This story copyright © 2003 Mia McCroskey
Characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.
Steed keeps a low profile
Emma finds her way home
Emma dropped the small paper bag on the passenger seat with her handbag and slid into the driver’s seat of her Lotus. She was pushing herself to make it through the day despite the exhaustion chipping away at her resolve. She and Steed had arrived at Heathrow from Puerto Rico around eight o’clock in the morning, and they’d gone directly to his flat to retrieve her car. He’d tried to convince her to stay, to curl up with him for a few hours of sleep, but she’d declined.
“I have to go out to the estate. See Sally, sort through my messages, and get a certain prescription – you may recall that?” she’d stood by her car door, unwilling even to come inside, so tempting was sleep. His eyes had brightened at her last item.
“So you’ll have to come back to town for that,” he’d pointed out. She’d narrowed her eyes at him and he’d grinned.
“I could, or I could put it off a few days . . .”
She’d chuckled, “I wouldn’t. Shall I drop by later – see if you’re still awake?”
“Of course you should,” he’d pulled her close for a quick kiss – still more than she was used to from him in public.
Since then she’d been out to the estate for a long review with Sally, made several appointments for interviews with reporters, spoken briefly to her in-laws, unpacked the bag she’d been provided in Puerto Rico, and repacked a few things into a smaller bag to take to Steed’s. She made it to the chemists just in time to convince them to refill the prescription for her lost birth control pills that afternoon. Browsing while she waited, she realized that even if she restarted taking the pills today, there was still a risk. Having a child with Steed was in her plans – for the future. Feeling awkward, she selected a box of condoms and paid for them along with her pills.
She had never used them, but she was sure Steed had – realized as she got back in her car that he probably had a supply. She’d been a virgin bride. Knowing it, her doctor had suggested she start the pill before her wedding, advising her that she might want to get used to married life before adding children to the mix. He had also pointed out that other methods are easy to forget in the heat of the moment. Too embarrassed to ask questions, she had agreed.
When Peter had pressed her to cut back on her involvement with Knight Industries she’d brought up children. He’d complained that he was only then going to have her full attention and he wanted it to be just the two of them for a while. She’d complied. And gradually, as she’d grown less and less happy, she’d stopped wanting to have children and started questioning her commitment to their marriage.
After Peter’s crash she’d kept on the pill in case he was found – more than ever she didn’t want to start a family with him. And even after hope for his rescue was gone her doctor advised her to stay on the pill; that going off caused physiological changes that she should not add to everything else just then. She was no longer embarrassed to discuss it, and she had agreed simply because his advice sounded reasonable. Then she’d met Steed, and although they did not become lovers for a few months, she had anticipated it from the start.
So throughout her sexually active adult life, she’d never had need of any other form of protection. Buying condoms embarrassed her. Feeling silly for it, but no less awkward, she unzipped her bag and stuffed the paper sack inside. As tired as she was from travel and jet lag, she expected to be asleep before her head hit the pillow anyway. She laughed at herself as she started the car and guided it toward Steed’s flat. He could have his way with her, she’d probably sleep straight through.
Steed was awake, stretched out on the sofa puffing at his tuba when she entered. She hadn’t bothered knocking; the loud atonal blasts from the battered instrument would have drowned it out anyway. He would never admit that he couldn’t actually play the tuba. When she’d first met him she’d thought it was strictly decorative, since it usually had a bunch of flowers in it. But then one day, after she’d become comfortable in his home, she’d tried playing it and found that it was functional. She didn’t really play either, but she’d had music lessons on enough instruments to at least extract a proper tone out of it. Steed, on the other hand, tended to make the poor thing blat and wheeze. Fortunately, he set it aside as she came in.
“Oh thank goodness,” he said, stretching his arms over his head and yawning loudly. “I was about to give up and go to bed.”
“That’s what I’m going to do, if you don’t mind,” Emma replied, coming up behind the couch to lean over and kiss him lightly. “Couldn’t we nap for a couple of hours, then go forage for something to eat?”
“We could,” he nodded thoughtfully. “Or we could nap for a couple of hours, then enjoy the dinner I ordered from Harvey Nic’s.”
“Really?” she grinned happily.
“Everything’s waiting – we’ll just have to warm it,” he replied, rising to come around the couch.
“You spoil me,” she sighed as he took her bag and headed for the stairs
“Yes,” he agreed.
“You’re not going to disagree?” she asked playfully as she followed him up the spiral stairs.
“Nope. How’s everything on the home front?”
“Under control,” she said, too tired even to continue the banter. He set her bag on the floor near the closet.
“Why don’t you leave a few things here?” he asked, reaching out to draw her comfortably into his arms.
She shrugged. “Because you haven’t offered.”
“I’m offering. I’ll make you some room. You’ll need a place in London for the next few months. And then . . .”
“Steed, I’m getting my flat back,” she said. Her tenant had moved out and Sally had overseen getting it cleaned and painted, making several trips on her own up to London. It had never really occurred to Emma to make Steed’s her London base of operations. Comfortable as she was here, it was still his apartment. She’d thought he’d understand. Now she wasn’t so sure. His arms dropped from around her and he turned away, loosening his belt, beginning to undress.
He pulled off his jumper, then removed his trousers, but not his underwear. She stood watching as he went over to the bed, finally turning to glance at her.
“Of course,” he said softly, “you need your space. I understand.” He pulled back the covers and sat down on the bed, scrubbing his face with both hands. She crossed the room and sat beside him, very conscious of his near nakedness.
“What I really need is ‘our’ space. Until then, yes, I need an address that isn’t also yours,” she reached up and turned his head, trying to read him through his eyes. They were clouded with fatigue. “I may never sleep there, of course,” she added, her mouth crooking in a half smile, waiting to see how he’d react.
“Vixen,” he muttered, wrapping his arms around her, “teasing an exhausted man.”
She rose and began to undress. “As I recall, it’s one of your favorite of my qualities,” she said.
“Ummmm,” he replied, stretching out on the bed and pulling the covers up. Just then she remembered her pills and her other purchase. She picked up her bag and went into the bathroom. Better get back on track right now.
They slept for three hours, both waking as Steed’s clock chimed the half hour after seven. She had also kept her underpants on and pulled on one of the undershirts that he rarely seemed to wear, a signal that she really did want to sleep. Feeling somewhat refreshed, they lay face-to-face, hands caressing idly, not really trying to incite desire – yet.
“Hungry?” he asked. She thought about it for a moment.
“Yes. I had to think when I last ate. Evie forced some soup on me at the estate.”
“I understand, from sources, that you were not eating all that well prior to the shareholder meeting. The last week or so has not been much of an improvement. We shall have to see that you don’t run yourself down.”
Sources? What sources? “What did you do today, Steed?”
“Checked in at the ministry. There’s something brewing in Liverpool I may have to attend to soon.”
“Liverpool, huh? And you so hate the popular music that’s big there,” she said. She rather liked the fast beats and poetical lyrics created by the new generation of musicians springing forth from that part of England. He knew it, and that she was teasing him for being old fashioned. So he ignored her.
“I shall try not to be gone long, and I will call – it’s not undercover work, just security.”
“Do you need help?”
He looked surprised. She shrugged, realizing that she really couldn’t do it, shouldn’t have offered. And that she hated being torn between her life and his.
“It’s not your sort of assignment,” he said, “no mysteries, no diabolical masterminds. Just a dignitary whose outspoken nature is starting to put her in danger. I promise to call you in if it becomes more sinister.”
He laughed, leaned close to kiss her, then studied her face, grinning. “Jealous?”
“Not at all,” she grinned back. “I know where I stand with you. Or you with me, I should say. But I’m wondering how this female dignitary will react to your usual techniques.”
“Like every other female – you excepted – I imagine,” he said rather arrogantly.
“Incorrigible,” she sighed and he smiled agreement.
“It’s my job.”
Emma parked the Lotus in front of the small, tidy house in a north London suburb and she and Sally got out. She had telephoned to tell Aunt Elise that she was coming and left a message with her uncle David. He’d told her that Elise was out at the shops, but would certainly be at home by the time Emma arrived. She’d thought he’d sounded pleased to hear from her, which seemed odd given his wife’s recent behavior. Unless he doesn’t know.
David had not been at the Knight Industries shareholders’ meeting where his wife, Emma’s paternal aunt, had gone back on her promise to support Emma. Emma had presented herself and her proposed directives for the shareholders to vote upon. During the roll call vote all the shareholders who Emma had lined up to support her had done so except her aunt. Unfortunately, Elise held a large block of shares, and for a while it had seemed that Emma had lost her bid to regain control of her father’s company.
Only Steed’s surprise presence, and even more surprising possession of more shares than her aunt, had saved her plan. After the meeting, Emma had seen Elise get into a car with two of the Knight board members. She’d followed the car to a large house that had turned out to belong to the chairman of the board. Since she’d left England the day after the shareholders meeting, she hadn’t had time to pursue the matter until now.
She led Sally up the front walk and rang the doorbell. A chime sounded somewhere inside, followed by a strange screeching sound. Sally looked alarmed, but Emma just closed her eyes and tried to remain calm.
“That’s just Sylvester,” she said, “My uncle David’s macaw.”
“That sound is a bird?” Sally asked.
“Oh yes. But it’s not the screeching that’s bad, really. Wait until you hear its vocabulary.”
“Doesn’t someone have to teach them those words?” Sally asked as they heard footsteps approaching the door inside. It swung open and Sally recognized Emma’s aunt from the shareholder’s meeting.
Elise looked out at them blankly for a moment, one hand on the door, the other holding her sweater closed at the neck against the winter chill. Under it she wore a white blouse tucked into garish green paisley slacks. She took a step back, her hard soled flat pumps clacking on the tile floor.
“Hello Aunt Elise,” Emma said cheerfully. “May we come in? This is Sally, my personal assistant.” Emma didn’t wait for an answer. She stepped into the entry, forcing Elise to step aside. Sally followed.
“Hello Emma,” Elise managed, sounding put out. “This is a surprise.”
“Uncle David didn’t mention that I’d called?” Emma asked, pressing still further in so that Elise would be compelled to close the door. “We didn’t have a chance to speak at the Knight shareholders meeting, and I’ve been away since then. Now I’m back I thought it would be good to catch up.”
Elise closed the door and looked Emma up and down, taking in her black and white fur coat, stylish designer pantsuit, and Italian shoes. Sally was similarly attired, although her labels were from a rather different shopping district and her coat was cloth.
“We’ve nothing to catch up on, Emma,” she said firmly.
Emma smiled and tossed Elise a sideways nod, then turned and strolled into the parlor, slipping her coat off as she walked. She laid it over the back of an armchair and glanced around, eyes fixing on a photograph on the mantle. Sally followed her, adding her coat to the chair, then standing beside it. Elise stood in the doorway defiantly, her hands planted on her broad hips. Emma picked up the framed photograph and turned toward Elise.
“You and your brothers, isn’t it?” she asked. “At the party that my father threw when Knight won its first government contract.” She handed the picture to Sally, who looked at it curiously. She knew the gesture was just part of Emma’s performance, but she was interested in seeing Sir John Knight.
Elise didn’t answer, just watched Sally look at the picture, then walk back to the fireplace and put it back in its place. She passed behind Emma, who stood with her arms crossed watching Elise.
“What did Evan Birch offer you to vote against me?” Emma asked. The screeching sound erupted again from another room. Emma smiled ever so slightly. Her uncle’s parrot’s timing had always amused her. Any moment now he’d dredge up a wholly inappropriate word or two.
Elise cringed, but Emma wasn’t sure if her aunt was reacting to her question or the bird. “Or was it a matter of what he offered to do if you didn’t support him?”
“I don’ t know what you’re talking about, Emma,” Elise said. “I rethought what you had suggested and changed my mind. I don’t believe that you are cut out to head up the company.”
Emma shook her head, wishing not for the first time that she’d thought to get her aunt’s commitment in writing. But that would have been very awkward, and probably useless. She opened her mouth to speak just as Sylvester came through.
“Filthy wog! Filthy wog!” he cried. Sally gasped, putting a hand to her mouth to conceal her surprise. Emma smiled, watching Elise squirm at the bird’s bad manners.
“Cousin Dave has been working with Sylvester,” Emma said pleasantly. Her cousin was a very immature twenty-two, still living, Emma thought, with his parents. She, on the other hand, had been the CEO of Knight at twenty-one. Not cut out to manage Knight indeed!
“I would have appreciated a telephone call, Aunt,” Emma said, sadness in her voice. “Of course I believe that how you vote your shares is entirely your business. But the courtesy of a warning –.”
“Courtesy! You pressure me to follow your direction, you bulldoze your agenda through, you bring in strangers to help you. You’ve never been courteous to your own family.”
Sally was shocked at the woman’s vehemence. Her admiration for her employer was reinforced as Emma bore the verbal abuse calmly.
“So your visit to Birch’s home after the meeting was a social call?”
Elise opened her mouth, then closed it, speechless. “Fetch me a pint! Fetch me a pint! Filthy wog!” Sylvester called. Emma could not restrain a chuckle. “We saw you, Elise. We followed the car you got in to Birch’s house. Why did you go? To collect payment for services rendered? I’m surprised they honored the agreement, since the tactic failed.”
Emma realized as she spoke that she had gone to far. Elise’s face turned crimson and she stepped into the room, putting herself toe-to-toe with her taller niece. You’ve no idea what danger you’re in, Emma thought, forcefully refraining from raising her hands to the older woman. Blood counts, Emma. You may still need her, or her family, one day. And they may not betray you next time.
“Get out of my home,” Elise said, her voice almost a growl. “Take your fur, and your assistant, and your attitude, and get out.”
Emma stared down at her, saddened by the order of precedence of her list. Material wealth first. It always came to that. She nodded very slightly, then stepped to the side to lift both coats off the chair. She glanced at Sally, who moved quickly to follow her. Elise stepped aside as they left the parlor and went down the hall to the door. Emma glanced back, but Elise had not followed. The notion of staying in the house, wandering into the kitchen, say, to see Sylvester, crossed her mind, but she couldn’t see any benefit to further angering her aunt. She opened the door and stepped out, stopping on the front steps to put on her coat.
She led Sally down the walk to the curb, turning to look back at the house. A curtain in a front window flicked down. She was turning back to the car when a motion further along the sidewalk caught her eye. Her Uncle David was standing in front of the neighboring house, which was surrounded by a high hedge. He couldn’t be seen from his own home. He waved again, gesturing for her to come to him. She glanced at the house again, certain that her aunt was watching. She nodded at David, acknowledging his request, then opened the car door and got in. Sally joined her. She started the engine and drove forward until the hedges concealed the car. She left it running and got out.
“Emma,” David put his hands on her upper arms and looked into her troubled face. His own features were sharply defined, with high cheekbones and a razor thin long nose. He looked worried.
“Uncle David, what’s going on?” Emma asked.
He grimaced, dropping his hands to his sides and shaking his head. “You know how my Elise has always felt about your father and you,” he said sadly. She nodded, equally pained. “I know it’s none of your doing. But when those men came with their threats and offers, it was easy for her to believe them.”
“What men, Uncle?” Emma asked, not wanting to offer names. She glanced at Sally, who had also gotten out of the car. She had a pen in one hand a pad in the other.
“The Knight board members. That chairman, Birch, he’s quite a piece of work. He managed not to do or say anything that could be called ‘illegal.’ Got the other two to do the dirty work.”
“Who were they?”
“Ah, Stafford was one. Short fellow. He was very unpleasant. Told Elise just what would happen at Dave Junior’s work if she supported you.”
So that was what they used. Emma glanced at Sally and saw that she was writing. “And do you remember the other?”
“Dixon. The fop,” David spoke with contempt, “All dolled up in a fancy suit and school tie.” Emma wondered what her uncle would make of Steed. “Stood back and watched most of the time, that one. Like he didn’t want to dirty his hands. But when Elise agreed to do as they said – that was the second time they came – he’s the one who gave her the check.”
“They paid her,” Emma said, not asking. “How much?”
David stared at his shoes for a moment, then shrugged. “Not sure. She wouldn’t say. Put the money in her account. After the shareholders’ meeting she said she had another check. She’s paid for a trip for all of us – taking us to the south of France for a week in April.”
“That should be fun,” Emma said, not begrudging her uncle the vacation even thought it was to some extent at her expense. “Do you remember the dates that they came? Even roughly?”
“Well,” he pursed his lips, thinking. “The first time would have been before Christmas. Early December. It was a Monday – the first or second Monday in December.”
“And the second time? When they paid her?”
“That’s easy. It was January 6th – King’s day.”
“Thank you, Uncle. This is very important to me.”
Her uncle shrugged, still not making eye contact. “I’m sorry, Emma,” he said. “I love my Elise, but I just don’t understand what happened between you all. It doesn’t seem like a right family, to me. Her resenting her brother, and you left with no one, running that company, hardly more than a child,” he shook his head sadly.
“I don’t really know, either,” Emma said, “I thought my father tried to be generous to his siblings. I never understood the rift between them. As for me, don’t worry. I’m very resilient.”
