even while they were both sleeping. She had never expected to feel that way – not about anyone other than Steed. It was a bit frightening, and very overwhelming, but as she slipped into bed and Steed wrapped his arms around her she began to believe that she could manage it. Her love for her baby was very different from her love for Steed. The two would never detract from each other. As Steed pressed his mouth to her neck and whispered that he loved her, she knew that their bond was stronger now than ever.
A low wailing woke Emma from a dreamless sleep. It took her several seconds to recognize it, and then the last few days came rushing back.
“John,” she said, sliding her feet to the floor and crossing, still half asleep, to the cradle. The infant was flailing his tiny arms and legs, his face contorted in a frightful grimace. “It’s all right love, mother’s here,” she crooned automatically as she picked him up. His wail changed as she cuddled him to the familiar gurgle that she already knew meant hunger. Glancing at the bedside clock she made for the armchairs by the fireplace. As she’d expected, she’d gotten into bed just two hours ago.
“Emma?” Steed had risen on his elbows, watching her in the darkness.
“He’s hungry,” she said quietly, unbuttoning the top of her nightgown.
“I suppose this is to be a regular occurrence,” Steed sighed, pulling back the covers and reaching for his crutches, which were leaning against the wall by the bed.
“Don’t get up darling,” Emma said, “He’ll be done in a half hour or so.”
But Steed ignored her, crutching his way over to the other chair where he settled in to watch the infant suckle. He soon realized that Emma was watching him, a bemused smile on her face.
“Jealous?” she asked.
“A bit,” he replied. “it’s belittling to know that he’s putting them to their proper use, while I just use them for pleasure.”
“Don’t underestimate the value of pleasure,” Emma smiled.
“What does it feel like?”
Emma looked down at their son. The sight of his mouth on her, his cheeks sucked in as her body nourished his, filled her with a sense of wonder. The sensation – the pinch and tug on her breast, the warmth of his thin breath against her skin – was unique and sometimes even uncomfortable. But it was completely obscured by the sensation of fulfillment and restfulness that the act of nursing brought on.
“Strange. And wonderful,” she finally said. “It feels like we’re forming a bond, he and I, that can never be broken.”
“That’s what I envy,” Steed said softly. Emma watched him for a moment, studying the look of longing on his face.
“He’s your son, John. There will be a time when he’s all yours and I’ll be superfluous. But we’ll both always be his parents.”
“You’re a very wise woman, Emma.”
“I’m just like you, John, I make it up as I go along.”
Two hours later they were up again, and two hours after that Emma brought John to the bed rather than moving to the chair. The three Steeds fell back to sleep in a huddle.
“Steed,” Emma started awake at the feel of her breast being nuzzled. “Oh it’s you,” she sighed, realizing that the baby, lying between them, was touching her. For an instant, before the little tingle of desire subsided, she wished it had been her husband. Steed’s eyes opened, although he didn’t move. “We have to be careful, it would be easy to roll onto him,” she whispered, gathering John up into her arms.
“We do not have to share our bed with him,” he suggested. Emma smiled, feeling the baby’s wet diaper and hoping it hadn’t soaked through the sheets. He’s right.
“It will be your job to keep me from falling asleep while he’s nursing.”
Emma got up to change John’s diaper and by the time she returned to bed, leaving John in his cradle, Steed was fast asleep.
“Has the post come?” Sally asked her flat mate Ruthie as she scrubbed sleep from her eyes. It was noon Saturday. After a late night celebrating with the other trainees Friday Sally had indulged in a long sleep. Unofficially, their training was over with the completion of an international affairs examination the previous afternoon. The simple written test had almost seemed anti-climactic after the obstacle courses, self-defense, shooting range, and practical examinations.
“Yeah, on the table,” Ruthie replied, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the table by the flat door, here eyes remaining glued on the television.
“What are you watching?” Sally asked as she flipped through the pile of envelopes. She stopped to pull out a card from her mother.
“Humphrey Bogart movie,” Ruthie replied. Sally glanced at the black and white film and recognized it.
“That’s set in the Caribbean, isn’t it?” she asked as she continued looking through the mail.
“Yes. On Martinique. It seems so exotic.”
Facts about the political situation on Martinique flicked through Sally’s brain as she stopped at another envelope. It was plain, the return address merely an address in Whitehall with no adornment. She knew without question that it was from the ministry. Setting the rest of the mail back on the table she returned to her room and shut the door.
This is it. My posting. She sat down on the bed and slipped her fingers under the flap, tearing the edge of the envelope. Should I be careful? Am I going to want to preserve this? Maybe I’ll be instructed to burn it. Amused by her own hesitation, she tore it open and pulled out the folded letter inside.
Her eyes darted down the page, not reading the letter but searching for key words – place names mainly, or the name of a person to report to.
“Paris!” She leapt to her feet as the five-letter word popped out at her. Then she glanced at the closed door and sat back down. She forced herself to read the letter, which instructed her to report in one week to the bureau chief in Paris, France. After reporting, she would be allowed reasonable time to conclude affairs in London – to pack her things and have them shipped – and to find lodging in Paris.
Her head started to spin. Just like that she was moving to France. What would her parents say? What would her flat mates say? Where would she live? She felt an overwhelming urge to speak to Emma. Stepping out into the hall, she picked up the telephone and brought it back into her room. She dialed, then re-read the letter as she waited.
“Steed residence,” an unfamiliar voice answered. Sally frowned, then remembered that Steed’s sister was there helping with the baby. She identified herself and learned from Caroline Hill that Emma expected to be home all day and would certainly appreciate a visit.
“Where should I look to live? Should I take my car?”
Sally had shown Emma the letter almost before taking off her coat in the formal entry at the Steed home. Emma had read it as she guided her to the kitchen where Caro was playing with little John. The baby had distracted Sally for a few minutes while she tried to decide whether he looked like either of his parents. That had given Emma time to pour her a glass of lemonade and reread the letter.
“No you should not take your car – you can leave it here if you like – and you’ve been wanting this for months, haven’t you given any thought to where you’d live?” Emma chuckled at her young friend’s frenzied enthusiasm.
“I didn’t like to get my hopes up,” Sally admitted, embarrassed.
“I think you should ask your new supervisor for advice about where to live,” Emma suggested.
“But you know Paris so well!” Sally protested, wanting advice now, not next week.
“Yes, but I’m not the one you need to develop a good relationship with.”
“Oh. I see,” Sally sighed. She’s right, of course.
“Good. Now let’s go see what sort of street maps Steed and I have. We can probably spare one that I can mark up for you. John all right, Caro?” Emma said, standing up. Sally’s eyes widened and Emma grinned. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t advise you did you? I just want you to make a point of asking Tara.”
“You can be sure that I will,” Sally said, getting up to follow her to the library.
An hour later they returned to the kitchen, Sally holding a folded map with several neighborhoods circled and notes made in the margins.
Emma took the baby from Caro and pulled a chair away from the table so she had enough room to nurse him. Sally watched, accustomed to the sight as the eldest of several children, but mesmerized nonetheless.
“Where’s Steed today?” she asked, realizing that his broken ankle prevented him from ranging too far a field. Caro, who had begun removing things from the refrigerator, laughed. Emma exhaled a pained sigh, then smiled.
“He’s decided that he wants to play polo again – it’s been a few years since he pursued it – so he got our groom to drive him across the county to talk with a man who keeps a string of ponies,” she said.
“He’s going to buy a string of polo ponies?” Sally asked, familiar enough with the sport to know that playing it seriously required several horses for each match.
“I think he’s planning on a lease agreement, at least for the moment,” Emma said ruefully.
“For the moment, he’ll be sitting in the stands,” Caro pointed out, shutting the refrigerator.
Emma and Sally laughed.
“You know how he hates being pinned down,” Emma said to her sister-in-law. “Once the cast is off he’ll probably drop this.”
“And if he doesn’t? He’s not getting any younger. Polo is a rough game,” Caro said, peeling the skin off an onion. Sally rose and went to the counter where Caro had put out several more. She started peeling another one.
“It’s a lot safer than his job,” Emma said, watching John, who had stopped nursing, for signs of gas. “And as for his age, I can assure you that he’s in better condition than some of the trainees Sally’s been working with.”
“Really?” Sally blurted, then gasped at her own indiscretion and dropped her eyes to her hands. The kitchen was quiet for a moment and she had the feeling she was being stared at.
“Based on what I saw in the fencing class,” Emma finally added. Sally forced herself to look at the other woman and saw that her attention was focused on her baby, not her friend. Sally let herself breathe again and returned her attention to the onion in her hands.
“He may be as fit as a twenty-year-old,” Caro allowed, although it was clear from her tone that she doubted it was true, “but age is age, and horses are horses. I just hope he uses good judgment, now he has that precious little one to consider.”
Sally felt herself nodding agreement, and her eyes met Caro’s. Across the room Emma had shifted the baby to her other side and he was starting on his second course.
“Me too,” she sighed.
“I like her,” Emma said, closing the door behind the fifth potential nanny that they’d interviewed. “I think she’ll have lots of energy to keep up with him. The older ones might run out of steam.”
Steed nodded agreement, while Caro reviewed the young woman’s CV for the third time.
“You know we’ll do a background check, right Caro?” Steed asked, amused.
“So you’ll know she’s not a traitor to the Queen, sure,” Caro said. “But it won’t tell you whether she’s really good with children. Too bad your friend Sally isn’t interested in being a nanny. Now there’s a girl who knows how to handle youngsters.”
Emma rolled her eyes at Steed, whose expression remained implacable. They both knew Caro wasn’t serious, but even so Emma was glad Sally hadn’t stayed round to hear such a comment. They had convinced her to stay the night, and once Steed had come home he’d had even more thoughts about her upcoming life in Paris.
All three women had been relieved when Steed had announced that he’d not been impressed with the quality of the polo ponies he’d been to see. Until he’d mused that he might just have to buy at least a pair after all. But they’d both held their tongues, and Emma had darted Sally a sharp look, knowing that arguing was the fastest way to send him out to a horse auction.
They spent all of Sunday talking to potential nannies, the first one arriving shortly after breakfast was cleared and Sally was sent on her way.
“Pick your favorite two,” Steed said, leaning over the CVs that Caro had spread across the coffee table in the formal sitting room. “I’ll have checks run on both, in case one gets red-flagged.”
With a sigh, Emma shifted John onto her hip and stepped over to the table.
“Siobhan,” she said, naming the young woman who’d just left, “and the third one. Mrs. Atkins, wasn’t it?” she bent over to read the name.
“Yes,” Caro agreed, “She was more mature than the girl, but still young enough to manage a toddler. She’s a widow, right?”
“Yes,” Steed said, picking up the CV. “Widow, no children.” He glanced up at Emma, who arched a brow at him curiously. He smiled, and she realized he was thinking of her, drawing comparisons, and finding her the winner. He rose and picked up first his crutches, then the two CVs. “I’ll just get the ball rolling,” he said, crutching his way out of the room.
“Young John may pick up an Irish accent if you hire Siobhan,” Caro said as Emma sat down where Steed had been.
“Or at least he’ll be able to imitate it,” Emma suggested, studying her baby’s face.
“Are you planning his career already?” Caro asked.
“Of course not!” Emma replied guiltily.
The truth was, she wasn’t sure if she’d want their son to follow in his father’s footsteps. Being the wife of a spy was difficult. Being the mother of one could be dreadful.
Siobhan Caffrey had worked as a nanny for three different families over the last five years. The Steeds were certainly the most eccentric. She’d accepted the position because the atmosphere in their big, old house had felt welcoming and because although this was their first child they seemed mature and established. The young couple for whom she’d last worked had seemed to her to be as spoiled and immature as their offspring. She’d been glad when he’d been posted overseas by his company and they let her go. She was sure the Steeds would be a refreshing change.
She found out how big the change would be the day after she accepted the position, just after she’d arrived at the house with her two bags – one of clothes, the other of books and journals. Siobhan did not intend to live and die caring for other women’s children. She aimed to be a writer, and spent all of her free time immersed in books.
Mrs. Steed had shown her to the bright, freshly renovated nursery suite and told her that she could select a color for her room and the bathroom to be painted. That was the first unusual thing – she’d never been granted decorative rights before.
The second unusual event came just after lunch, which Mr. Steed’s sister prepared and served, and for which she was welcomed to the kitchen table along with baby John. She had cleared the table and was washing the dishes when the chime of the doorbell echoed through the house.
“That will be for you, Siobhan,” Mrs. Steed said to her. “Dry your hands and come to the sitting room. I’ll let them in.”
“Who, ma’am?” Siobhan asked, shutting off the water.
“Steed didn’t tell you did he?” Mrs. Steed glanced at her sister-in-law and back at Siobhan. “I told him he should warn you. It’s some people who need to speak to you, as you’ll be a part of our household. It has to do with Steed’s work.”
The doorbell chimed again and Mrs. Steed looked appealingly at her sister-in-law and hurried out of the kitchen to greet the visitors. Siobhan dried her hands, looking to Mrs. Hill for advice.
“Did they tell you John’s a civil servant?”
“Well, his work is very sensitive. It imposes certain requirements on his family and close associates. I would think these visitors are here to brief you about it.”
“Does he – is he a –?”
“A spy?” Caro suggested. Siobhan nodded, swallowing hard. “Yes.”
“Well put my dear. Now go hear what they have to say. And do whatever they tell you. It’s very important.”
Siobhan started to reach for John’s stroller, which they found was the easiest way to move him around the house. But Caro waved her away. “I’ll keep an eye on him. Go on.”
Mrs. Steed introduced Siobhan to the ministry representatives, two very formal, serious people wearing dark suits over white shirts and carrying sleek brief cases. The woman looked almost more masculine than the man. Siobhan was relieved when Mrs. Steed waved her to a seat on the sofa, then moved to a chair and sat down.
The briefers – they seemed almost interchangeable to Siobhan – had brought documents for her to sign. They spoke in stern terms about the repercussions for treasonous acts. They alluded to a background check they’d done on her, boldly asking about her younger brother Tom, who was a lazy layabout, and her uncle Conan, who lived in Northern Ireland. Siobhan was mostly apolitical and so was her uncle, who lived where he did because he’d fallen in love with a woman who would not leave her home village. The briefers seemed to accept this, as if they already knew but were testing her. She couldn’t help resenting it, but she noticed Mrs. Steed watching her carefully and resolved to remain calm and professional.
In the end she was left with the impression that she shouldn’t ask any questions about any strange goings on in the house, unless they appeared to threaten the Steeds or herself. Not, they assured her, that there was likely to be anything threatening. It was just a precaution. Apparently satisfied, they clicked the latches on their briefcases and left, taking the security documents she’s signed with them. She leaned back on the sofa feeling drained and slightly abused. Mrs. Steed returned from showing them out and sat down in one of the armchairs facing her.
“I’m sorry you weren’t prepared for that. I asked him to, but he does prefer to test one’s mettle.”
“That was a test, missus?”
“That was Steed’s way of seeing if you are comfortable with surprises.”
“I puppy would have been equally surprising,” Siobhan sighed, immediately regretting her impertinence. But Mrs. Steed burst out laughing.
“He’ll like that,” she said. “A puppy.”
“Please don’t tell him I said that, missus. I don’t want him to think I don’t take this very seriously.”
“Just show that to be the case by exercising discretion,” Mrs. Steed stood up. “One other thing that they did not mention,” she was watching Siobhan intently.
“I’m very often involved in Steed’s work, so I expect the same discretion regarding my comings and goings.”
“Yes ma’am,” Siobhan said automatically, although her brain was still processing Mrs. Steed’s words. “You’re a spy too.”
“Not quite so formally. I’m an amateur. But sometimes Steed needs someone to watch his back, and I wouldn’t trust that to anyone but me.”
“Yes ma’am,” Siobhan said again.
“Come on. Let’s go see if Caro finished the dishes.”
After that, Siobhan simply chalked up each of the Steeds’ eccentricities to their profession. Mr. Steed’s antique car was certainly part of some cover story. Mrs. Steed’s seemingly self-indulgent morning and afternoon workouts in the basement gymnasium were essential to help her regain her strength after her pregnancy. And the other unusual features in the house – the elaborate darkroom, for example — were perfectly logical for a pair of spys. The only thing she couldn’t figure out a reason for was the maze out in the garden.
“Amanda!” Emma waved from across the airport waiting area. Amanda Stetson made a beeline for her.
“Where are Steed and the baby?” she asked as she embraced Emma.
“You know my car – no room for John and all his gear. Steed,” she paused to take a deep breath, “is on a shopping expedition with our groom.”
Amanda slipped her arm through her friend’s and headed her toward baggage claim.
“Shopping with your groom, huh? That can only mean one type of merchandise. Is he looking for a pony for the baby already?”
“I think he’s already selected the pony for the baby – fortunately it’s not weaned yet either. No, he’s determined to take up polo again, so he’s looking at polo ponies.”
“Take it up again?” Amanda drawled, chuckling.
“He used to be quite good – I’ve seen the trophies.”
“Don’t you mean you’ve dusted the trophies?” Amanda chuckled again and Emma joined her.
“In any case, I’m trying to be patient about it, because I’m sure that once he gets his cast off and he can move around again he’ll drop this.”
“Or he’ll start playing.”
“You sound like Caro.”
“Take the room you had at Christmas,” Emma told Amanda as they reached the top of the stairs. “Or any of the others, if you like,” she gestured down the hall. “We’ve converted the corner rooms at this end into the nursery. Let me introduce you to John and Siobhan.”
Amanda set her bag on the landing and followed Emma into the nursery. During the drive Emma had described the nanny quite fondly, making it clear to Amanda that Emma valued the young woman’s help with her baby. A nanny seemed like a tremendous luxury to Amanda, who’d raised her two sons mostly without her husband’s assistance, although her mother had been a great help.
Siobhan, wearing blue jeans and a stained yellow sweatshirt, was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Baby John lay on his back on a receiving blanket wearing only a diaper. Siobhan was tickling his tummy, eliciting jolly gurgling noises from the infant who was waving his arms and legs. The nanny looked up as the women entered, then reached down to gather John up into her arms.
“He has a fresh nappy, ma’am,” she said, looking embarrassed. “But he wouldn’t take his bottle while you were out.”
“Siobhan, this is Amanda Stetson. Amanda, Siobhan Caffery. She’s here to make sure Steed and I are proper parents.” Emma took the squirming baby from his nanny and held him for Amanda to see.
“It’s nice to meet you Siobhan. I’m sure Emma and Steed appreciate your help.”
“Yes ma’am, I do my best.”
“We started him on bottles when I can’t be here to feed him,” Emma said. “At first he took it, but the last few days he’s been demanding the real thing.”
Amanda nodded, holding her index finger to John. He grabbed it, making a happy sounding squeal. “My boys would get moody, refuse a bottle for a few days, then take it again. You have to be patient – I know that’s hard when you’ve been awake all night. He’s beautiful, Emma. He has your eyes and Steed’s chin.”
“Do you think so? Sometimes I think he looks just like Steed, but other times he looks like my father,” Emma held John up to look into his animated face. He gurgled at her, his mouth working, and she sighed.
“He knows you’re the answer to his empty tummy,” Siobhan said.
“If he’d taken the bottle he wouldn’t be feeling this way,” Emma said.
“Emma, you can’t expect an infant to think logically,” Amanda chuckled. Siobhan caught her eye and smiled, and Amanda guessed that the nanny really was teaching her employers about parenting. Amanda didn’t envy her that task.
“With his genes, I expect him to be very logical,” Emma said lightly.
“Give him a few years,” Amanda suggested, shaking her head ruefully.
John’s gurgling turned into an insistent wail.
“Hold him for a moment while I get settled,” Emma said, handing him to Siobhan. She sat down in the wooden rocker by the window and began to unbutton her blouse. “You don’t mind, do you Amanda?” she asked, pausing on the third button.
“No, of course not. I’ll just go and unpack. I wouldn’t mind a little rest after my flight.”
Emma heard Steed clumping up the stairs and along the hall long before he appeared outside the nursery doorway. She had dismissed Siobhan while she fed John and the nanny had gone downstairs for a snack. John had finished nursing and fallen asleep in her arms, and Emma had been unwilling to disturb him. Watching him sleep was restful, and since he’d been unwilling to take a bottle she’d been losing a lot of sleep with overnight feedings. She was, she realized, exhausted.
“How’s our little man?” Steed asked quietly as he crutched across the nursery toward her. He smiled down at John, whose angelic face bore a very familiar secretive little smile.
“Full and sleeping. Little sybarite.”
“He doesn’t know any better,” Steed crooned.
“I think it’s related to gender,” Emma said and Steed winced on behalf of his son.
“How about if we let him sleep in his cradle and you come take a real nap in our bed?” he suggested. All of a sudden the idea of stretching out in bed sounded like heaven to Emma. She rose carefully and gently placed John on his back in his cradle. She switched on the baby monitor: a small radio transmitter with matching devices in the kitchen, library, and family sitting room. Steed had been amused by the idea of using surveillance equipment to monitor their baby. Siobhan had been delighted with the devices when Emma showed them to her. Steed had had to get another receiving unit for her to carry in a pocket.
“Siobhan,” Emma said quietly into the transmitter, “he’s asleep in his cradle. I’m going to go take a nap, so keep your ears open.”
Satisfied that the nanny would watch over her child, she tucked a thin blanket around John and turned to walk with Steed to their bedroom.
“Did Amanda get in?” Steed asked, stopping abruptly just outside of the door.
“Yes, she went to unpack and rest when John started nursing. She’s probably sleeping off the jetlag.”
“Wouldn’t want her to feel neglected,” Steed said thoughtfully.
“She’ll be able to amuse herself – remember she’s not a stranger to our house.”
Amanda and her family had attended the Steed’s wedding at Christmas and stayed on for two weeks after Steed and Emma departed on their honeymoon. They’d used the Steed’s home as a base to explore southern England.
Emma put her hand on Steed’s upper back and propelled him on into their bedroom. Steed feigned losing his balance as he went, dropping his crutches and spinning around on his good leg to capture Emma in his arms. She held on to him, momentarily believing he was falling. But the playful look in his eyes betrayed him.
“Sleep, Steed. I need sleep,” she said regretfully.
“How much?” he asked loosening his grip on her and looking around for his crutches. She bent and picked them up for him.
“A lot!” she said as she tucked one of them under his right arm. He looked crestfallen. “But a couple hours would probably be enough to hold me for the evening.”
He smiled happily and took his other crutch.
“May I nap with you?”
“I was hoping you would.”
Emma drifted awake at the urging of her internal clock. She didn’t have to open her eyes to know that she’d slept for two hours – her body had trained itself to follow little John’s feeding schedule. She would fall into deep, revitalizing sleep instantly and wake up moments before he began crying. Praying that the meal he’d had just before she began her nap would hold him a little longer, she rolled onto her back and turned her head, opening her eyes to look at Steed. His head was resting on his hand, his smiling eyes twinkling mischievously at her.
“Sleep well?” he asked quietly.
“Very well,” she sighed, rolling to face him and bringing her hand up to caress the side of his face. They had not made love in nearly a month. She’d been bereft of desire the last two weeks of her pregnancy, and since John’s birth she’d been too sore and too tired to consider it. But after two hours of refreshing sleep, waking beside his mostly naked body triggered familiar, delicious sensations in her.
He took her caress as a sign, seeming to unfold as he moved closer and wrapped his arms around her. She snuggled against him, her lips finding his with a light, almost tentative kiss, her fingers slipping into his hair.
He let her set the pace, returning her light touches with his own, stroking her lower back with one hand and her silky hair with the other. She deepened the kiss, her tongue sliding over his lips. She caressed his face with her fingertips, feeling the muscles of his jaw work as he returned her kiss.
She felt herself sigh: a throaty, animal sound that vibrated against Steed’s mouth. His arms tightened around her and she felt his body’s response against her thighs. He had undressed except for his briefs before getting into bed. Emma wore a thin t-shirt and underpants. Somehow the presence of thin layers of fabric between them inflamed Emma even more than gloriously bare skin. Her lips wandered over his face as his hands ranged over her body.
“I want you,” he sighed into her ear, making the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. She drew her knee up over his thigh, then his hip, nestling her groin against his. His lips parted, his tongue sliding sensuously around her ear. He brought his hand around her ribs to cup her full breast and she moaned at the buzz of desire that ran from her taut nipple to her loins.
“Take me,” she breathed, reaching down to hook her fingers into the waistband of his briefs. His hand followed hers, fingers pressing at her through her panties.
“You’re wet already,” he said, his voice thick. Emma caressed his warm, solid shaft, drawing in a quick breath as he slipped his fingers into her panties.
“Oh yes, touch me,” she groaned as he stroked her.