David chuckled, finally looking at her face again. She smiled warmly. “Thank you for telling me all this, Uncle. There are some rats at Knight Industries, and I intend to see that they desert the ship before they sink it.”
At that David laughed, returning his hands to her upper arms and drawing her close for a quick hug. “Take care of yourself Emma,” he said warmly.
She kissed his cheek. “You too, Uncle David.”
“You got the names and dates?” Emma asked once they were back in the car.
“Yes ma’am. You know I believe those are the three board members I overheard talking.”
“Yes. I know. And they’re the ones we saw put Elise in the car after the meeting. Surely that doesn’t surprise you?”
Sally shook her head, “No. I guess it all makes sense. But do you think any of the others are in on it?”
“Very good question, Sally. Very good,” Emma nodded, but offered no opinion.
“It looks wonderful, Sally. Thank you for all your help,” Emma said. She was standing in the middle of her freshly painted apartment. In addition to the paint, the floors had been refinished and the kitchen and bathroom countertops had been replaced. It felt strange without any furniture, and it smelled faintly of paint and varnish, but Emma quite suddenly felt more at home than she had anywhere else in the last three years.
Sally smiled proudly. She would never admit to her employer just how big a challenge it had been for her. She’d made several trips into London on her own while Emma was away to meet the painters and refinishers. That alone had been a big challenge at first. But she’d started to enjoy the train ride and the freedom, and had even stopped in at a little café for a scone on her last trip a few days ago. Although Emma had selected the colors, Sally had been asked to approve the swashes of paint they put on the walls, trusting herself to compare the chips to the walls. She’d had to press the floor refinishers, too. She didn’t tell Emma that they had only finished yesterday, a week behind schedule.
“I’ve confirmed with the moving company,” she said, opening her appointment book to check the information. “They’re coming the day after tomorrow. Do you want to check that everything you want to move is in the garage at the estate before then?”
“Yes, I’ll check it again. Tomorrow,” Emma looked at her watch, then took one last look around the room. “But now you’re going to drop me at Steed’s and take my car back to the estate.”
Sally stared at her.
“You can drive a standard, can’t you?” Emma asked. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask.
Sally recovered herself, nodding. “Yes, ma’am. I – thank you for trusting me with your car!”
Emma laughed, “It’s just a car, Sally. You’re a cautious person. Enjoy the drive.”
“But I could just take the train, ma’am,” she pointed out. Emma shook her head, moving toward the door. Sally followed her.
“Steed will drive me out tomorrow. Gives us a little more time together,” Emma said, then glanced over her shoulder at Sally, surprised at herself for admitting it to the girl. “He’s going out of town,” she added. Sally smiled, but made no comment.
“Steed?” Emma stepped into his apartment and paused to listen for him. She heard him clattering down the stairs and moved toward them to meet him.
“Mrs. Peel, right on time,” he said, reaching the bottom just as she did. She stepped into his arms for a kiss, then walked over to sit on the couch and stretch her legs out along its length.
“I’ve just seen my flat,” she said as he disappeared into the kitchen.
“And?” he called out. She heard glasses clinking and smiled.
“Lovely. Bright. Spotless. Empty.”
Steed reappeared with a pitcher full of something green and white and two glasses. “Dear Sally handled everything to your satisfaction, then?” he asked, handing her a glass.
“Yes,” she said archly. “Surprised?”
He filled her glass, allowing ice and the green stuff, which looked suspiciously like an herb, to fall into it.
“No. But you can be very exacting. Poor girl was probably a bundle of nerves showing it to you,” he poured his own drink, set the pitcher aside, and sat down at the opposite end of the couch.
“What is this?” Emma asked, sipping her drink. It was a refreshing mix of lime, mint, and rum.
“In honor of our recent trip, it’s Cuban. A mojito. What do you think?”
“I like it. In moderation. Did you think I would snap her head off if the colors weren’t perfect?”
Steed laughed, but didn’t reply. She scowled at him. “In any case, I’ve sent her home with my car. You’ll have to drive me back to the estate.”
He sipped his drink, wondering if he’d teased her too much. “Tonight?”
“If you insist,” she said, still not smiling. “But I was thinking of tomorrow.” He released the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding as she grinned at him. “Honestly Steed, I know I’m demanding, but I do quite like Sally. I wouldn’t have scolded her just because the red in the piano alcove isn’t quite right.”
“Isn’t it?” he asked smoothly.
“No. But I didn’t say a thing.”
“I’m proud of you. Accepting others’ failings, dealing with adverse circumstances . . .”
“Are we to spend the entire evening deconstructing my nature?”
“No. Let’s deconstruct your clothing instead.” He set his glass on the floor and moved to her end of the couch, propping himself above her. She planted a hand firmly on his chest.
“Not until you feed me, darling. Aside from the flat, which really is wonderful, I’ve had a perfectly vicious day.”
Steed sat back and waited, knowing she’d provide details.
“I visited Aunt Elise. She was absolutely hostile, which is not unusual,” she said. He nodded, remembering her description of the woman. “But her husband, my Uncle David, spoke to me afterwards. He told me everything. The three board members threatened my cousin’s job if she supported me, and paid her a bribe to vote their way.”
“Those are very serious charges.”
“Yes I know. I’m trying to decide how to use the information.”
“You mean, aside from reporting it to the proper authorities, which are, I might add, not me.”
She smirked at him, taking a sip of her drink. “Yes, aside from that. I’ve still got to get them to vote me chairman and CEO. I think Uncle David has given me the leverage I need. I’ll worry about criminal charges after I’m secure.”
“So although it was unpleasant, you did achieve your aim in visiting her,” he pointed out. “Drink up, and I’ll see that you’re properly fed. You’re becoming more troublesome than some horses I know.” He stood up and collected the pitcher and his glass. Emma sighed, took another long sip, and followed him to the kitchen. She wasn’t sure she liked being equated with a horse. But then, Steed was inordinately fond of horses, so it was probably a compliment to be placed in their company.
“I had a call this morning, too,” she said. “Just to add to the stress of the moment. Peter’s lawyers want to meet.”
Steed took her glass to rinse, pausing to study her face. She looked worried. “Did they say what about?”
“No. He’s signed the papers, so there’s really nothing to discuss,” she said.
Steed swirled water in her glass, thinking. Damn, this isn’t fair. She needs to know that the investigation is ongoing, that something’s not right at Knight. She’ll figure it out for herself if she has a few more clues.
“While I’m away, you should go to the Ministry. Speak to Weems and Plath,” he said, referring to the agents working on the Peter Peel case. He set her glass on the rack with the others and looked back at her, seeing a puzzled expression. “Be pushy. Make them tell you about the investigation of your husband.”
Her eyes narrowed in that look he knew meant she was turning things over in her mind. He waited, and it didn’t take long. Her eyes widened until she was glaring at him, annoyance growing in her eyes. “Be demanding,” he urged, trying to make her understand that he couldn’t say more. Suddenly she turned away, heading back out into the living room. He followed slowly, giving her space. It seemed like she needed a lot of it these days.
“I wish you would stop calling him that,” she said abruptly.
She turned. “Peter. Stop calling him ‘your husband.’ He isn’t. Not anymore.”
Now Steed frowned, stepping close to her after all, looking into her eyes. The annoyance was still there, but it was coupled with mischief and, underlying it all was the affection that he thrived upon.
“No?” he asked softly, hoping he understood her correctly.
“No,” she replied, equally softly, her hands coming up to caress his shoulders, then slip behind his neck. “I received the final, stamped, approved papers this morning. I am officially divorced.”
His hands slid around her waist, one climbing up her back between her shoulders, the other inching down and pressing her against him. Her kiss was eager, and he savored it, tasting the rum and mint combined with her lipstick and that other flavor that was uniquely Emma.
“You saved the best for last,” he whispered into her ear. “How I love you, even when we’re both feeling testy.”
“And how pleasant it is to apologize,” she agreed, holding him tight.
“Let’s celebrate. I know just the place, and I’m sure they’ll have a table. For us.”
“For us,” she repeated, pulling back to look into his eyes. “I like that.”
The mid-winter dawn’s first light greyed the bedroom window. Emma lay dozing in Steed’s arms recovering from their delicious pre-dawn exertions. She’d remembered the condoms at the last moment, hearing the distant echo of her doctor’s warning years ago about how easy it was to forget as she forced herself, and Steed, to pause and get one. She’d not liked it; it hadn’t felt the same. Steed had chuckled at her complaint and said it was a lesson to her to be a good girl and remember her pills. She’d dozed off contemplating the supposed benefits of birth control pills – they allowed women more sexual freedom, but they put the burden squarely in her hands, too.
“I need to get to Liverpool by mid afternoon,” Steed whispered in her ear. She opened her eyes and rolled onto her back so that she could look up at him. The sun, although hidden behind clouds, had suffused the room with watery light. She reached up and traced a faint semi-circular indentation on his left shoulder, smiling slightly. “Still shows?” he asked.
She nodded. She’d bitten him last night, not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to leave a mark. “Just a reminder of me,” she said, “while you’re concentrating on your dignitary.”
“I don’t need to be reminded of you,” he said, touching her lips with his index finger. “You haunt me. When I look at another woman, I compare her to you. It’s perfectly hopeless.”
“Perfectly,” she said, smiling with satisfaction at his surprising admission.
“What will you be doing for the next few days?” he asked.
“Having my things moved to my flat, calling on Weems and Plath at the ministry, and visiting certain board members.”
“Please be careful,” she started to open her mouth to protest his warning and he put his finger back on her lips, shaking his head, “I know you can take care of yourself, but I think those men will go to great lengths to protect themselves. Treat them as you would any suspect we’ve ever dealt with. And remember, I won’t be nearby to rescue you.”
“I was going to bring Sally. They’d be less likely to try something when there are two of us,” she said.
“Perhaps,” he nodded, not completely agreeing. “But if you’re going to start dragging that girl into dangerous situations, you should supply her with some self-defense training.” He smiled, but he wasn’t entirely joking.
“Yes, you’re right. I think I shall,” she said thoughtfully, wondering how Sally would like the idea. She reached up and slid her hand over the side of his face and into his hair, pulling him to her for a long, languorous kiss. He joined in willingly, but neither of them allowed it to become more demanding. She sighed as they parted, pressing him away so that she could sit up. “I’ll shower first,” she said.
Steed watched her close the bathroom door and waited until he heard water running. Then he sat up and reached for the telephone by the bed.
“Bond? Steed here. If you’re not busy the next few days, I wonder if you can do me a favor?”
“Good afternoon, Miss Knight – that is correct now, isn’t it?” agent Stanley Weems greeted Emma as she entered the office he shared with his partner Edgar Plath.
“Yes, it’s official,” she replied, taking the seat he indicated.
“Heard you had some success on the Elder 6 project,” he said, returning to his chair behind his desk. “A couple good firefights, too.”
“Yes, it got a bit thick. But the climate made up for it.”
“Yes, well, Steed does get the good assignments.”
“He’s in Liverpool now.”
“Maybe not all the good ones then, eh?”
Emma forced the expected smile and looked pointedly around the office. “Is Plath around?”
“He’ll be along. Went down to records to find something. You said you wanted to talk about your ex-husband’s case.”
“Yes. His lawyers called me asking to meet. I would like all the information I can get before I agree.”
“I see,” Weems drummed his fingers on the desk and stared at a pile of files there. She wondered if they were related to Peter’s case or just conveniently located within his range of vision.
“I do have ministry clearances,” she pointed out.
“Yes, of course. But it is highly irregular. You are considered a witness in the investigation.”
“And you have my statement. Think of me now as a colleague about to interact with individuals related to your case. What should I know before I meet with them?”
Weems nodded, lifting the top folder from the pile and opening it. “Since you put it that way,” he said. Just then the door opened and Plath came in with another bundle of folders under his arm.
“Miss Knight!” he greeted her cheerfully. “So good to see you. Has Weems here started briefing you?”
“I was just beginning. Miss Knight makes a good argument for hearing where we are in the Peel case.”
“Of course she does,” Plath said, moving behind his desk, which sat at an angle to Weems’s. Seated in the angle between them, Emma felt just a bit like she was on trial. She decided to turn the tables.
“Have you reviewed all of Sir Peter’s papers from the estate?” she asked.
“Yes. We’ve added all the data from them to the cross index on the case. Here,” Weems patted a particularly thick file. Emma cringed. She did not have a high opinion of the ministry’s new computerized cross-indexing techniques.
“To review,” Plath said, “Sir Peter was originally apprehended, by you, Miss Knight, in the act of purchasing top secret information from Sir Roald Wentworth. What he was attempting to purchase was the networking software for a short-range missile system. The software is only useful if you have the controllers for the missile launching devices.”
Emma nodded, an alarming thought coming to her. “Who makes the launching devices?”
Weems frowned at her, but Plath smiled and nodded. “Yes, very good question, Miss Knight,” he chuckled. “As a matter of fact, the launching devices are manufactured for the Ministry of Defense by Knight Weaponry.”
Emma took a deep breath and held it, thinking through the implications. Plath interrupted her thoughts. “Naturally we’re concerned about whether Sir Peter – or rather the organization he represented, Camino Victorioso – already have the devices. And if so, how they got them.”
“They could have acquired them directly from someone within Knight, or they could have purchased them from some other source. We’re trying to find the security breach,” Weems added.
Emma pushed aside, for the moment, the unpleasant notion that someone at Knight had betrayed the company. “Tell me about Camino Victorioso. It’s a South American terrorist group, isn’t it?” This was the first time that she had heard a name attached to the group that Peter had been working with in the Amazon. She was really very uninformed about what he had been doing, both during his ‘lost’ years and after his return – mostly because she had avoided finding out. But the time had come to face, and be done with, Peter’s history.
“When Sir Peter joined El Camino, they were a terrorist group. Now they are a military regime that controls half a dozen large provinces in Bolivia. He won’t say anything, but we believe that the leaders of the regime looked upon Sir Peter very favorably. As a reward for his services in the Amazon they sent him back to Britain to act as their agent. These were in his safe,” Plath opened a file and removed four passports from various nations.
“He had false identification for five aliases as well as his own name,” Weems explained.
“This was also in the safe,” Plath held up another passport, British. He opened it to reveal a photograph of her.
“That’s not mine,” she said, momentarily confused. “I took mine to the Caribbean a week and a half ago. It was destroyed and the ministry replaced it.”
“No, this isn’t yours. This is a counterfeit in the name of Lisa White. It goes with his false one in the name of James White,” Plath said.
Emma was shocked. She stared at the false passport, watching it as Plath closed it and replaced it in his file.
“I had no idea,” she whispered.
“No. So we’ve been assured,” Weems said. Emma’s gaze snapped to him, and he shifted uncomfortably under her stare.
“We’ve got Sir Roald for offering to sell the software and Sir Peter for trying to buy it,” Plath said. “If one of them would talk – tell us the names of their contacts, for example – we’d make a deal with him. But they’re both completely mute. So we have to go about it the hard way.”
“Research, surveillance –.”
“Standard procedures,” Weems interrupted Plath with a sharp look and tone. “You know the drill, Miss Knight.”
“Yes,” Emma replied, seeing that Weems was not going to allow his partner to provide any more details. That Weems refused to trust her was troubling, but she could deal with it. She was hardly surprised that the investigation was ongoing. Clearly Peter had many contacts that they would want to identify. What troubled her was how many of them might be inside Knight Industries.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” She rose. “I think that gives me enough to feel comfortable talking to Sir Peter’s lawyers. I’ll let you know if anything important transpires.”
Emma felt decidedly shaken by the false passport, as much by its very existence as by the fact that it had been in the ministry’s possession for so long without her knowing. Was that what Steed had wanted her to find out? Although it was worrisome, it hardly seemed likely to have concerned him that much.
She strode through the ministry corridors half lost in thought, acknowledging greetings from various agents and staff members without stopping to talk. She was oblivious to how she was reinforcing her aloof image, and to the occasional looks cast her way by people who tried to engage her in conversation.
Passing by a partially open door she heard grunts and thumps. She paused to glance inside.
“Right! That’s it ladies, left foot in front,” a familiar cockney accented voice rang out. Emma pushed the door open and leaned on the doorframe. Hemming, the ministry self defense trainer, was drilling a group of female agents – trainees by the look of them — which was uniformly young, fit, and determined. A few glanced her way and Hemming followed their gaze.
“Emma Peel!” he cried out, striding toward her with a pleased grin. She stepped into the room, returning his smile. “Or is it Knight, now?” he added as he folded her into a quick hug and released her, stepping back to study her. Such scrutiny by most men would be considered quite rude. But she knew that Hemming was assessing her physical condition for an entirely professional reason.
“Yes, it’s Knight. Hemming, it’s wonderful to see you,” she said.
“I heard ye were about. And in the nick of time. Ye’ve been living the high life, ‘aven’t ye? Lettin’ Steed be take you out for nice dinners every night!”
Emma smiled and shook her head, “Not every night, Hemming,” she said.
“Still, ye’re in danger of going soft, girl. Ye should come train wi’ me.”
“I just might, Hemming,” she replied, meaning it.
“Ladies!” Hemming swung around to his class, his shout jerking the trainees back into ordered lines. Emma realized that they had been inching closer, watching her curiously. Hemming glanced back at her. “Emma, would you be willing to help me with a small demonstration?”
Emma gestured at her skirt and jacket, “Not exactly ‘working’ clothes,” she said skeptically.
“If you have to stop a criminal, you don’t have time to change your clothes!” Hemming barked, directing it at the trainees. To Emma he added, “this won’ even be a challenge for ye.”
Shrugging, she followed him to the head of the class where he had her demonstrate how to throw him when he grabbed her from behind. He was right, she didn’t even lose her balance in her mid-height heels. Hemming lay on the floor in front of her, grinning happily. The trainees whispered among themselves, and she was sure she heard “Weepd” a few times. Heigh-ho, she thought, wouldn’t want to disappoint them.
“Bond, the doves have left the Peel estate. Yes, that’s right. Will do,” agent Philip Washington hung up his car phone, keeping his eyes on the little sports car on the road ahead. Watching over Mrs. Peel – Miss Knight, Washington reminded himself – alternated between dreadfully boring and damned tricky. When she got on the road keeping up with her without being spotted was tough.
Emma had selected Ellis Stafford for her first board member visit. According to her Uncle David, Stafford had threatened her cousin’s job if her aunt didn’t comply with their wishes. He lived in a posh London suburb in a modern, rambling ranch style home. According to her research, his second wife was fifteen years his junior. His son by his first marriage was married, and his second wife’s daughter was away at school. So at most they were likely to find Stafford and his wife at home on a chilly February Saturday morning. She parked the Lotus across the street from the house and sat looking at it for a few minutes.
“What do you see, Sally?” she asked.
“It’s well-maintained,” Sally replied. “That’s an expensive Jaguar in the drive. There’s someone in the room on the extreme left – I saw them pass by the window.”
“Good. What about the garage?”
“It’s open, and the car’s in the drive. So someone’s been out and come back this morning.”
“But, pardon me ma’am, why do we care?”
“Well, someone may have been driven to the train, so we have to be prepared to find our target flown the coop. Or it might just be that someone went out for pastries and we’ll find them having breakfast.”
“Or someone could have been picked up at the train,” Sally added, getting into the game. “The daughter, home for the weekend?”
“Very good. It’s possible, although you’d think she would have come last night, wouldn’t she?”
“Oh. Yes,” Sally was disappointed.
“Still, you’re right. There could be a guest. Let’s go see.”
Ellis Stafford opened the door, his mouth open, his greeting stilled when he saw Emma on his doorstep.
“Mrs. Peel,” he finally managed. “What — ?”
“Good morning Mr. Stafford. It’s Miss Knight, actually, and this is my personal assistant, Sally Howard. May we come in?”
“Well, yes, I –,” he was forced to step back as she crossed the threshold.
“You have a lovely home, Mr. Stafford,” she said. “Mrs. Stafford?” She had noticed a middle-aged blond woman standing in a doorway across from the front door. The woman stepped forward, a tentative smile on her face.
“Yes. Hello,” she said, extending her hand and glancing curiously at her husband.
“Emma Knight,” Emma said, shaking Mrs. Stafford’s hand, “This is Sally Howard. I’m terribly sorry to drop by this way on a Saturday, but I have something rather important to discuss with your husband.”
“About Knight Industries?” Mrs. Stafford asked, nodding with what appeared to be understanding.
“Yes, exactly. It shouldn’t take long,” Emma put on her best apologetic smile.
“Why don’t we just go into the sitting room,” Ellis Stafford said hesitantly, gesturing at the room through an open doorway on the right. Emma moved that direction immediately, Sally following.
“I’ll get you all some coffee,” Mrs. Stafford said, exiting the way she’d come in. Ellis Stafford closed the front door and joined Emma and Sally in the sitting room.
“Please sit down,” he said, noting that Emma already had. She’d slipped off her coat and selected the armchair that showed more wear, hoping he regarded it as his. Sally laid her coat over the arm of the sofa and sat down, opening Emma’s briefcase on her lap. Emma glanced at her and she handed her employer a sheaf of papers.
“This is something of a courtesy call, Mr. Stafford,” Emma said, glancing at the papers for a moment as if refreshing her memory regarding the matter at hand. Stafford looked a bit lost, his eyes fixed on Emma. Then he glanced around and sat down in the armchair opposite the one Emma had taken.
“Yes?” he said, equal amounts of concern and puzzlement in his voice.
“Yes. What is your connection with Strickland Automotive?”
Now he looked completely confused. “I’m sorry?”
Emma shifted, crossing her legs, which were not at all concealed by her suit skirt. Stafford watched, mesmerized. “Strickland Automotive,” Emma repeated, drawing his eyes to her face. “You recently suggested that a David Hamilton, who is employed there as a mechanic, faced possible dismissal. I’m asking by what authority you made this threat.”
“Threat?” He frowned. He played indignation fairly well, Emma thought.
Mrs. Stafford came into the room with a tray of coffee things, “Here you are. Do let me know if there’s anything else you’d like,” she said, her gaze on her husband. He glanced up at her and nodded curtly, then returned his stare to Emma’s face. His wife frowned, set the tray on the coffee table, and left the room.
“What threat are you talking about, Miss Knight,” Stafford said evenly.
“On Monday, December fifth you spoke to Elise Hamilton, formerly Elise Knight. You asked her to do certain things for you and told her that if she did not, her son David would lose his job.”
“And just what ‘things’ does Mrs. Hamilton imagine I required of her?” Stafford said.
“The voting of her shares in Knight Industries in accordance with the current board’s wishes,” Emma said. “Mrs. Hamilton complied with your request, as you know. Your request was part of an effort to prohibit me from becoming involved with the management of Knight Industries. I have evidence that you have been materially involved with activities at Knight that violated the company’s manufacturing and security agreements with the crown.”
Stafford laughed, a forced, empty sound. Then he leaned forward and poured himself a cup of coffee. He did not offer to pour for Emma and Sally. They watched him add cream and sit back up with his cup, Sally emulating Emma’s calm, patient expression.
“You’re dreaming,” he said, a hint of anger in his voice. Emma smiled.
“I have documents,” she said. “My ex-husband kept excellent files.”
Stafford went pale. The hand holding his cup and saucer shook and he stilled the cup with his other hand.
“Your name is featured,” Emma added. Then she waited. Stafford stared into his cup. She didn’t think he was particularly strong or determined. That’s why she’d come here first.
“What do you want?” he asked quietly, “I’ll resign from the board.”
“No. I want you on the board at the next meeting, Mr. Stafford. I want you there to cast your vote for me. After I am CEO and chair, you may resign.” Her tone was so imperious it bordered on the comic. Sally half expected her to adopt a royal “we” if she spoke again. If Stafford hadn’t looked so desperate, she might have giggled.
“And if I do vote for you?” he asked weakly.
“I will not turn over my evidence to the authorities. And any illegal activities still being engaged in by individuals at Knight will cease. I’ll see to that. Resignation might be prudent, but I leave that up to you.”
He leaned forward and set his cup on the table, then sat back and rubbed at his temple with his right hand. This was the critical moment. If he thought about Emma’s “evidence” he’d realize that the authorities probably already had it. Her knowledge of his threat against David Hamilton was, on its own, very weak grounds for the blackmail she was attempting.
“Well, Mr. Stafford,” she asked. Don’t give him too much time to think.
“Yes, all right,” he said, his head snapping up, his eyes filled with fear. “I can’t afford to be prosecuted. I –.”
Emma rose before he could continue, not interested in letting him tell his side. She stepped closer to his chair, towering over him so that he had to crane his neck to look up at her. Sally rose too, closing the briefcase and picking up their coats.
“I won’t hesitate to act on my information, Mr. Stafford. I suggest you do not change your mind.”
“What if he does change his mind?” Sally asked when they were back in the car.
Emma exhaled a long breath but didn’t answer.
“I mean, you don’t really have that evidence, do you?”
“No,” Emma admitted, “But we have the tape you just made,” she glanced at her briefcase in Sally’s lap, “I have what Uncle David told us. And the authorities already have Peter’s papers. I do hope Stafford is mentioned in them. At least then if he votes against me, when he’s arrested he’ll think I followed through on my threat.”
It all seemed so uncertain. Sally stared out the car window, glancing at a silver Austin Martin parked a couple houses down from Stafford’s. As they passed, the man driving it pulled it away from the curb and fell in some distance behind them.
They went next to Arnold Dixon’s London penthouse. Emma slipped the doorman a twenty-pound note and he was most obliging, summoning the lift and instructing the operator to take them to the 18th floor.
Dixon, who was unmarried and known among a certain social set for his roguish behavior, smiled welcomingly when he found Emma and Sally at his door. Then he recognized Emma and his expression darkened. But Emma had used his momentary lapse to press through the door, striding into the large living room and turning to face him as he closed the door.
“Please come in,” he said pointedly, folding his arms, his stance coldly aggressive. He was quite tall and slender, his complexion somewhat swarthy. He was obviously used to being intimidating.
“Thank-you, Mr. Dixon,” Emma said pleasantly, “I’ll only take a moment of your time.” She sauntered toward him, smiling warmly, eyes flicking appreciatively over his tall, lean frame. She saw him falter, the tiniest of changes in his facial expression. Sometimes it’s just too easy.
“What can I do for you, Miss Knight?” he asked, his low voice nearly a growl. She held his eyes as she stepped to his side, making him turn to follow her. She blinked up at him, eyes widening to a doe-like innocence. His features softened, and she thought for a second about what Steed had said about his diplomat. She had to stop teasing him for flirting in the line of duty.
“Vote my way at the Knight board meeting next week,” she said, barely more than a whisper with the slightest hint of pleading. His eyes narrowed slightly as he regarded her, but he didn’t harden back up as she’d feared. “Please,” she added, even more of a plea.
“I’m sorry, Miss Knight. But I don’t know how that would be of benefit to — the company.” He’d been going to say “me.”
“Well,” she broke eye contact with him, turning to wander across the brilliant white carpet. The room was very modern, she rather liked it. She stopped and looked back, judging that she’d moved far enough away to give him a full view of herself. She definitely had his attention. “If you don’t, I’m afraid it won’t be of benefit to you.” She shrugged one shoulder and looked regretful.
“Oh?” he said, walking toward her, clearly oblivious to Sally’s solid presence near the door. She was holding their coats and Emma’s briefcase, looking almost as mesmerized by Emma as Dixon was. Dixon stopped in front of Emma, standing very close.
“Oh yes,” she sighed. “You see, those payments you made to my Aunt Elise will most certainly come to the attention of the authorities and the media if I am not voted chairman and CEO,” she said sweetly.
He recoiled from her, his face clouding with rage. She shrugged regretfully again. “I do have a written statement,” she added. “And there are the bank statements . . .”
“Get out!” he snapped, glancing toward the door and starting at the sight of Sally. He did forget her, Emma thought with amusement.
“Do we have an understanding?” she asked, closing the distance he’d put between them. “At the board meeting next week you will support me. If you don’t, your coercion of my aunt will be made public.”
He glared at her, clearly accustomed to his rage and withering stare having a powerful effect. Emma stood her ground, her sensuous smile unwavering.
“Very well,” he hissed, stepping away from her again. She let him go this time, nodding and smiling pleasantly.
“Thank you, Mr. Dixon. I was confident that we could reach an understanding,” she said.
Emma had had a very pleasant conversation with Evan Birch’s secretary the previous day – she was rather proud of how much information she’d wheedled out of the woman – she thought she’d done as well as her friend Amanda King would have. The most useful tidbit was the time and restaurant where Mr. Birch was having Saturday lunch. She handed her car keys to the valet, telling him she would not be staying long, and she and Sally entered the restaurant. They’d left their coats in the car, but Sally carried her briefcase.
Emma paused at the maitre’d’s desk, which was momentarily unmanned, and scanned the dining room. She spotted Birch seated with a woman who may or may not have been his wife, at a table with two more chairs, but no more place settings. Perfect.
Sally following, she strode purposefully through the room drawing a few eyes, an effect she was accustomed to.
“Hello Evan!” she said brightly as she approached his table. Without pausing she pulled out the chair on his right and sat down. Sally followed her lead, sitting in the chair to her right between her and the other woman. The woman tried to conceal her annoyance with a pleasant smile, playing along just in case this was his idea. Emma knew the look very well.
Birch glared at Emma, ignoring Sally as the others had done, and as Emma had hoped they would. It’s fortunate that Sally is clever and respects herself, Emma thought, otherwise the treatment she’s getting would have her terribly depressed. I shall have to make it up to her.
“This is a private party,” Birch said, his high-pitched voice carrying further than he had wanted. A few neighboring diners glanced their way.
“Yes, you seem quite fond of private affairs, Mr. Birch,” Emma said icily. “My company, for example. You’ve been using it for your private little business for quite long enough.”
“On the contrary, Miss Knight, I have not been doing any such thing. You should look to your own family for that particular offense.”
A waiter approached the table, clearly wondering whether he should have two more places set. Birch waved him away with a scowl.
Emma smiled coldly. This is better than I hoped. “Peter. Yes, well, we see where it’s gotten him, don’t we?” She looked pointedly at the woman, who returned her look with an impassive stare. Well trained to stay out of it, aren’t we?
“Miss Knight, is this in aid of anything, or are you just here to harass me for your own amusement?”
“You and two of your associates paid Elise Hamilton a bribe in exchange for voting her shares against my interests. I do not appreciate coercion of my relatives. Particularly by men who are involved in criminal activities.”
“You can’t prove any of that, Miss Knight. It sounds to me like the fantasies of a spoiled young woman. So spoiled, in fact, that even your husband could not tolerate you.”
Emma felt Sally bristle, saw her face coloring out of the corner of her eye. Emma slowly turned toward Birch’s companion, allowing her a better view of her assistant as well. Sally watched her intently and she knew that if she showed any sign of anger at Birch’s words Sally would break. She suddenly understood how it must have been for Steed in their early days together, having to count on her to behave as he needed her to, and sometimes manipulating her to achieve the needed reaction.
Birch’s luncheon companion was staring at Birch, shock at his insult to Emma clear on her face. Emma reached deep within herself for the calm reserve that she’d learned from Steed and honed during the years after Peter’s return. Anger is counterproductive.
“Oh but I can, Mr. Birch. Peter kept very good records of his dealings with Knight Industries. Very helpful of him, although I’m sure it wasn’t his intention. You may support my return to the active management of Knight, or you may suffer the embarrassment of a very public, very damaging trial. You know how spoiled girls can throw tantrums.”
“Evan,” the woman hissed, glancing around the dining room. But the other diners had lost interest in their party. “What have you done?”
“Not now, Margaret,” Birch replied sharply. Margaret sat back in her chair, glancing tensely at Emma, then Sally, who was staring at her hands folded on the briefcase that was wedged on her lap between her and the table.
“Evan, I won’t tolerate this,” Margaret said, her gaze returning to Birch. “Public or private, if you are prosecuted, we are through. I suggest you do whatever Miss Knight asks to protect yourself from scandal. If I, and my family, are of value you to.”
Now that’s interesting, Emma thought, masking her curiosity about Margaret as she looked at her. She looked back at Birch, assuming an air of expectation.
“Well, Mr. Birch?” she said as arrogantly as possible, hoping that her instinct was right – that Evan Birch was accustomed to being bullied by women.
Birch’s eyes didn’t leave Margaret’s as he spoke. “At the board meeting next week, I will support any proposals you make Miss Knight. Will that be sufficient?”
“That will do Mr. Birch. I’ll see you then.”
Emma rose, her nod at Margaret unobserved – the woman was staring at Birch. Birch watched Emma stride quickly across the dining room with Sally close behind. As they reached the door, he caught the eye of a large man in a dark suit standing near it and nodded. The man nodded back and after Emma and Sally had gone out the door he followed.
Bond watched Emma press a tip into the valet’s hand and fold her long legs into the little Lotus. Then the large man in a black suit who stepped out of the restaurant just after her drew his attention. The man watched the Lotus pull away then walked across the street to a car parked a few spaces in front of Bond and got in on the passenger side. Bond eased his Austin into traffic just behind the black Mercedes sedan. He picked up his car phone and dialed a number while he drove.
“Washington? Bond. Our doves have picked up a hawk. We should be passing your position in two minutes. Join in, why don’t you?”
“He was horrible to you,” Sally said once they were away from the restaurant.
“He doesn’t much like women, I don’t think,” Emma replied. Sally frowned.
“But he agreed because that woman — is she his wife? – told him he must.”
“Yes, she’s his wife,” Emma said, remembering her name from the ministry files she’d peeked at several weeks ago. “But he didn’t do it because he cares for her. He did it for her family fortune. I wonder what she gets out of the relationship? What must he be like — ?” She stopped short, realizing she was speaking aloud.
“What must he be like what?” Sally asked.
Emma glanced at the girl, then shrugged, she’s an adult, albeit a young one. Still she toned down what she’d been going to say. “To sleep with. I should think he’s rather unpleasant, that close up.” She said.