He raised above her, nuzzling her breasts through the t-shirt as his fingers probed deeper, triggering a little spurt of warmth from deep within. She gasped, her whole body tensing to his touch as he stroked her clitoris to full arousal. He moved down her body, drawing up the hem of her shirt to plant kisses on her stomach. He had her panties off before she realized it, she was so mesmerized by his touches. He spread her thighs with insistent strokes of his hands and wet kisses. She tangled her fingers in his hair as he came back up her body, his knees between hers, his cast hardly restricting his movements. He supported himself on one hand and pulled his briefs down to free his genitals.
“Wait,” Emma sighed, pressing a hand to his chest. He arched one brow at her, one hand slipping along the inside of her thigh. “Get a condom.”
His brows knit in puzzlement.
“I’m really not ready to start another one yet,” she said, “and I haven’t restarted on the pill yet.”
“But could you really get –?”
“I could,” she said. “In the drawer, your side,” she added with a crooked smile. He pressed a kiss on her smile, then climbed over her to reach for the bedside table.
She took the condom from him and rolled it onto his solid erection with several strokes that burned like fire on his excited flesh. He reared back up over her and she took him in hand, guiding him toward her moist center.
She drew up her knees, her hands clutching his solid ass as he plunged into her. She had been imagining this for months: looking up into his passion-filled eyes as he filled her deepest places and satisfied her most intimate need. She rose too him, pressing up against his downward strokes until they both moaned and he bent his head to capture her lips.
His mouth was as demanding as his thrusts, taking her in hungry, sucking kisses. His hand returned to her breast, lightly stroking the sensitive nipple to burning arousal. His touch set off a thrumming chain reaction throughout her body. She sucked at his mouth and heaved beneath him, an orgasm surging through her from deep within as he pressed into her, desperate to join with her as she shuddered beneath him. Brilliant flashing lights filled his head as he exploded in a long series of thrusts, plunging in and out as she writhed until they both grew still, desire fulfilled.
She drew her hands up his back, slowly lowering her legs as her body relaxed. He shifted to one side, reaching down to remove the condom and rolling away to find tissues on the bedside table. In a moment he was back, pulling her close, arms wrapped tightly around her.
“Emma,” he sighed against her cheek. She smiled, half asleep again and feeling more content than she’d been in weeks.
The bed moved under Steed’s weight and Emma opened her eyes regretfully. He had rolled away and stood up, balanced on one leg as he reached for his crutches. As he progressed across the room toward the bathroom, she forced herself to look at the clock.
Five thirty. John must have taken a bottle. It had been more than four hours since they’d lain down to nap. The infant must have demanded a meal by now, and Siobhan must have been able to satisfy him. Emma lay quietly for a moment, listening for any sign of an infant tantrum. But the house was blissfully quiet.
Steed returned from the bathroom and sat down, but didn’t get back into the bed.
“The second nap was better than the first,” she said with a wry smile.
“I liked the bit in between,” he grinned. “What’s on for supper?” He reached out to smooth a lock of hair off of her face.
“Amanda quite likes the pub in the village. I thought we might just take everyone there. Anything more elegant might be wasted on her if she’s feeling jetlagged.”
“Shall I shower first? You look awfully comfortable.”
“Go ahead,” she said, stretching languidly. He leaned down and kissed her and she caught his shoulders in her arms. He pulled back a little, looking into her eyes with a smile.
“You sure?” he asked. She caressed his shoulders, pulling him back to her for another kiss, seriously considering whether she wanted to let him go. But then she did, regretfully.
“Go on,” she sighed, giving him a little push.
“Since you insist,” he chuckled, sliding off of the bed.
“Let Siobhan and I take the seats by the wall so we can pass John back and forth if we have too,” Emma instructed Steed and Amanda as they gathered around a table for four in the local pub. While Steed was showering Emma had forced herself out of bed and gone to the nursery. John was sound asleep, Siobhan apparently somewhere in the house. Emma got out the pump to relieve some of the pressure on her leaking breasts. By the time she was through so was Steed, so she enjoyed a luxurious shower. It had taken an inordinate amount of time to gather up Siobhan, the baby, and Amanda, who had retired to the family room to read, and get them all into the Bentley for the drive to the pub. Steed had concealed his frustration well, but Emma knew he was feeling it because she was too. We’re both just too used to doing what we want, when we want, she mussed as Siobhan ran back to the house for a forgotten receiving blanket.
“It’s probably harder to get used to being parents, starting when you’re – ,” Amanda stopped short, looking embarrassed.
“Over thirty?” Emma suggested, opening her menu.
“I was thinking that you’ve both been rather independent for a while,” Amanda said. “You’re used to traveling fast and light. Taking your baby’s needs into consideration really changes your style.”
Emma wasn’t surprised that Amanda had noticed her impatience to get moving earlier. The American might even have noticed Steed’s frustration – she was very perceptive.
“He’s worth it,” Steed interjected to Emma’s surprise. She studied her husband for a moment and saw lingering passion in his eyes. She felt her lips curl into a tiny smile at him.
“I think that even though I have the boys, it may be hard for me to get used it again, too,” Amanda said thoughtfully, her lovely brown eyes darting from Emma to Steed.
“Missus, you’ve had the baby!” a heavy waitress with a nasal voice was approaching their table. “Mum will want to come see. Is it a boy then?”
Emma smiled at the young woman who had served her and Steed several meals during her pregnancy – on those occasions when she’d managed to come here. Far more often she’d sent Steed to the pub for take away.
“I had a particular craving for fish and chips during my pregnancy,” she said to Amanda and Siobhan.
“Oh that’s for sure,” the waitress agreed, leaning across the table to look at John in Siobhan’s arms.
“Are they good here?” Amanda asked, forcing the waitress to straighten so that she could look at her.
“The best around, they are,” she said.
“Then I’ll have some.”
The waitress took out her pad and pencil and noted Amanda’s order, then looked at the others. When they had ordered and were alone again Emma skewered Amanda with a sly stare.
Amanda shrugged one shoulder, her mouth splitting into a shy grin. “I am.”
“Congratulations!” Steed said. “We should order champagne!”
“No!” Emma put her hand on his. “You know their wine list is awful. We’ll open a bottle of your ’36 later.”
Steed nodded agreeably and turned back toward Amanda.
“So does Stetson know?” he asked, a wicked smile crinkling the corners of his eyes.
“Steed,” Emma said in a warning tone. She could not guess what he was scheming.
“Yes, he knows,” Amanda chuckled. “I’m almost four months along.”
“This is brilliant, Amanda,” Emma said, reaching across the table to take her friend’s hand. “Our children can be long-distance pals.”
“We can hope,” Amanda said with the voice of an experienced parent.
“Of course they will!” Steed said, dismissing Amanda’s common sense with a casual wave just as the waitress reappeared with their drinks. They were a jolly party for the rest of the evening as Amanda regaled them with stories of her sons’ behavior as infants. She even drew Siobhan into the conversation, extracting a few stories of her previous charges.
The next morning dawned crisp and bright, promising to bring a perfect autumn day. Emma forced herself out of bed and pulled on her dressing gown before venturing downstairs. She found Amanda up and dressed and folding clean sheets and towels in the laundry room. The delicious aroma of a pot of fresh coffee permeated the kitchen. Preserves and bread were on the kitchen table, and there were the makings of a serious English breakfast on the counter by the Aga.
“Good morning, Emma,” she said brightly.
“Amanda, you’re up so early!”
“I came to help, so I’m helping. I checked all the hampers I could find. Siobhan is bringing down the baby’s things so they’ll go in next, but I wanted to ask you about the detergent – I always used Ivory Snow for the boys when they were babies – I don’t suppose you have that here.” She paused and glanced at the laundry supplies on a shelf over the washer, then turned back to Emma, who shook her head.
“Use this one,” she said, pointing at a small box on the shelf.
“There’s coffee made. I just had some toast, but I thought you might want a real breakfast. I’d eat some eggs too, for that matter –.” Amanda stopped because Emma was pressing a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide, her other arm wrapped around her midriff. “Emma, are you all right?”
Emma lowered her hand to reveal a huge grin. She was barely suppressing her laughter.
“I’m fine,” she choked out. “All this activity is just a bit overwhelming first thing in the morning!”
“Oh! Well, I’m sorry. I guess I’m a morning person. Why don’t you just go get some coffee and I’ll join you in a sec’?”
Emma returned to the kitchen, poured herself a coffee, and sank down on a chair at the table. She was taking her first, revitalizing sip, enjoying the calm, when Steed swung in on his crutches dressed in one of his least favorite suits, the leg cut open to accommodate his cast.
“What are you up to?” she asked, eyes narrowed. He had no reason to dress if he was spending the day convalescing. Steed poured himself coffee, then stood staring at it for a moment.
“I, um, would you mind terribly giving me a hand?” he half turned, hands on his crutches. “I seem to find it impossible to carry anything.”
“Poor thing!” Emma crooned, not completely sarcastic, but unable to resist a little tease. She got up and retrieved his coffee, setting it on the table at his place. He smiled gratefully as he sat down. “So what are you up to – dressed like that?” she repeated.
“I am going,” he replied, pausing to drop two sugar lumps into his cup. “To meet with one of our fellows who asked to see me.”
“He couldn’t come here?”
Steed stirred his coffee, watching it swirl for a moment. “He’s undercover in a rather delicate situation. Can’t easily come up with an excuse to come out here when he’s being watched.”
“Shall I drive you?”
Steed’s eyes widened as he looked at her and took a sip of coffee.
“I’d like that,” he said. “Can you get away?”
“If I can have a few minutes to get ready. I think Siobhan and Amanda can manage John.”
Steed’s smile turned into a satisfied grin and Emma realized she’d walked right into his trap.
“You weren’t planning on driving yourself,” she observed. “And I don’t suppose you called the ministry to send a car for you.” She reached for a slice of bread and the jar of fig preserves, deciding that if he was going to be manipulative, he could just wait for her to have a bite to eat.
“I was hoping you’d offer,” he admitted, still looking self-satisfied. Emma spread preserves on her bread and watched him while she ate it. “You could have just asked,” she said after swallowing.
He reached for the bread. “That’s not nearly as fun.”
Emma knew Steed was watching her as she drove her Lotus along the highway toward London. She let her eyes flick toward him and he looked away.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Just wondering,” he said cagily.
“Why I ever thought that motherhood would make you lose interest in this.”
She felt herself smile and looked over at him to see that he was still watching her.
“If anything my interest is greater,” she said. “After all, now you’re not only my partner, but the father of my child. I have an even greater interest in keeping you safe.”
He chuckled, and from any other man it might have meant he was amused at the notion of her protecting him. But they both knew she was absolutely correct.
“Pull over here. Come in with me – it’ll enhance the cover.”
“And just who are we?” Emma asked, looking through the plate glass windows of the big Range Rover dealership as she opened her door. She rounded the car to help Steed unfold himself from the passenger side and get his crutches in place.
“We’re shopping for a larger car.”
Emma laughed as she walked beside him to the door of the dealership and opened it for him. He crutched through, somehow managing a dignified air despite the awkward cast. Emma followed, allowing herself to be distracted by the first big vehicle she saw. Steed made a beeline for a salesman at a desk across the floor, while Emma peered into the luxurious interior and ran her hand over the flawless red finish.
“May I help you, madam,” another salesman had moved in for the kill. Emma straightened and studied him, at the same time watching Steed sit down in front of the distant desk. Undoubtedly the other salesman was his man. She could be helpful by keeping this one busy.
“Does this vehicle come in green?” she asked, strolling on around the Rover and allowing herself to brush closely by the salesman. She’d worn a tailored trouser suit, and as she walked she unbuttoned the jacket and slipped it off to reveal a mock turtle sleeveless sweater and long, bare arms. She flipped the jacket over one shoulder and opened the rear door of the Rover to study the cargo area.
“Plenty of room for the shopping,” the salesman recited, following her. “And all of baby’s things – when the time comes.”
“Yes,” she said, pointedly glancing toward Steed, “baby does have a lot of things.”
The salesman hardly concealed his puzzled frown as he followed Emma’s gaze. She smiled to herself and continued on around the Rover.
“I’d like to drive it,” she said, standing by the driver’s side door.”
“Of course,” he replied. “We have one outside just like it – I’ll get the keys.”
“That would be acceptable,” she said and he started. She cocked one eyebrow at him and he hurried away. She glanced at Steed again. He was in deep conversation with the other man. She strolled across the floor to the desk where they were sitting. The other man looked up as she approached, tension visible on his face. Steed caught his glance and looked up.
“You remember Mrs. Peel, don’t you Stanley?” he asked, smiling up at her.
“Mrs. Pee–?” Stanley’s eyes widened, then he smiled.
“I’m not sure we’ve ever met,” Emma said pleasantly. “I’m going for a test drive,” she said to Steed. “With the other salesman.”
“Why? If you’ll just keep him occupied – you seemed to be managing that quite well,” Steed said, a hint of jealousy in his voice. Emma grinned.
“As you said, we need a bigger car.”
Steed’s brows shot up as she winked at him and pivoted on a heel, her jacket swinging.
“I got an excellent price, you can’t deny it,” Emma said as she parked the Lotus in front of one of their favorite restaurants. “You were right. We do need a bigger car.”
“We have the Bentley,” Steed said. He’d been grumpy ever since he saw her signing papers at the dealership.
“You hate me driving her. And she’s not as reliable as you like to imagine.” She paused so that he could grumble something inaudible. “We’ll be able to let Siobhan drive the Range Rover.”
“I fancied a Jag. Like Mike Gambit drives,” Steed said, his tone very nearly a whine, as they entered the restaurant through the door held by a liveried doorman.
“So buy a Jag,” Emma sighed, turning to face him. He stopped and she put her hands on his lapels, smiling impishly at him. His slightly annoyed expression softened under her gaze. “Can we have a pleasant lunch? Just you and me? I’m famished, for food and your company outside of our house. You can tell me about Stanley, if you want. What did he have to tell you?”
“I can’t tell you about Stanley, I’m afraid. Need-to-know only, and I’m afraid you don’t.”
Emma tossed him a little frown that he knew wasn’t sincere, but intended to pay him back for his earlier whining. She understood that there were levels of secrecy beyond her own. After a quick glance around the empty lobby he planted a little kiss on her twisted lips. Now her frown vanished and she returned it.
“All right, so we’ll plan the rest of the day. Fancy an afternoon nap?” She said, her impish smile returning as she swung around and headed for the maitre’d.
“Why am I here, Mother,” Steed asked, leaning toward the man in the wheelchair as he spoke in order to be heard above the shouts and grunts of several pairs of sparring female agents. Mother had summoned him to the ministry gymnasium where he’d found himself part of a small audience for the final rounds of a karate tournament.
Emma would have won, if she’d known about it, he reflected as he watched a tall, blonde woman throw her opponent for the third time. Then he recognized her as one of Sally’s fellow trainees. Sally, he knew, did not excel at martial arts. And she was in Paris now. He wondered where the blonde – Purdey, wasn’t it? – had been posted. Maybe she was staying in London.
“You need a new partner. There are several to chose from that ought to suit you,” Mother replied.
Steed stiffened, turning his head to stare at the other man in surprise. Mother gave him an impatient look and turned back to watch the agents.
“I do not need a new partner,” Steed said. Mother glanced up at Rhonda, standing on his other side, then looked at Steed.
“Emma is occupied with your child. I hate to think of the consequences should you both be lost on a case.”
Steed frowned at his superior, wondering if concern for his offspring were the man’s real motive.
“I am far less likely to be ‘lost’ with Mrs. Peel at my side,” he declared. “She accompanied me to meet with Stanley just yesterday. And she’s helping with background on the Torcello case.”
One of the two nearest combatants threw her opponent to the mat with a loud thud. The woman who’d been thrown let out a loud groan. Hemming, who was overseeing the matches, hurried over to see if she was really injured.
“You have never been able to separate business from your personal life, Steed. It’s a risky way to operate,” Mother said.
“Nonetheless, if I’m to work with anyone, it’s going to be Emma. I’m certainly not going to take on any of these just for the sake of having a partner.”
“Stubborn, as always,” Mother muttered, glancing up at Rhonda again. A triumphant expression flickered across her face and was replaced by her usual impassive look. “Just as I expected.”
“Thank you for the entertainment Mother,” Steed said, rising and putting his crutches under his arms. “If I were a wagering man, I’d put my money on Purdey over there.”
He set his bowler on his head, nodded at Rhonda, and headed for the gymnasium door.
“What have you got?” Gambit grunted as he took the crate of tomatoes McCall handed him.
“We had an interesting guest for worship services yesterday.”
“Film’s in this crate, under the tomatoes,” McCall lowered another crate into the boat. Gambit set it on the deck apart from the others.
“Who is it?” Gambit repeated, impatient with McCall’s penchant for cloak and dagger.
Gambit’s brows knit in concentration as he took the next crate from McCall. “Mafia?” he finally asked.
“Mafia,” McCall grunted, hefting the last crate.
“Did he visit the scriptorium?”
“He met with the abbot.”
“This could lend the case another dimension.”
“Let me know what you find out.”
“Count on it – this could get hotter than Steed anticipated.”
Gambit rolled a tarpaulin over his cargo and stepped to the stern of the boat to start the engine. Above him on the dock McCall bowed a farewell and strode back toward the monastery storehouse.
“Please come, darling. We’ll pack up John and Siobhan, they’ll have a lovely time.” Steed leaned on one hand and sipped his wine with the other. It was an unusually mild late October day so they had brought a picnic out into the back garden and settled on a patch of grass near the gazebo that Sally’s father had built. Siobhan had kept John, who had a little cold, indoors.
“I hardly think John is capable of benefiting from a trip abroad, Steed,” Emma replied with amusement. Her husband’s appeal was difficult to resist, but she felt inclined to put up at least a small fight before acquiescing.
“But there’s no harm, that’s my point. We need to get away – I’ve felt positively caged this last month.”
“You have felt restricted because of your cast.” Emma looked at his ankle, finally freed from the cast and already regaining flexibility.
“And you have been pinned down by our baby. It’s time to fly, to enjoy some freedom. I seem to recall you vowing that our baby would not change our lives.”
That did it: she had made that vow, and Steed’s suggestion that they make an impulsive trip to Venice was exactly the sort of thing she’d been thinking of at the time. If only Steed would come right out and say the trip was related to the case he had Gambit and McCall working on.
“I need you on this one – a couple will be far more persuasive than just me,” Steed said and Emma felt sure he’d read her thoughts.
“So we’re finally to close the forgeries cases.”
“Yes. They finished analyzing those samples McCall sent out. Two of them are an eighty-five percent match to the Friedrich Gott documents.”
“Meaning the two monks who produced two of the samples probably forged the documents we got last year?”
“Yes. Now I need to go in and see their operation.”
“You don’t trust McCall’s reports?”
“I want to push them to show me their books, so to speak.”
“And maybe they’ll turn over a new leaf?”
Steed groaned and Emma leaned close, touching one finger to his cheek, then tucking it under his chin and pulling his mouth to hers.
“Venice it is,” she said, peering into his sparkling grey eyes as the edges crinkled with his smile.
“Remember out last trip there together?” he asked.
“Vividly,” she replied, thinking of the deaths that had occurred, some at her hands, around the blackmail case they’d gotten involved in. But the glint in Steed’s eyes told her that his thoughts had ranged in a different direction. She felt her face grow warm with other recollections.
“We reached an understanding on that trip, didn’t we?” she asked softly. “Unspoken as it was.”
“I thought so,” he said. “Lord knows why, but I still had doubts about us, about whether you were really in love with me. But that case, and those days in Venice, helped me get over them.”
“I was no help dispelling your doubts,” she said, full of regret despite the intervening years. Steed shook his head, his brows furrowing.
“Of course you were.”
“I couldn’t say it – couldn’t just tell you how I felt about you. Even though you did.”
“I didn’t,” he shook his head again. “Not openly. Not honestly. Neither of us was really ready to stop playing the game then. You were never supposed to hear those words, that’s why they were safe to say. I didn’t deserve to hear you say the same to me. I’ve told you so many things when you’ve been asleep, but that was the most cowardly.”
“What do you mean?” now her brows furrowed. “What things have you told me?”
He stared into her eyes for a moment and she saw a flicker of fear and deep, repressed pain in his.
“The things you want to know that I have not been able to tell you. I think if I practice when you’re asleep then I’ll be able to do it when you’re awake. Eventually.”
“Oh Steed,” she sighed, returning her hand to his face, then around his neck. She pulled him into a hug.
“I love you,” she murmured. “And if I have to be asleep for you to tell me about your past, then I shall be. Just know that you can tell me anything, asleep or awake. I’ll never judge you.”
“I know darling. It’s just so difficult to find words for some of it.”
“I think that when you do, you’ll feel a great relief,” she said. He nodded, knowing she was right, but still unable to imagine verbalizing the horrors he had known. Shutting his eyes tight, he pressed the memories back and focused on the future.
“So about Venice,” he said, pulling his head back to look at her face. She was smiling.
“When do we leave?” she asked.
The flight was easy in first class. Emma decided not to ask whether Steed was going to turn in expenses to the ministry or if he was financing this expedition. Siobhan expertly managed John and all of his accoutrements, handing him to Emma when he fussed for nourishment, which was a much less frequent occurrence now that he was a month old.
At the airport Steed signaled a porter to collect their luggage and wheel it on a cart to the dock where it was loaded on the Danielli hotel’s launch. Steed caught Emma’s eye as he directed them to that particular boat – it was the same hotel that she’d booked them into on their previous trip. Her smile conveyed her appreciation of his choice, although she did wonder if the location would conjure some unpleasant memories along with the good ones.
Siobhan gazed around the lagoon from her seat on the boat, and continued to admire the city of canals as they and their luggage were offloaded at the Danielli. Several hotel porters appeared with luggage trolleys to collect the guests’ belongings. They followed the guests like a train across the fondamenta and into the hotel’s grand lobby.
Emma crouched to wipe John’s runny nose as he sat in his travel stroller while Steed checked them in. Siobhan’s eyes took in the lobby’s rich décor before landing on her employer.
“I’ll do that missus,” she said, reaching for the tissue Emma had just used.
“It’s all right, Siobhan. I know it’s impressive,” Emma said, at once acknowledging the nanny’s negligence and forgiving it. She smiled at Siobhan and straightened, handing her the soiled tissue. Siobhan nodded and took it, tucking it into a pocket.
“Ladies,” Steed said, joining them. The porter with their luggage was waiting near the lifts.
“Siobhan, we told you that this is a business trip,” Steed said. They had settled into a two-bedroom suite and ordered a bottle of proseco – Italian sparkling wine. Siobhan had tried to refuse but Steed had insisted she at least take a few sips. He appreciated her formality, but he still felt a need to create a bond, to gain her trust and loyalty beyond what was his due as her employer.
“Yes sir,” she replied. She was sitting stiffly on a loveseat in the sitting room. Emma had taken John into the room he would share with Siobhan to nurse him and put him down for a nap in the cradle provided by the hotel.
“And you have an idea of what my business is,” it wasn’t a question, but Siobhan nodded acknowledgement. “Mrs. Peel and I will be engaged in meetings, and we may come and go at odd hours. We expect you to concentrate on caring for our son. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir. I understand.”
Steed smiled and sipped his wine. He wanted to tell her she probably did not understand at all, but he didn’t. She would find out, and he hoped she would handle it. The ministry’s background check on her had suggested that she was not easily upset and that she was quite bright. So far his experience of her supported that. He supposed that this trip would be the final test – if she failed to manage John while he and Emma managed the case, then she would have to be dismissed.
“I know it will be difficult, but you must not go out without our explicit approval. If all goes well, when we conclude our business we can stay a day or two and enjoy the city. Mrs. Peel and I are quite fond of it.”
“Yes sir. I would enjoy that, but I will understand if it isn’t possible.”
“Good. Thank you Siobhan. Now, I have a meeting to get to, and Mrs. Peel is going out as well,” he stood up and set his glass aside, looking toward the bedroom where Emma was feeding John. She appeared in the doorway.
“He’s almost asleep,” she told Siobhan. “I’ll give you five minutes?” she asked Steed.
“Yes. See you there.”
Steed pulled on his coat and left with a nod, placing his bowler on his head as he shut the suite door. Emma emerged from their room a few minutes later wearing a new long sleeved cat suit in winter white with tan leather trim, topped by a faux fur vest in the same off white. Standing by the window Siobhan looked at her with wide eyes.
“I shouldn’t be more than thirty minutes or so,” Emma said, taking her passport and some cash from her handbag and secreting them in pockets. “But if I’m delayed, there should be enough milk for John left in the bottles.”
“Yes ma’am. I’m sure there is,” the nanny replied. Her eyes widened further as Emma placed one foot on the seat of chair by the door and slipped a small pistol into her boot, which was soft tan suede.
“See you later,” Emma said, pausing to check herself in the mirror by the door and brush her hair back with both hands.
“Yes ma’am,” Siobhan said as the door closed.
Emma strolled into the small café and thanked whatever saint looked over such matters that there was an empty table. Steed was standing at the bar sipping espresso from a tiny cup while reading a folded newspaper. Standing next to him with his back slightly turned was Gambit, also sipping from a tiny cup. A bottle of Sambuca stood on the bar in front of him. The café was crowded with locals taking a mid-afternoon break, and Emma attracted as much attention as she had intended. Steed and Gambit each glanced her way so as not to stand out as the only men who did not.
A waiter took her order for a cappuccino and she drummed her fingers on the table while she waited, her gaze directed through the windows at the narrow street. A cup and saucer were placed before her. She looked up to thank the waiter and found herself looking into deep, brown eyes.
“Scusilo, signora, I asked the waiter if I may have the pleasure of delivering this,” he said, his English good, if heavily accented. Emma smiled icily.
“Grazie,” she said, picking up the cup and looking back out the window. She sensed the man hovering for a moment, and then he moved away. She regretted being so rude, but his attentions simply were not part of the plan.
No one else bothered her, the rest of the café’s clientele having seen her unkind rejection. When the waiter drifted by she signaled for her check. He set it on her table a moment later and she dropped an appropriate number of coins in the saucer that he’d brought it in.
At the bar Steed finished his espresso, tucked his newspaper under his arm, and strode out of the café. Emma took another sip of cappuccino and waited for Gambit to leave. He did so a few minutes later. She finished her coffee, drummed her fingers one last time, sighed heavily as if extremely inconvenienced by whoever she had been waiting for, and left too. She strolled along the street behind Gambit, Steed just visible far ahead swinging his umbrella jauntily.
Gambit reached a corner, tugged on his cap, and turned. Relieved, Emma continued strolling and, as she came into the more touristy area near Piazza San Marco, gazing into the shop windows.
Back in the suite Siobhan had retired to her room to read and watch over John. Steed was stretched out on their bed with his newspaper.
“Well?” she asked as she shut their bedroom door.
Steed lowered his newspaper and looked at her. “That’s new,” he said.
“I thought I deserved it, after what my body went through,” she replied, slipping the vest off and crawling up the bed to lie beside him.
“I’m not sure I deserve it,” he said with a smile that was more than just happy. “But that fellow in the café thought he did.”
“Um,” Emma rolled onto her side and stretched one arm across his chest. He automatically slipped his arm under her neck so that she could rest her head on his shoulder.
“I hated being so rude to him.”
“Are you saying you would have entertained his advances if you hadn’t been working?”
Emma heaved a deep, long-suffering sigh and Steed smiled mischievously.
“What did Gambit say?” she asked.
Steed stroked her hand, his mood changing very quickly.
“McCall missed his rendezvous yesterday, and then he missed the back-up meeting this morning.”
Emma raised her head to look at his face. It showed concern, but not alarm.
“Has he ever missed a meeting before?”
“Gambit said he missed one early on, but he made the backup the next day. Something about being asked to assist with a service.”
“You think they’ve twigged on to him?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he slipped up.”
“And what about Domenic Lallo?” Emma asked. Steed had briefed her on McCall’s regular reports from the monastery and the mafia boss’s visits.
“He’s been back three times since McCall first spotted him. We’ve asked other agencies for information on him, but they haven’t turned up very much.”
“Is he local?”
“Yes. He’s got his fingers in several pies here in Venice and in the region. We’re due on the island in thirty minutes. If McCall is still at liberty, maybe he’ll be able to contact us, or at least show himself.”
“I hope so,” Emma mused, returning her head to his shoulder.
“Are you going to wear that?” Steed asked. Emma smiled, then sat up.
“I don’t suppose it fits the deeply spiritual philanthropic wife, does it?” she said, scooting off of the bed.
Steed watched her change into a dark green woolen suit and brush her hair into a secure bun on the back of her head. The transformation from sex kitten to moneyed matron was fast and complete. He got up as she refreshed her lipstick.
“I’ll tell Siobhan we’re going,” he said, leaving the bedroom. Emma followed a moment later, transferring her valuables and handgun into a quilted handbag with a long gold chain for a strap.
“One hour,” Steed said to the water taxi driver, handing him double the fare for the one-way trip. The boatman pocketed the money and nodded, glancing at his wristwatch.
“Si, Signore. Un’ora.”
Steed and Emma walked up the dock and into the monastery complex.
“Is this the dock where Gambit has been meeting McCall?” Emma asked quietly, noting how exposed the area was.
“No. There’s a loading dock around the other side of the island where they transfer supplies and goods.”
They had not gone far when a tonsured monk in brown robes belted with a crucifix on a chain intercepted them.
“Welcome to Torcello. I am brother Marcus. You must be Mr. and Mrs. Steed,” he said, bowing his head slightly, his hands folded in front of him.
“Yes,” Steed replied. “We have an appointment with Father Alberto.”
“Father Alberto is awaiting you in the reception hall. Please follow me.”
The monk guided them through an elaborately carved stone archway and along a path between meticulously tended hedges. The afternoon had turned chilly, and Emma regretted not bringing a coat. High clouds propelled by fast winds in the upper atmosphere zoomed across the sky creating patterns of light and shade that almost seemed to flicker. As they approached a high wall made of worn honey-colored bricks the sound of male voices chanting echoed in the courtyard they were crossing. Brother Marcus led them to the left around the wall, which was the side of a building, and the chanting grew louder and more distinct.
“What an uplifting sound,” Emma said. “Are there recordings available?”
Brother Marcus half turned as he walked, a puzzled expression on his face.
“No madam,” he said.
“What a pity. Many of the faithful would enjoy sharing the joy in your order’s voices.”
Emma saw the corners of Steed’s mouth quivering in a suppressed smile. Instead he nodded solemnly.
“It had not occurred to us that our simple worship might be of interest to outsiders,” Brother Marcus said.
“Perhaps Mr. Steed could discuss the opportunities with Father Alberto,” Emma said, looking at Steed pointedly.
“Yes,” Steed cleared his throat, “I’m sure arrangements could easily be made to record the brothers in situ. Marketing and distribution would be simple.”
“Indeed,” Brother Marcus said distantly, “Such matters are far beyond my understanding.”
When the monk’s back was turned Steed shot Emma an irritated look and she smiled at him. Just playing the role, Steed.
“Welcome Signore and Signora Steed,” Father Alberto said as Brother Marcus bowed out of the reception hall. Steed had taken in the space as they entered, noting the high stained glass windows set into stone arches, the vaulted ceiling, and the slightly uneven pavement on the floor. Parts of the floor were inlayed with mosaic, parts seemed to be very old worn stone, and other parts looked quite new. Renovation was clearly ongoing.
“Thank you for seeing us, Father Alberto,” Steed said. “My wife and I are very excited to visit your facility and see some of the volumes your order has produced.”
“Excellent, Mr. Steed. It is not common for those who commission our scriptures to visit us. We’re very pleased to be able to accommodate your request.”
Emma was openly admiring the windows, through which sunlight flickered and vanished at the whim of the passing clouds.
“How old is the monastery?” she asked, taking a few steps over to one of the mosaic sections of floor.
“This building is five hundred years old, madam. Our oldest standing structure, a barn on the north side of the island, is seven hundred.”
“But your chapel was reconstructed last century,” she said, not a question. Father Alberto nodded.
“I see you have done some research,” he said. Emma smiled and turned to study the mosaic.
“May we see the scribes at work?” Steed asked, his tone all enthusiastic innocence. Emma looked up at him, then at the Father, her face alight.
“Yes, please Father. That’s why we came,” she added, returning to Steed’s side.
“It’s unusual, as I said. But certainly,” the monk replied. “This way.”
He guided them out a side door and along the covered walk of a cloister. They could just hear the chanting monks, the sound of a trickling fountain in the center of the cloister overlaying their deep voices with a sprightly soprano. Although he’d never had the slightest tendency toward the church, Steed always found cloisters and the peaceful, contemplative life they represented appealing. They made him think of Robin Hood and Maid Marion in their final days – her cloistered in a convent, him visiting, longing for their youthful freedom. Steed glanced at Emma, then squelched that line of thought as dangerously distracting.
“Our order has been producing illuminated manuscripts for nine-hundred years,” Father Alberto was saying. “Our works are housed in churches and libraries in almost every country of the world. Some are also in museums.”
He opened one half of a huge, heavy double door and ushered them into a corridor that seemed dim compared to the outdoors. They walked on, Father Alberto continuing his description of the monastery’s works as their eyes adjusted. The monks created hand-made copies of the Bible and various other liturgical volumes commissioned by churches and individuals. Most were intended for use on altars, but some were commissioned as presentation gifts.
Steed had approached the order with the latter type of request. He had described himself and Emma as spiritual supporters of their parish who wished to present an illuminated prayer book to the clergyman who had performed their marriage. He had intentionally left Father Alberto with the impression that he and Emma were philanthropists with little else to do but find ways to spend money to the benefit of others. He’d felt sure the monk would be unable to resist meeting them, and he’d been right.
Father Alberto escorted them into a long room with worktables lining both walls. Each table bore stacks of thick, creamy paper and an array of pens, pencils, inks, and other drafting tools. Monks sat on high stools at most of the desks.
Steed had imagined quills and inkbottles, so he was a bit surprised to see very modern drafting pens with calibrated nib sizes and sealed ink cartridges. Father Alberto followed his surprised look at the modern tools on the nearest desk.
“We evolve with the times, Mr. Steed,” he said with a smile. “Some of our brethren are even looking into new computerized methods, although most of us agree that the value of our work is in the hand-drawn letters.”
“Agreed,” Emma said, perhaps a bit too quickly. Steed could well imagine that she weighed the relative merits of computerization versus human creativity on a daily basis.
They strolled down the row behind the working monks, pausing when one rose to place a finished sheet on the counter that ran down the center of the room. None of the workers met Steed or Emma’s eyes as they passed. Father Alberto explained the scriptorium hierarchy as they walked. There were two types of workers, easily identified by the tools on their desks. Calligraphers wrote out the precise lines of text. Illuminators created the elaborately detailed marginal illustrations and capitals using bright colors and gold and silver leaf. Within these two categories were masters and apprentices.
“Will language be a problem for your monks, Father?” Emma asked. “Are they accustomed to working in only Italian, or Latin?”
“Not at all, madam. We receive commissions from all over the world. Some of our brothers specialize in certain languages, of course. English is very common, so all of our scribes are accomplished in it. In fact, our order produced volumes in English for several of your English kings.”
“Not for the Anglican church, surely,” Steed said. He and Emma were masquerading as Catholics.
“No. I speak of rather ancient volumes,” Father Alberto said, his tone somewhat wistful. “A project such as yours would have two master calligraphers and an apprentice and one illuminator and an apprentice. The work would take approximately four months, plus another two weeks for binding. You will need to select the hide for the exterior, as well as other decorative details.”
“I would not presume to dictate, Father,” Steed said, clearly intending to do just that as he slipped his hand into his inner jacket pocket and withdrew a slip of paper. “But we are particularly impressed with the work of two of your scribes.”
“Really?” the slight arch of Father Alberto’s brows set off Steed’s internal alarms. He had wondered if the monks worked anonymously. If so, then he and Emma would have no way of requesting specific workers. For an instant he considered providing false names, but he realized that either way the damage was done. Might as well put the Father on notice.
“Yes. Brother Scippio and Brother Andrea,” he read from his slip of paper then returned it to his pocket. Father Alberto’s face remained impassive, his eyes focused on Steed’s face, but not meeting his gaze.
“Assignments are up to brother Sebastiano, master of the scriptorium,” he said. “I will pass along your interest in their work.”
“That’s all we can ask,” Steed said mildly, dropping his head as if in prayer.
“Thank you, Father, for fulfilling our dream,” Emma added, joining Steed in the gesture.
“Why did he let us go?” Emma asked as they walked from the water taxi to the hotel a while later. They had left the island without seeing any sign of McCall, and had left behind a check for the substantial deposit on their supposed commission.
“I’m not sure. But I am sure he’s suspicious.”
“Because of the names of the scribes. He was surprised that you knew them – the monks probably work anonymously. Did you notice that one of the scribes looked at you when you said the names?”
“No. Maybe it was Scippio or Andrea.”
“So I thought. In any case, if McCall’s been exposed somehow and they’re holding him, then our visit has only fanned the flames.”
“Yes. I have to go back tonight.”
“You have to go back?”
“And you have to wait here so that if I get caught you can come rescue me.”
Emma sighed as they stopped near the door to the hotel. “It is your turn to do the late night break-in,” she said, facing him. He smiled, an expression that suggested he felt put-upon, although she knew he was happy to get his way without an argument.
“I’m going to go contact Gambit to arrange our visit tonight. When I get back, I was thinking of dinner,” he leaned closer, his eyes sparkling, “and dessert.”
“Dinner sounds lovely,” Emma replied, one brow rising, “tell me more about dessert.”
“I thought you might wear that fur vest.”
“No, just dessert.”
“And just the vest?” she suggested.
“That would be lovely,” he purred, his face so close to hers they were nearly kissing, but not quite.
“I’ll see you later,” she said, trying to ignore the flare of desire in her loins as she smiled at him and stepped toward the hotel door. The doorman opened it for her with a nod. Steed watched her go, momentarily unable to do anything else. Then he smiled to himself, adjusted the angle of his bowler, and strode off toward Piazza San Marco and Gambit’s lodging in the tangle of streets behind it.
“I’m glad you’re back, Ma’am,” Siobhan said when Emma entered the suite. “He’s fussing for you – you know the gurgling sound he makes.”
“Ah yes,” Emma sighed, looking at her temperamental son in his nanny’s arms. “Just let me change out of these clothes and I’ll take him.”
Emma wrapped herself in the luxurious hotel bathrobe and nursed the baby, singing quietly to him as he slowly drifted off. When he was sound asleep Siobhan took him to his cradle and Emma took out the pump to extract more of her milk for him for later.
She finished, showered, and dressed in a black velvet dress so short she had to pull up her thigh-high hose and adjust the straps on her garter belt so that the dress covered them. She changed to a small black handbag just large enough for her gun, and had just settled in the sitting room with a book when Steed arrived.
“You must have found him,” she said, setting her book aside and heading for the drinks cabinet provided by the hotel.
“Eventually,” Steed sighed, shrugging out of his overcoat. He looked her up and down as she poured him a shot of scotch and brought it to him. “I’d better dress for dinner,” he said appreciatively, glancing at the sleeve of his grey suit.
“And I’ll tell Siobhan to order whatever she wants from room service,” she said.
They enjoyed a romantic dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was very well known and highly rated. They sipped espresso at the end of the meal and Steed signed the check with a flourish.
“Dessert?” he murmured into Emma’s ear as they stepped into the lift. They were alone in the car, but he stood very close to her just the same. She studied his face for a moment, then giggled. “Why are you amused?” he asked petulantly.
“You’re trying to seduce me,” she said, her lovely smile drawing his gaze.
“And it’s funny?”
“That you think there’s any need is,” she replied, slipping her hand around the back of his neck and placing a slow, delicate kiss on his lips. As she pulled away, her eyes half closed, he bent his head to repeat the kiss. But she slipped her hand onto his lips and smiled seductively.
“Check on the baby while I slip into something more – interesting.” She instructed him as the lift stopped at their floor. She strode out through the open doors, leaving him with a bemused expression on his face, until he shook himself and hurried after her.
“Everything all right?” Steed leaned in through Siobhan’s open door. The nanny was stretched out on her bed reading.
“He just settled down,” she said, glancing at the cradle where John lay sleeping. “He had a bottle a half hour ago, so he should sleep for most of the night.”
Steed crossed to the cradle and bent over his son. He still felt a rush of joy at the sight of the tiny fellow. Very carefully he placed a light kiss on the baby’s cheek, then he straightened and turned to Siobhan.
“We’re turning in,” he said. “If you need anything, be sure to knock.”
“Yes sir,” the nanny said, watching him go. She noticed that he shut her door, although she had left it open. Well of course they want their privacy, she thought.
Steed had removed his shoes and socks, jacket, waistcoat, and shirt when the bathroom door opened. Emma leaned on the doorframe, one hand on a bare hip, the other absently stroking the fur over her flat stomach. She wore the vest and her garter belt and stockings. Nothing else. Steed automatically moved toward her, a low animal sound coming from deep in his throat, his eyes drifting from the triangle of auburn curls between her thighs, up the narrow line of bare flesh between the sides of the vest to her perfect face. She raised her head, her hair sliding back away from her face, her eyes locking with his, and placed a hand on his chest, pushing him back into the bedroom as she took a few steps.
“Finish undressing,” she said firmly
Without breaking eye contact he unfastened his belt and opened his fly, which bulged over his genitals. He dropped his trousers, revealing dark green satin boxer shorts. He watched the corners of Emma’s lips curl as she looked at the way they tented over his erection – he rarely wore boxers and the sight made her tingle all over.
She wrapped her arms around his waist and caressed his ass through the slippery satin as she pressed herself against him. Her lips took his hungrily, her desire washing over him, hardening him even more. He ran his fingers through the faux fur across her back, enjoying the sensation of it crushed against his bare chest. She ran her hands up his naked back, letting her fingers explore his solidly defined muscles. He growled again as she kissed along his jaw and neck, wrapping his arms tightly around her to lift her off of the floor. She drew one knee up as he carried her to the bed, savoring the feel of his satin boxers against her inner thigh. He laid her down on the sheets and drew one side of the vest away to reveal her breast. She gasped at the sensation of his mouth on it – cool and moist, gently sucking her nipple then kissing all around it. She slid one hand down his chest and stomach, across the warm, soft flesh of his belly and under the waistband of his boxers. He froze as she ran a finger along the length of his smooth, hard shaft. She peered up at him from beneath her lashes, her lips curling in a possessive smile as she watched him. She stroked him again and he closed his eyes tight, every ounce of his attention focused on her touch.
She cupped his balls, barely touching them, and raised her head to recapture his lips. He came alive, pressing his groin against her hand and devouring her mouth in huge, hungry kisses. While she still held him he pushed his boxers down to his thighs. Then he froze.
“Condom,” he groaned, realizing the necessity only just in time. Emma stroked his penis, drawing him toward her.
“No need,” she whispered.
He needed no more encouragement. Abandoning all conscious thought, he lowered himself into her. She let go, caressing his belly again, and then his chest as he slowly filled her with his warm, solid presence. She pinched one of his small nipples and he thrust into her hard, gasping. She gasped too, and wrapped her legs around his waist. He kissed her again, sucking at her lower lip, then her chin, and then lowering his head to her breasts setting off explosive kisses there.
They melted together into a single sensual being, giving and taking pleasure, sharing in the joyful rush of joining as if it were the first time, even though it was the thousandth, or hundred thousandth. As familiar as they were to one another, there were still sensations to be discovered, secret, hidden desires to be revealed. And when the moment of climax opened small windows into their souls, they gazed at one another and knew there was still so much more to know.
“Give me until dawn. If I haven’t contacted you by then, call Giovanni at this number,” Steed handed Emma a slip of paper with a telephone number written on it. She read the number, memorizing it automatically, then looked up at Steed.
He was dressed in black – trousers, rubber-soled shoes, and a heavy turtleneck. She knew he wasn’t carrying a gun, but that he probably had a folding knife, lock picks, and a small torch in his pockets. She was still in bed, the fur vest as well as her stockings and garter belt and his boxers still lay where they had fallen on the floor. Not for the first time in her years with Steed, she suppressed the notion that he’d made love to her as if it were for the last time, just in case it turned out that it was.
They did not discuss what she would tell Giovanni, or ask of him. Giovanni was an old friend of Steed’s and a former intelligence agent. Steed had contacted him that afternoon to ask if he would help, should the need arise. If Emma called him, it would be to beg a boat ride to Torcello. Steed knew that’s what she would do if he did not come back on time or contact her. He couldn’t stop her – he knew better than to argue that she was a mother now, she would only toss back that he was a father, too – so instead he made sure she had an ally.
He reached down and drew a stray lock of hair off of her face, then bent to place a light kiss on her forehead.
“Be careful,” she said as he headed for the door, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
He paused in the doorway to grin at her, and then he was gone.
“Wait here unless you see something going on in there,” Steed said as he and Gambit secured the boat’s lines to the loading dock on Torcello.
“I should go in, Steed,” Gambit said, placing a hand on Steed’s shoulder. “I’m the one he missed his meetings with. I’ve got less to lose –.”
Steed shook his head and Gambit removed his hand, suddenly feeling overbold for touching his superior, although the other man hadn’t done anything to suggest it. “I sent him in, he’s my responsibility. Besides, Tara will kill me if we lose him.”
Gambit suppressed a smile. He’d gathered all the gossip he could about his fellow team members, including some juicy bits about Steed and Tara McCall’s history. It had bothered him at first – he had determined since completing training to avoid any personal entanglements with fellow agents because he believed it clouded one’s judgment. But working as part of a team for the first time he’d come to realize that attachments, even if they were platonic, were unavoidable.
“Let me go with you then.”
“No. Give me until dawn. Then either come in, if you think it’s appropriate, or go for backup.”
Gambit nodded grimly. Steed wasn’t going to give in. Gambit watched him climb out of the boat and cross the landing, heading through an arch into the inner grounds of the monastery. He moved so quickly and quietly he blended into the flickering shadows cast by the moonlight and clouds. Gambit stretched out in his boat, figuring that feigning sleep was the best disguise – if anyone found him he would claim to have had a fight with his wife and come out here to wait to pick up the morning load. It was weak, but he was sure he could carry it off.
They had all memorized the layout of the monastery complex. Steed darted from shadow to shadow across several stone paved courtyards and through the arcaded cloister he and Emma had been led along that afternoon. Although Steed was tempted to go to the scriptorium and look for forged documents, his loyalty to his man forced him to head for the monks’ quarters first. He doubted McCall was in his chamber, but he had to check.
Loud snoring echoed off of the thick stone walls of the monks’ dormitory. Steed didn’t worry about his footsteps being audible over the thundering sound. He began to develop sympathy for McCall having to sleep amid the racket. He found the agent’s cell and tried the door. It was unlocked. He poked his head inside.
It was bare, illuminated only by moonlight shining in the small, high window. The stark rope-laced cot stood on end against the wall, a thin mattress rolled and tied with twine standing beside it. A simple bible, very unlike the ones made in the scriptorium, sat on a stool near the cot. Steed shut the door quietly and checked the number engraved on it again. It was definitely the cell that McCall had said he was assigned to when he first arrived on the island.
Steed leaned against the wall in the corridor visualizing the layout of the monastery. If McCall was being held somewhere, it would need to be secure and somewhat remote. That ruled out the church, offices, and work rooms. But there was a crypt under the church and at least one old map they’d studied had indicated catacombs, although they weren’t shown. Now that’s a place to hide someone.
He entered the church through a small, utilitarian side door and headed for the altar, lighting his way with his torch. The entrance to the crypt was behind the altar in the lady chapel. He found the steps leading down under the back of the altar guarded by a locked gate.
Torch in his mouth to illuminate the lock, he used his picks to open it. As the mechanism clicked he thought he heard footsteps somewhere in the church. He froze crouched in front of the iron gate listening for the sound to repeat. But the sanctuary was quiet. He stood up and pulled on one side of the double-doored gate, thanking the virgin that it was well oiled.
He was three steps down the worn marble stairs beyond the gate when he heard the sound again. He froze, flicking off his torch so that he stood in near darkness as he listened intently. A hulking figure moved across the opening where Steed had left the gate slightly open. It stopped and turned, and Steed realized that it was a monk, his long full cassock and drooping hood making him look larger than life. Steed cursed silently as the monk opened the gate and peered into the darkness.
A voice echoed in the church and the monk straightened and looked back over one shoulder. “Si?” he said, stepping away from the gate. Steed inched down a few more steps on his silent shoes.
The unseen speaker called Pietro away, and Steed hurried down the rest of the steps, one hand on the wall in the pitch blackness. He counted twenty steps and slowed down until he found the floor after the twenty-third step. He inched to the right until he could not see the faint grey light of the chapel at the top of the stairs. Then he switched on his little torch, aiming it away from the stairs.
He explored the crypt as thoroughly as he could in the darkness. Massive tombs covered with images of the men interred within them stood in nooks. Simpler etched stone slabs lined the walls. There was no sign of an entrance to catacombs, and no sign of McCall.
Steed switched off his torch and trotted silently up the stairs toward the gate, mentally reviewing the layout of the monastery again as he went.
He was half way through the gate when a giant figure hurled itself against the decorative iron from the other side. Steed was thrown backwards and would have tumbled all the way down the steps if he hadn’t had a solid grip on the gate. Instead he found himself hanging from it by is left hand, scrabbling for a foothold on the slippery steps as the monk flung open the other side of the gate and reached for him.