“Oh,” Sally said, swallowing hard to conceal embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that out loud, Sally. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“It’s all right, Lady Emma. I’m not embarrassed. I mean, I haven’t – I don’t know what it’s –,” now she was coloring and Emma reached out and squeezed her hand, which was on top of the briefcase.
“Never mind, Sally.”
“But you were so different with each of them. How did you know how to behave? And what will Mr. Steed say if he hears this tape of you with Mr. Dixon?”
Emma laughed, glancing at Sally, who looked genuinely concerned. “Steed has frequently employed me to behave in exactly that manner. Sometimes it’s what’s needed to get what you want.”
“But it doesn’t seem right. I mean, what if he thought you meant it?”
“Steed, or Mr. Dixon?”
“Well, either one!”
“Steed knows better. And I very much wanted Mr. Dixon to believe that my interest was genuine.” She smiled, thinking back to one particular occasion when her target had been overly responsive and Steed had had to repeatedly interrupt them to prevent her from having to defend herself and blow her cover. She realized she was grinning and Sally was staring at her.
“You’ve done this a lot, haven’t you?” Sally asked.
Emma thought about it. “I suppose I have. It’s liberating to play a role, Sally. To be someone else for a little while. None of the women you saw this morning are really me.”
“Are you sure, ma’am? I rather thought they all were,” Sally replied, her tone completely nonjudgmental. What is it with the people around me these days? Why are they all analyzing me?
The black Mercedes followed Emma’s Lotus through London, stopping a block behind it when Emma parked outside her apartment building. As Emma and Sally got out, so did the two men. The big one held a large handgun with a silencer on the barrel that he tucked inside his jacket. The slightly smaller man carried a long, narrow black case. Bond double-parked the Austin next to the Mercedes and got out just as the two men both turned toward him. Emma and Sally were already entering her building.
The bigger one reached inside his jacket for the silenced gun, but his hand never withdrew from his coat. Two silenced shots fired from a terrace on the second floor of Emma’s building penetrated his chest and his skull.
The other man swung at Bond with the case, then tried to dive behind the row of parked cars as cover from the sniper. Bond ducked the case and slammed his joined fists into the back of the man’s neck as he threw himself down. The man rolled, leaving the case on the ground, and got to his feet in a crouch. Bond lunged for him, but he dodged, leaving Bond sprawled across the trunk of a parked car. The man took off down the sidewalk away from Emma’s building and Bond bolted after him.
Just as he reached the end of the block a nondescript grey Volvo pulled halfway onto the sidewalk and he was unable to avoid slamming into it. He went down, and Washington jumped out gun in hand to keep him there. Bond trotted up and took a pair of handcuffs from his associate.
“Perfect timing,” he said as he pulled the big man’s hands behind his back and applied the cuffs. “You stay here. I’ll take care of him and get a crew here for his friend. The doves have gone inside.”
The movers arrived from the estate shortly after Emma and Sally, but not before a ministry team had arrived to remove the assassin from the street. Oblivious to what had occurred just outside the building, the two women spent the afternoon directing the unloading and placement of Emma’s furniture. She had brought back some of the furniture that had once filled the apartment, what she hadn’t sold or given away when she moved out to the estate with Peter. The most difficult piece that the movers brought in, and that she’d paid extra to include, was the red piano. It had been tucked away in the back of the garage for three years because Peter had thought it was gaudy and ridiculous. She’d agreed that it had no place in the period elegance of his family home, but she had not been willing to get rid of it despite his urging. As she watched the movers slide it back into its alcove she realized that she had never really given up this apartment and the life that she’d had here. Perhaps Peter had known that. Perhaps she had too. If she’d had the courage to get rid of the red piano, would she have found a way to make things work with Peter?
“Oh no,” Sally moaned as the movers stepped away from the relocated instrument. Emma glanced at her, knowing what she had realized. “It doesn’t match,” the girl said. “Oh, ma’am, I’m so sorry. I should have brought the bench here to compare –.”
“Sally!” Emma cut her off, thinking of Steed’s teasing. “It’s all right.”
“Are you sure? I’ll call the painters right now and have them back here right away to fix it.”
Emma shook her head, putting a hand on Sally’s shoulder. “Yes I’m sure. Maybe I’ll paint the piano to match the walls. Or maybe it’s time that both of them are a different color. Yellow, perhaps?”
Sally studied the alcove for a moment, then looked at Emma. “You do look nice in yellow, ma’am,” she said. Emma looked at her, puzzled, then Sally grinned. Emma laughed, jumping out of the way as a mover came through the door carrying boxes labeled “kitchen.”
Emma put teabags into two mugs and plugged in the kettle. The movers had finally unloaded everything and left Sally and Emma amid the furniture and piles of boxes. Emma had been craving tea, and to her delight Sally had produced the kettle, mugs, spoons, and tea from a clearly marked the box. While Emma prepared it Sally sat down on one of the two chairs at the small kitchen table, heaving a deep sigh.
“Tired?” Emma asked. She certainly was.
“I didn’t know how much work moving was, even with hired movers,” she said, tugging at the ponytail that she’d pulled her long hair into.
“It’s emotionally draining, too – picking what to move and what to leave behind,” Emma said, looking out the kitchen window at the familiar view.
“Reconstructing your life. You were happy here, weren’t you?”
The water started to boil. Emma switched off the kettle and poured it into the mugs. Then she turned and leaned against the counter, arms crossed, waiting for the tea to steep. She was conflicted about allowing her relationship with Sally to become less formal. It had never been her intention to befriend the girl who she had originally hired just to help screen telephone calls. But she supposed it was impossible not to develop a connection with someone she spent so much time with. She’d come to rely on Sally as more than just an interface between her and the nagging reporters who wanted to know about Sir Peter Peel. Sally was bright and willing, and Emma had to admit that there was an element of hero worship in the relationship that she enjoyed. But she was also aware that too much familiarity would eventually jeopardize their working relationship. Sally would expect more, and be willing to do less. On the other hand, who was she to expect Sally to remain her loyal retainer? The girl would mature and was capable of accomplishing a lot more. Being a positive influence is rather fulfilling. I hope I am one!
“It’s really true that you can’t go home again,” she said, glancing out into the living room at the disarray, her mind’s eye conjuring fond memories. “But the year or so that I lived here was probably the happiest in my adult life.”
“Because of Mr. Steed.”
Emma shrugged, turning back to the counter to remove the teabags, then moving the mugs to the table. She sat down across from Sally. “Because I knew who I was, what I was doing, why I was doing it. Steed was an important part of it.” She stirred sugar into her tea then rose to get the carton of milk she’d brought in yesterday. “It was such a short time, really, but it seems like much longer. We did so much, while I lived here.”
“It must have been very difficult to give up.”
Emma nodded, staring into her tea. The expression on her face was hard to read – sadness, grief, regret – Sally could not put a name to it.
“It was as if the years since Peter’s death had never happened. In the space of a telephone call from the Ministry they were gone and I was no longer Steed’s Mrs. Peel, but Peter’s. I did what Peter’s wife had to do.”
“Did you still care for him?”
“Yes.” Seeing Sally’s surprised expression, she shrugged and sipped her tea. Sally realized hers was getting cold. She quickly added sugar and stirred, waiting for Emma to go on. “I was mad for Peter when I married him. He is as charming and attractive as Steed, in his own way. And I was young and naïve. Yes,” she smirked at Sally’s frown of disbelief, “about men, and love. I had gone from school to Knight, and I was very focused on the business. Peter swept me off my feet. I envisioned a very different life for myself: a big house in the country with children and dogs underfoot. And although I have never been the spoiled girl that Mr. Birch accused me of this morning, I did think that my vision of the future would come all tied in a big bow along with the wedding ring.”
“But he didn’t want that, did he? I guess that’s a silly question, given what he did.”
“He said he did. But what I didn’t understand was that my career at Knight did not fit into his vision of that future.”
“But that’s not fair. Men run businesses and have homes and families.”
Emma nodded agreement. “I may never know whether Peter married me for Knight, or formed his plans to take it from me after we were married. That he would steal it from me was beyond my sphere of understanding. After he disappeared and his actions became known, it was like I’d been married to a different man. I couldn’t reconcile his actions with the sweet, funny man I’d married. So I mourned the man I’d married and will always care for – he was my first love. I forced myself to disregard the real Peter’s behavior and focus on the early days – it was the only way I could heal. Otherwise I would go on being angry and bitter forever. Then three years ago when Peter returned from the dead, when I answered that telephone call, my first thoughts were of our early days and of being in love with him.”
“But you were in love with Steed, weren’t you?”
Emma sighed, amazed at herself for being able to be so open, and that it felt good to talk about it, to have someone else ask the questions she’d asked herself so many times. “With every fiber of my being,” she said, then chuckled at the cliché that felt absolutely true. “I fell in love with Steed within a week of meeting him, and I’ve never stopped. But Steed was never going to give up this life, give me the big country house and the dogs and children underfoot. Steed’s as self-centered as they come, and he liked his life exactly as it was. He liked sharing it with me, but I knew I couldn’t ask him to change.”
Sally frowned, trying to reconcile this criticism with her image of Steed. She realized that she could see it, but that she did not think it was entirely true. “So you chose to try to have all that with your husband, since he’d agreed to it before.”
“I wouldn’t say that I chose. I just did what duty required. My husband had returned a hero and it was expected that I be happy and loyal. So I was.”
“And Mr. Steed let you go.”
“He had no choice Sally. It was entirely up to me.”
“But he didn’t even ask you not to go?”
Emma shook her head, how often had she asked the same question, and answered in the same way, “It would not have been honorable, to ask me to break my wedding vows for the sake of our affair.” Then she finished the thought, perhaps for the first time, “As I said, he wouldn’t change his life for me, so he couldn’t ask me to stay with him.”
“Would you really have been unhappy, going on with Steed the way you were?”
Emma chuckled, a nervous, humorless sound. “I would have been much happier, it turns out,” she said. “I’ve no right to accuse Steed of being selfish when I’m the one who broke his heart.”
“This may sound harsh, but maybe you needed to do it to — I don’t know – to get his attention? Hasn’t he changed? He did ask you to marry him.”
Emma stared at Sally, tapping the side of her mug with one manicured fingernail. Out of the mouths of babes . . . “It’s a dangerous game, using one man against another. But I didn’t do it on purpose. I walked away from Steed fully intending to be a good wife to Peter. I walked away from Peter fully intending to make a life on my own, but needing to tie up loose ends with Steed. But you’re right. Steed has changed. Once he had me again, he wouldn’t let go.”
“But surely you don’t want him to?”
“Never,” Sally saw the familiar glow in her employer’s eyes, “In three years back with Peter there wasn’t a day that I didn’t think of Steed, or a night. I think Peter knew it. He knew about my work for the Ministry while he was away, but I never told him about how things were between me and Steed. And he never asked. By then I was just a tool to him – a decorative wife when he needed one. Unfortunately for him, I was also uncooperative.”
Emma laughed, a genuine laugh this time, “You sound like Steed. He reacted the same way, when I told him that. I have half a mind to be insulted.”
“Oh, ma’am, you know I didn’t mean that you aren’t –.”
“I know what you meant. I’m just teasing you. Now if you’re through investigating my turgid romantic history, perhaps we can unpack some more of these kitchen boxes. Then I need to get you home.”
“Ma’am, I didn’t mean to pry,” Sally said, rising and collecting both their mugs. Emma sat back in her chair and watched her go to the sink, thinking about how it felt to hear a fresh view of the decisions she’d made.
“If you’d been prying, you would have had a very one-sided conversation. And you know it.”
Sally chuckled, enjoying the easiness their relationship had begun to develop. “Yes ma’am,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Treating me like an adult. Taking me seriously.”
Emma rose, moving to one of the boxes lining most of the counter space in the small kitchen. “You are an adult. And you’re nearing the place in your life that I was when Peter entered mine. So pay attention, and maybe you’ll do better than me.”
“But ma’am, it seems to me that, despite everything, you could not do any better. Mr. Steed is perfect for you, and he adores you. I hope I will be that lucky, one day, to meet someone like that.”
“Perfect, humm?” Emma pulled a teapot with a broken handle out of the box she’d attacked.
“Oh dear, did they break that?”
“No. It was my favorite. Steed broke it. Four years ago. Dear perfect Steed,” she laughed, mostly because she could tell from the expression on Sally’s face that the fact that she’d kept it all these years said it all.
Emma shifted the Lotus into fifth gear on the straight stretch of road two miles from the estate, enjoying the exhilaration the little car provided even at relatively safe speeds. She’d dropped Sally off at her home in the village, pausing long enough to speak with her father, who was nervous about the upcoming arrival of the Peels to take over the estate. She’d done her best to reassure him, frustrated because it was the third time they’d had the conversation. Then she stopped at the estate to pick up more of her clothes. The movers had already brought several wardrobe boxes she’d packed, but last minute second thoughts sent her back into her dressing room. Eventually it would all have to be moved or stored, but she had other priorities this week.
The Lotus’s excuse for a back seat and the passenger seat were so loaded with clothes on hangars and boxes of shoes, bags, and hats, that she could barely see the road behind her in her rearview mirror. So it was exceptional luck that she noticed the grey Volvo. It was some distance behind her on the otherwise deserted road, hardly suspicious, except that she was certain she’d seen it twice before that day, and once yesterday.
Steed’s warning about the Knight board members whispered in her mind and she instinctively turned onto a side road that she knew well. She drove along it for a quarter of a mile over a small bridge with low walls on either side. She stopped her car just beyond the bridge, left it running with the door open, and climbed behind the end of the wall on the bridge, finding easy footing on the rocky slope down to the stream.
A few minutes past and then she heard the sound of another car approaching. Peeking over the edge of the wall she watched the Volvo come up behind her car and stop.
“Bond?” Washington spoke into his car phone, “Right. She left the main road, turned onto Sparrow Lane. The car’s still running, but the door is open. I’m going to check it out, but it doesn’t look good.” He hung up the phone and checked his gun in its shoulder holster, then got out of the car.
Emma vaulted over the wall and sprinted silently from behind as the man got out of the car. She chopped with both hands at either side of his neck and he crumpled beside the car. She bent to check his pulse. He wasn’t dead, just knocked out. She patted down his chest and took his gun, but didn’t find any identification. Leaning over him into the car she checked the glove box, but it was empty. She frowned, checking her reflection in the rearview mirror, then slipped out of the car and returned to her own. At least I didn’t knock out a lost tourist, she thought as she pulled away.
“What is it James?” Myra turned large, blue eyes toward her date. She had just arrived at his apartment and he’d been pouring drinks when the telephone rang. Now, after a brief conversation, he was going to the hall closet.
“I’m sorry darling, but something’s come up. Surveillance job may have gone wrong.” Steed had the right idea – dating other agents made awkward emergencies easier to explain.
“I didn’t know you were working on anything.”
“It’s a favor, for Steed. I’ve got a team keeping an eye on Emma Knight.”
“Yes. He believes she’s in danger, but he can’t tell her the details, so she’s not likely to be as cautious as she should.” He strapped on a shoulder holster with his Walther PPK in it.
“You think she’s in danger, too?”
“I’m aware of the circumstances. He could be right. In any case, something’s up and I need to go check it out. I’m terribly sorry.” He shrugged into a jacket that loosely covered his gun.
Myra rose and sauntered over to him. “You know I won’t be here when you get back,” she said sadly.
“I know. I’ll call you later?” He smiled equally sadly.
“If you like,” she said, reaching up to kiss him lightly, then brushing past him to leave. He sighed, shook his head regretfully, then followed her out.
Bond pulled up behind the Volvo and jumped out, scanning the road in the deepening dusk as he darted to the form on the ground by the car’s open door. He crouched behind the door for cover as he pulled Washington to a sitting position.
“What hit me?” Washington groaned.
“Did you see anything?” Bond asked.
“No. Whoever it was snuck up on me as I was getting out of the car. What about Miss Knight?”
“She’s not here, nor is her car,” Bond said. “Do you think she could have …?”
Washington groaned again.
Bond told Washington to go home and drove back to London, parking his Austin outside Emma’s apartment building. The lights were on in her flat, and as he watched she came to the window, glanced out, and closed the curtains. Just a quiet evening at home, after taking out an agent. He shook his head. He contemplated going to her door, just to check on her. Surely she was nervous – she clearly believed she was being followed. But he could not think of a reason to visit her that would sound at all reasonable. Better let Steed handle it, he decided.
He used his car phone to call in Washington’s relief and waited outside Emma’s apartment for the other agent to arrive. The man in the unoccupied flat above Emma’s waved an acknowledgement as the new man settled in for the night, and Bond drove home to call Steed.
“What have we got from the weekend, Hopkins?” Plath asked the communications technician. It was Monday morning, and Plath expected to spend it reviewing the tapes from various Knight Industries surveillance devices.
“You’re set up in two,” Hopkins replied. “Looks like the techs have tagged some bits from those residential plants. The offices were quiet, though.”
Plath settled in the chair in booth two and put on the headphones. He nodded through the window and Hopkins played the first tagged segment of tape from the Stafford home. Plath yawned as he listened to the doorbell chime and Stafford tell his wife that he’d get it. He was sliding down into the chair as he listened to the door being opened.
“Mrs. Peel. What – ?” Stafford’s voice jolted Plath upright. He pressed the headphones to his ears and strained to listen to the conversation that followed. When it finished he had Hopkins re-cue it and called Weems on the extension in the booth.
Emma selected a coarse brown wool suit, beige tights and perfectly matching boots for her meeting with Peter’s lawyers first thing Monday morning. She was surprised at herself as she stepped out of her car down the street from the attorneys’ offices – she missed Sally’s steady company. She didn’t want to think it was just because she had to carry her own briefcase.
“Miss Knight, can I take your coat?” the receptionist at White, Everett, White greeted her cordially. She handed the woman her coat – she’d finally given up wearing Steed’s greatcoat in favor of a perfectly cut golden trench coat. “Mr. White is ready for you. Please come this way.”
Emma followed her down a short corridor through double doors into a large corner office. Bernard White and Sheldon Everett rose to greet her. I wonder if he’s the first White or the last one.
“Thank you for coming, Miss Knight. This must be a very busy time for you,” White’s tone was so solicitous it made Emma bristle. She shook both their hands and took the seat they indicated on a sofa in a seating area adjacent to the desk. White sat on the sofa to her right while Everett took an armchair to the left.
“To be perfectly frank, Miss Knight, we’re concerned about you,” Everett said.
“Oh?” Emma said, eyes widening at him with unfelt concern.
“Yes. We suspect that there is a great deal about Knight Industries that you are not aware of,” White added, drawing her eyes to him.
“A great deal that could become rather – risky – for you to manage, should you actually take over,” Everett finished.
“And just what is your connection to Knight Industries?” her eyes flashed with contained anger.
“Well, we have none, directly, of course,” White said, forcing her to look back at him. She had a disturbing sense of being at a tennis match.
“But our client has expressed his concern for you,” Everett said. Emma stood up, startling both lawyers, and walked around behind Everett. She trailed her finger along the back of his chair and stopped to examine the contents of a floor-to-ceiling barrister’s bookcase against the wall. White frowned at Everett, who rose and turned to watch her.
“Why is Peter concerned?” she asked, turning around. She could see both men without having to turn her head. She skewered them with a defiant glare.
“He feels that there might be – consequences – of your takeover of the company. He has asked us to advise you to scale back your demands,” White said.
“Peter has?” Emma frowned. She didn’t believe them for a moment, but she wasn’t sure which part of it to suspect more. Their vague threat, or Peter’s involvement.
“Oh Miss Knight, your ex-husband still holds you in the highest regard,” Everett said, shaking his head with regret.
“I see,” Emma said, schooling her features to a neutral expression. “Please let Peter know that I appreciate his concerns, vague though they are,” she said. She crossed the room to pick up her briefcase. “Thank you, gentlemen.”
Steed smiled happily at the sight of Emma’s Lotus in the Ministry’s underground car park. He found a space for the Bentley and hopped out, tapping the sports car lightly as he walked past it toward the lift. He had only been in Liverpool for four days, but he missed her terribly. That she was actually here meant he’d see her sooner, although it would have to be a restrained, public greeting. Now, where would she be? Probably training with Hemming.
He cracked open the door to the gymnasium. The lights were on, but it appeared to be empty. Except for a man in gym attire lying on a mat in the middle of the floor. He stepped further inside, instincts tingling. Something was up – probably not outright danger, but a something unusual.
A shrill whistle pierced the air, its sound amplified by the big, bare room. Steed held his umbrella horizontally, driving its rounded handle into the stomach of the man who charged at him from the left. He threw his right elbow across the throat of the man coming from the right. A thick arm wrapped around his neck from behind, knocking his bowler to the ground. He leaned into that attacker, raised his right foot and planted it in the middle of the chest of the fellow in front of him, giving him a solid shove to the floor. Then he grabbed the muscular arm and ducked his left shoulder, heaving the man over it to land next to his fallen compatriot.
The shrill whistle sounded again. Steed smoothed his jacket and straightened his tie as the four men rose, or tried to. The one on his left picked up his bowler and handed it to him. Hemming, face split in a delighted grin, strode across the floor toward them.
“You see?” he said, addressing the four trainees. “No hesitation. No fuss.”
The man who’d taken Steed’s elbow across his throat coughed, hands on his neck. Steed gave him a concerned look. “Better go have that seen to,” he said. “Terribly sorry.”
“Steed!” Hemming turned his attention to his surprise demonstrator. “Well handled as usual. Thanks for your help.”
“My pleasure, Hemming,” Steed drew the trainer away from the students. “I’m looking for Mrs. Peel. Her car’s in the garage. I thought she might be here.”
“No, not now. She’s scheduled for this afternoon.”
“Oh I see. Well then, she must be about somewhere. Thank you Hemming,” Steed placed his bowler back on his head and tipped it to the trainer, then started toward the door. Half way there he stopped short, leaning back as a man on a rope swung from high up against the wall at the spot where Steed should have been. The man dropped off the rope just past Steed, landing with an “ompf.” Steed stepped over his sprawled legs, paused to tip his hat at him, and continued to the door.
“No, no, no! You approached from the wrong angle!” Hemming was shouting as Steed closed the door, an amused smile on his face. A shapely blond approaching from the opposite direction saw his smile and returned it quite overtly.
“Good morning,” he said cheerfully, watching her pass by. Then he remembered his mission and set off down the corridor.
“Steed,” a familiar voice spoke from behind him.
“Good morning Bond,” he replied, pausing to let the other agent catch up with him.
“You’re just back from Liverpool?”
“Yes, I sent our diplomat on her way this morning. Have you seen Mrs. Peel about? Her car’s downstairs.”
“Sorry, no. I’ve been in meetings this morning. But I haven’t heard from Washington – he’s back on surveillance, if she came here he might not have called. Perhaps she’s trying to extract some information about her husband’s case from Weems and Plath. I heard Weems was unhappy – said she was rather pushy.”
“Yes,” Steed sighed, his expression one of fondness. Bond smirked at him.
“Let’s try their office,” Bond suggested, turning down the proper corridor.
Steed followed, saying, “Don’t mean to put you out, old boy. I’ll track her down.”
“Not at all. I’d like to say hello,” Bond insisted, determined not to be put off, if only to antagonize his associate.
They found the office shared by Weems and Plath empty. Steed stepped boldly around behind Weems’s desk and looked at an appointment book laid open there. Bond watched him from the doorway.
“Humm,” Steed said, running his finger down a page in the calendar.
“It says, ‘E.K. Interrogation 1’ at 11 a.m.”
“E.K.?” Bond stepped over to look at the page, then up at Steed. They nodded at one another and left the office, both with a growing feeling of apprehension, and Bond more determined than before to follow this through. Steed had asked him to look after her, and here she was being interrogated right under his nose.
The suite of three interrogation rooms was situated around a monitoring room lined with one-way mirrors. Steed and Bond entered it and found a technician manning a tape recorder. Emma’s voice – irate but full of forced patience – filled the room. Through the mirror they could see her seated in a chair, legs crossed, arms folded in her lap. Plath leaned against the far wall, just at the edge of her vision, smoking a cigarette. Weems paced in front of her, clearly trying to be intimidating. Emma did not look intimidated, just extremely angry.
“He’d better watch himself,” Steed muttered. Bond glanced at him, starting to smile, but saw that Steed was not at all amused. “Stay here, will you? Don’t let things get out of hand,” Steed said quietly. Bond nodded, understanding Steed’s request. He’d intervene if Emma’s composure broke, or if Weems did anything more than ask questions.
Steed headed for Mother’s office, glaring at the agent on duty outside as he pushed past him, but stopping at Watkins’s desk in the outer office.
“Good morning, Watkins. Is Mother about?” he asked cheerfully, his anger completely submerged beneath his genial demeanor.
“Mother is –,” Watkins began to reply.
“Good!” Steed opened the door to the inner office and went in. Mother was behind his large desk, a single sheet of paper sitting on it in front of him. He looked up as Steed came in, his calm expression not registering any alarm at the sudden intrusion.
“Steed. Back from Liverpool, then? All’s well, I gather.”
“Yes, Mother. No problems at all. Tell me, is Emma Knight a suspect in the Peter Peel case?”
“No, not that I’m aware of.”
“Then why is she being interrogated like one?”
“Agents Weems and Plath have her in an interrogation room. If this is how they’re conducting the investigation into her ex-husband’s activities, then they should be removed from the case. It’s unconscionable. She’s my partner!”
Mother rolled out from behind his desk, his assistant Rhonda appearing out of the shadows in the large room before he’d moved more than six inches. She steered him around the desk to where Steed was standing. “Miss Knight’s status here at the Ministry has always been, shall we say, special? While she is of great value to us all, she does not enjoy quite the same privileges as a regular agent. We have discussed this before, Steed.”
“Do you believe she’s an accessory to her ex-husband’s crimes, Mother?”
“No. But I do have to question your judgment in matters related to her, Steed. Are you certain you can be objective?”
Steed paused. It was a fair question, and one he’d asked himself frequently in the last few months. She was everything to him, he could admit that now. In a way, that allowed him to be more objective than he could have been before, when he’d convinced himself that their relationship was just casual.
“If I could not, then I’d resign,” he said. “I would be of no value to the Ministry.”
Mother’s brows rose in surprise, he studied Steed for a moment, then gestured to Rhonda to push him to the door.
“That would be a great loss to us, Steed. Come on, let’s see what this is about.”
“I’ve told you several times, no, I do not have copies of Peter’s papers. I lied to the board members. You are familiar with the concept?” Emma’s tone was growing increasingly frustrated, her sarcasm slipping through the icy reserve she’d maintained so far. Bond had to hand it to her, she was holding up better than most would under Weems’s tiresome persistence. It looked as if Weems wanted very much to strike her, his right hand seemed to be shaking as he balled it into a fist. Bond tensed, prepared to intervene.
The door to the monitoring room opened and Mother rolled in, followed by Rhonda and Steed. Rhonda pushed Mother toward the mirror where he studied the tableau before him. Steed glanced at Bond, who gestured him aside with a sideways nod of his head. They stepped to the other side of the room. Bond looked through the mirror on that side into interrogation room three. Steed followed his gaze, his eyes widening.
Sally sat in the stark room, her arms folded on the table and her head resting on them. Her strawberry blond hair was fanned out across her shoulders. She looked like a miserable, frightened child. Steed left the monitoring room, reappearing on the other side of the mirror.
“Sally?” he said softly as he entered, not wanting to frighten her. She lifted her head. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her skin was splotchy. She pressed her hands to the table and stood up.
“Mr. Steed!” she said, eyes flicking to the mirror then back at him. “They’re watching.”
He smiled at her warning, crossing to her and reaching out to offer her his hand. He placed himself between her and the mirror. She took his hand, then pressed herself against him like a child demanding a hug. He put his arms carefully around her. She was shivering.
“Shhhh, it’s all right. You may not believe it, but they’re the good guys too. Just a bit misguided. Come with me. You don’t need to stay here.”
He glanced at the mirror as he took her out, his arm around her shoulders. He knew Bond was watching.
“They called for Lady Emma, asked her to come see them. I gave her the message when she called in. Then two men came to the estate. They told me I had to come or they’d have me arrested. I was so frightened, I didn’t know what to do.”
“You did fine. They wouldn’t hurt you. Did they ask you questions?”
“Yes. About Knight Industries, and Lady Emma. They asked where she got the pictures of the board members that she showed me. I told them I didn’t know. It’s the truth!”
Steed walked her through the halls and up in a lift to the rather more pleasantly decorated area where his own office was located. He unlocked the door and brought her in.
“This is my office,” he explained. “You’ll be more comfortable here. Let me get you a drink.” She sat down in one of the two armchairs in front of his desk. He poured her a brandy from his private supply without thinking about her age or preferences. She took the glass, her hands shaking slightly, and sipped it.
“Thank you, Mr. Steed. I –,” she stopped and looked around. Steed spent as little time as possible in his office, but it was decorated to his tastes with dark wood paneling and a small Turner across from the desk. “This is your office?”
He sat on the arm of the other chair and smiled at her surprise. “Yes. You know what I do, Mrs. Peel told you,” he said.
“Yes, she did,” Sally said, it sounded like an admission. “I just never thought about you having an office, working in an office building. . .”
“I rarely do,” he explained. “But it’s here, nonetheless,” he stood up. “You relax while I go see to Mrs. Peel. I’m afraid she’s in a rather bad mood and I’m going to have to hand her over to you to manage. So drink up.”
He forced himself to breathe deeply as he walked back to the interrogation rooms. Mother was still watching Weems pace in front of Emma. She had turned slightly sideways away from the mirror to rest her arm on the back of the chair and look more fully at Plath. Steed smiled inwardly. She knows he’s more sympathetic. I’m surprised it took her this long to use it.
Mother glanced up at Steed. “Go remove her, Steed, before she pushes Weems too far.”
“I want onto this case, Mother,” Steed said, not moving.
“You’re awfully quiet, Mr. Plath,” Emma’s voice, smooth and slightly seductive, filled the monitoring room. Steed concealed his reaction, which was a combination of amusement and jealousy at her obvious tactic, behind his mask of implacability. Mother stared at him, looking equally rigid.
“There are questions of conflict of interest, Steed,” he said.
Steed didn’t respond; he saw no point in doing so. Mother was right, but he didn’t care. He was not sure what Emma would do if she did not succeed in regaining control of Knight, or if the company she finally got was irreparably harmed because of her ex-husband’s illegal dealings with it. But he was certain it would injure her so deeply she might turn away from everything, including him. He would not stand idly by allowing Weems, and to a lesser degree Plath, to bungle the investigation. He did not question his loyalties to the Ministry and the crown, but he firmly believed that the only successful conclusion of the investigation of Peter Peel would include identifying and removing any criminals within Knight. He prayed that Peel’s reach was not too deep, that there would be enough of Knight left when the cleansing was through. And if there was not, if Peel’s infiltration of the company was so widespread that it could not survive, then he would be the one to do it. Only then could he face Emma, knowing that if she turned away from him it was his own doing, not the uncaring actions of other agents.
It was a gamble of his career, and, of greater importance to him now, of his future with the woman he loved.
“Do you believe that I was lying to Birch, Stafford, and Dixon?” Emma asked. Plath looked tense. He reached into his jacket pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes, glancing at Emma as he removed one. He held the pack toward her, questioning. She shook her head. He put it away and lit the cigarette with a stainless steel lighter. Throughout this Weems stood near the door with his hands on his hips, glowering at Emma. She was certainly aware of him, but she ignored him, her body language expressing complete disregard for his presence as she concentrated on his partner.
Behind the mirror, Steed, Mother, Rhonda, Bond, and the technician watched in silence. Steed wondered if Mother was still considering his request, or regarded his response to be final.
“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” Plath finally said, exhaling smoke as he spoke. “You had access to your husband’s papers. We have you on tape saying you have copies of them. We just want to know where the copies are, and why you haven’t told us about them.” His tone was gentler than Weems’s, but his question was no different.
Abruptly Emma stood up and turned, walking to the mirror. Plath started, dropping his cigarette. Weems assumed a guarded stance – prepared to repel an attack, if that’s what she had in mind. She came close to the mirror, by chance standing directly opposite Steed. Their eyes met, Steed knowing she couldn’t see him, but feeling that she could, that somehow she knew he was there. Her expression was blank – not at all like a woman examining herself in a mirror. Then it shifted, anger flaring in her eyes, quickly suppressed and replaced by a serene, almost amused expression. The edges of her bow-shaped lips curled into a little smile and to Steed’s utter amazement, she winked.
Then she turned away from the mirror, facing the men in the room with her.
“What’s she up to?” Bond asked quietly. Mother glanced up at Steed. Steed realized he’d put a hand to the glass, reaching to touch her face. He took it down.
“We seem to be at an impasse, gentlemen,” Emma said lightly. “Do you have some other techniques you’d like to use? I can go on like this for quite a long while, but I should think you’d like to conclude this matter in time for a pint or two this evening.”
Bond chuckled and Steed smiled, stepping back from the glass. “Mother?”
The head of the Ministry looked through the glass. Weems had stepped up to Emma, meeting her eye-to-eye, clearly failing to intimidate her. Her posture suggested boredom. Plath had picked up his cigarette and was watching his partner. This could go on for hours. They’re wasting all of our time. “Go remove her, Steed. I want daily reports on the case. Daily – is that understood? You’ll manage those two,” he gestured with his chin at the other room, “I’ll speak to them.”
Steed nodded and went to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob. “Thank you,” he said. Mother flicked his hand at Steed, then looked up at Rhonda. She started to push him toward the door.
“No, wait,” Mother said, “better that Miss Knight not know we were here. You too,” he glanced at Bond, who nodded agreement.
They watched the door to investigation one open. Weems jerked around, glaring at whoever was intruding. His face turned to raw anger when he saw that it was Steed.
Steed kept his attention on Weems, but noted Plath’s position as he entered the room. Although they were fellow agents, he thought they might react badly to his interference. Unfortunate for them that Mother was watching, if they did misbehave.