As the monk grabbed his left arm he swung his right, making contact with the man’s ribs. He held onto the gate with all his strength, knowing that the monk would hurl him down the stairs if he let go. He tried a more direct approach, chopping at the monk’s wrist with his right hand. The man cried out and his grip loosened a little. Encouraged, Steed went for his throat, wrapping his right hand around the man’s neck and squeezing.
The monk let go, reeling back against the open gate. Steed got his feet under himself on a step and charged the monk, striking with both fists. The monk deflected his first blows, then returned them. Steed stepped up, trying to gain elevation over the monk and struck again. He landed a solid blow to the monk’s jaw and was about to follow up with another when the world went black.
Emma set an alarm for four a.m. and forced herself to go to sleep. When its jangling awakened her with a start she felt an immediate rush of dread. She’d been sure Steed would return in the night, that she’d be pleasantly awakened by him slipping into their bed, not by the harsh ringing of the alarm. She slammed her hand on it to silence it, then swung her legs out of bed. Donning the hotel robe she slipped silently into Siobhan’s room to check on John. He was asleep, his diaper dry. Siobhan must have given him a bottle sometime in the night.
Emma used the pump to relieve the pressure in her breasts and prepare her son’s next meal, all the while hoping that the telephone would ring. It did not, so she picked it up and dialed Giovanni’s number.
“Pronto!” he answered on the first ring. She told him she had not heard from Steed and asked him to come help her get to Torcello. He promised to be waiting outside the hotel in thirty minutes.
Emma took a shower and dressed in her black cat suit. She was leaning over the writing desk in the sitting room scribbling a note to Siobhan when the nanny appeared in her bedroom doorway holding John. The baby was awake, clutching at her chin with one tiny hand.
Emma set her pen down and straightened.
“Mr. Steed has not contacted me. I’m going after him. It’s what we agreed on,” she said, not sure why she sounded like she was making excuses. Siobhan’s eyes widened slightly, but she did not speak. “I’ve written down a telephone number. If neither of us returns nor contacts you by this evening, you call it. Tell them that we went to Torcello and have not returned. They’ll know what to do.”
“But what about John? What should I do if you don’t come back?”
“They’ll tell you what to do. They have instructions.”
“About John and me?”
“Yes. I know it’s difficult to think about, Siobhan, but please trust me. Steed and I have been in many dangerous situations and lived to tell about it. But one must always prepare for the worst. I want you to memorize the phone number. In case you ever need it.” Emma picked up her small gun from the writing desk and slipped it into her boot. She put a hand to her throat to be sure her picks were in their pocket in her collar, then checked the zippers on her cat suit, which were all up and secure.
Siobhan watched her every move, ignoring John’s pats on her cheek.
She thinks I’m not fit to be a mother, Emma thought as she crossed the room to the nanny and her infant. Siobhan surrendered John to her silently and she held him tight for a long moment, pressing a kiss to his soft forehead. Reluctantly she handed him back to Siobhan.
“I’ll be back by mid-day,” she assured the nanny, although it was a lie – she felt no such certainty. She left the suite quickly, trotting down the stairs rather than wait for the lift. The sun was just extending its rays to highlight the tops of the city’s many campanile as she crossed the fondamenta to the canal where Giovanni stood in a small speedboat holding on to a wooden ladder. As she descended the ladder she looked up at the hotel. Siobhan was standing on their balcony holding John. Emma paused on the ladder, questioning her actions as she looked up at her infant son. Then she felt Giovanni’s hand on her waist, thinking she needed assistance. Steed. We are not a family without Steed.
She stepped down into the boat and took the seat opposite Giovanni. He engaged the engine and turned the boat away from the bulkhead. The little boat skimmed over the surface of the lagoon as the rising sun turned the water to gold.
Something was tickling Steed’s ear.
“Emma,” he murmured, smiling as he turned his head toward her. Water seeped up his nose and he snorted, sitting up quickly. He became aware of aches in his lower back, head, and hands. He tried to wipe his nose and found that his hands were tied behind his back. That explained the aching hands and back – he’d been lying on them.
“Steed?” McCall’s voice echoed in the dark.
“McCall. Where are you?”
“In front of you. Sitting on the steps. You can get out of the water.”
“Where are we?” Steed rolled onto his knees, then got a foot under himself and stood up unsteadily.
“Cellar under the barn.”
“The old barn?”
“I didn’t know,” Steed said as he sloshed toward McCall’s voice, “that it had a cellar.”
“Nor did I, until they brought me here. So much for our maps.”
“Well, this building is seven hundred years old.”
“And the cellar hasn’t been resealed in at least two hundred.”
Steed flopped down on a rough wooden step next to McCall.
“Keeping the water out is a loosing battle in this city. How long have you been here?”
“About four days. They caught me watching Domenic Lallo with Father Alberto. Decided they didn’t like the cut of my cassock.”
“What were Lallo and the good father talking about?”
“It was a transaction – Lallo was paying for some documents. I did manage to slip my camera behind some books in the library before they got me. There are pictures on the film in it.”
“Very good!” Steed did his best to sound encouraging. After all, even the best agents got caught now and then.
“What about you?” McCall asked, as if he’d read Steed’s mind.
“Looking for you. I thought they might have you in the crypt, since I didn’t know about this place. I certainly would have checked here first if I had. In any case, they jumped me coming back out.”
“Well, thanks for trying,” McCall said, sounding regretful.
“Here now,” Steed managed to bluster, “we’ll be out of here in no time.” He stood up and started up the steps. His eyes had grown accustomed to the dark and he could see a rectangle of light around a door at the top of the steps. Behind him McCall didn’t respond.
Gambit watched the sky lightening in the east. When it had gone from velvety black to dark grey he sat up and peered across the loading dock at the monastery walls. With a grunt he climbed out of the boat and crouched on the dock. He checked for his gun in its shoulder holster under his jacket, then he sprinted toward the arch through which Steed had disappeared hours before.
Plastering himself against the wall under the arch he watched a monk hurry across the courtyard in the near darkness.
“Blast it,” he muttered, realizing that the monastery’s day must start before dawn in order to be prepared for early morning services. He slipped back through the arch and along the quay that connected the monastery’s less ecclesiastic facilities. One of them, he knew, was a laundry.
Ten minutes later he emerged from the laundry, just another monk going about early morning duties, carrying a spare cassock rolled into a bundle in his arms. While stealing the cassocks he had visualized the monastery layout much as Steed had done hours before. Were Steed and McCall being held together somewhere? The place was a rabbit warren of rooms and corridors, most of them made of heavy, sound dampening stone. He wasn’t sure where to begin.
The smell of baking bread caught his attention as he hurried through a courtyard trying to look like he knew where he was going. He hadn’t eaten anything since mid-day yesterday, and the smell was tantalizing. Without breaking stride he turned toward it.
“Grazie Giovanni,” Emma said as Steed’s friend held his boat against the monastery dock. The sight of Gambit’s boat tied there had at first reassured her, then made her nervous – it meant that both men were somewhere on the island, possibly both in need of assistance.
“I will wait, just out there,” Giovanni pointed to the open water. “I’ll be fishing.”
Emma nodded wondering for a moment whether anyone really fished in the lagoon, then climbed out of his boat and sprinted across the dock toward the nearest door. The sky was fully light, although a few bright stars were still visible in the west. Emma tried the door and it opened. She slipped inside. She had taken four steps when a cassocked monk appeared in a side doorway looking startled to see her there. Without hesitation she smiled and waved with her right hand and slammed a hard chop against the base of his neck with her left. As he doubled over she raised her right knee to hit his forehead, and as his head bounced up she slammed her left elbow in the same spot at the base of his neck. He slumped backward into the storage room he’d come from. She shoved him in a little further and shut the door.
Gambit stood in the shadow of a buttress watching the entrance to the kitchen. It was a separate structure, so all meals were carried out through the one door. He watched two monks carry a large covered pot hanging on a rod toward the refectory. Gruel for the monks. Yum. And then, as he’d hoped, another monk came out with a basket and headed across the kitchen garden. Gambit slipped out of the shadows and followed.
Emma took the shortest route she could think of to the scriptorium and was gratified to find it empty. As she shut the door behind herself she heard the church bells begin to toll. She went up one aisle of worktables to the one where the monk who’d looked up when Steed said the names of the forgers had been working.
There was nothing unusual about it – pens, inks, and straightedges were all as they should be. Disappointed, she surveyed the room. Her eyes fell on a tall wooden cabinet against the wall near the door. Cocking one eyebrow, she walked over to it and tried the big double doors. It was locked.
Smiling to herself, she fished her picks out of their pocket in her collar and went to work. Within moments the well-oiled lock opened. Most of the shelves inside the cabinet were filled with beautiful leather-bound volumes. Emma ran her hand over their gold etched spines, scanning the titles for anything unusual. All were church texts – prayer books, bibles, and hymnals most prominent, the titles in various languages. She bent to study the lower shelves and found two drawers at the bottom of the cabinet. She slid the left one open. Files labeled with numbers filled it. She pulled one out to find a very old deed to property somewhere in Italy. The next file contained a letter in German, also very old looking. Each folder she looked at contained one or more documents that were completely unrelated to the scriptures the monks were supposed to work on. Impulsively, she opened the drawer on the right and looked at the very last folder. As she’d guessed, the files were chronological. The most recent folder contained a single document that she knew had to have been created last night. Amused, she folded it in thirds and lowered one of her zippers enough to slip it inside her cat suit.
As she bent to shut the drawer, the cabinet door slammed against her, knocking her off balance. She staggered away between the row of worktables and the long counter in the center of the room. The monk who’d slammed the door followed her, a pistol aimed at her.
Regaining her balance, she raised her hands in surrender.
Without a word, the monk jerked his head toward the door. She went, the barrel of the gun against her upper back a firm inducement to cooperate.
Gambit watched the monk leave the barn empty handed. The sun was rising now, and several cows and goats had been turned out into a small pasture. Gambit hoped that whoever looked after them had gone to service – he could hear the church bell tolling from the campanile in the center of the island.
He scanned the rafters of the ancient stone building, but there was no place to hide prisoners there. The door at the end of the central aisle probably led to a storeroom, but he tried it anyway. It was latched with a simple mechanism, not a lock. He was surprised to find steps leading down. He was more surprised when something moved in the darkness at the bottom.
“Look McCall, here’s Gambit come to rescue us,” Steed’s voice sounded overly cheerful.
Gambit charged down the steps, meeting Steed half way. Steed turned his back on Gambit, which seemed like an insult until Gambit glanced down at the other man’s wiggling fingers.
“Do you mind?” he asked over his shoulder. Gambit pulled out his pocketknife and sawed at the hemp rope binding Steed’s hands. “Thank you so much,” Steed said as the rope fell away. He climbed up the steps, rubbing his wrists. Gambit moved down to McCall, glancing up at Steed.
“I brought you a costume,” he said, nodding at the bundle that he’d used to wedge the door open. “Why didn’t you walk out of here? It wasn’t locked,” he asked as he worked on McCall’s bonds.
Steed pointed to the inside of the door. “No latch on the inside,” he said. Now Gambit saw that the inside of the heavy door was smooth. He thanked his good fortune that he’d propped it open, and didn’t let himself think about how embarrassed he’d have been if he’d ended up shut inside with Steed and McCall.
“Did you bring one for me?” McCall asked as he watched the cassock settle over Steed’s shoulders.
“You’ve got one, mate,” Gambit replied, trotting back up the steps into the barn. McCall raised the folds of his cassock and grimaced.
“It’s soaked, and filthy,” he groused as he followed.
Gambit rolled his eyes and turned away toward the barn door, but Steed clapped McCall on the shoulders encouragingly.
“We’ll get you out of it soon enough, old man,” he said. “Let’s go incognito, shall we?” He raised the loose hood of his cassock and waited for the others to do the same before leading them out into the sunshine.
“Let’s go collect some evidence, gentlemen,” he said, heading back into the maze of monastery buildings. A few minutes later they entered the scriptorium where three monks were now seated at the worktables. But Steed paid them no attention. He was more interested in the open cabinet. It had been locked yesterday: he’d tried the doors when Father Alberto wasn’t looking. He quickly surveyed the contents and saw the fortune in handmade volumes. One of the lower drawers was partially open. The folders inside were all he needed to see. He pulled out several, realizing that Gambit and McCall were trying to conceal his actions and inadvertently attracting the attention of the three scribes.
Steed firmly closed the drawer and then the cabinet. He made a show of nodding to Gambit and McCall, and led them out of the scriptorium.
“They were about to ask us what we were doing,” Gambit whispered when they were in the corridor beyond.
“And I would have told them,” Steed replied.
“You would?” McCall asked.
“Certainly. We were retrieving some documents to take to Father Alberto’s office. Shall we brothers?”
Steed was certain that Emma had been there. The monks would not have left the cabinet open, its contents was too valuable.
“For eighteen years this has been the perfect arrangement. I refuse to give in so easily,” Father Alberto was saying. Brother Marco shook his tonsured head and raised his hands in a placating gesture.
“If they know, then others do too. It’s too risky to go on here. Even if we dispose of them, more will come.”
“There has to be a way!”
Emma sighed loudly, drawing the abbot’s eyes. They had been arguing for several minutes and she saw no resolution to the conflict.
“He’s right, you know,” she told him. “They’ll send someone else.”
A light rapping on the door stifled the abbot’s response. He frowned and started to reach for the door. Before he got there it slammed open, knocking his hand away. Three monks surged into the office, the one in the lead wrapping his hands around Father Alberto’s throat and pressing him backwards across his desk.
As they entered, Brother Marco swung around behind the chair Emma was tied into and produced a large knife, which he pressed to her throat.
Gambit had his gun aimed at Brother Marco. Emma cocked one eyebrow at him, eyes rolling up to the monk behind her, then looking back at Gambit.
“Stop!” the monk shouted, getting Steed’s attention. Seeing Emma’s predicament, Steed eased his grip on the abbot’s throat and stepped back, allowing the other man to stand up.
Emma’s eyes met Steed’s and he nodded, flashing her a little smile. She shut her eyes and heaved her legs up, throwing the chair backward. Startled, Brother Marco took a step away from her chair and as he did Gambit fired at him. He collapsed instantly, a small round dot on his forehead. Behind Gambit Steed slugged Father Alberto, then grabbed him by the shoulders and flung him toward McCall. McCall hit him hard in the kidneys and flung him back toward Steed, who propelled him across his desk. He landed with his head buried in his chair and went limp.
“Steed!” Gambit’s cry sent Steed nearly flying across the room to where the other man crouched beside Emma.
She lay very still in the chair, her eyes closed. Gambit had his fingers against her neck feeling for a pulse. Steed dropped to his knees beside him.
“Her pulse is strong. She must have hit her head,” Gambit said, removing his fingers and moving away. Steed put his hands on either side of Emma’s face.
“Emma,” he said as calmly as he could. He patted her cheeks lightly. “Emma?”
Behind him Gambit and McCall exchanged a glance, both men uncomfortable at witnessing Steed in such a tender moment.
“Steed?” Emma whispered. The other agents saw the tension drain from Steed’s shoulders.
“Yes, it’s me. How do you feel?”
“I’ve been having the strangest dream – why are you a monk?”
Steed chuckled, caressing the side of her face lovingly.
“You hit your head darling. You just lie quietly for a moment while we sort things out.”
“All right. But Steed?”
“Why are my legs up in the air? It’s rather unseemly.”
Behind Steed, Gambit and McCall were unable to stifle their laughs. Steed grimaced, but did not turn around.
“You’re tied in a chair, darling,” he said, the other mens’ laughter beginning to infect him. “I don’t want to move you until we’re sure you haven’t hurt your neck.”
Emma grinned at him, the sparkle in her eyes suggesting that she’d known all along. He shook his head, smiling in relief, and turned toward the other men.
“Call for a team,” he barked, his tone harsh to get their attention. “We need to secure the island, and the four of us aren’t enough to do it. McCall – go find your camera.”
Gambit picked up the abbot’s telephone as Steed turned back to Emma.
“Giovanni’s fishing in the lagoon,” she said, then she looked puzzled. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, darling. I think you have a concussion. Did Giovanni bring you?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Then he’s probably waiting for you. Fishing nearby. When Gambit gets done I’ll have him go look.”
“I hate this feeling, like I’m dreaming,” Emma said. “Do you suppose you could untie my arms?”
Steed’s eyes widened as he realized how uncomfortable she must be. He stood up and tried to reach into his trouser pocket. His hand tangled in his cassock and he struggled with it for a moment, then growled something wordless as he flung it off over his head. He fished his knife out of his pocket, then used it to cut the ropes binding her arms to the chair. She put her hands to her head and began feeling it.
“Careful!” he said, reaching for her hands to stop her.
“It’s all right,” she assured him. “I can move my head. I can feel my fingers and toes. Please let me out of this chair.”
Realizing that she was quite capable of diagnosing herself, Steed sliced through the ropes binding her ankles and helped her roll off of the chair. When her legs were on the floor she sat up, one hand on the back of her head. She took it away and looked at it.
“Not bleeding,” she said.
“Thank goodness for that,” Steed said, putting his arms around her shoulders. “Let’s get you up, shall we?” He lifted her to her feet, mostly to see if she could stand. She did, unsteadily.
“I’m dizzy,” she said, clinging to him.
Gambit hung up the telephone and looked at them.
“They’re sending the locals,” he reported, looking unhappy. Steed shrugged.
“They’ll know how to work with the monks,” he said. “Don’t discount the value of local law enforcement, Gambit.”
The other agent nodded, but looked unconvinced. Steed asked him to go look for Giovanni, and by the time he had returned Emma was walking carefully around the office and McCall had come back with his camera and the film incriminating Domenic Lallo.
“Giovanni’s at the dock, and there are police boats coming across the lagoon,” he reported.
“You take Emma to Giovanni’s boat,” he instructed Gambit. “Have him take her to a hospital, then go to our hotel and tell Siobhan where she is. McCall and I will work with the police.”
“Steed, I don’t want –,” Emma began, but Steed cut her off with a sharp look. She closed her eyes and took a shallow breath. Steed nodded at Gambit, who put an arm around Emma’s shoulders to help her walk. As they reached the door Steed stopped them, taking Emma’s hand. She smiled at him, her lower lip caught in her teeth. “I know, you need to know I’m taken care of,” she said simply. He returned her little smile and kissed her hand. Then he released it and nodded at Gambit, who urged her on out of the office.
The Venice police had secured Torcello with brutal efficiency, allowing the monks access only to the church, the kitchen and refectory, and their dormitories. All of the documents in the scriptorium were seized, along with Father Alberto’s files and other items from his office. Every building on the island was searched, room by room, too.
Steed and McCall remained on site into the afternoon looking after the interests of their own investigation. They made sure that the forged documents were properly labeled, and they made themselves known to the police officer in charge. By the time they finally boarded a police boat that took them back to San Marco they were both exhausted and famished.
Steed found his hotel suite inhabited by a frustrated nanny and a baby in the throes of a tantrum.
“Mr. Steed, he’s so hungry,” Siobhan said as he stepped in. She crossed to him, John struggling in her arms. “I’ve run out of bottles. I think he must be having a growth spurt, he’s been eating so much!”
Steed took little John from her and cuddled him. Although he didn’t think he would have any more luck than the nanny at quieting the baby he could see that she needed a break.
“Didn’t Gambit tell you where to find Mrs. Peel?” he asked, wrapping his hand around the back of John’s head. The feel of it, warm and soft, so fragile, but so full of life, still took his breath away.
“He did. He said she was in hospital. But you were so firm about my not taking John out alone, I didn’t think I should go. I was about to go to the concierge and ask if someone could escort me.” Siobhan replied. Her demeanor seemed calm, although her voice belied a high level of stress.
Steed shut his eyes, lowering his face to press his lips to John’s head. The baby continued to cry, exercising his very healthy little lungs. Siobhan was right, they had told her not to go out without them. He inhaled deeply, the sweet smell of his baby combating the wave of fatigue that had swept over him on the lift. He needed to see Emma, and their son needed her even more than he did.
“I’ll just change into fresh clothes and we’ll go to the hospital. It’s not far,” he said, stroking John’s back once more before handing him back to the nanny.
“Tara baby? It’s over,” McCall purred into the receiver. At the other end of the line his wife straightened behind her desk, a smile lightening her face.
“Is everything all right? Did you get them?” she asked.
“We got them. Emma ended up with a concussion, but otherwise everything’s fine.”
“So Steed is happy?”
“Yes, I suppose so. He’s concerned about Emma, of course.”
“Of course.” McCall could almost hear the wheels turning in his wife’s head. “It’s a little cool here and the canals are close to flooding, but it’s so beautiful. Why don’t you fly down for a few days? Steed will be staying until the doctors let Emma go.”
“A reunion in Venice?” Tara asked, imagining it. “Sounds amazing. I’ll find a flight and call you back. Tell me where you’re staying.”
McCall gave her his contact information. He had not checked into the Danielli but rather a more modest establishment that was covered by the ministry per diem. As soon as he got off the telephone with his wife he began making plans.
“It’s just up here, The Sisters of Mercy,” Steed said, pointing with his umbrella at a large building a little further along. Siobhan’s gaze took in the ornate façade of the hospital where Emma had been taken. Infant John was fussing in her arms, but she was very practiced at ignoring him when there was nothing she could do. He was hungry, and he’d be with his mother in a few moments.
She had just opened her mouth to ask Mr. Steed about the carved figures on either side of the hospital door when a boat wake washed up over the canal bulkhead and splashed their legs. Her words were replaced by an indignant squeal. Steed stopped to look down at his wet trousers. As he did, four men swarmed up out of the offending boat and surrounded him. He barely had time to shove back from the one in front of him before the one behind him slammed a blackjack against the back of his head. Siobhan’s squeal transformed into a scream as Steed slumped into his attacker’s arms. The other three men lifted his legs and dumped him limply into the boat. They followed, and the boat roared away, splashing the pavement again as it went.
Passersby had stopped when Siobhan screamed, but as the boat disappeared around a bend in the canal they lost interest in the hysterical woman. They turned their faces away from her and kept walking. She fell silent, although she was still breathing heavily, her heart racing. Little John redoubled his fussing. Siobhan watched the water of the canal calming in the wake of the vanished boat. Then she turned back toward the hospital.
She hurried up the stairs, gripping John so tight he began to wail. She ran through the massive doors, which were standing open. Inside the hospital a nun intercepted her, speaking rapid Italian.
“Mrs. Steed. Mrs. Emma Steed,” Siobhan said breathlessly over John’s wails.
The nun shook her head and said something else.
“She’s a patient here. Mrs. Emma Steed.”
The nun reached for John and Siobhan jerked him away, half turning her back on the woman.
“No!” she cried. The nun cast her an angry look and gestured for her to follow as she started across the entry hall.
“English?” she asked as she hurried after her. “Does anyone speak English?”
The nun just kept walking and Siobhan wondered for a moment if she was supposed to follow or had misunderstood. But a moment later the nun stopped and pointed at a reception desk. Siobhan hurried over to it, stroking John’s head in the hope of quieting him.
“Pardon me, do you speak English?” Siobhan asked the nun seated at the desk.
The nun looked from Siobhan to the baby and tsked several times.
“Please, I need to find Mrs. Emma Steed. The baby is hungry. Please. Mrs. Emma Steed. She’s a patient here. She has a concussion.”
Siobhan resisted the urge to speak louder, knowing it wouldn’t help.
“Excuse me miss,” a soothing male voice cut through John’s cries. Siobhan whipped around and found herself looking into the eyes of a devastatingly handsome man in a white lab coat. “Let me help,” he said, his English rolling off his tongue with a thick Italian accent. His dark eyes twinkled above an aquiline nose as his thin lips parted in a smile that revealed perfect teeth.
“The baby is hungry and his mother is a patient here,” Siobhan explained, noting how attractive he was but forcefully ignoring it. She wanted to add that John’s father had just been kidnapped right in front of her, but she didn’t think that would aid her cause. “Doctor?” she added
“Doctor Rossi,” he confirmed. Then he turned to the nun at the desk and spoke with her for a moment. As he said Emma’s name he glanced at Siobhan for confirmation. She nodded that he had gotten it right. The nun consulted a ledger and told the doctor where Mrs. Steed was.
“Come, I will take you to her,” he said, gesturing for Siobhan to precede him across the hall toward a rather grand staircase.
“Thank you so much, Doctor Rossi,” she said as they ascended.
“It is not every day that I may come to the aid of a lovely, if hysterical, English woman,” he replied.
“I’m not hysterical, it’s just that –,” Siobhan trailed off, realizing that she could not begin to explain the situation for fear of revealing things about her employers that she should not.