“Mrs. Peel? You’re needed,” he said gently, keeping eye contact with Weems. He held out his left hand toward her and watched her, in his periphery, step to it. Her hand was cool and, to his utter surprise, trembling slightly. He gripped it, drawing her toward the door, his eyes still locked with Weems’s.
“This is unacceptable,” Weems said through clenched jaw. “you’ve gone too far, Steed.”
“Are you sure?” Steed asked, taking Emma through the door and closing it behind them. He didn’t let her stop, although she faltered. He tugged at her hand and she kept up, not saying a word as he led her along corridors to a lift. When the doors had closed he faced her, trying to guess her mood. She slipped her arms around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder. He held her tight for the thirty seconds until the lift stopped and the doors opened, then released her to guide her out.
He stopped her in the corridor outside of his office. “Did you know they brought Sally in, too?” he asked.
“No,” she said, glancing at his office door and frowning.
“They had her in the other interrogation room. I brought her here first, I thought you were better suited to putting up with them for a few more minutes. She was very frightened.”
Emma leaned against the wall, slipping her hands into Steed’s, her lower lip caught between her teeth. She was calming down, he could see it, allowing herself to think about the situation, the larger issues, now that she was free of Weems’s endless questioning.
“You’re going to have to explain yourself,” she said, concern for him clear in her eyes. He was deeply touched. He gave her a crooked smile and a little shrug.
“Already have, darling. I had my actions pre-approved, you might say.”
“Yes. Mother will keep your friends back there out of your beautiful hair.”
“But why were they in my hair? Why did they have the board members homes bugged?”
Steed shook his head, his grey eyes searching her face, seeking understanding and forgiveness. She bit her lip again, relying on years of complete trust of this man to help her understand his silence. She nodded ever so slightly, understanding that he knew things that he couldn’t tell her, but that he was looking out for her interests.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, “please trust me.”
“You know that I do. And you know how important Knight is to me,” she said.
“Yes.” He nodded, reading the truth that he’d already known in her eyes. If she lost Knight, then he’d lose her. It wasn’t intended as a threat, it was simply the truth. She would go far away and begin again, and his hopes for their future together would be another of the unfortunate victims of her ex-husband’s crimes.
“Then I’d better get Sally out of here,” she said, turning to open his office door. He grabbed her elbow, leaning his head close to hers.
“Emma, how did you know I was on the other side of the glass?”
She shrugged slightly, her brown eyes meeting his gaze with a mysterious, liquid stare. The private little smile he liked to think she saved just for him graced her face for a moment, “I didn’t know. I hoped. You’ve always rescued me before.”
Before he could react she’d entered his office. He slipped away to let her take Sally home with as little fuss as possible.
After forty minutes on the treadmill Steed was breathing hard and his skin bore a patina of sweat. It felt good, but he was just getting started. It had been a very long day. After Emma had left the Ministry with Sally, he’d returned to Weems and Plath’s office to review the Peel case file. They’d come in an hour later, having had been called into a lengthy meeting with Mother. They scowled at Steed, but voiced no objection to his activities. He’d spent most of the afternoon reviewing all their notes and reports and reading through all of the statements in the file, including Emma’s. How they had thought she might actually have copied Peter Peel’s files was beyond him. The files did contain incriminating references to all three of the board members that she’d visited, which had supported her lie. He supposed that men who had not seen her when she’d first left her husband, or seen how the two of them interacted, could think her lie was the truth. But he did not have the slightest doubt that Emma had never been privy to her husband’s activities.
He’d had dinner at his club, then returned to the Ministry and hauled the case file to his own office. He’d been thinking of going home when Plath had knocked on his door to tell him they had a meeting with their man inside Knight. It was clear to Steed that Weems hadn’t wanted to tell him, but Plath had taken Mother’s instructions seriously.
They’d met Alex Harper in a pub near the Tower and listened to his report about the week’s events at Knight. He had nothing of value to report, which clearly frustrated him as much as it did Steed. It was clear to Steed that Harper was placed to low in the organization – a possibility he recalled being mentioned before the shareholders’ meeting. But Weems and Plath had done nothing about it in the ensuing two weeks.
Weems and Plath had gone home after the meeting, but he’d returned to the Ministry to draw up the necessary papers to get Harper promoted. If he could tell Emma about the investigation, if he could wait a few days until the board meeting when she expected to be made chairman and CEO, then she could see to the promotion. But he couldn’t. Instead he had to use the Ministry’s covert methods to manipulate Knight’s staffing behind his lover’s back.
Frustrated and concerned, he’d closed and stored the file and come to the gym. It was after midnight, his usual time to use the facilities. He preferred to exercise alone: lifting weights and running, not to mention sweating, did not fit in with his carefully constructed image. After three quarters of an hour he slowed his pace on the treadmill to cool down before moving on to upper body exercises.
Emma had taken Sally out of the Ministry and driven her home, reassuring her that the agents had been doing their job, following up on the case against Sir Peter, and that she thought they were now satisfied. That it was a lie didn’t bother her at all. She believed Steed’s assurance that Mother had called them off. She also believed that Steed was more involved than he could tell her. That was painful to realize, but she understood it, and she respected Steed for honoring his vows to the Ministry.
She’d paced around her office at the estate for an hour, trying to concentrate on various tasks that needed to be reviewed or concluded soon. Finally she gave up and drove back up to London, to her flat, which still needed a great deal of unpacking and arranging. She’d called Steed several times at home and at the Ministry. His tape machine answered at home. The secretaries answered at the Ministry.
By evening she had the distinct impression he was avoiding her. But he’d been away for several days, and even before that their private time together had been limited. She wanted him, wanted to feel his touch, to hear his voice. To touch him. She had two options. To relieve the need herself, or to go looking for him. The second option – the hunt, the chase, and the ultimate reward – was much more appealing. And if it failed, she could always resort to the first.
So she’d put on what she thought of as working clothes – not the tailored suits and delicate heels of her Knight Industries costumes. She chose a dark blue catsuit with a zipper in the front that went all the way down, and matching ankle boots with their own little zippers on the sides. She wore nothing underneath.
She went first to his flat, but he was not there. Next she tried his club, where the staff knew her and were happy to accept a few pounds whenever she dropped by looking for him. She overtly flirted with them and they jumped to fulfill her requests. He was not there.
At the Ministry it was quick work unlocking his office door in the dim corridor. It was late, there was no one around, and she was in almost as quickly as if she’d been fumbling with a key instead of expertly manipulating her picks. His office was dark, but his scent was like a presence of its own. She touched the desk lamp. The bulb was warm. She flicked it on and went around to sit in his chair. He’d been there very recently, she was certain. Thinking they might have missed one another, she dialed his apartment. His tape machine answered and she hung up.
She sat in his chair, looking at the painting on the opposite wall, enjoying the lingering smell of him, identifying new odors emanating from his chair and desk – cigar, brandy, that unusual ink he liked to use in his good pen. She couldn’t shake the notion that he was avoiding her, and she thought she knew why. He thought she was angry about this morning, and she was — at Weems and Plath. For Steed she felt concern about his interference on her behalf, which only reinforced her need for him. She wanted to see him, to reassure him that she understood his situation, and to run her hands over his long, hard muscles. More than anything, as the evening went on, she wanted to feel his body against hers, in hers.
His body. She jerked her feet off his desk and stood up. Of course.
“You can run, but you can’t hide,” Emma’s voice echoed against the bare walls. He kept jogging as she strolled into view, coming to a stop in front of the treadmill, arms folded. She was dressed in one of her cat suits, her every curve defined by the clinging fabric. He kept jogging, forcing himself to finish his full run, to stick to his routine.
“Are you sure?” he asked, his breath evening out since he’d slowed down. She smiled coyly and walked away, sitting on the bench press to watch him. “How did you find me?” he asked, really curious.
“Process of elimination,” she said. He slowed to a walk, waiting for more. “You aren’t at home. You aren’t at your club –.”
“My club would not tell you, even if I were there,” he said, stopping and stepping off the treadmill. She picked up a small white towel that was on the bench and tossed it at him. He caught it and wiped his face.
“Yes they would,” she said, her knowing expression assuring him that she was certain. He let it go. He’d speak to the manager tomorrow. “And you aren’t in your office, although you have been recently,” she went on. He walked over to the bench press and she stood up, but he passed her by, going to the rack of weights against the wall.
“And you know that because?” he said, picking up a heavy disk and affixing it to one end of the bar suspended over the bench. She walked over and picked up a matching disk to put on the other end.
“The light bulb was warm, and I could smell your cologne,” she said, watching the next weight he chose and picking its twin.
He slipped the retaining clip on the end of the bar and looked at her. “It’s very risky picking locks in the Ministry offices.” She put the clip on her end and stepped to the head of the bench. He lay down on it, sliding his head and shoulders under the barbell. He let his eyes drift up her body to her face. She smiled down at him. “And why did you look for me here?” he asked, gripping the bar.
“Ah, that,” she said, waiting for him to lift. He grunted as he pressed the heavy weight up, held it, and slowly lowered it to just above his chest. “You may convince others that you’re lazy and indolent, but I know what it takes to maintain that body,” she said, letting her eyes drift hungrily over it. He heaved the barbell back onto the rack, unable to concentrate under her suggestive gaze. “I know that body,” she added with a satisfied smile.
He sighed, closed his eyes, and lifted the barbell again. This time he pressed it up and down ten times before replacing it and opening his eyes. She was still there. “And I know this is where you come when you’re troubled about a case, or you can’t sleep, and you don’t have someone in your bed to hold on to. Of course, if anyone were to really think about it – think about how fast you are, how rarely you lose a fight, they’d realize. But then, you don’t let most people see that, do you?” she said. “Only I know the real John Steed under the suits and bowlers.”
He lifted the barbell and did ten more repetitions, deciding not to ask her just how she knew when he thought he had concealed his nocturnal visits here so well. She watched patiently. He slid out from under the bar and sat up, then gestured at it and looked at her. She nodded, trading places with him. He put his hands on the bar inside of hers, but she lifted it, lowered it to her chest and raised it high without his having to assist her. She set it back on the rack with a grunt.
He smiled admiringly down at her, “balanced, tender, and strong,” he said, then bent over her face to kiss her. She joined in, enjoying the strange angle of their inverted faces. She put her hand on his cheek, caressing him as she slid her tongue against his. Startled by the intensity of her response, he only gradually pulled back, kissing the tip of her nose.
“Come home to bed,” she said, nearly pleading. He straightened, reaching down to caress her cheek with one finger.
“I have to finish,” he said, turning back to the rack of weights.
She slid out from under the barbell and sat up, turning to watch him, surprised at his rejection. “Why are you here?” she asked. “I tried to reach you several times this afternoon.”
He shrugged, selecting two barbells and turning, beginning a series of arm and shoulder exercises. She looked disappointed. He realized he’d been imposing his own conflict on her. She wasn’t angry or suspicious, he just feared that she would be soon, when she found out about the Ministry’s investigation, found out all that he wasn’t telling her.
“I’ll go, then,” she said, rising.
He lowered the barbells to his sides. “Please wait,” he said. She studied him for a moment then sat back down, disappointed, but willing to give him another chance. He restarted his routine, using the familiar movements to focus his conflicted emotions. “Did you know that Birch had some men try to kill you after you met with him?” he asked.
She frowned, thinking back over the last few days. “There was a man following me that evening. I left him unconscious in his car out near the estate,” she said thoughtfully. Steed winced, dropping his arms to his sides again.
Her brows shot up and she winced back, “One of yours?” she asked.
He nodded guiltily. “I asked Bond to keep an eye on you when I left for Liverpool. I was worried about Birch and his friends, you may recall. Bond put a surveillance team on you. That was Washington you left unconscious in his car.”
“You asked James to protect me?” she wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or amused. He put down the barbells and sat down on the leg press machine. She giggled, amusement winning out. “Isn’t that like setting the fox to watch the chickens?” He cast her a pained look and set the tension on the machine. “So what happened to the men who tried to kill me?” she asked, serious again. “Washington?”
“No. Bond. He had the team call him in when you went to meet with the board members. Birch’s men followed you to your flat after your meeting with him. Bond and the surveillance team – I suppose Washington was involved – caught them in the street outside.”
“That close,” she said softly.
“Yes, Mrs. Peel. That close.”
She watched him through several repetitions on the leg press, his thigh muscles visibly rippling beneath his shorts. She was glad she’d stayed, for several reasons. “And Bond was there. I never saw him,” she said. Steed glanced at her, then did ten more repetitions.
“He is very good, you know,” he said when he’d finished. “Don’t be embarrassed for not spotting him.”
“You think Birch will try again. Is James’s team still out there watching me?”
“Yes. But if you’ll wait for me to clean up, I’ll call them off and take you home,” he stood up and walked over to her. She reached out with both hands and wrapped them around the backs of his thighs, looking up at him with a very suggestive, inviting smile. He gasped at her touch, felt his body respond to it. She couldn’t help but notice. “My home,” he added, reaching down to run his fingers through her hair.
“I’ll be waiting,” she said, sliding her hands around to the fronts of his thighs, but going no further. If she had, he couldn’t have stopped her. Instead she stood up, crowding against him, her breasts brushing up his hot chest, her pelvis pressed against his, their faces a fraction of an inch apart. “Hurry,” she whispered.
He sucked in a breath, feeling the hardness of her nipples as his chest expanded against her. He shut his eyes, unable to stop his mouth from closing on hers. His hands were on her, cupping her breasts, snatching at the zipper on the front of her catsuit, pressing her lower back to bring her tight against his erection. She moaned, her own hands slipping under the waistband of his shorts, kneading his buttocks, pressing him tight against her as she writhed. He pressed kisses along her jaw, down to her neck, inhaling deeply so that her warm scent filled him. He forcibly loosened his hold on her, his loins aching for more contact, not less. She looked at him, disappointment touching her eyes again. He kissed them, first one, then the other.
“I’ve missed you,” she said, that note of pleading back in her voice. He hated it and loved it all at the same time. Hearing her beg for him caused a fresh surge of desire that he quelled through sheer willpower. But he hated for her, his proud Emma, to be subservient, even to him.
“Not here,” he said in as reassuring a tone as he could, knowing his voice was thick with pure lust, “Home. As long and hard as you want. Whatever you want, Emma, I want it more.”
They’d only gotten part way up the spiral stairs, Emma stepping up each step backward, Steed dragging downward on her long zipper as she went. He’d gone half mad with desire when he realized she wore nothing else. Touching her private places he’d found her in a heightened state of arousal. That had driven him the rest of the way, and he’d peeled the catsuit off of her, kissing his way from her toes, freed of the boots, to her lips. He’d taken her there on the stairs, his clothed body against her nude one inciting a sense of recklessness that drove both of them to massive, exploding ecstasy. Spent, he hovered over her, his face against her collarbone, his hands and knees keeping him from crushing her into the steps. She held on to him with arms and legs until her heart had slowed and she could breath easily.
“Emma,” he whispered into her ear, lifting his head to place light kisses on her cheeks, her eyes, her lips. She sighed, then inhaled a long, luxurious breath, opening her eyes to look into his. She became aware of the steps beneath her buttocks and shoulders and cutting into her back, their curve forcing them both into a strange twist. It had added intensity to the sensation, but it wasn’t comfortable. She put her hand on his chest and pressed lightly. He understood and pushed off of her, offering her his hand. She sat up, then rose and climbed the rest of the way up to the bedroom. He followed, loosening his tie, beginning to undress. She stopped suddenly just inside the bedroom and put her hands to her mouth.
“Oh no!” she wailed, turning around to face him. He looked around the room. Nothing seemed out of order.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“We forgot. I forgot,” she lowered her hands to her flat belly and looked at him fearfully. He frowned, not understanding. “It’s been almost a week since I missed that day. But they say you have to be careful for a whole month. We didn’t use anything.”
As he understood her, a strange realization struck him. It would be all right. It might not be the best timing, but they would make it work. And if everything else in their lives came crashing down, as he feared it might, then this could be their salvation. Because if she’s carrying our child, then she won’t leave me. Even if I have to destroy Knight, she wouldn’t take our child away.
“It’s all right, Emma,” he said, reaching out to her, pulling her against himself. “Everything will be all right,” he assured her. “If you are, then you are,” he held her close with one arm and brought her face to his with his other hand. There were tears in her eyes and he wondered how much of her reaction had to do with the stress of the day. There was only so much one woman could take, and this little mistake could be her final straw. He’d rarely seen her at her limit — perhaps twice in all their time together. She smiled ever so slightly, blinking so that the tears ran down her cheeks. She has more reserves, God she’s so strong, he thought, brushing away the tears with his finger.
“Please don’t cry,” he whispered.
“I never cry,” she said, almost automatically. He chuckled, holding her tight.
He’d held her until she fell asleep, lying awake himself as his thoughts spun round and round. Could he extract the criminals from Knight without also destroying its structure and its value? Could he do it without her learning of his involvement? Or if she did, could he explain it to her satisfaction, so that she would not feel that he’d used her? He had promised long ago never to use her, never to involve her in a case without telling her his plan and making her a part of his strategy. Would she ever understand that this time was different, the only time he’d done it since that one, disastrous time? Could she possibly be pregnant? After just once, after a one-day gap in her pills days ago? He found himself hoping that she was, and rolled away from her, filled with self-loathing. Did he hope so because he wanted a child with her, or because he believed it would hold her to him? He wasn’t sure. It was a sensation only she could inspire in him, this confusion about his deepest motivations.