“Yes?” the doctor asked, directing her to the left at the top of the stairs.
“It’s just that I’ve only been working for them for a few weeks and I’m afraid they’ll sack me if the baby doesn’t stop crying,” she said.
“But his mother was injured, yes?”
“Then you can hardly be blamed for the baby’s tantrum. You’re doing your best, I’m sure.”
“Siobhan!” Emma’s cry cut through John’s continued wailing. Siobhan followed her voice into a brightly lit, mostly empty ward where Emma lay beneath starkly white sheets.
“Oh ma’am, he’s starving and I ran out of bottles and Mr. Steed –,” she stopped short again, glancing at the doctor who had stepped into the ward after her.
“I will leave you to take care of the bambini,” he said with a nod, then he left. Siobhan turned back to Emma and caught her amused smile.
“He was rather attractive,” Emma said, reaching for John. In fact, the doctor had seemed a little familiar. But Siobhan’s truncated sentence consumed her attention. “What about Steed?”
“Let me help you,” Siobhan said, seeing that Emma was having trouble getting free of the hospital gown that lay between John and his meal. When the baby was finally, quietly nursing Emma peered at the nanny again.
“What about Steed?” she repeated.
“Oh ma’am,” Siobhan finally allowed herself to feel the horror of what had happened. “He was kidnapped. Just outside. Four men came up in a boat. They knocked him out and took him. It all happened so fast. One moment he was talking about the hospital, and then he was gone. And John was fussing so, all I could think of was finding you.”
Emma felt a heavy weight descending on her as she listened to Siobhan. She lowered her face to the top of John’s head, her cheek against the infant’s fine, silky hair. Four men in a boat. Steed’s been taken. Who?
As quickly as the fear had welled up it was replaced by icy resolve. Her mind turned away from the shock, focusing instead on analysis and calculation. Domenic Lallo? The church? Monks who were not on Torcello this morning and want revenge? She thought about the likely suspects and easily settled on one. Steed had handled cases with Mafia involvement in the past. He could be known to them. She actually hoped it was Lallo who’d had Steed kidnapped. She had a lot of resources to track him down. Investigating the Catholic Church, or even renegade monks, would be much harder. Even as plans coalesced in her mind, she raised her head, her face set with determination.
Siobhan was watching her.
“See if my things are in that cabinet,” Emma said calmly. Siobhan went to the metal cabinet Emma had nodded toward and opened it. Her black cat suit was hanging inside.
“As soon as he finishes we’re going,” Emma looked down at John, who was completely focused on her breast.
“Are you well enough?” Siobhan asked.
“I’m not getting any worse, and Steed doesn’t have much time.”
“Oh no, you don’t think they’re going to –?”
“Kill him? If they wanted to they would have just done it,” Emma paused to shift John to her shoulder. He had stopped nursing. She looked at Siobhan’s stricken face. “He’s extremely valuable. We just have to hope they realize that.”
“They’ll send a ransom note?”
John burped and laid his head on Emma’s shoulder and for a moment all she could do was hold him, gently rubbing his back. He smelt of milk and baby powder and that sharp, baby smell that meant he needed a fresh nappy. His warm solid presence sparked a thought that she had to forcibly repress before she could look Siobhan in the eye again: Thank God I have him, in case I lose Steed.
By the time Emma had dressed a distressed looking nun had appeared, scolding her in fast, high pitched Italian. Siobhan held John and followed as Emma replied in much calmer, deeper Italian. The nun persisted, trying to stop her. But Emma pressed past her, leading Siobhan out of the hospital.
“She didn’t seem to think you should go,” Siobhan said as she lengthened her stride to match Emma’s.
“She meant well,” Emma said absently, then glanced at the nanny. She paused and held out her hands. “Please let me carry him,” she said. Siobhan surrendered John instantly, watching Emma kiss the baby’s face before cuddling him against her shoulder and setting off again. Siobhan could not imagine what was going through her employer’s mind. She’d obviously been upset about Mr. Steed, but she’d gotten over it so quickly it was almost frightening.
“When we get to the hotel I’ll need to make several calls. I’ll pump as much milk as I can for him. Then I may need to go – to go look for Steed. I know I can count on you to take care of him Siobhan. If he needs more food, have the hotel send someone for infant formula.”
It wasn’t really a statement, but more of a plea. Siobhan felt a shiver of fear as she looked at Mrs. Steed’s profile. Then she mentally recited the telephone number that she’d memorized: the one to call if both of John’s parents failed to return.
“His hair was thicker, and more curly,” Siobhan said as the artist added hair to the sketch he was making. Siobhan shut her eyes and visualized Steed’s abductors again. She had gotten a good look at only one of them, but Emma had thought it was worth trying to identify him. “That’s better. Yes, like that,” Siobhan looked at the sketch again. “His eyes were very dark – maybe black. And not as round.”
Emma had contacted Gambit and McCall as soon as she and Siobhan reached the hotel. Then she had called Mother. The ministry head had listened to her report and agreed that she and the two agents should begin looking for Steed. A ministry team was already on the way to Torcello from the Milan office, but they would be busy on the island. Feeling justified in taking whatever steps she could think of, Emma made another call – to Interpol.
Gambit and McCall had arrived at the suite in time to join Emma and Siobhan on their way to the police station. That’s where they met the police sketch artist arranged by Interpol agent Dennis Walling. Walling had commandeered an office, and while Siobhan watched over John and worked with the artist he and the British agents discussed the situation in private.
“I think you are correct, Mrs. Steed: Lallo and his ilk are our most likely suspects. His organization here in Venice is, at best, a tertiary cell. He has been jockeying for years for more prestige in the organization. Capturing a known — and notable — British agent would be a big feather in his cap.”
“Do you know much about him?” Gambit asked.
“I’ve contacted our local man who keeps tabs on Lallo’s activities. He’ll be joining us shortly.”
“Do you think Steed is still in Venice?” McCall asked. Gambit glanced at Emma, but her expression remained impassive.
“Lallo’s sphere extends into the Venetto region, but I believe his headquarters are here in Venice. If he has a safe place to hold Steed, it’s likely here. If this goes on, though, or if he feels pressure from us, he may well move him.” Walling paused to glance up at the door, which had a window set into it. “Our local man is here,” he said, waving the man in.
The door opened and the three British agents looked toward the newcomer. Gambit and McCall’s expressions were curious. Emma’s mouth fell open, then shut as she smiled warmly at him.
“Three o’clock.” Steed groaned as the echo of the third chime faded. There might have been more, but he’d only heard three tolling in a distant campanile. He automatically fought the sense of dread that the harmless sound of three bells tolling always caused him.
“Wake up,” a harsh voice snapped in Italian as a splash of rank, icy water shocked Steed into full wakefulness. He opened his eyes just as two men lifted him up off of the floor where he’d been laying. One snapped hand cuffs on his wrists, then they raised his arms over his head and hooked the handcuff chain over an iron hook suspended from the ceiling. Steed instinctively got his feet under himself and stood up straight to take the stress off of his arms and shoulders. He hurt all over, especially at the back of his neck, and looking at the three men in the room with him he suspected that he was going to feel worse before he felt better.
He was shirtless, he realized, and his wet skin was chilly on the left side and warm on the right. He let himself glance around the room, reluctant to let his gaze leave the man standing a few feet away. They were in a glass blower’s workshop. The warmth to his right came from a lit furnace, the white-hot flames contained within a cavern of bricks. In front of it several glass rods lay on a table, and racks of tools stood on either side of the furnace opening.
“John Steed. British intelligence,” the man before him said. Steed’s eyes snapped back to him. He was holding Steed’s billfold, looking at his identification. “And this?” he held it up so Steed could see the photograph of Emma and John that he had taken to carrying when not working undercover. He had replaced his ministry ID and the photo in his billfold just before leaving with Sally for the hospital. He looked at it now, wondering if he should regret regarding the case as closed too quickly. But as he looked at the picture Emma’s knowing smile lent him strength and John’s innocent one lent him courage. He was glad of their presence, albeit two-dimensional. He did not reply.
His questioner dropped the billfold on the table he’d been leaning against and stepped close to Steed. His slap didn’t surprise Steed. He let his head roll with it, then returned his steady gaze to his attacker.
“Very well,” the man said in Italian. “We will get down to business. Who are your agents in Italy?”
Steed suppressed an impulse to laugh. He had endured questioning by the best: men who were experts at exerting physical, mental, and emotional pressure and asking questions so subtly that their victim sometimes did not even realize he was providing information. This fellow was a rank amateur.
Two hours later his opinion had not changed, but it no longer mattered. The three men had pummeled his torso, chest, and back until he’d been unable to stand. In addition to the throbbing agony of his bruised and battered upper body, his arms and shoulders ached and the handcuffs cut deeply into his wrists from bearing his weight as he hung from the hook. It was little consolation that the three men seemed to have tired themselves out as they lifted him off of the hook and carried him to a dusty corner. They dropped him on a filthy tarpaulin on the stone floor and one of them wound a strip of leather around his ankles to bind them. He flopped painfully onto his back, his arms and hands throbbing as circulation returned. The workshop grew dark except for the glow of the gas-fired furnace. Steed drifted in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware that he had been left alone and he was unable to take advantage of it.
But he was not alone. The shades of old enemies hovered over him, poking his battered flesh, whispering their questions in his ears over and over. They assaulted him in a cacophony of languages: Chinese, German, Arabic, English, and, as he slipped deeper into a half-conscious sleep, gibberish that was even more horrifyingly insistent than the words that he had understood. Beneath it all was the endless stomping of marching feet echoing in long gone corridors outside of a cell that he’d left more than a decade ago. He raged at them in his dreams, releasing years of pent-up anger that his training forced him to keep locked deep within. He rolled in his half-conscious sleep and the sharp pain of what felt like a cracked rib woke him. As the sounds of his dream faded he was grateful for the pain and the grim reality it brought him. He was not forsaken in China, not alone in East Berlin. He was in Venice, and Emma would find him.
“Pick him up,” a voice barked. Steed opened his eyes as he was dragged up by the arms and carried back to the hook.
“Emma, I was distressed to hear what has happened,” Giovanni said as he stepped across the room and took both of her hands.
Walling and McCall both looked surprised, but Gambit just smiled – he had come to realize that Emma’s circle of contacts was just as extensive as Steed’s. But she did appear to be surprised.
“You’re with Interpol,” she said as Giovanni squeezed her hands. He nodded.
“I watch over things here, it’s usually nothing much.”
“Does Steed know?”
“Possibly. We have not discussed it.”
Emma nodded, understanding that both her husband and his old friend were masters of reticence.
“Why don’t you three fill in Signore Giovanni,” Walling said, pulling out a chair for the newcomer. “I’ll see how the sketch is coming.”
Walling had the sketch duplicated and circulated to the local police with the instruction that the man was to be brought in for questioning. He also sent it to Interpol headquarters to be compared to their extensive database of known criminals. Meanwhile he sent Siobhan in to tell Giovanni about the abduction.
Giovanni nodded knowingly as he listened to the nanny. He asked her to describe the boat, and the other men whose faces she hadn’t seen very well. She did so, encouraged by his fatherly demeanor. When she was done Giovanni called for a map of Venice. Emma quietly asked Siobhan to return to the other room where she had left John in the care of a tall, grey-haired policemen. The nanny did so with only the slightest hesitation. Emma could not blame her for wanting to stay, but she remained firm. Siobhan had to accept her role in their household. She was not a spy.
A police officer brought in a map and they unrolled it on the desk, anchoring the edges with a stapler and several volumes of Italian legal code. Giovanni leaned over it, planting his right hand on the water and pointing at various locations with his left as he spoke.
“Lallo lives here,” he pointed at a spot along a canal just off the Grand Canal. “It’s a very good area, and he has a very large palazzo.” He moved his finger closer to San Marco. “His brother runs a souvenir shop here. He sells junk to the tourists, and somewhat more valuable items to special customers.”
“What sort of items?” Gambit asked.
“Items that do not belong to him.”
“Not there, no. Here,” Giovanni moved his hand across the lagoon to the long narrow island of Lido. “Lallo owns an ice cream shop on Lido that does a great deal of business along those lines. It is somewhat seasonal however.”
“And this is definitely the off season,” Emma said.
“So Steed could be there,” McCall suggested.
“He could,” Giovanni agreed, but he did not sound convinced. “But it’s a small shop in a row of businesses. Any unusual sounds would be reported,” he paused, watching Emma for signs of distress. They all knew what “unusual sounds” he was thinking of. Emma’s expression remained impassive. “And if he escaped, he would have many opportunities to elude them. I would expect Lallo to have a more secure location for Steed.”
“Can you think where?” Emma asked. Giovanni straightened, still looking down at the map, but shaking his head slowly.
“I do not think he would have a prisoner such as Steed brought to his home. He has some standing in the community. Neither of these shops is particularly appropriate either. I’m afraid we have not been paying such close attention to Signore Lallo recently. I am not familiar with his other options. I am sorry, Emma.”
“Well,” Emma sighed, looking at the vastness of Venice, the tangle of canals, streets, and ancient buildings. Steed could be anywhere. “I think we should do some shopping. Gambit, you’ll come with me, won’t you?”
Gambit frowned, but nodded agreement.
“And Robbie, you look like you’d really like a gelato.”
“I would not mind one myself,” Giovanni said, looking at McCall. “I’ll go with you to Lido.”
“Why don’t you join us at our – my – suite this evening?” Emma suggested, looking from McCall to Giovanni. “After you’ve satisfied your craving?”
“Look John, see the pretty colors?” Emma held the infant up to look at a display of glass ornaments hanging in the window of Domenic Lallo’s brother’s shop. She had felt confident that bringing John and Siobhan along to the shop was safe, and they certainly supported her English tourist cover. Besides which, Gambit was loitering just outside in the square.
John waved his hand toward the delicate glass and chortled. Emma wasn’t sure his vision was acute enough yet to actually distinguish the ornaments, but she was sure he liked the bright colors.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the shop clerk – perhaps Lallo’s brother, watching John carefully. “No, John, you can’t have one. Maybe when you’re older,” she said, capturing John’s flailing hand and turning with him toward the shelves of knick-knacks. Siobhan was examining a wooden model of a gondola complete with poorly painted gondolier. She turned it over and held it up so Emma could see the label on the bottom that read “made in China.”
“Most of it is the same,” she said quietly, returning the model boat to the shelf with all the others.
“Welcome to tourism one-oh-one,” Emma sighed, strolling along the aisle. Her keen eye quickly discounted the rows of glass figurines, beads, and gaudily decorated masks. She stopped when she came to a display case with mirrored shelves supporting unique vases, plates, and paperweights. These did not look like they’d been delivered on a ship from the Far East. Shifting John to her other arm, she picked up a cobalt bowl with gold inlay around the rim and examined a small sticker on the underside. Barbini, Murano.
“Excuse me,” she turned toward the hovering shopkeeper and held up the bowl. “Are these made locally?”
“Si Signora. On the island of Murano. Have you visited it yet?” he replied, stepping closer, clearly wishing to take the bowl out of John’s range but restraining himself.
“No, not yet. But I’m certain John will love to look at all the glass there,” she replied, re-examining the bowl.
“Si Signora. But perhaps the museum and factories is not the best place for such a young child…”
Emma’s brows templed as she set the bowl down and stared at the man who had suggested that her child was behaving inappropriately.
“Grazie, Signore,” she said curtly, turning toward the door. Siobhan hurried after her closing the shop door, which Emma had left open upon her exit.
“He was sort of right, ma’am,” she said tentatively as they strode rapidly across the square where the shop stood and plunged into a narrow passage on the other side.
“Of course he was,” Emma said glancing at Gambit, who dropped his half-finished cigarette on the ground and squashed it with his boot, then fell in several paces behind them. Emma looked at Siobhan and realized that she’d carried off her act too well. “Siobhan, I was using John to distract the man. He’ll remember me as the English woman who thinks her baby can do no wrong, and he’ll discount me as any type of threat, except to his delicate merchandise.
“But what good did it do?” Siobhan asked, realizing as she said it that she probably should not ask. Emma had told her they were going to the shop looking for clues as to Mr. Steed had been taken, but that was all.
But Emma did not chastise her for her curiosity. She smiled and pressed a kiss to the top of John’s head, then looked at Siobhan.
“I may know where Steed is. Or at least I know of one place to look.”
“It’s a dreary stretch at the western end of Lido,” McCall reported that evening. They had gathered in the Steed suite and ordered supper from room service. They were sharing the afternoon’s experiences while they waited for it to be delivered. Emma was ensconced in a large armchair with John in her lap. Siobhan had removed herself to her room and shut the door, although she had the impression that no one would have dismissed her if she’d stayed.
Giovanni looked a bit disconcerted at McCall’s negative terms, but he remained silent.
“The shop is tiny. We got our ice cream and hung around outside eating. There were five other customers, and three left without buying any gelato.”
“You think they bought something else?” Gambit asked.
“Definitely,” McCall replied with a nod.
“Gentlemen, we are not in drug enforcement,” Emma interrupted. “Do you think there’s any chance Steed is there, Robbie?”
“No. No ambitious mobster is going to endanger his established dealing business with a spur-of-the-moment kidnapping.”
“Giovanni?” Emma looked at the Venice native. He was sitting on a stiff chair, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasped. He straightened, shaking his head as he looked at Emma.
“No. McCall is right. The western end of Lido is remote – a long way to go to visit the prisoner, and to transport him. They would have to land the boat and carry him over land for a good distance – Lido has few canals.”
“But it has cars,” Emma pointed out.
Giovanni shrugged and looked away from her. “Venetians do not think in terms of automobiles. If a Venetian wants to make a quick get away, he looks for a fast boat.” The Venetian had not expected John Steed’s wife to be an emotional wreck over the kidnapping of her husband – Steed would not have selected a mate prone to emotional weakness — but still he found the woman’s calm, focused nature intimidating. She was so positively British, the antithesis of demonstrative Italian women.
He had been curious about Emma since Steed had visited him several years ago and told him about her. Giovanni had known then that this woman had touched his friend in a way that none other ever had. Over the ensuing years he’d been saddened on his friend’s behalf when he’d heard, through mutual friends, that she had left him. He had not heard of their reunion until he’d received their wedding invitation last fall. He’d sent a case of good wine. Other than these clearly pivotal moments in their relationship, he knew very little about it. That afternoon he had tried to get McCall to speak about her, but the American agent had been unwilling to offer an opinion.
From Steed’s description years ago he knew that she was multi-talented, multifaceted, and brilliant. Watching her easily manage four male agents from two highly respected intelligence agencies while holding her infant son in her arms he knew he was seeing the emergence of a new facet. Emma’s calculating gaze had moved to Walling, who seemed to have intentionally placed himself outside the conversation in the chair in front of the writing table near the door.
“What about Barbini, Mr. Walling?”
Walling coughed politely and shifted in his chair, turning his body more toward the sofa where Gambit and McCall were seated, although he had to look at Emma or appear completely rude.
“Barbini is a very well known studio on Murano, Mrs. Steed. The likelihood of a prisoner being held there is very slim.”
Emma looked down at baby John, then lifted him up onto her shoulder and stroked his back. She seemed unaware that he was tugging on a lock of her hair as she studied Walling.
“It has public tours, Emma,” Giovanni added. “Tourists wandering through the factory all day.”
“It has no storerooms, or an attic?” she asked, turning her head to look at him.
He shrugged, unable to claim that it did not, and knowing that she was going to demand that they investigate the place no matter what arguments he and Walling raised.
“The Barbini studio has no known connections with Dominic Lallo’s organization,” Walling said, his tone condescending. Giovanni winced.
Emma looked toward the sofa and Gambit and McCall. Gambit looked relaxed, almost insouciant. McCall was fidgeting, as he had been all afternoon, Giovanni realized.
“Take the tour first thing in the morning,” she said to them. Gambit nodded, the corners of his mouth curled in a smile.
“Maybe someone should go there now,” McCall asked, glancing at his watch for the tenth time since they had started talking.
“Since our friends from Interpol believe the Barbini studio is a dead end, we can hardly justify breaking in,” Emma said, eyes narrowing at McCall so that Giovanni wondered if she was silently instructing him to do just that. He also wondered if the young agent was capable of picking up on her silent instruction. “Are we keeping you, Mr. McCall?” Emma went on, her tone turning suddenly irritated. “Does Steed’s kidnapping take a lower priority for you than some other engagement?”
“No ma’am, of course not!” McCall’s eyes widened as he raised his hands, palm outward, toward Emma. He was about to say something more when there was knock at the door.
“Saved by the bell-boy,” Emma quipped with a crooked smile, then nodded toward Walling who had risen and gone to the door. He opened it, one hand inside his jacket. A short, dark haired woman stood outside. A waiter pushing a trolley stood behind her. Emma’s crooked smile broadened at the sight of Tara, and she glanced at McCall, who had risen and turned to face the door.
Tara strode in giving Walling a sidelong glance as she passed him. She rounded the sofa and stepped into McCall’s arms. Giovanni looked startled, but Gambit was ignoring them, intently watching the trolley bearing their supper instead.
“I went to your hotel,” Tara said after giving Robbie a kiss. “Since you weren’t there, I thought you must be here.”
“How did you know – ?” Robbie started, then glanced at Emma, who was crossing the room toward Siobhan’s door.
“Steed told me where they were staying,” Tara explained.
“Steed did?” McCall looked quite surprised.
“Of course he did, sweetie. He knew I was concerned about you, so he wanted me to be able to reach him, or Emma. So why are we all here? Celebratory supper?” she asked, glancing around the room.
Emma had summoned Siobhan and handed John to her so that she could sign the check presented by the waiter. Gambit had moved to the trolley to retrieve his supper. Giovanni and Walling had followed him.
Robbie removed his arms from around his wife and took a deep breath, stalling until the waiter had shut the door behind himself.
“Steed’s been kidnapped,” he said. Tara’s eyes widened and she looked from her husband toward Emma, who had joined the men at the trolley.
“How?” she asked. “When?”
They introduced Tara to Walling and Giovanni, and then filled her in on the events of the afternoon. Her complexion grew pale as she listened to how the kidnapping had occurred and their subsequent investigation. Siobhan ate in silence with John in her lap, absorbing as much information as Tara.
“I think we should go to the Barbini studio tonight. I don’t care what Interpol thinks,” Tara said, taking a bite of McCall’s grilled fish.
“Really, Mrs. McCall, it is not appropriate for us to enter their facility –,” Walling began to protest.
“Who said anything about ‘us’?” Tara retorted, her bright blue eyes flashing. “If Interpol does not wish to be involved, then you needn’t be. Robbie and I will go.”
Across the room, Emma tried to conceal a smile, but Giovanni saw it.
“Giovanni, we will have no part of this,” Walling said, rising and leaving his supper half finished. Giovanni looked at his plate regretfully, but rose as well. Emma watched him cross to her, her expression unreadable.
“Call me when they return,” he said quietly as he bent to place a kiss on each of her cheeks. She nodded, the small smile returning to her face.
After the Interpol agents had gone McCall asked Gambit for the loan of his boat and Gambit offered to go along. But McCall refused, assuring him that they would take care of his boat, but that he should stay and take care of Emma.
Gambit doubted McCall’s motivation – he suspected that the couple was hoping once again to gain Steed’s favor. Certainly Emma did not need taking care of. But Gambit was tired, and the prospect of keeping her company was certainly preferable to a damp boat ride and exploring a glass factory. So he described the location of the launch he’d been using for the last few months and handed McCall the key to unlock the outboard motor.
During these preparations Emma had gone with Siobhan and the baby into the nanny’s room. By the time she returned to the sitting room Gambit had turned off most of the lights and was sitting alone sipping a glass of brandy and looking out the windows across the dark lagoon.
“Can I pour you a drink?” he asked her as she shut the door to the nanny’s room. She had her arms wrapped around herself, and she walked slowly, almost aimlessly into the middle of the sitting room. “Emma?”
Her head shot up and she faced him forcing a smile. He rose and turned to face her, holding up his glass. Her eyes widened, and she shook her head.
“Not for me – a little wine doesn’t hurt him, but not the hard stuff,” she said.
“Some water then?” he asked, embarrassed to have offered — to have completely forgotten that she was nursing. Suddenly he was anxious to fill the role McCall had assigned him. For the first time in their short acquaintance Emma appeared to be vulnerable, and it was a disturbing sight.
“Yes, please. Some water,” she replied, still standing in the middle of the room.
“I was just enjoying the view,” Gambit said, gesturing toward the window as he went to the drinks cabinet. Emma looked out the window at the lights of Dorsudoro just across the canal and boats out on the lagoon beyond. She moved to a chair and sat looking out, only looking up when Gambit returned with her glass of water. He sat back down in his chair with his refreshed glass.
“It’s peaceful,” he added.
“Yes. But what I need now is distraction,” she said quietly. Gambit sipped his brandy and tried to form a response.
“You and Steed have been working together for a long time. You know how strong and resourceful he his. He could walk through that door any time.”
“Everything is different now. I never expected it to be, but it is,” Emma paused, then chuckled quietly.
“What?” Gambit asked, smiling because it seemed as if he should. Emma looked over at him, her bright eyes reflecting the light from the single lamp across the room.
“I was just remembering the last time I had the same experience,” she said.
“When was that?” he asked.
She smiled enigmatically and looked back out the window. “A few months after I met Steed. I was so certain that we had completely defined our relationship, and nothing so basic as,” she paused, sipping her water in an obvious delaying tactic, “as sleeping with him would change anything.”
“But it did,” Gambit nodded. Of course it did.
Emma nodded too. “Somehow marriage didn’t, though. I think that we had made that commitment to one another long before the actual ceremony. But having our son – creating a new life that we’re both responsible for – that’s changed everything. I can’t imagine raising him alone. I can’t bear the thought of not finding Steed alive.”
“And if he’s injured?”
“Do you wish he would get out of this?”
Emma sat in silence for so long Gambit feared he had gone too far.
“No,” she said at last and Gambit found himself staring at her in surprise. She looked back at him and shrugged. “He would be miserable. He’s a spy. It defines him, even though he doesn’t think so.”
“And you don’t think being a husband and father could be more important to him now?”
“They could, but he doesn’t realize it yet. I will never ask him to quit. Before we were married, he offered to. He said I was more important than his work. I wouldn’t let him. The difference now is, if he decides to quit, I won’t object. But,” she grinned across at Gambit, “I would miss it.”
“You’d miss this?” he asked, incredulous.
She sighed and peered back out the window. “I would not miss this. But I would miss the rest – the puzzles, the role playing, the occasional chance to practice martial arts…”
“So you don’t intend to give it up either.”
“Not until he does. I failed to protect him this time, but I am going to rescue him. I wouldn’t trust anyone else.”
“Not even me?” Gambit shot her his best grin, hoping to distract her from her self blame.
She raised one eyebrow at him, then looked back out the window. “Eventually, maybe,” she said gently. Gambit felt that it was high praise.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, Gambit trying to think of something more to distract her with. But then Emma provided the new topic.
“You’re a bit of a loner, Mike Gambit,” she said.
“Is that what they say about me?”
“They say you’ve asked for one undercover assignment after another, mostly outside of Britain, always solo jobs.”
“They say a lot to someone who’s not even an agent.”
Emma’s placid gaze held his, silently challenging him to go on questioning her right to confidential information.
“I prefer to avoid close working associations,” he said. “They can be dangerous.”
“Yes, that’s why Steed likes you. You remind him of himself.”
“Steed has worked with partners – most of them female – for the last decade or more.”
“And before that he worked alone for many years. He made friends, like Giovanni, but he kept them at arms’ length. He thought he was keeping himself safe, too.”
Gambit frowned at her, annoyed that she was casting doubt where he had already begun to feel it himself.
“All he achieved was loneliness,” she added, watching him.
“As you said, I’m a bit of a loner.”
“Trusting someone with your life is a very exhilarating sensation. It’s addictive. You’ll see.”
“Oh yes. You’re caught in Steed’s web now. You will not be allowed to go back to your lonely assignments.”
Emma chuckled and shook her head. “Even I don’t know how much power Steed has at the ministry now, but I do know that if he wants you around, he’ll have you.”
“Or I’ll be out?”
“I hope not!”
“Names, Mr. Steed. It is that simple.”
Steed maintained his level gaze at his questioner, but did not open his mouth. The glass studio was suffused with grayish early morning light. What little sleep Steed had managed between the second and third sessions on the hook had been rife with dreams populated by the ghosts of his past. He had told them nothing, and his living torturers would get no better.
The third time they’d questioned him, some time in the middle of the night, they’d resorted to a thin, stiff lash instead of their fists. They were tired, and whipping required less effort. He’d hung on the hook, his shoulders aching, his hands numb, and the pain of a thousand blows to his chest, sides, and back lingering in his bruised flesh. He felt the lashes and heard the questions, the demands for the identities of agents, for the locations of safe houses, the names of financial institutions used by the service. But the pain and the voices were background noise. His consciousness had moved deep within, focusing on the beat of his heart and the rush of air in and out of his lungs. A single image hung before him in the air: Emma holding John, their loving gazes encouraging him to wait for them, to hold on.
When his questioners had finished and dropped him on his back on the tarpaulin, he’d barely been aware of the agonized scream he emitted. Then he’d managed to roll onto his stomach, exposing the fiery welts to the cool air. I’ll be lucky to get out of this without pneumonia, he thought as his whole body shivered. But then he’d let his mind go, and snatched an hour or two of black, mercifully dreamless sleep before they were back to drag him up again.
“We have tried, Mr. Steed, to preserve your appearance. But if you will not cooperate, we must use more drastic measures,” the man said.
“What good are good looks to a traitor?” Steed hissed.
“Indeed. We shall see what you say in a little while,” he replied, turning toward the furnace and the racks of tools.
“It was a bust Emma, I’m sorry,” Tara said, spreading butter on bread as she spoke. “We found crates and crates of glass, warm furnaces, tools, and a shop. But Steed is not there, I’d stake my career on it.”
“You may well be doing that,” Emma said, glancing down at John, who was lying in her lap sucking happily on the bottle she was holding. She was unwilling to nurse in public, but Tara’s invitation to hear her report over breakfast had been too attractive to turn down. She’d brought John and his bottle in order to give Siobhan a chance for a shower. Tara, it seemed, had given Robbie the same opportunity.
Tara scowled at Emma, who immediately felt guilty for giving voice to her sharp tongue. “I’m sorry Tara,” she sighed, picking up her teacup. “I was so certain. But I suppose it was too simple.”
“Robbie will be along in an hour. We’re ready to go over it all again and try something else. He told me about the ice cream shop on Lido. Maybe it deserves another look.”
Emma appreciated Tara’s confidence that they would find more leads. She had been staking all of her hopes on Barbini. She was accustomed to finding solutions, and Steed, quickly. She could not recall a past case when, if he went missing, she did now know instinctively where he must be. Is my thinking confused because of John? She wondered as she took another sip of tea with her free hand. In her lap her baby squirmed, releasing the bottle and spitting milk out of his mouth and over his cheeks and chin.
Tara watched her wipe John’s face and raise him to her shoulder, patting his back lightly as he gurgled and cooed at an elderly woman seated behind them.
“He’s flirting,” Tara said, and Emma half turned to smile at the woman, who was wiggling her fingers at John.
“Like father –.”
“Like son,” Tara finished Emma’s sentence with a grin, then dropped her eyes to her plate as she squelched the same thought that Emma had had not so long ago: at least she has John, if we can’t save his father.
But the idea of not rescuing Steed was nearly incomprehensible for all of them, and within the hour the ministry agents and Giovanni had regrouped in the Steed suite.
“Has Walling lost interest?” Gambit asked Giovanni as they rolled out the Venice map, appropriated from the police, on a table.
“It is not so much a loss of interest as a matter of priorities,” Giovanni said carefully. “One British agent is not so important as three bank robberies in as many days. He is busy with that investigation.”
“He might be more interested in Steed if he thought there was a chance he’d talk,” Tara said tartly. The others looked at her and she shrugged, “Everybody expects John Steed to hold out against anything they try. ‘No need to rush to rescue him, he won’t betray us.’ Sometimes a good reputation doesn’t serve, does it?”
“What if Interpol thought Steed was talking?” Emma speculated, looking at Giovanni.
“What are you suggesting, Emma? That we brand Steed ‘traitor’?” Gambit said, astonished.
“He’s not above it,” Emma shrugged, studying the expressions of surprise on the other faces. “Above pretending to change sides in order to capture the enemy,” she added. “If some information were to get into circulation that could have come from him, would Interpol take notice?”
“Perhaps,” Giovanni allowed. “But Emma, I think that this team,” he looked around the room, “is as effective as any that Interpol might provide. Why don’t we get back to work, and leave that option for later, if we continue to be unsuccessful?”
“Agreed,” McCall said quickly, and Tara and Gambit nodded.
“All right,” Emma conceded, a bit relieved, actually, not to have to create a false betrayal for her husband.
Gambit had made contact with the ministry team on Torcello and gotten copies of statements from Father Alberto and some of the other monks. They spent a good part of the morning reviewing these as well as McCall’s photographs of Lallo meeting with the father.
As the morning slid toward mid-day, Emma grew impatient. She left the rest reviewing Lallo’s organization and retreated to her room for a half hour of yoga. She used meditation to suppress the visions of Steed being beaten that kept rising unbidden in her mind. Returning to the sitting room she found the papers put away and the agents putting on coats.
“We’ve made some plans,” Gambit said to her as he zipped his jacket. “Giovanni will brief you.”
“Our role is to have some lunch,” the Interpol agent said as the others filed out of the suite.
“I’m not hungry. Where are they going?”
“At a particular café.”
Emma paused, eyes narrowing at him. “I need to check on Siobhan and the baby,” she said. Giovanni nodded and returned to his chair, clearly prepared to wait.
“Why this café?” Emma asked from behind her menu. She and Giovanni were seated side-by-side on a banquet so that they could survey the other diners.
“It is one of Lallo’s favorites for meetings,” Giovanni replied. “The pasta verdure is excellent.”
“You think he’ll be here?”
“It’s likely. With a property as hot as Steed, he will want to make arrangements quickly. He is particularly fond of public lunches for such things – it provides him with some safety.”
“The bosses from down south won’t knock him off in a restaurant?”
“Not in a restaurant that funds their activities.”
“So by eating here we’re financing the mob?”
“Consider it a business expense.”
“There are those in my professional circle who would find my presence in a known Mafia establishment extremely interesting.”
“You mean individuals from rival firms, I presume?”
Giovanni nodded, obviously understanding her problem. “I could dine alone,” he suggested. Emma studied the menu again and noticed that it offered one of her favorite preparations of veal. To her astonishment, her stomach grumbled ever so slightly.
To prolong their lunch they ordered drinks first and sipped them while chatting and watching for Lallo. Giovanni spoke eloquently about his wife and children, encouraging Emma to talk about John as well. They had just placed their lunch orders and returned to their conversation when Giovanni paused mid-sentence to watch a man crossing the dining room.
“Is it?” Emma asked quietly.
“Si. And the man at the door is his. He will take a seat nearby and watch the restaurant. We must be discrete.”
“Lallo’s contact is already here,” Emma observed, watching Lallo sit down at a table where a man in a perfectly tailored suit was already seated. It was a square table, but rather than sit across from the man, Lallo took the chair to his immediate left, placing himself so that he had a view of most of the other diners.
Giovanni finished the wine in his glass and looked around for the waiter.
“His contact will have someone here too. But I don’t recognize anyone,” he said.
They ordered more wine when the waiter came. Then Emma noticed something.
“The toilet is just beyond their table,” she said, already rising. Giovanni stared up at her, clearly wanting to stop her, but not daring to make any sort of scene. She smiled serenely at him and left, weaving her way through the tables holding her handbag in her arm like an American football.
As she approached the table she slowed down, then stopped and looked down, raising her foot to look at the sole of her shoe, presumably for some debris that was causing discomfort. Lallo’s eyes flicked to her, and away, dismissing her instantly. His contact continued speaking in a low tone. Emma could only grasp a few words of his Sicilian accented Italian.
“…alive. Otherwise I have no use for him. Have they gotten …”
She put her foot back on the floor and strode the rest of the way to the toilet.
“You look radiant, what did you hear?” Giovanni asked as Emma sat down at their table a few minutes later. She retrieved a breadstick from a basket of them on the table and dipped it in the dish of herb infused olive oil provided for the purpose. On the way back from the toilet she’d heard Lallo say the word Torcello, but that was all.
“The Sicilian wants him alive,” she said before taking a bite.
“So he must still be,” Giovanni nodded. “Lallo will want to move him on quickly though, to avoid being blamed if anything does happen to him.”
Emma chewed her breadstick, the initial rush of relief fading as she thought about the rest of the phrase she’d heard.
“They’re questioning him,” she said softly. “He asked Lallo if he’s said anything.”
“How did Lallo answer?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t stand there any longer.”
Giovanni put his hand over Emma’s and squeezed it gently. “You know Steed won’t break.”
“Yes, I know. But what I wonder is whether it’s worth it. Whether the safety of a few agents who can be recalled from the field is worth more than his son’s future.”
“You must trust him to choose wisely. And accept that it is possible that you may never know.” Giovanni watched her closely, looking for signs that her remarkable composure was failing. He suspected that the only time her strength failed was when she was alone, or, perhaps, with Steed. Her expression remained serious, but she was clearly holding on. How fortunate Steed was to have aligned himself with a woman like her.
“Lallo came in around three with one bodyguard,” McCall reported. It was early evening and they were back in the suite, sans Gambit, who had taken over watching Lallo’s home from McCall, and Tara, who was backing Gambit up. Walling had come by the hotel while Emma and Giovanni were at lunch and left a sealed envelope. It contained a dossier of Antonio “Fish Eye” Barone, the kidnapper who Siobhan had described. Emma was reassured that he was, indeed, one of Lallo’s men.
“So he went straight home after lunch,” Giovanni said.
“And stayed there,” McCall nodded.
“Lying low?” Emma asked. She had made some private time for herself with John when they came back from lunch. When he fell sleep she had urged Siobhan to go out for a walk – just up the fondamenta to San Marco. She felt sorry for the nanny being cooped up inside, and she could see no danger to her if she was alone – other than the usual risk of being a tourist. Siobhan had donned a coat and headed for the door almost before Emma had finished telling her she could go.
“He may have arranged a second meeting. Or maybe he does have Steed at his house, in which case he may be preparing to move him,” Giovanni said.
“Tara will phone if there’s any movement, and she and Gambit will follow,” McCall assured them, although they already knew that was the plan.
“I know you and Tara were certain,” Emma said, “but I still can’t believe they don’t have him on Murano. When I picked up that cobalt bowl and saw the sticker, I felt certain –.”
“What cobalt bowl?” Giovanni asked.
“At the shop.”
Giovanni and McCall exchanged a puzzled look, then Giovanni went to the writing table and picked up a glossy tourist guide full of restaurant reviews and advertisements.
“Giovanni?” Emma asked, watching him. He flipped through the guide as he walked back to the sofa and sat down.
“Here,” he said turning the guide around so that Emma could see the full-page advertisement he had found.
“Yes, that’s Barbini,” she nodded, admiring the deep red glass vase highlighted in the ad.
“Read the text,” Giovanni prompted her. She took the guide, bringing it closer to her face so that she could read the small print.
“Specializing exclusively in red glass,” Emma read, then paused and looked up at Giovanni. “Exclusively,” she repeated slowly.
“Si, Emma. They do not work with cobalt.”
“Not at all?”
“No,” McCall said, taking the guide from Emma to look at the ad. “It was all over their shop. They make a big deal about producing rare red glass.”
“But none of the things I saw in the shop were red,” Emma said.
Giovanni stood up and went to the telephone, speaking as he went. “It seems that Lallo deals in another type of forgery.”
Emma and McCall listened to Giovanni speak to someone in swift Italian. Midway through the conversation he drew a pad of paper and pen close and began making notes. He repeated several names as he wrote, nodding and saying “si” several times before finally disconnecting. He tore the sheet of paper off of the pad and came back to the sofa.
“I must apologize, Emma. I should have followed up on this immediately,” he said. “Lallo’s organization controls two glass studios on Murano. It is likely that one of them produced the bowl you saw, and labeled it with a false Barbini sticker.”
Emma rose without a word and headed for her bedroom door.
“Emma?” Giovanni said, turning in his seat to watch her.
“Get ready to go,” she said. “Robbie, go look for Siobhan in the square. I’ll be ready in fifteen minutes.”
McCall got up and headed for the door without a word.
“We must inform your man Gambit,” Giovanni said, rising too. “I’ll send someone to find him and Mrs. McCall.”
Emma nodded approval and disappeared into her room. Giovanni returned to the telephone, marveling again at how her manner simply did not allow one to argue.
“Take him down,” Steed’s questioner instructed his two assistants. They obediently lifted Steed so that his arms hung in front of him and dragged him to the corner where they dropped him unceremoniously on the tarpaulin. The other man followed, crouching before his victim, elbows on knees.
“Mr. Steed,” he said. Steed lay still on his tortured back, his face a swollen mass of bruises and cuts. There were angry red burns on his chest and stomach, some with blackened flesh along the edges. “Mr. Steed,” the man repeated, reaching out with one hand to poke at his upper arm. Steed groaned at the touch, although they had not struck or burned his arms.
“Good, he’s alive,” the man said standing up. “Throw a blanket over him and pour some water down his throat. The boss wants to move him soon.”
“We should have put a tap on his house as soon as McCall reported that he was at the monastery,” Gambit muttered. He and Tara were standing across the street from the Lallo palazzo. Gambit’s arms were wrapped around Tara, but he was gazing over her shoulder into the lit second story window of the palazzo, where he could see Lallo talking on a telephone.
“Let go, Gambit,” Tara grumbled, wiggling out of his embrace. “I came to tell you that we’re wanted. And I’m a married woman!”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Gambit grinned down at Tara as he dropped his arms to his sides.
“Because you grabbed me before I even noticed you! There are two more glass factories that we need to visit. Emma wants to go now.”
“But what if Steed’s in there?” Gambit nodded toward the palazzo.
“Do you really think he could be?”
“Nah. Walling was right. Lallo wouldn’t have him here. We’re meeting them?”
“Yes. Let’s go.”
They’re gone. I don’t have much time.
Steed raised his head and forced his eyes open despite the painful tug of crusted blood around them.
The studio was dark except for the glow from the furnace. But Steed knew that they had left a bucket of water near his head after pouring some into his open mouth. He rolled onto his side and saw it there, every muscle and bone in his body protesting the movement. Come on, old man, ‘the Lord helps those’ and all that. His loud grunt echoed in the stone room as he sat up, a sharp, familiar pain in his chest confirming that he had at least one cracked rib.
He drew up his legs, sucking in short, ragged breaths that had as little impact as possible on his battered chest. Circulation had returned to his hands, although they were badly swollen. He examined the leather that bound his ankles and located the knot. The two men had untied and retied it each time they’d lifted him to hang him from the hook. As he’d hoped, they had become sloppy. His stiff, sore fingers made quick work of the loose knot.
His wrists were a greater problem – the tempered steel handcuffs had tightened around them. He thought there might be something on the racks of tools that he could use to break the chain, but first he needed to revive himself. Rolling onto his knees, he plunged both hands into the bucket of water and washed his face as gently as he could.
His sinuses were congested; he gasped through his mouth at the shocking chill of the water and its painful impact on the cuts on his face. But it cleared his head, lending him the strength he needed to climb slowly to his feet and stagger over to the worktable near the furnace.
He began to shiver as she stood leaning on the table – the restorative water had brought back the chills he’d been experiencing for hours – or was it days? He had no idea how long he had been there.
The tools on the racks included crimps and tongs. Steed used the table to support himself as he shuffled to the nearest rack and selected a pair of pincers that looked like they would fit over the chain between his wrists. He was shocked that he could barely lift the long handled implement up on to the table. He lay it down and wedged the chain of his handcuffs between its jaws. Balancing the tool on the table, he rested one arm on the upper arm of the pincers and leaned on it. The steel pressed painfully into his arm as he leaned all of his weight on it. The jaws closed on the chain, bit into it, and, as Steed felt himself growing lightheaded, snapped it.
He collapsed over the table, gasping and then moaning at the pain in his chest.
“Keep moving,” he told himself, realizing after he’d said it that he’d spoken aloud. The faint echo of his voice actually made him straighten and look around. “Get out of here,” he added, his bruised lips curling stiffly into a smile. Holding his breath because it hurt less, he staggered across the room toward the door that his tormentors had used. It was much easier to walk with his hands free.
The door slid, he knew from having heard its squealing rollers over and over. They made him think of the big front door of his home. His and Emma’s home. He pressed his body against the steel door and tried to shift it, certain that it was locked, probably from the outside.
To his utter surprise, it rumbled sideways.
“The door’s open,” Tara whispered, glancing over her shoulder from her position in the bow of Giovanni’s boat. Giovanni and Gambit shipped the oars that they’d used to bring the boat silently alongside the quay adjacent to the glass studio and Tara slipped the loop on the end of the bow line over a cleat on the quay.
Emma and McCall scrambled out of the boat first, securing the stern line while Tara and Giovanni got out. They all darted across the quay and pressed themselves against the wall of the building on either side of the open door, which was wedged open against the wall by a chunk of broken paving stone. Emma held her pistol with both hands and rolled into the opening, scanning the interior as she quickly entered the studio and moved to the side to eliminate her silhouette in the doorway. Gambit followed her, moving the other way.
“What the?” Gambit said, glancing over at Emma. She had lowered her gun, aiming it at the ground as she moved further into the empty space.
“What?” Tara asked from outside.
“Empty,” Emma said, looking down at the back of a cheap metal cabinet that had toppled, or been pushed over. Frowning, she tucked her gun into her boot and slipped her fingers under the cabinet. She squatted, grunted, and heaved, rolling the cabinet onto its side.
The lower door swung open to reveal the empty interior. Sucking in a harsh breath, Emma kicked the closed upper door so hard the cabinet rolled onto its back with a loud crash. Gambit’s eyes snapped to her, watching her smooth her hair with both hands as she stared at the empty cabinet.
“So much for being quiet,” he muttered, crossing the empty studio to her.
“What is going on?” Tara’s voice filled the space.
“He’s not here,” Emma said, turning to find Gambit hovering behind her. Her eyes met his and he saw it: an unmistakable shadow of despair. Then she blinked and ducked her head, smoothing her hair again as she stepped past him toward the door.
Giovanni had stepped inside with Tara and was making a circuit of the room. “It has been vacant for some time,” he said as he rejoined them all at the open door. “I’m surprised no squatters have moved in.”
“Let’s go to the other studio,” Emma said simply. The others followed her back to the boat without a word.
Steed stood on the quay swaying slightly, and then shivering despite the blanket he held around his shoulders. His heightened senses absorbed the smell of the canal and the infinitesimal splashes of ripples striking the stones below his feet. The moon had risen behind the huge clouds that had been moving across the sky since they had arrived in Venice. Its silvery glow embossed the edges of one and sent white rays around it to glimmer on the surface of the water.
Home. I have to get home to Emma. To John.
He shivered again, then doubled over coughing, his balance failing as he tumbled forward toward the murky waters of the canal.
“The other studio is at the other end of the island,” Giovanni said as he turned the key to start his boat’s engine.
A few minutes later he shut it off and let the boat drift toward the side of the canal. Then he and Gambit put out the oars and awkwardly propelled the boat a few more yards until Tara could grab the handle of a ladder affixed to the seawall.
“That’s it,” Giovanni whispered, nodding at a building with two dirty windows and a wide steel door adjacent to the ladder. As he spoke, warm yellow light filled the two windows, throwing two yellow squares onto the pavement.
“Someone is home,” Emma said, her voice almost excited as she used the ladder to climb up onto the quay. The others followed.
Emma flattened herself against the wall between the door and one window, listening intently as the others joined her. Tara and McCall stood on either side of the windows, hand guns ready to smash the glass. Giovanni moved in beside Emma. Gambit took hold of the handle on the heavy sliding door and watched Emma for a signal.
She could hear male voices inside, but the heavy stone walls muffled the words to a low-pitched murmur. She let her eyes lock with Gambit’s and she nodded.
Gambit heaved on the door, and when it began to slide open Tara and McCall smashed the windows, clearing the shattered glass from the lower edges of the frames in synchronized gestures, then aiming through the openings into the studio.
Emma rolled around the doorframe, gun in hand, dropping to a crouch as Gambit stepped in behind her.
Two men stood frozen in the studio staring at the windows. As Emma stepped to the right and Gambit moved into the room, one of them reached behind himself onto a worktable and heaved a pair of long handled steel pincers across the room. The other man dove behind a rack of glass working tools, successfully dodging a bullet from Tara’s gun. It ricocheted noisily off of the tools.
“Arresto!” Emma cried as the pincers struck Gambit in the stomach and he fired a wild shot that hit the floor. The man who’d thrown the pincers dove across the worktable to the floor on the far side and Emma, still crouching, fired at him through the table legs. He cried out, dropping his gun as he wrapped his hand around a wound on his upper arm.
The man behind the tools leaned around them and fired a handgun at Gambit. But the agent was already on the move, dodging to the left and ducking beneath the window that Tara was looking through. She covered him, firing another ricocheting shot at the rack of tools.