Had she not come to the gym he would have spent most of the night there, working his body to avoid this endless mental circling. But her need for him had been so powerful it had been undeniable. He’d willingly sacrificed his peace of mind to satisfy her and lie beside her as she slept unaware of his turmoil. He finally drifted off as the clock chimed five a.m.
It was striking seven when he felt her rise, realizing his sleep had been mercifully light — too light for dreams to haunt him. She came back quickly, slipping back under the covers and snuggling against him, obviously sensing that he was not deeply asleep. He reached around her, lying on his side to face her and hold her against himself. He felt her sigh contentedly.
There was so much Emma wanted to tell him. In the safety of his bed she thought she ought to be able to open the locked places deep inside, to say the things she felt he must hear: That she was still sorry for the way she’d handled Peter’s return more than three years ago, that she knew she’d hurt him deeply, although he’d refused to show it. That she understood why he refused to show it, why he had let her go without a word. That his taking her back had been the greatest gift he had ever given her. That he was everything to her.
But then she thought about Knight Industries and wondered what was the truth. If he hadn’t proposed, didn’t keep mentioning houses and desk jobs, if he had reacted in any other way at the possibility of pregnancy last night, her choice would be clear. He was her lover, but Knight was her legacy. But he was no longer just the rakish bachelor spy she’d fallen in love with. He was still everything she loved, but now he offered her the rest as well. If she lost Knight, she would still have him. Yes, he was everything to her.
She’d told him, shown him, surely the longer conversation, the sincere apology, could wait. It was too much for this morning, with the board meeting tomorrow and Weems and Plath’s questioning still ringing in her ears. And the possibility that she was pregnant.
He was stroking her back, a comforting gesture, not especially sensuous. She realized that his morning erection had softened against her. She knew she could easily bring it back, but there was something about his gentle stroking that stayed her own hands. She tilted her head and kissed his chin.
“Good morning love,” he whispered, his breath warm against her forehead. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes,” she sighed, realizing that she had. His comfort last night had banished her fears as quickly as they’d come. If she were pregnant, then they’d deal with it. Inconvenient as the timing was, a part of her hoped for it, and made her realize just how strong her desire to have a family was becoming. There’s time. There’s time to get things at Knight back in order first.
“You must have a busy day ahead, since the board meeting is tomorrow,” he said.
“I suppose,” she said, trying to remember her schedule. Yesterday’s events had thrown her off, damned Weems. Useless Plath. “What do you have to do today?”
“I’m doing it,” he said, pressing his lips to her forehead.
“Steed, your work ethic is appalling. All around you London’s millions are facing a day of labor, and your plan is to laze about in bed?”
“On the contrary, my dear, I am working already. Protecting you,” he said with a chuckle.
“Ah, I see. And that’s a real assignment?”
“If you were to dig into the depths of Ministry red tape you’d eventually find an assignment roster with ‘protect Emma Knight’ on it.”
She tried to picture a chalkboard with the names of the Ministry’s agents next to assignments. She couldn’t do it. It was too parochial. “And would your name be next to it?”
“Since last night when I sent the surveillance team home.”
“And will you be following me to my meeting with Mr. Pennington? Or my lunch with Edmond Stanton?”
He sighed, removing his hand from her back to scratch his stubbly chin. “If you’re going to get up and go places, I think I’ll call the team back in,” he said thoughtfully. “No need to actually get up myself. Who’s Edmond Stanton?”
She pulled away from him, lifting herself to look into his amused eyes. “A vice president at Knight and dear friend of my father’s,” she said, seeing his eyes narrow thoughtfully. “He’s to provide any pre-meeting insights he can. And then I have to go back out to the estate. The Peels are coming to stay and take over. Oh!” she leaned back, staring off across the room for a moment, thinking through the day’s schedule, then looked back at Steed, “Will you come out to the estate tonight for dinner with them?”
“That depends,” he said smoothly, a touch of wickedness in his voice, “are we staying the night, and will I be relegated to a guest room?”
She rolled her eyes, reaching up to flick a stray lock of hair off his forehead. “We’ll put the Peels at the far end of the other wing. They’ll be none the wiser,” she said.
“It hardly seems worth the effort. They know about us, you know.”
She frowned, “What do you mean?”
“I spoke to Mr. Peel before I asked you to marry me. He understood the nature of our relationship.” Emma looked astonished. “He is the closest thing you have to an older male relative, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” she agreed, considering and discounting her mostly estranged uncle, and realizing just when Steed and her ex-father-in-law had had the conversation – just before Christmas when he’d taken her to a surprise lunch with the Peels. “What did he say?”
“He said you would make your own decisions, which I knew. He also offered his approval. He did insist, however, that I make you happy.” He reached up and ran his finger along the side of her face. “I agreed,” he added with a wink.
“Always the gentleman, my Steed,” she smiled.
“Actually, I was just looking for encouragement. I was afraid you’d turn me down.”
“You were afraid I’d –,” she started to laugh, and then realized he was completely serious. “Oh Steed,” she leaned down to kiss him, wanting to ask how he’d doubted, but afraid to hear his answer. Not today. Maybe after the board meeting.
“As for Mrs. Peel, the elder,” he went on, “she’s known since that time years ago when she saved us from that horrible fight we were having. You remember?”
Emma remembered. It had been their only truly damaging fight and it had nearly ended their relationship. Amelia had found her in the throes of depression and taken matters in hand, bringing them together and prodding them to talk it out. Then she’d left them to make up in, Emma realized now, what must have been an obvious manner. More recently Amelia had made it clear she knew, urging Emma to formalize her relationship with Steed.
“Will you come?” she repeated, “assuming the sleeping arrangements are to your liking?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment, as if considering the invitation. She slipped out of the bed, knowing the answer. She had to get ready for her meeting.
“I think I can fit you in. What time?” he asked as she reached the bathroom door. She glanced back and he was pulling himself up to a sitting position. He ran a hand through is messy hair.
“I’ll be heading out there after lunch. If you’re not to be following me, then you can come out around six. We’ll have cocktails before dinner.” He nodded, then swung his feet to the floor. “Will you be following me?”
He stood up and stretched, his hands nearly brushing the ceiling. She watched his skin ripple over sharply defined muscle and bone, the pull of scar tissue a pale pucker here and there all over his body. He brought his arms to his sides and looked at her watching him, grinning wolfishly, pleased to see her enjoy looking at his body as much as he did hers.
“No,” he said, “I’ve realized I shall have to be a part of London’s toiling millions after all. I’m calling your shadows back in. Don’t leave until one of them is outside.” She nodded, hoping poor Washington had been reassigned. She started to enter the bathroom but his voice called her back, “Mrs. Peel, just how did you know I’d be in the gym last night?”
She looked back at him, standing by the bed naked, one hand idly scratching his chest. It was a fair question, and she hadn’t really answered it the first time he’d asked. “One night I finished searching a suspect’s office and I wanted to be with you. I came here, but you were just leaving. I thought you might need help with a lead on the case so I followed you. You went to the ministry, to the gym.”
“You never mentioned it.”
“Nor did you. It’s your business and I respect your privacy. You’re a man of many secrets, and those I also know, I know to keep. But after that I was happy to know where you probably were when I called here late at night and you didn’t answer,” she smiled slyly, hand on the bathroom door, waiting to see if there was anything else.
“Thank you, Mrs. Peel,” he said softly. She nodded, and closed the bathroom door, glad that she had respected his privacy.
Edmond Stanton was far more than just a close friend of her father’s; he had been a part of Knight Industries from the beginning. When her father had first rented offices and pinned everything on an idea for a defensive weapon system that might save the lives of soldiers on the front lines, Edmond had been there. He’d helped shape Knight’s course, researching and helping to acquire interest in suppliers and forging allegiances with compatible organizations. He’d been instrumental in signing their first government contract – with Denmark, not Britain, as it turned out. By the time John Knight died and Emma took over, Edmond was known throughout the business world as a formidable negotiator. He was behind all of Knight’s most lucrative contracts. But recently Emma had seen his name a great deal on the lecture circuit. He seemed to be spending far more time in the conference room than the boardroom, and there seemed to be a commensurate decrease in new business at Knight. Reinstating him to active duty was one of her top priorities, in addition to finding out everything he knew about Knight’s current day-to-day operations.
Harold Milk had been Knight’s CEO for nearly seven years. He’d been elected by the board from within the company’s top management after Emma had led the shareholders in ousting his predecessor. Emma had been out of the company for a year at that point, trying to be the non-working wife that Peter wanted. But she was still the majority shareholder and she had objected to the direction her successor had been steering the company. Three consecutive quarters of poor financial statements had been enough to convince the rest of the shareholders, including some of the board, to make a change. Emma hadn’t known Milk at all; he’d been hired after her departure. Now she could only assume that he was as immoral as the board members who had put him in place. She wanted to hear Edmond’s opinion of him – not that it mattered to her plans, she would be demanding his job at the meeting tomorrow no matter what – but she still wanted a mental picture of the man she was deposing.
Edmond sat across from her at a table for two in a very large, very reputable, London restaurant. He looked exactly as she remembered from when she’d last seen him, the previous summer at a country house party hosted by mutual friends. He was tall and rangy: as a child she’d often thought of herself as Dorothy to his Scarecrow. He squinted at her now through the tops of wire-framed bifocal glasses, his unruly hair gone quite white, his bright blue eyes still shining with intelligence.
He looked at her appraisingly, as if assessing her market value, which, in a way, he probably was.
“Emma, you look wonderful – where did you get that tan?”
“The Caribbean, Edmond,” she smiled at his compliment. He pursed his lips.
“In the middle of this coup of yours, you find time to dart off on holiday?” he asked suspiciously.
“Not exactly a holiday, Edmond, more of a bit of hush-hush business,” she admitted, knowing that he had some idea of her involvement with the intelligence community. He nodded, lips still compressed thoughtfully.
“So you’re back into that business, are you? With that fellow, Steed was it?”
She shrugged, almost guiltily.
“Are you quite serious about this business with Knight, Emma? Remember, many peoples’ livelihoods are at stake here – this is not a debutante’s game.”
Emma bristled, her eyes flashing hot anger at him. “I am not a debutante, Edmond. And I know this is not a game,” she snapped. She thought of Birch’s assassins and about how if she were not involved with Steed she’d probably be dead.
Edmond watched her for another second and then his mouth split into a grin and he relaxed.
“Good,” he said. “I thought you were still your father’s daughter, but I wanted to be sure. Now, let’s order some lunch and discuss your strategy.”
Their lunch went on for two and a half hours, although if their lingering over coffee perturbed the wait staff they showed no sign of it. Edmond described the current atmosphere at Knight as “stagnating,” a term that gave Emma chills. Cash, he said, was in abundant supply, but he had been unable to convince either Harold Milk or the board to part with any of it for new research and development, or for acquisition, for more than a year. There was something about that timeframe that seemed familiar, but as they talked Emma couldn’t afford to stop and think about it. He had indeed been out on the conference circuit, as she’d noticed, in order to keep busy and known in the industry. If he wasn’t making deals he needed to be making speeches.
The picture he painted of Harold Milk was that of a figurehead, which didn’t surprise her. She was certain that Birch and his cronies were running the company. And now she feared that they had more than just the stolen plans for military devices and spare rockets to dispose of. What was the cash for? And was it really still in Knight’s accounts? She’d had Pennington and his legal partners act as quickly as possible – immediately after the shareholder meeting – to freeze the company’s assets until after the board meeting. But Edmond made her fear that it was already too late.
She was still turning this over in her mind when she snatched the check from her companion and paid it, then let him escort her out to the street.
“I’m afraid the board meeting will go on all day tomorrow, Edmond,” she said as he waited with her for the valet to bring her car. “Can we meet on Thursday? I want to hear your proposals for disposing of some of that cash as soon as possible.”
“My calendar is open to you, my dear,” he replied, then he looked down at her Lotus, which the valet had just brought. One eyebrow rose as he said, “Still driving this little bomber? Isn’t it time to grow up, Emma?”
She laughed as she folded herself into the sports car. “I believe this car still suits me, Edmond. Don’t relegate me to a lumbering sedan just yet!”
Emma stopped at the traffic light at the corner and glanced to the left. The grey Volvo was parked there, agent Washington sitting behind the wheel studiously not looking her way. She leaned over and opened the passenger window, her movement catching his eye. She waved at him and he grimaced and lowered his window with obvious reluctance.
“I’m going back out to the Peel estate now,” she said, glancing up to be sure the light was still red. “And I’m terribly sorry about Saturday. I had no idea who you were.”
The light changed and she quickly raised the window and put the car in gear just as the driver of the big Rover behind her started to honk. In her rear view mirror she saw the Volvo pull out into traffic a few cars behind her.
Emma snatched at the small alarm clock within a few seconds of its beginning to ring, pulling it under the covers to muffle it until she could find the switch to silence it. She set it back on the nightstand and sat up, shivering as her shoulders met the chill morning air. She resisted the urge to slide back down and snuggle against Steed, running her hands through her hair instead.
The Peels had arrived at the estate with little fuss, taking up residence in a suite of rooms near her office and getting on well with Sally. They’d spent the afternoon reviewing all of the plans that were in the works and going over the schedule for conversion of the estate to an inn and conference center. Emma had felt rather chagrinned when she realized that her ex-father-in-law had no trouble following the nuances of the project. She’d held on to it this long because she’d thought he would be overwhelmed.
Her ex-mother-in-law took an immediate interest in the gardens and grounds, so Emma had arranged for her to spend an hour or so with Sally’s father. The two, she’d discovered later, had gotten along famously, sharing similar views of garden management and layout. Steed had arrived for dinner, effectively distracting them from business, and Sally had stayed at the Peel’s invitation, with Emma’s wholehearted approval. After dinner Steed had gallantly driven Sally home. All in all, it had been a successful transition of responsibility for the estate to its rightful owners, and a pleasant evening. Emma had come to bed feeling confident about it, and remarkably at ease about upcoming events at Knight.
Reluctantly, she slid her legs out to put her feet on the floor. Steed’s arm darted out from where it had been curled under him, but he missed her. She stood by the bed grinning wickedly at him as he felt around the bed where she’d just been, then rolled from his stomach to his side to look for her.
He’d been uncharacteristically tired when he’d returned from driving Sally home. They’d retired and he’d held her close, but hadn’t initiated anything more. She’d been happy to be held, thinking through the afternoon and about the next day was distracting enough that she didn’t feel the need for more either. This was a new dimension to their relationship – just sleeping together. In the past they’d often spent the night at one another’s homes, but only when it began with physical intimacy. She knew from her years with Peter that sharing a bed was much more intimate than sex. And Steed had once admitted to her that before her he had never allowed himself to sleep through the night with a woman he had sex with. “It’s so permanent,” he’d said, his vulnerable expression stopping her from asking what the difference was with her. She’d known anyway, so no need to demand that he say it.
“Sorry darling, I have to get up and going,” she said, giggling at his confused expression. Her voice drew his eyes to her and squinting at her dim form in the pre-dawn darkness.
“But what am I to do with this?” he asked, pulling back the covers to reveal his decidedly aroused body.
She looked at his erection, his thick, solid penis having its usual effect on her. She resisted a strong urge to climb back across the bed and straddle him, to feel that solid presence inside of her.
“You’ll have to take care of it yourself, I’m afraid,” she challenged with a smile. She started to move away, but stopped as he lay back, his legs sprawled wide.
Eyes locked with hers he took himself in hand and began to rub, running his hand up and down the length of his shaft, sucking in a deep breath as the sensation registered. She watched, drawn to join him and share in the pleasure. But she held back, equally fascinated to see him complete it. He moaned, his eyes closing, his hands moving faster. His hips bucked, driving his penis against his hand as he cupped one palm over the tip. The other still slid up and down his now slick shaft. His orgasm was quick and strong, as they often were in the morning. He cried wordlessly at that moment when he so often called her name. She felt a pang of guilt at making him do this for her, at not being there with him to hear her name in his moment of release within her. She realized she was breathing heavily, that her own body was aroused. But there was no time this morning for her, and, she thought with that part of her brain that almost never lost control, a little pent up energy would be of benefit today. Steed relaxed, his hands releasing his softened member, his breathing ragged.
Mesmerized, she climbed back onto the bed, touched the dampness on his belly and brought her fingers to her mouth. She knew the taste of him, did not recoil at consuming his semen. He watched her through hooded eyes. She touched his belly again and put her fingers to his lips, closing her eyes at the sensation as he sucked them.
“Will you return the favor later?” he asked when he’d recovered enough to speak.
“You’ll watch, not help?” she asked. He shrugged in the pillows, not committing. He wasn’t sure he could resist.
“I never do that, you know,” he said, reaching to touch her face, then stopping when he realized his hands were wet and sticky. She looked puzzled, then disbelieving.