Emma rolled under the table and kicked the dropped gun away from the man she’d wounded. As she stood up he reached for her with his good arm, his hand covered with his own blood. She kicked him, hard, in his wounded arm and he fell away with another cry.
Gambit had reached the far wall and taken cover behind a pair of wooden crates. Across from Emma, McCall had disappeared from the window and reappeared in the doorway. Suddenly he surged into the room off balance, propelled by a blow from behind. A man followed him in, grabbing his right shoulder and spinning him around to strike him again. Tara disappeared from the other window and a moment a later a shot echoed outside.
Emma moved behind the rack of tools on her side of the furnace and aimed and fired at the man on the other side. At the same time Gambit popped up from behind his crates and tried to aim at the man attacking McCall, but the two men were exchanging blows too quickly for him to get a safe shot off.
“Arresto!” Tara’s shouted, “Stop!”
She was framed in the doorway aiming at her husband and his opponent. Emma stood up and aimed at them as well, but Gambit lowered his gun and took three long strides across the room to grab the man’s arm mid-swing. The man lost his balance as Gambit dragged him around and hit him in the jaw. McCall grabbed him from behind, wrapping both arms around him to restrain him. Gambit swung his arm back for another strike, but Emma shouted to stop him.
“Gambit! We need to talk to them. Don’t knock him out.”
The man glared at Gambit, but he stopped struggling in McCall’s arms.
“Here,” Tara said, picking up a length of leather thong from the floor and holding it out to her husband. “There was another one. Outside,” she said, looking toward Emma. “Giovanni is tying him up.”
Emma glanced down at the man she’d shot and kicked. He was unconscious. The other man who’d been hiding behind the tools was down, but she wasn’t sure how seriously she’d hit him. It looked like they’d have to question the man McCall was tying up. She rounded the table and faced him.
“Where is Steed?” she asked, not caring to bother with niceties like asking whether he knew who Steed was.
“He was here. If he is gone, you must have removed him,” the man said, his nostrils flaring in an attempt at arrogance. Emma looked around the studio and back at the man, smirking.
“We have only just arrived,” she said. “Your men were already here.”
“Then you had better ask them,” he mocked, eyes darting to the still form behind the tool rack.
“What are your orders?” Emma asked, ignoring his response.
“Probably the same as yours. Collect the British agent.”
“Emma,” Tara said. She was crouching in the corner of the room over a crumpled tarpaulin. Emma shot the restrained man a withering glance and stepped over to Tara. As she did Giovanni appeared in the doorway and surveyed the room.
“There’s blood on this tarp, but not a lot,” Tara said, pointing to the stains.
“What’s this?” Gambit asked, picking up some dark fabric that was in a heap on the floor near the crates. The others looked his way but Giovanni went to him, helping him sort out the fabric so that they quickly identified a suit coat, vest, and bundled within them, a white shirt and tattered silk tie. In the far corner Emma stifled a gasp. The restrained man did not restrain his laugh and McCall hit the back of his head hard enough to hurt him, but not to knock him out.
Something fell out of the clothes as Gambit and Giovanni handled them. Gambit bent to pick it up.
“It’s his,” he said, the billfold falling open in his hand. Emma rushed to him, taking the billfold from him greedily so that she could see his identification card and, when she flipped the plastic holder, the photograph of herself and John across from his red security pass.
“It’s his,” she whispered. “It’s Steed’s.”
The night was at its darkest. The scudding clouds had thickened into a solid blanket, shielding the moon from their view and hiding its crystalline light. Emma stared across the dark lagoon at Venice, her heart darker than it had ever been, her mind spinning with overwhelming despair dancing around thin hope. She hated Venice, hated that they had known such happiness here. That she had lost him here. She wanted to flee this city, to take her son and go home to their big old house in dear, safe England.
They had searched the area, but the neighboring studios and warehouses were all locked. There were no other signs of Steed.
None of them had been willing to say what they were all thinking – that Steed had freed himself only to fall into the canal. His hands must have been bound; he must have been exhausted, injured, perhaps in shock. And the water would have leached the heat from his struggling body in a matter of minutes.
Emma knew it. So when Giovanni quietly suggested that they should call in the authorities to conduct a legal search as soon as the sun came up, she knew that he was right. She got into his boat with the others and Giovanni headed it back toward San Marco and her hotel. The police would put divers in the canal, and if Steed was there, they would soon find him.
She would not leave Venice until they had.
“Emma,” the faint whisper was barely audible over the rush of wind across the wide fondamenta and the creaking of boats tied to the seawall. For a moment Emma thought she had imagined it. Then it came again, just as weakly: “Emma.”
She spun around, scanning the dock and fondamenta, and then the row of black gondolas all secured for the night.
“Do you suppose you could give me a hand?” Steed asked. He sat in the bottom of a rowboat that was nestled in between the dock and the last gondola. A filthy blanket half covered his body. The handles of the oars, which were hanging askew in the locks, were stained rusty with blood. His face was an unrecognizable mass of cut and bruised flesh. But in spite of his wretched appearance, Emma felt herself smiling as joyful relief filled her. He’s alive.
Giovanni pulled the rowboat along side his larger motorboat and Gambit and McCall carefully lifted Steed from one boat to the other. Then they transferred him to the dock where he stood supported between them facing Emma. She reached up to touch his swollen, bruised cheek, her lower lip caught between her teeth. She wanted to pull him into her arms, to feel his body against hers to reassure herself that he really was alive. But she dared not, both because it would be improper, and because she had no idea of the extent of his injuries.
“Had a rough day darling?” she asked, her voice tensely controlled. Steed managed a painful smile, his grey eyes sparkling through his disfigured visage.
“Dreadful,” he agreed.
“Come on,” Gambit grumbled, as impatient with unnecessary stoicism as with superfluous cloak and dagger stuff. He and McCall started walking Steed toward the hotel. Emma turned to Giovanni, but he was already casting off.
“He needs a doctor,” Tara said, standing beside Emma.
“I have one,” Giovanni said as his boat began to drift. “who is – how do you say it? – Discrete?”
“I will send him to you. Unless you would prefer the hospital?”
“No, no hospital. Send your doctor first, and if he can stabilize him, then we’ll take him home as soon as we can.”
“Si,” Giovanni nodded understanding. “I will send him as soon as possible.”
“Grazie, Giovanni. For everything,” Emma said, raising her hand in farewell as the Italian motored away.
Emma caught up with the others and stopped them to tug the blanket around Steed’s bare chest. He looked like a derelict, wholly unsuitable for the elegant hotel.
“Take him directly to the lifts,” she said. “I’ll run interference with the night clerk.”
Emma smiled flirtatiously at the doorman as she preceded the men through the door. Nonetheless the doorman frowned when Gambit and McCall turned Steed’s back toward him as they guided him past. Tara brought up the rear, flashing the doorman another smile to distract him.
Emma made for the desk, catching the eye of the clerk who was watching Gambit, McCall, and Steed make their way across the lobby.
“Buona notte. Mr. Steed is ill. We have contacted a friend’s physician,” she said.
“I am most sorry to hear it, Signora Steed,” the clerk said, his gaze flicking from her to the men and back.
“Please see that the doctor – I’m afraid I don’t know his name, but he will ask for us – be sent directly up to our suite.”
“Of course, Signora.”
“Grazie,” Emma started to turn away, then looked back, “and will you ask the housekeeping staff not to disturb us until we contact them?”
“Yes, Signora. I shall see to it.”
The men were gone when she reached the lifts, but Tara had waited.
“He said he rowed all the way from Murano.” Tears were about to spill from Tara’s big round eyes. Emma glanced at her and looked away, knowing that if she met Tara’s eyes she would be unable to prevent herself from weeping.
“Did he say anything else?” she asked, punching at the lift call button, although it was already lit.
“That it was pure luck.”
Now Emma did look at Tara, who had a little smile on her lips.
“He did fall into the canal. Except the rowboat was there. He thinks he passed out for a while, but he woke up because the oar handles were hitting him. He said,” she paused, swallowing back a sob, “he said that it was like they were nudging him to wake up and get going.”
A lift arrived and they got in. Emma pressed the button for her floor.
“He always has had amazingly good luck,” she said.
“Sure has,” Tara agreed awkwardly.
Siobhan, wearing a bathrobe, was standing outside the bedroom door looking in. Gambit and McCall had carried Steed to the bed and sat him down but he was putting up a fuss about lying down. Emma squeezed past the nanny, patting her shoulder as she went.
“Steed? Giovanni is sending a doctor. Just lie down until he gets here,” she said.
“I’m filthy. It’s most uncomfortable, darling. Please, help me get cleaned up.”
“You’re mad, do you know that?” Emma asked, shooing Gambit and McCall away from the bed.
“I am a gentleman, and as such I have deep respect for the quality of this hotel’s linens.” Steed remained stiffly upright.
“He’s delirious,” McCall said. Gambit grinned.
“I’ll get some damp washcloths,” Tara said, giving her husband a dirty look as she passed through the bedroom to the adjoining bath.
“Why don’t you let us take care of him?” Emma suggested to the men. Gambit gave her points for putting her order in the form of a request.
“Come on, there’s some good brandy in the other room,” he said, grabbing McCall by the upper arm and leading him out. They shut the door, effectively evicting Siobhan from the room as well.
Tara brought three damp washcloths and a bottle of lotion from the bathroom.
“This is probably yours,” she said, setting it on the bed beside Steed. “But it might soothe the burns.”
Emma nodded, taking a washcloth and gently stroking Steed’s left arm. Tara took his right. Both women saw the handcuffs, and his swollen hands, at the same moment.
“Steed!” Emma gasped, turning his hand over to see his golden wedding band buried in his swollen flesh above his raw palm. It hurt to know that the symbol of their bond was causing him pain. She reached to her throat and found her lock picks, opening each of the cuffs quickly. They fell to the floor.
“Thank you,” Steed sighed. He had lost sensation in his hands sometime during the row across the lagoon, but they were beginning to tingle painfully. The women went back to work cleansing his wounds, making a pile of filthy wash clothes and hand towels. Tara covered the worst of the lacerations on his back with gauze from Emma’s first aid kit. Emma slathered her aloe-based lotion on the burns on his chest and stomach, finally forcing him to lie down once his raw back was bandaged.
“I think I had best take care of the last bit,” Emma said to Tara, realizing that Steed’s trousers were damp and filthy. Tara gathered up the soiled towels and slipped out. Emma opened Steed’s fly and gently worked his trousers and briefs off. She hated to admit to herself that although it seemed as if all of his wounds were above his waist, she wanted to see for herself that certain delicate parts of his anatomy were truly unmolested. She dropped the ruined trousers to the floor and reached across Steed to arrange the sheet over his battered body. As it settled across his chest she looked into his eyes, which were half-closed. He was smiling at her, she could tell even though his lips were too swollen to show it.
“I’ll be better in no time, darling,” he said mischievously.
“I know you will, John. I’m already looking forward to it.”
Siobhan had accepted a glass of brandy from Gambit, and sat on the sofa sipping it, half listening to the two agents speculating on whether some men they had fought with would be arrested or not. She was too tired and shocked to wonder whom they were talking about, or to try to reconstruct what had happened to Mr. Steed. Mrs. McCall came out of the bedroom and poured herself a glass as well, sitting down on the sofa with Siobhan. She did not join into the mens’ conversation.
A sharp rapping on the door jolted Siobhan out of her reverie, and she automatically rose to go to it. The men and Tara all watched as she opened it, although she was unaware of the way Gambit and McCalls’ hands reached inside of their jackets.
“Doctor?” she said, surprised to be looking into the handsome face of the doctor who had helped her locate Emma in the hospital.
“Si. Buono notte, signora. Giovanni sent me to see Signore Steed,” he said, looking as surprised as she felt.
“Yes, all right,” she said awkwardly, stepping back from the door to allow him to enter. “He’s in here,” she led him toward the bedroom door.
“If you would be so kind as to announce my presence?” Dr. Rossi prompted her. Glancing at Tara, who was staring mutely at the doctor, Siobhan knocked on the bedroom door. Then she opened it a crack but did not look in.
“Mrs. Steed, the doctor is here,” she said to the floor just inside the room.
There was a rustling inside and Siobhan looked up. Mrs. Steed was sitting on the bed beside Mr. Steed, evidently having lain down with him. As Siobhan watched, she bent down and lightly kissed her husband, then slipped off of the bed and came to the door.
“Doctor Rossi,” Siobhan said, once again stepping aside to let the doctor pass. Emma looked momentarily confused, then stepped back as well. Dr. Rossi nodded at Emma as he went directly to the bed and set his bag on the floor.
Emma left the door open and followed him, watching closely as he lowered the sheet to look at the damage to Steed’s chest and abdomen.
“Signore Steed, I know you are in much pain, but are there any very bad wounds?”
“Cracked rib,” Steed said, his voice much weaker than it had been. Emma frowned, both at his evident weakness and the news that he knew he had a broken bone.
Dr. Rossi proceeded to examine Steed, his gentle fingers moving over the bruises, cuts, and swollen skin eliciting occasional grunts from Steed – which Emma knew meant he hurt badly. The doctor pressed a stethoscope gently to Steed’s chest, closing his eyes in concentration as he listened. As he removed it and looked up at her, Emma realized she had been holding her breath.
“He needs x-rays. I cannot be certain that his lungs are undamaged without them.”
Emma allowed herself to rail internally for an instant – checking Steed into a local hospital could delay their return to England by days, and she desperately wanted to get Steed home. Their big old house had come to represent safety to her for their family, and however false the sense of security was, it was still quite powerful. But she understood Dr. Rossi’s unspoken meaning – Steed was in serious danger without proper treatment.
“Arrange it,” she said softly, her eyes locked on Steed’s battered face.
The doctor watched her for a moment as if trying to guess at her thoughts, then turned toward the bedroom door.
Dr. Rossi made arrangements and very soon Steed was being carried out of the hotel on a stretcher under the watchful eyes of Emma and the disturbed gaze of the night clerk and doorman. Emma urged Tara and McCall to go back to their hotel, and Gambit to go to the room he’d been staying in for the past several months, promising to get in touch when there was news. It was morning by then, so Siobhan gathered up John and accompanied her employer to the hospital.
Dr. Rossi ordered the tests he wanted for Steed, then disappeared, leaving Emma to nurse John in a quiet corner of a waiting area. Siobhan, who looked exhausted but seemed to have been emboldened by the events of the last few days, went in search of coffee and bread, and returned with a tray. Emma gratefully drank the big bowl of café latte, dunking in pieces of crusty white bread.
“Has this ever happened before?” the nanny asked.
Emma nodded, eyes on her coffee. “It’s a dangerous business, and Steed knows a great deal of valuable information.”
“They came so suddenly, and hit him so hard. It was shocking to see him just collapse. And I couldn’t do a thing.”
“Well, I think we need to do something about that,” Emma said, raising her eyes to meet Siobhan’s. “For your sake, and John’s. I would like to teach you some basic self-defense techniques so that you know what to do in such situations. Will you learn?”
Siobhan’s face showed enthusiasm, then doubt.
“I would like to, ma’am. But I’ve never been very athletic. Not like –,” she paused, embarrassed.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle.”
“It’s not that, ma’am, I just don’t want to fail so badly you’ll need to dismiss me. I know it must sound mad, but I enjoy working for you. I adore little John, he’s such a good baby.”
Emma found herself laughing for the first time in days. She snuggled John to her breast and relaxed in her chair, studying the nanny for a moment as she chuckled.
“Not mad, Siobhan. Intrigued and excited, maybe. I wouldn’t be in this situation if I hadn’t felt the same way years ago when I fist met Steed. And if you’re strong enough to get through the last few days, you’re a valuable asset to us. You can learn a few holds and throws. I’m confident.”
Siobhan’s face lit up at Emma’s praise. “Thank you, ma’am. I will look forward to it.”
Emma could not help drawing comparisons between Siobhan and Sally. But Sally had been outgoing and inquisitive when she first came to understand the nature of Steed’s work, when she herself was working as Emma’s secretary. Siobhan was much more introspective. She observed, and, Emma suspected, made notes in the journal she wrote in every day – a potential breach of security that Emma would need to deal with soon. But Siobhan showed no sign of wanting to get involved. There was no doubt that her new employers had revealed a whole new world to her, but she seemed to want to observe from the sidelines. That suited Emma: she did not resent Sally’s decision to join the ministry, but she had come to rely on Siobhan, and for John’s sake she did not want to lose her.
Dr. Rossi reappeared two hours later with a chart in his hand and a reassuring expression on his face. Emma had dozed off, her head on the back of the chair and her legs tucked under her. Siobhan was holding John, bouncing him up and down in her lap while he giggled softly. Dr. Rossi sat down in the chair next to Emma’s and she woke up with a start.
“How is he doctor?”
Dr. Rossi opened the chart, holding it so that Emma could not read what was written inside.
“He has two fractured ribs, but it is his great fortune that neither punctured a lung. He said that he rowed across the lagoon from Murano,” the doctor shook his head at the idea. “Amazing.”
“What about the rest of his body?” Emma asked.
“His physical condition, for a man his age, is remarkable. Two of the burns are troubling, and some of the lacerations on his back are quite deep. But we’ve given him antibiotics and cleaned and stitched the wounds. Although they apparently beat him rather extensively, his musculature absorbed the blows and protected his organs extremely well – but then, he has been well trained to withstand such treatment. I think there are some bone bruises on his collar and his face that will take longer to heal than the visible bruises. However, with proper monitoring the healing process should go well.”
“Thank you, doctor Rossi,” Emma said, her eyes narrowing as she finally realized what had been bothering her for the last several hours. “Tell me doctor, how did you become associated with Giovanni?”
The doctor smiled, a look that suggested that he’d expected her to ask. “A few years ago my sister was murdered. Outside of your hotel, in fact.”
“Countess Rossi,” Emma said thoughtfully, and the doctor looked surprised.
Emma nodded, urging him to go on without offering her own explanation.
“The matter was investigated and it was learned that her murderer was involved with a crime ring. When my uncle saw me frustrated and angry about my sister’s senseless death he spoke to his friend Giovanni. They had worked together during the war, and my uncle knew of Giovanni’s connection with Interpol. Giovanni offered me the opportunity to help, in my own way, to fight against people like the men who murdered Silvie. But I think, from your expression, that you know more about this matter than I do.”
Emma nodded slowly, taking a moment to formulate her response. She could not tell Dr. Rossi anything about her and Steed’s involvement with his sister’s death during the case where they had first discovered documents forged on Torcello. But she wished to express her sympathy for his loss, which had deeply disturbed her at the time.
“Steed and I were in Venice then. We became involved in the case after your sister’s death,” she said. “We had met her and the man who loved her –.”
“Hampton!” Dr. Rossi snapped, nearly spitting the name. “It was his fault. They were after him.” He glared at Emma as if he expected her to deny his accusation. But she nodded again.
“Yes. And in the end he and the murders were all dead too,” Emma said. “And I never felt that justice had been served. In fact, it’s what brought us back here” She stopped, tempted to tell the doctor that she had been responsible for the death of his sister’s murderer, the dwarf Jacopo. But she stayed her tongue. Talk of killing seemed wrong in a house of healing where her husband was being treated.
“That is why I have been working with Giovanni for the last several years. When those who struggle against such evildoers require my assistance, I give it freely, and quietly.”
“I am sure your sister would find your acts noble,” Emma said. “And as for Lord Gregory, I will pray that you can find it within yourself to forgive him. He adored your sister, and grieved awfully when she died.”
Dr. Rossi regarded her for a moment, then bowed his head, pretending to look again at Steed’s chart. After a moment he cleared his throat and straightened, looking over at Siobhan and John.
“Mr. Steed should stay here overnight. I have contacted Giovanni, and he already has guards in place to prevent your enemies from trying again. You should arrange to take him home tomorrow. I know he will be safer there.”
“Thank you Doctor. May I see him now?”
“Yes, of course. Come with me. Miss,” he paused, not knowing Siobhan’s name.
She realized he was addressing her. “Caffery,” she said.
“Miss Caffery. You may come too. Mr. Steed has been asking for his son.”
“Comfortable?” Emma asked, patting Steed’s hand. He was strapped into a stretcher that was secured in a private plane chartered by Knight Industries’ travel manager.
“Please take your seats for takeoff,” the stewardess said from her position near the cockpit door. Emma pressed a kiss on Steed’s forehead and moved to her seat beside Siobhan. Gambit sat on the other side of the aisle peering out the window.
Tara and Robbie had elected to stay in Venice another day, as originally planned. Emma could not blame them for wanting to salvage the visit, and she certainly felt that they deserved the break. She hoped for their sake that Mother would see it that way too.
The powerful jet engines roared as the pilot turned the plane on to the runway and began to accelerate. Within moments they were airborne and climbing. Emma glanced back at Steed. He lay very still, as he had been since Dr. Rossi first examined him at the hotel. It was as if once the doctor was there he had ceased to struggle. His quiescence was disturbing, but Emma believed it was just his way of focusing on recovery. What he had endured would have killed most men, and only he knew how he had survived it. Emma was waging her own internal struggle to retain her outward calm. She wanted desperately to wrap her arms around Steed and let go of her pent up emotions. She needed to hold him and tell him how frightened she’d been, and she knew when she did that she would weep. So she had to wait, had to remain focused until they were finally alone.
A few hours later Steed was installed in the ministry clinic near their home. Gambit had talked with Mother, who had pulled strings to have Steed placed there rather than in London or near the airport. Emma was extremely grateful. Once Siobhan and John were settled at home, she returned to the clinic and found Steed, allowing no argument from the medical staff when she settled into a chair in his room. They told her that Steed had refused to fall asleep, calling for the attendant every few minutes and making spurious requests in order to keep himself awake. They had sedated him. Emma watched him sleep, waiting for the signs she knew would come that would tell her he was dreaming.
They were right – he did need to sleep – but Emma knew that he would have nightmares, and she would not let him suffer through them if she could help it.
“Three o’clock,” Steed slurred the words, his head rolling from side to side. Emma lowered her crossword to look at him, hoping that the dream would end. He had started exhibiting signs of REM sleep a few minutes before and she hoped he could stay in that deep, rejuvenating state. But as she watched he began to thrash, hands tangling in the sheets. As he opened his mouth to emit a wail she rose and went to his bedside.
“Steed!” she said, her voice quiet but sharp. She placed her hands on his shoulders and pressed him against the mattress, easily holding him down in his weakened condition. “Wake up!”
He lay still for a moment breathing deeply through his mouth. Then he opened his eyes, staring blankly upward in the dimly lit room.
“Steed,” she said gently, sliding her hands over his collar to cup his face. He looked at her and his amazing, bruised face showed a little smile.
“Hello darling,” he said hoarsely. “I’m afraid I’ve lost track of things since you’ve been seeing to my care. Where am I?”
Emma was amazed. He had drifted in and out of sleep since the hospital in Venice, but she had not realized that he had been unaware of what was going on around him. The realization that he trusted her so completely shattered the brittle façade containing her emotions. She sucked in a sobbing breath and swallowed hard, blinking back tears that threatened to drench his face.
“In the ministry clinic at Creighton,” she choked out, removing one hand from his face to wipe at her eyes.
“Why are you crying? I’m alive,” he said, untangling one hand from the sheets to draw the back of his index finger across her cheek.
“I never cry,” she said, then sniffed loudly. His lips parted in a ghoulish looking grin as he took her hand and held it. Tears streamed down her cheeks as his eyes searched hers. Does he see my despair? She wondered. Can he know how lost I was without him? Do I want him to know?
“Emma,” he whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” she sniffed again, brows knitting in annoyance with him. “For surviving? For escaping?”
“For causing you such grief. I have told you so many times that you are everything to me, and yet I hurt you so much, I’m ashamed.”
“Stop it. You did not hurt me. You came back to me. Dr. Rossi said most men would have died of exposure halfway across the lagoon, but you kept rowing. Most men would have ended up with a punctured lung, but you did not. Most men would not have been able to begin rowing at all, but you did,” she paused, not for the first time thinking that if he had not rowed, they might have found him floating in the boat when they arrived. But she had decided not to dwell on it. “You’re still my hero. Next time you can rescue me.”
Steed shook his head slowly, then turned his face to kiss her palm. There was no use telling her that he didn’t want her to be put in danger that she needed rescuing from.
“How did we get back to England? I remember an airplane.”
“Knight chartered it. The ministry was being unresponsive, looking into commercial flights. You know how impatient I can be.”
“Some might call that taking advantage of your position as CEO,” he said.
“Since the plane was chartered to provide medical aid to a major shareholder, I don’t think there will be many objections,” she said mischievously. Steed smiled stiffly.
“How is John?”
“Fine. Siobhan handled the situation very well. I’ll telephone and have her bring him for a visit in the morning.”
“What time is it?” Steed sounded surprised. His room was windowless and there was no clock within his range of vision.
“About three o’clock in the morning, I think.”
“Why aren’t you sleeping?”
Emma bent down and placed a damp kiss on his dry, swollen lips, moistening them further with the tip of her tongue. He sighed beneath her as a deliciously familiar spark shot between them.
“I was waiting for that,” she whispered, lips beside his ear. “You promised to get better quickly.”
“Some parts of me are uninjured,” he suggested wickedly, drawing her hand down his chest. She stopped it far short of his obvious goal.
“You are not up to my level of strength, however,” she said teasingly. “You need to sleep, and I’m here to watch over you and wake you from the nightmares.”
Steed stared at her for so long she released his hand and reached up to smooth his hair, a nervous gesture that broke the tension between them. He blinked and looked away and she waited, not sure what she expected. Whatever it was, it did not come. He shut his eyes and soon she realized that he had drifted off again.
The names of your agents in Italia! Tell me now. Steed tried to avoid the blow but his hands and feet were tied. He moaned at the pain, but did not answer the question. Is she your wife? Foolish of you to marry. Emma’s image, dressed in a gown of vapor thin fabric floated in front of Steed. Or perhaps you do not really care for her. The speaker, an invisible force, struck Emma and she collapsed in a misty heap. Who are your agents in Italy? The speaker asked again, and suddenly Emma’s face materialized within the mist, blood streaming from her eyes and mouth as she screamed in pain. Steed screamed with her, horrified at what his reticence had done.
“Steed!” Emma shook him by the shoulders, no longer so easily able to pin him down as he had regained his strength. “Wake up Steed!”
Their combined screams still echoed in his mind as he lay panting, knowing that Emma loomed above him in their bed. Knowing that she was there beside him, and neither of them was being tortured. When he could breathe normally, he opened his eyes, knowing also that she would not go back to sleep until she was sure he had recovered from the nightmare. She smoothed a lock of hair from his forehead and smiled encouragingly.
“Everything is fine, darling,” she said, although her eyes betrayed other less confident feelings. He had been in the clinic for a week, and home for a week after that, and every night was still punctuated by the nightmares.
Steed was accustomed to frightening dreams harvested from years of witnessing the unspeakable things that men could do to one another. And he had had periods of nightmares in the past. But these nightmares were among the worst he had ever known. In them he was visited not only by his most recent torturers, but by those of the past as well. And he was not their only victim. They cut and beat Emma, and dangled little John by his feet over flames until he wailed in a way that the real infant never had. When Steed dreamt that his son was tortured, he woke shivering and sweating in terror, incapable of even moving until dawn shaded the windows grey.
He stared up at Emma, so beautiful and full of life, so devoted to him. I allow them to torture her by not speaking. Perhaps if I speak, the nightmares will go away. Although she had never said it, he knew that she believed that was true. Talking about the dreams would steal their power over him. But she had no idea of the content of his dreams, no idea that she and their child were the victims of his damaged psyche’s fantasies. He couldn’t tell her. She would be horrified.
“Yes, I’m fine,” he said, capturing her hand and pressing her palm to his lips. “Thank you for waking me.”
“Can I get you anything? Some water?”
“No. Nothing. I can go back to sleep now.”
Emma nodded, smoothing the sheet over his shoulder as he turned onto his side, his back to her, and settled into the pillows. She pressed her lips to the side of his neck, then lay down behind him staring at the dark bedroom ceiling.
“Can’t we keep it to our closest few hundred friends, darling?” Steed asked as he watched Emma paging through her address book transcribing names onto her guest list.
“Of course darling,” she replied absently, so that he thought she wasn’t even listening. But then she added, “I’m only including people within a half day’s travel. Except Caro and Harry, of course. Although I wouldn’t blame them for not coming. We shouldn’t expect them to give up their Christmas traditions for us every year.”
“Well, strictly speaking we shouldn’t expect anyone to give up their Christmas traditions. But I fear that our little party is expected to become one of them.”
“You love parties.”
“I love attending parties.”
Emma smirked at him, setting her pen down on her book to watch him for a moment. She was at her desk in the library and he was ensconced in one of the big, comfortable chairs with a handful of ministry files on his lap. During his third week of recovery he had demanded to be put on the inactive duty list. That meant he’d had files brought out to him, and he sat in the library distracting her from what little Knight work she tried to get done. She adored having him there. She was about to tell him so when her Knight telephone rang – she had had a separate line installed.
As she answered it she watched him pick up a file and begin reading, although she was certain he was eavesdropping – she’d watched him read that file already. She didn’t mind. Very little Knight business that she conducted at home was so confidential that he could not hear about it. The call was from her secretary, Mrs. Emerson, to go over the next three days’ agenda. Knight was hosting a conference at a London hotel, and the marketing department had overbooked Emma’s time. Between them they worked it out and Mrs. Emerson rang off with the intention of reading the marketing director the riot act. Emma was just as happy to have someone else to handle such distasteful tasks.
She turned back to her guest list, unable to remember what she had been thinking of telling Steed before Mrs. Emerson’s call.
“Okay, I surrender!” Emma gasped, wiggling out of Siobhan’s loosening hold. The nanny looked at once triumphant and embarrassed. Emma smiled proudly at her. “Very good, Siobhan. You’ve mastered that one.”
“Thank you ma’am. All of a sudden I realized just how to position myself.”
“Yes,” Emma rubbed her slightly sore neck, “I noticed. No,” she held up a warding hand as the Nanny started to apologize, “I’m fine.”
“It’s going well then?” Steed’s voice came from the door. They were in the middle of the basement gymnasium, surrounded by Steed’s weights and exercise equipment. Steed crossed to them, John squirming in his arms. “He was crying. But I seem to have provided adequate distraction,” he said, smiling down at the baby.
“If you pick him up every time that he cries, Steed, he’ll be dreadfully spoiled,” Emma said. She and Siobhan had heard the baby’s cries over the monitor that the nanny always carried. They had agreed that little John was just crying for attention and if left to it he would soon amuse himself with the mobile hanging over his cradle. They had also heard Steed’s soothing words as he picked up his fussy son. They’d exchanged a knowing smile and continued their lesson.
“Did you check his nappy?” Siobhan asked, reaching for the baby. Steed’s brows shot up, his expression somewhere between alarm and guilt. Emma chuckled at him. Although he’d been taught how to change John’s diapers, and did it when essential, it was a task that he avoided with deft skill and manipulation. Siobhan slipped her fingers in the back and nodded.
“He’s wet,” she said. “I’ll go change him.”
Emma watched satisfaction flicker across Steed’s face and she nodded, eyes narrowing. As Siobhan carried John out of the gym, Emma sauntered over to her husband, intent on extracting a confession.
Steed beat her to it.
“She’s much better at it than I,” he said, all disarming nonchalance. Emma snorted, slipping her hands up his chest and around his neck, pressing herself against him in a way that she had not done in weeks. It was an automatic move, an inadvertent signal that he wouldn’t misunderstand. She wanted him, and although she had not intended to pressure him, she thought he might be well enough to want her, too.
His kiss conveyed everything she needed to know. A moan rose in her throat as she kissed him back, fingers twining into his hair, body perfectly aligned with his. He held her tight, one hand caressing her lower back, the other holding the back of her head as his mouth trailed urgent kisses all over her face. She took a deep breath as he kissed her throat, his hand slipping down to hold her buttocks.
“You were right, last summer,” he breathed into her ear, his hand moving up her back again. “About us having no privacy in our own home.”
Emma lifted her mouth from his throat. “We still have the sanctity of our bedroom,” she said. He caught her mouth again, his lips pressing hers open, his tongue plunging in. His touch and kiss ignited the smoldering desire that she’d been nursing. She melted against him, letting his strong arms holding her tight against him keep her upright. He had been using the gym and the results were astonishing. He was so accustomed to recovering from wounds that he knew exactly how to return his body to peak condition quickly. Even the doctors at the clinic had been amazed when they’d examined him yesterday.
His hand wandered over her shoulders and around to brush over her breast. She gasped at the tingling sensation, her mouth closing on his lower lip. He teased her nipple with a light pinch and she caught at his hand, the attendant warmth in her loins making her desperate to press herself tighter against him. She could already feel his body’s response and she wanted more. She pulled his hand away before she lost control of her actions.
“Our bedroom,” she repeated, hating to pull away from him, but making herself do it. He took a deep breath and allowed her to lead him through the basement to the stairs that led up to the hall near the front door. From there they climbed the main stairs and hurried along the upper hall past the nursery where they caught snatches of a lullaby Siobhan was singing to John.
“Let’s have a fire,” Steed said as he shut the door. Emma paused, having expected him to retake her the instant they were safely in their room. But Steed winked, putting both hands on her cheeks to pull her into a quick, urgent kiss. Then he released her and went to the fireplace.
She slipped into the bathroom while he arranged logs and ignited kindling. She returned to find him kneeling in front of his fire. As she approached he glanced over his shoulder at her, then reached out to close the fire screen. She sat down, her legs stretched out behind him, and he sat too, facing her with his legs the other way, slipping his arms around her.
Their eager kisses made them both shiver with desire as they renewed their exploration with mouths and hands. Steed drew down the zipper on Emma’s velour top, following his hand with his lips and smiling against her warm skin as he found that she had removed her bra and the singlet she’d been wearing while teaching Siobhan.
“What else have you taken off?” he asked.
“You know how to find out,” she replied, slipping her hands under the back of his jumper to gently caress his back through his cotton shirt. He leaned back a little to allow her to remove it, then finished unzipping her top. She put her hands to his throat to begin unbuttoning his shirt. He kissed her playfully, stretching his neck above her struggling fingers to catch her smiling lips. She gave up and slid her hands up over his shoulders to pull him close.
She felt a joyful sense of renewal as he continued kissing her. His roughly passionate kisses and slow, careful undressing reminded her of the early days of their love, when their passion was so intense they sometimes lingered over one another for days at a time. And the tension of never speaking of it made the intimate moments all the more seductive. It never ceased to amaze her that even now, with the hurdle of spoken commitment behind them, they were able to rekindle passion in one another over and over. She could not imagine growing bored with Steed, or feeling the thrumming desire that coursed through her now for any other man.
As he drew her velour jacket off her shoulder and kissed her where it had been she shivered and closed her eyes, letting herself become completely absorbed by him. His touch left fiery trails over her skin, his scent overwhelmed her with its musky masculinity. She could feel his heart beating where their chests met, and as he carefully traced her ear with his tongue she heard and felt his breath. She matched her breathing to his, felt her heart beat increase to his pace.
And then she was lying down, one knee bent, one of his knees between her legs. His fingers fondled one breast, his mouth the other. She brought her hands back up to his shirt, managing to undo a few more buttons before he distracted her with his fingers, slipping them under the waistband of her stretchy velour trousers. A little moan formed in her throat as he parted her moist lips and rubbed one gentle finger along her labia. He lifted his face from her breast and covered her mouth with his, pressing another finger into her to stroke more powerfully against her clitoris. She moaned again and he absorbed the sound, returning it as he ground his solid maleness against her hip.
She wanted to envelop him. She wanted him to fill her, to let her hold him tight within herself. As she imagined these things he stroked deeper with his fingers and an anticipatory orgasm shook her. He released her lips, smiling happily at his success, as if making her come were a great achievement.
He removed his hand from her trousers and put his damp finger to her lips. She sucked on it, eyes locked with his.
“Let’s get in bed,” he said. “I’m still too sore for the floor.”
He took off his shirt as they crossed to the bed, then he removed his trousers as she slid hers off and pulled back the coverlet and top sheet. He followed her onto the bed, rolling her beneath him and parting her legs with his own. He slid into her, no longer patient with tender foreplay, knowing she was as ready as he was. But once inside he held still, closing his eyes to enjoy the most amazing sensation he knew. She drew her legs up around his waist and wiggled against him so that he thrust a little deeper. Then her lips were on his, pulling him into her there as well, and for the first time in weeks, since Venice, he was at peace. She engulfed him, her hands flat on his back, her loins holding him in their deep, secret place, her mouth fondling his with great, sucking kisses.
“Emma,” he sighed and she moved her hips again, sending a spark of friction up his member like an arrow into his heart. He jerked out and back into her and she cried out quietly, clearly holding herself in check because of the nanny down the hall. He wanted her to yell, didn’t care what Siobhan heard. Determined, he lowered his head to pinch a nipple between his lips. She retaliated, scraping a fingernail across his own sharply sensitive nipple. It was he who yelled first, a deep moaning sound that made her smile triumphantly beneath him. He pinched her again and thrust out and in and she groaned, tossing her head from side to side until he stopped her with a hand on the side of her face. He grabbed her lips with his, sucking her harder than she had him, and she bucked beneath him, driving him into a frenzy of thrusts as his loins burned for more.
Then she pulled her legs up further, tilting her pelvis to him. He reached back and hooked first one leg, and then the other, drawing them up to his shoulders. She was always flexible, and even more so after her workout with Siobhan. He thrust into her harder, taking animal pleasure in her restrained position. She opened herself to him, throwing her arms over her head and closing her eyes. Her lips parted in concentration, the tip of her tongue showing, as he drove into her. He felt her shudder around him and she gasped, lips twisting into a satisfied smile. He shifted his arms, releasing her legs so that she locked her ankles behind him, smiling contentedly up at him.
“Finished?” he asked. She shook her head.
“Resting,” she replied, slipping her hand between them to spread two fingers around the base of his shaft where it was buried inside of her. She squeezed, her smile turning mischievous, and he gasped at the sensation. He pulled out and thrust in, her squeezing fingers sending tremors up his penis. He did it again, grinding into her to feel her hand crushed between them.
“You like that,” she said. His next thrust was his only answer and she smiled. And then she was squeezing him all over, her internal muscles tightening around him to match her fingers. He instinctively thrust deeper, driving her into the mattress. She opened her mouth in a silent cry, back arching as she erupted deep inside. He could wait no longer, the sheer power of her orgasm challenging him to match it. He began to thrust again, riding her internal waves, forcing his way in against her successive orgasms, sweating from the heat building between them.
Her cry found sound, a ragged moan that went on and on as he pumped again and again to fill her with his essence, to reclaim her, body and soul, as his own. And she took him, absorbed him, held him with strong arms around his healed back, until he was spent and shriveling within her. He lowered his forehead to her shoulder, still gasping, gradually aware of her feet in the air and her lips against his temple.
He raised his head and she lowered her legs, rocking her pelvis against his. He kissed the tip of her nose and she smiled a contented, feline smile.
“I love you, John Steed,” she said softly, and her words touched his soul. Of course he had known it, but to hear it, for her to give of herself so easily, was like offering a rebirth. She loves me. I owe her everything.
He lifted up and moved to her side, gathering her in his arms to hold her tight. He lay on his back and she aligned herself to him, head on his shoulder, one arm across his chest.
“The dreams always start with me bound,” he said slowly. She raised her head to look at him, but his eyes were closed, as if he had to be in a semi-dream state in order to describe it. “I hear footsteps. Marching footsteps. It’s a memory from Nee San. Sometimes the clock tolls three in my dream. It always tolled three in Nee San.”
“I know,” she barely whispered, unable to stop herself. As if by knowing some of it, she was entitled to hear the rest. He swallowed, his eyes still shut tight. She laid her head on his shoulder and waited.
“Then the questions come. I can never see them. It doesn’t matter, I know what they look like, each one of them: the Chinese captain with his thin moustache and Manchurian accent; the Gestapo agent in his hoch Deutch and immaculate black uniform, as if he knew that his perfect attire would embarrass me in my rags; the Spaniard who had masqueraded as a cleric to gain my confidence; the Italian whom Tara so efficiently dispatched last month. They begin their questions and their beatings.
“In Nee San, they never used anything so gross as striking. The Chinese understand the human mind better than any other culture. Their tortures were exquisite and slow. And sometimes there were no questions at all. Only torture for its own sake. Designed to make us want to tell them everything.”
“But you didn’t,” she whispered, still not quite believing that he was talking about it.
He was quiet for so long she thought he had finished, that this small morsel was all he could manage at once. But then he took a long breath and went on.
“I was in Nee San because I had been sloppy. I was not going to crack and double my sins.”
“How long were you there?”
“I don’t know.”
Emma lifted her head again, allowing herself a puzzled frown. His eyes must have been open just a slit, for he saw it.
“I was captured and held in a local prison for days, or weeks. I don’t really know. I was hardly fed, never washed. I was treated like an animal and obligingly became one. I was tried and sent to Nee San, where I was treated like an experiment. It was easy not to speak, when I had been an animal and was now just a statistic. It’s amazing that they never understood that, when they understood so much else.
“When they pushed me out into a road in the middle of the night the only thing that surprised me was that they put fresh clothes on me first. I expected to be hit by a truck. But instead I stumbled across the road, passing someone going the other way, and fell into an English soldier. I had been traded, because my own people didn’t trust me not to tell what I knew, and they could not get into Nee San to terminate me.”
Emma inhaled a sharp breath and he opened his eyes at last, studying her for a moment, perhaps wondering if she could stand to hear more.
“The war ended while I was in a hospital near RAF Hamelin. I signed out and returned to the continent.”
“They didn’t try to keep you?”
“They tried. But I was feeling particularly bitter. I had shown them that their training worked. I had held out, kept the secrets that, it turned out, were not that vital soon after I was traded. They offered me an administrative position. I was insulted, angry, burned out. I wanted to go back to war, to get it out of my system. I felt cheated of the last few months of the engagement.”
Now Emma studied him for a while, and he fell silent under her gaze. Would he be surprised to know that I understand how he felt? She wondered. Would it shock him to learn that I have known an animal need for retaliation? But I did not have the option. I had to be the mourning widow. Would he believe that I envy him the opportunity to act?
“So you went back to war – or the aftermath of it,” she said. He stared at the ceiling.
“In my nightmares, when I will not answer their questions, they torture you,” his voice cracked as he went on.
“Steed,” she said, suddenly understanding his unwillingness to speak of it.
“They accuse me of not loving you as much as I do my work.” Tears were running from the corners of his eyes. He took a ragged breath through his mouth.
“Steed,” she repeated, but he went on as if he did not hear.
“And when I still do not speak, they torture John.”
The horror of it welled up within Emma and her own tears flowed. She pressed her face to his shoulder and held him with her arm across his chest. He held her too, wrapping both arms around her, his face pressed into her hair.
She could not imagine how he could endure the dreams, even for the brief moments before his thrashing awakened her and she woke him. Her pain at thinking she had lost him was nothing compared with the revulsion she felt as she imagined seeing their son tortured. What dark corner of Steed’s mind offered up this terrible notion? What had he seen during the war and after it that could dissolve the mores of civilization in his mind and allow it to create such a vision?
They lay silent for a long while, their tears mingling, their sobbing breaths syncopated. Emma struggled to suppress the vision of John wailing as he was struck repeatedly, his little face a mask of confused anguish. No. Our son will not be the victim of a diabolical mastermind. We will keep him safe.
Emma sucked in a deep breath to clear her head and her sinuses, then lifted her head to look at Steed’s face. His grim expression spoke of guilt and deep pain. She thought it would help him to describe the dreams more, but she knew he would not. Not, at least, to her. From her he needed absolution and reassurance.
“You do not love me less than your work, John,” she said. “It isn’t a question of love, but of loyalty and trust. We are both loyal to Queen and country. And I trust you to choose your path based on your love for me tempered by your loyalty. I pray that your nightmares will never come true, but I know that if they do that whatever choice you make will be your only option to remain true to yourself.
“No,” she put a finger to his lips. “Don’t deny it. You have walked a narrow line since we met, or since you understood your feelings for me. I have endeavored to be a strong partner so as not to put you in the position you so fear. And now we must both endeavor to ensure the safety of our son.”
Steed wiped his eyes with one hand and studied her as she spoke. The memory of his nightmares still played out in his head: John hung by his feet, flames licking at his fine, dark hair, his face contorted in a scream. The voice roaring a meaningless question and his own muteness — it was not that he refused to save his son: he could not. Despite what Emma thought, there was no choice, not after so many years of conditioning. He could not betray his country, even to save her. Even to save their son.
“If you believe John is safe, then your dreams may go away,” Emma suggested, pressing the back of her hand to Steed’s cheek, amazed at the dampness there. She had never seen him cry before.
“Mrs. Steed is here,” Watkin said into the intercom on his desk. Emma stared at the door to Mother’s office, her hands in front of her holding her bag. Her suit felt oddly restrictive and she realized that it was just possible that she had gained some weight through the hips.
“Send her in,” Mother’s voice sounded harsh through the intercom speaker. Watkin rose and opened the door for her.
“Emma, how are you?” Mother said, waving her toward his desk. Today his office also included a single, luxurious guest chair and a row of tall file cabinets along one wall. Seeing Emma’s glance at them Mother slapped his hand on a file on his desk and grimaced.
“Personnel review time,” he said. “It seems like I have to review every single file myself.”
Emma’s eyes drifted to Rhonda, Mother’s silent assistant. The woman’s face remained impassive as she took the file from under Mother’s hand and carried it to one of the cabinets.
“Please sit down,” Mother gestured at the chair across from him. Emma seated herself carefully, noting the unfamiliar pull of her short skirt as she bent.
“Thank you for seeing me, Mother. I won’t take much of your time,” she said.
“I daresay your own time is rather more valuable – still keeping up with things at Knight, aren’t you?”
“I am precariously balanced on top of everything there,” she replied with a smile. Overt flattery rarely made a good impression on her, but it was such a rarity from Mother she could not help but note it. It made her suspicious, of course.
“And what can we do for you?”
“Steed is having nightmares.”
Mother took a deep breath and pressed his hands flat on his desk, using them to press his upper body against the back of his chair. Rhonda went to one of the filing cabinets, took out a thick file, and set it on the desk in front of Mother. He opened it, flipping to the middle, then turning a few more pages before he stopped.
“He is prone to nightmares,” he said, looking from the document up to Emma’s face.
“Yes. But these are particularly bad.”
“He has described them to you?” Mother’s tone belied a hint of surprise and Emma felt a ridiculous twinge of competitive victory that she was closer to Steed than Mother.
“Yes. And after he did they came less frequently. But they are not going away. I have an idea of how to banish them permanently.”
“Steed is resistant to therapy, Emma. Certainly you know that?”
“You mean he refuses to see that psychoanalysis could have a positive impact on him? Yes. He is rather old fashioned, after all. But that’s not what I had in mind.”
“Security, Mother. That’s what he needs. He needs to know that his son is protected. And although a security system in our home might provide a false sense of security, I believe that it would alleviate Steed’s deepest fears. If the ministry will protect his child, he will be better able to function.”
Mother adopted a puzzled frown, as if he didn’t quite understand what she was asking.
“You want us install a burglar alarm in your house?” he asked.
Emma smiled patiently. You old fox. You know what I mean. He’s your best agent, cough it up.
“Remote control gate, security cameras, trip wire along the wall, and yes, Mother, a burglar alarm in the house,” she said.
“No 24-hour armed guards?” he asked somewhat caustically.
“I’m thinking of getting a big, mean dog.”
He ignored her sarcasm. “And you believe that all of this is required in order for Steed to get a good nights’ sleep?”
“The responsibilities of fatherhood are very new to him, and he’s undergone a terrible ordeal. He might have handled one or the other in his usual way – a few bad dreams, a vacation in some paradise, and sweep the unpleasantness under the mental rug. But he isn’t able to do that this time. And, apart from easing Steed’s troubled mind, I believe that his home should be made secure.”
“And does Knight Industries believe its CEO’s home should be secure?” Mother’s evil little smile was designed to goad her. But she had expected him to play this card.
“Yes. I can allocate funds for home security. But Knight does not have access to the quality of equipment that you can provide. And Steed would not gain the same sense of safety from Knight’s protection as he would from the ministry’s.”
“Knowing that Knight protects his son wouldn’t make his bad dreams go away?”
Emma’s eyes narrowed at Mother’s patronizing tone. But she held her tongue.
Seeing that she would not rise to his bait, Mother closed Steed’s file and looked up at Rhonda.
“Send a security analysis team to assess the Steed house and grounds. I want their recommendation in three days,” he paused to look at Emma, “you will be available to meet with them, say, tomorrow, I trust?”
“I will be at their disposal,” Emma nodded.
“Very well. Is there anything else, Emma?”
“No. Thank you Mother. I knew you would agree that Steed’s mental well being is critical – to both of us.” Emma rose, nodded at Rhonda, and left the office. When the door was closed Mother handed Steed’s file to Rhonda.
“Have Dr. Hirsch schedule an appointment with Steed – his return to full duty will be contingent on it.” Rhonda took the file, nodding at his instruction. As she turned away he added thoughtfully, “I wonder just how difficult Mrs. Steed is finding adjusting to the responsibilities of motherhood.”