“So you’ve always a willing partner?” she asked rather more sharply than she’d intended.
“No,” he said, his voice still ragged, “I’ve learned to – dissipate the need instead.”
He half smiled, looking apologetic, as if it was some sort of character flaw, “because it’s lonely.” He said. She sat back on her knees, surprised and touched by his sincerity. She nodded, truly understanding, then bent forward to kiss him on the forehead before climbing back off the bed and heading for the bathroom.
Steed lay still, feeling especially naked.
Emma was buttering her second piece of toast when Steed strolled into the dining room fully dressed. He had just taken the seat to her right when Evie appeared with a pot of coffee and a cup for him. The woman has radar, Emma thought, taking a bite of toast.
“Good morning Mr. Steed,” Evie said, “ready for a good fry up, then?”
“Steed never actually eats breakfast, Evie, despite his behavior here recently,” Emma said, glancing at Evie then locking eyes with Steed. He smiled at her, then looked at Evie.
“Your mistress is correct, Evie. Just some coffee and toast, please,” he said, then added, “I’m sure the Peels will be delighted with your larger repast.”
“Yes sir, thank you, sir,” Evie made a little curtsey and headed back toward the kitchen.
“I thought I’d drive you to your meeting,” Steed said when she was gone. Emma chewed her toast and looked at him curiously. He added, “What exactly did Birch say to you, about how he’d vote today?”
She swallowed, sipped her coffee, and said, “That he’d support any proposals I make at the meeting.”
Steed nodded, but didn’t respond, forcing her to think about what she’d said.
“But if I’m not at the meeting . . .” she added, grimacing.
“This morning is his last chance to see that you don’t appear there.”
“Yes I see. Can you be ready in ten minutes?”
“Good morning ma’am, Mr. Steed,” Sally stood in the doorway, her coat over her arm.
“Sally! You’re here awfully early,” Emma said.
“I knew you’d be leaving early and I wanted to be sure you have everything you need for today.”
“Sit down, have some coffee,” Steed said, ignoring Emma’s mild glare. He would take liberties in her home.
“No thank you, Mr. Steed. I’ll just go up to the office,” Sally said, having learned how to keep her employer happy, “Are the Peels up yet?”
“No. They’ll be very impressed that you’re here,” Emma said, rising from the table. Sally turned to go, then turned back.
“There’s a strange car parked along the road between here and the village – I thought you might want to know, Mr. Steed,” she said. Steed set down his coffee cup and half turned to look at her.
“The grey Volvo.” Emma said dismissively. But Sally shook her head.
“No, ma’am. The grey Volvo is out there – the man inside is asleep. But there’s also a black Mercedes. I noticed it because it’s so unusual around here – anyone with a car like that has a garage to put it in.”
Steed was up and at the door, gently moving Sally aside as he passed. Emma followed him, and then Sally. He paused at the front door.
“It could have just broken down,” Emma pointed out.
Steed shook his head. “Stay here. Inside,” he said so firmly Emma wouldn’t dream of contradicting him.
Steed passed the Bentley, which was parked in front of the house, and trotted across the estate grounds, cutting straight rather than following the winding drive. His pace picked up as he reached the road and turned toward the grey Volvo, which was parked on the verge a couple hundred yards from the gate.
As he feared, Washington was not asleep. He opened the car door and started to press a finger to the other agent’s neck, but stopped when he saw the neat round mark on his forehead with a trickle of blood running down from it. Good thing Sally didn’t look closely.
Sighing grimly, he pulled the trunk release and gathered Washington’s body into his arms. With a heave he lifted him over his shoulder and carried him around to the back of the car. The body, which was still warm, fit easily into the car’s large boot. Steed closed it and got into the driver’s seat, starting the car with the key that was in the ignition. Washington would have come on duty no more than an hour ago, relieving the man who’d been there overnight. Which meant they’d only just killed him. Steed cringed at the thought of how close Sally must have come to witnessing it.
Emma and Sally stood in the front parlor watching as Steed parked the Volvo beside the Bentley and got out. He walked all around the old green car, not touching it. Then he got down on hands and knees on the damp gravel and looked under the engine.
“What’s he doing?” Sally asked quietly.
“Looking for bombs,” Emma replied, seeing no point in sugarcoating the situation.
Steed changed position a few times and repeated his inspection. Finally he rose, brushed off his ruined suit pants, and entered the house. He came into the front parlor and went straight to the telephone on a table near the doorway. Emma led Sally away from the window. Steed dialed and spoke several code words, then waited, turning to look at Emma. His expression that unreadable, serious mask she knew meant he was very concerned.
“Agent down, that’s right. No, I’ll take care of it. But I need a removal team to come here and take care of my car. There’s a device under the engine. Thank you.” He hung up the telephone and looked at the women. “We’re taking the Volvo. Sally, tell the others not to leave the house this morning. A team will come fix my car. Nobody is to go near it until they’ve finished. Understood?”
“Yes sir,” Sally nodded, glancing at Emma.
“Let’s go,” Steed said to Emma, extending his hand to her. She took it and allowed him to lead her in to the foyer. She paused to pick up her briefcase and get her coat, then followed him out to the Volvo, moving quickly.
“Washington?” she asked once the car was moving down the driveway.
“Boot,” Steed replied grimly. She sighed sadly.
“Go right,” she said as they reached the gate. Steed glanced at her questioningly.
“We don’t want to pass them, right? There’s a tertiary road a half mile up that will take us to the highway bypassing the village.”
Steed turned right.
They reached the Knight Industries building without incident, Steed parking the Volvo next to the curb in a no-parking zone. He shut off the engine and half turned to Emma.
“Please be careful today. Stay alert,” he said, folding her slender hands into his larger ones. She looked at them, his grey cloth gloves contrasting with her black leather ones.
“I will, Steed. I’m glad you were there this morning,” she said, looking up at his deep, light eyes.
His lips curled in a half smile and he released her hands to reach up and caress her cheek, “so am I, –.” A sharp rapping on the window interrupted him.
A cross looking patrolman stood outside his window peering in. Steed sighed, reaching into his jacket to withdraw his billfold. One eyebrow raised, he opened it and pressed it to the glass. The patrolman straightened, made a little salute, and strode away. Steed turned back to Emma. She was smiling. “Keeping company with a spy has its benefits,” she said. He snorted, then impulsively reached out to pull her close and kiss her. He tried to keep it superficial, but his concern for her came through. He pulled away reluctantly, watching her lick her lips, then glance in the mirror to check her makeup. She pulled off her glove and wiped at a slight smear of her lipstick.
“I’ll walk you in,” he said, opening his door, wondering if he was also wearing her signature red.
Licking his own lips, he came around to her side and helped her out, then walked by her side into the building. They stopped in the lobby, a few early-arriving workers passing them by, the reception and security staff watching them with interest.
“Good day, Miss Knight,” Steed said loudly enough to be heard by the staff, then, leaning closer, he added, “call me if you need me, Mrs. Peel.”
“Thank you, Mr. Steed,” she said formally, her smile its most crooked. Then she turned and strode toward the lifts. Steed watched her for a second as she entered her world, then hurried back out to the illegally parked car and its grim cargo.
The lift doors opened and Emma stepped out, suddenly remembering the last time she’d been here in Knight’s executive offices – the shareholder meeting nearly three weeks ago had been held in the large conference room on this floor. Remembering Steed’s surprise presence that day, she smiled as she walked across the thick, golden carpeting to the executive secretary’s desk. Mrs. Emerson had worked for her, and for her father. She was still there, a mix of authoritative presence and motherly caretaker, positioned behind the desk that blocked further progress to the executive offices and boardroom.
“Miss Knight,” she said warmly, rising to come around the desk and shake Emma’s hand. “I’m so happy to see you. You’re on Mr. Milk’s calendar for this morning, and then the meeting starts at 9:30.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Emerson. I’m happy to see you too,” Emma said. Certainly Mrs. Emerson, of all those who might be suspect at Knight, could be trusted. And yet, she knew very well that secretaries were not immune to the temptations of crime.
“Mr. Milk is in. I’ll just buzz him,” the secretary went back around her desk and pressed the intercom button on her telephone. There was no response. She pressed again.
“Perhaps he’s indisposed,” Emma said, thinking of the private bathroom in the CEO’s office.
“Nevertheless, he should not keep you waiting,” Mrs. Emerson said.
Emma turned to pace across the reception area while Mrs. Emerson buzzed the intercom again. “Oh,” the secretary said, “I saw him going into the board room just as I arrived a while ago. He’s probably in there.”
Emma followed her to the double doors of the boardroom and watched her open them. Looking in over the woman’s shoulder she could see that the room was empty. They exchanged a glance, both frowning.
“Mr. Milk?” Mrs. Emerson called out.
They entered the room, taking opposite sides of the long table, walking toward the windows at the far end. Emma allowed herself to think about past meetings she attended in this room as she walked. Her recollections were interrupted by a scream.
Mrs. Emerson had rushed to the end of the table to bend over a figure on the floor. Emma quickly took in blood and other substances low on the window and pooling on the floor. Harold Milk lay on his back, his arms and legs at odd angles, a grotesque cavity where the top of his head should have been. There was no point in checking for signs of life.
Emma used her voice to distract Mrs. Emerson from the horrible sight. “Mrs. Emerson, go call security. We can’t have the board members coming in here,” she ordered. The older woman straightened, eyes drifting from her boss’s body to Emma’s. Emma nodded, her expression forceful. Mrs. Emerson put her hand to her mouth as if she was going to be ill, then hurried from the room, closing the doors behind her.
Emma studied the body dispassionately as she had learned to do at dozens of crime scenes with Steed. Milk had a gun in his hand, a silencer on the barrel. He’d shot himself, or so it appeared, in the right temple. Bone, brain tissue, hair, and blood had spattered the window, but the angle of his shot had left his facial features intact. Emma shivered, then forced herself to decide what to do. She didn’t realize how long she’d been standing there until the door re-opened and Mrs. Emerson stepped in. She stayed at the far end of the room.
“Security is on the way, and I called the police,” she said. Emma’s head jerked up and she turned toward the door. The police. No. I need the ministry to handle this so I can get access to the investigation.
“Thank you, Mrs. Emerson. The board members should be arriving soon. Please direct them to the large conference room. Tell them there was an accident in here – tell them it’s a broken window, if they ask.” Emma escorted Mrs. Emerson out of the boardroom and closed the door. A lift arrived across the reception area and a large, uniformed security guard stepped out. As Mrs. Emerson went to instruct him, Emma picked up the telephone on her desk.
She dialed the Ministry and provided proper access codes, then asked to speak to either Weems or Plath. She was relieved when Weems came on the line quickly.
“What can I do for you, Miss Knight,” he said icily. She couldn’t really blame him.
“There’s been an incident here at Knight Industries that I thought you would want to be aware of,” she said. “The CEO has shot himself,”
“Isn’t today your board meeting?” Weems asked, voice belying no reaction to her news.
“Yes. It’s about to begin. The police have been called, Mr. Weems.”
“Are you saying you’d prefer we take over the investigation? Into a suicide?”
Emma closed her eyes, summoning patience, “I would prefer that you be here, Mr. Weems,” she said. She could swear he covered the receiver to conceal a laugh.
“We’re on our way, Miss Knight. Try to keep the scene secure – you understand?”
“Yes Mr. Weems.”
Emma turned to the guard who was now positioned in front of the boardroom doors.
“Good morning Evans,” she said, reading his name badge.
“Miss Knight,” he acknowledged. Good, no need to justify myself.
“The police are on their way, and so are some gentlemen from another authority.”
“It would be better, for Knight, if the other gentlemen conduct the investigation.”
“So you don’t want to let the police in?”
“That might be awkward, Evans. But I would prefer to try to delay them, if we can, without appearing to do so.”
“I’ll do my best, Miss Knight. Will the other gentlemen be here soon?”
“They’re already on their way from Whitehall.”
A lift opened and two men stepped out. Mrs. Emerson materialized from the direction of the conference room and corralled them, guiding them away from the boardroom. Emma felt herself relax slightly as the board members followed the efficient secretary without question. Doubtlessly Birch and his cronies would not be so biddable.
Another lift opened and a uniformed police officer stepped out. Emma was startled to see the patrolman who’d tapped on the car window. He looked around and spotted Emma and Evans in the otherwise empty reception area. Emma stepped toward him as he approached.
“Good morning officer,” she said.
“Morning Miss. I understand there’s been a death here?”
“Yes, officer, we’ve closed the room,” she nodded toward Evans who had assumed a very stern, official stance and expression.
“Very good,” the patrolman said, “The detectives will be along shortly. I’m just here to safeguard the scene.”
“Yes I see. Weren’t you on patrol outside this morning?” Emma asked.
“Yes miss, this is my normal route.”
“And you noted an illegally parked car this morning. You tapped on the window.”
“Why yes miss,” he paused, looking closely at her. “You were in the car.”
“Yes. And you remember the gentleman in the car?”
His eyes widened slightly and he nodded, not speaking.
“His associates will be along shortly, to investigate this matter.”
“I see,” he said, glancing at Evans, then back at Emma. “Well then, I’ll just stand by here and let the detectives sort things out with – them.”
The lift doors opened once more and three men got out. Evan Birch strode toward them purposefully, eyes narrowing as he noted Evans and the patrolman. Emma stepped in front of him a few yards from the boardroom door. His companions were Dixon and a third board member, but not Stafford.
“Good morning Mr. Birch, gentlemen,” she said, eyes flicking to each of them but returning to Birch, meeting his malevolent glare. “There has been an accident in the boardroom. The board meeting will take place in the conference room. Mrs. Emerson will be happy to get you some coffee or tea.” She gestured toward the short hall that lead to the conference room. To her relief, Mrs. Emerson had just appeared there. The unidentified board member turned to comply with her near command, but Birch and Dixon stood their ground.
“Jumping the gun, aren’t you, Miss Knight?” Birch said. Emma shrugged and smiled.
“In the absence of any other authority, Mr. Birch, I’m simply trying to help. Please,” she gestured toward Mrs. Emerson again. Birch glanced again at Evans, then seemed to reach a decision and turned away from Emma. Dixon followed him and they went with Mrs. Emerson toward the conference room. Emma took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.
“Now there’s a tough one,” the patrolman muttered. Emma glanced at him and he winked at her. Her eyebrows rose in surprise. “No match for you though, miss,” he added.
His encouragement had a surprisingly buoying effect on her. She straightened her shoulders and moved to the middle of the reception area to intercept the next group coming from the lifts. The doors of one car opened and two men who were clearly not board members stepped out, followed by two uniformed police officers. Here we go.
To her surprise, the patrolman stepped forward to meet the detectives, reporting that he’d received the call and come up and was monitoring the scene and that nobody had been in the room since he’d been there. It seemed to Emma to be a frivolous report designed to delay the detectives. The detectives seemed to think so, too. One of them, a middle-aged man with curly salt and pepper hair, wearing a wrinkled trench coat over a non-descript brown suit, stepped around the patrolman and faced Emma.
“Detective Converse, Miss –?”
“Knight. Emma Knight,” she spoke slowly, offering her hand. He took it, then released it.
“Miss Knight. As in Knight Industries?”
“You reported a suicide?”
“In fact, our executive secretary did,” Emma said. “Mrs. Emerson. She’s just seeing to some of the board members, she’ll be right back.
Another lift arrived. Weems and Plath stepped out, looking agitated. They spotted the policemen and hurried toward them. Behind them, calmly removing his bowler as he strode unhurriedly across the reception area, came Steed. He caught Emma’s eye, the twinkle in his suffusing her with a sense of confidence.
“Detective, as I said, we are assuming jurisdiction,” Weems said hotly as Detective Converse turned toward him. They were clearly continuing a conversation started in the lobby.
“And as I said, I’ll need to see your authority,” Converse replied. “This was reported as a suicide. Since when do you people investigate such things?”
“When they occur within the confines of an organization we are monitoring,” Weems said. Emma cocked one eyebrow, looking from Weems to Steed. His expression was typically unreadable, which said a great deal to Emma.
“You know the routine,” Converse shrugged, starting to turn to his partner, obviously trying to dismiss the agents.
“The routine is that you know very well that we’ll produce whatever paperwork you want,” Weems said.
“So until you do,” Converse said, “We’ll just do our jobs.”
“Ah, gentlemen, will this do?” Steed put in, stepping gracefully in between Weems and Plath and presenting his open billfold, a red identification card displayed.
Converse and his partner exchanged a look, then Converse shrugged. Emma noticed a little smile on the patrolman’s face as his associates surrendered their authority.
“It’s all yours, then,” Converse said tersely. “Come on,” he glanced at the uniformed officers, then headed for the lifts.
Steed put away his billfold and walked over to Emma.
“So what happened, Mrs. Peel?” he asked softly. She recognized his tone, comforting but forceful. He was working, and he expected her to work with him. She didn’t hesitate. She walked to the boardroom doors, waving Evans aside, opened them and lead them in past the table to Milk’s body.
“Harold Milk, chairman and CEO,” she said, crossing her arms and looking down at him. Steed crouched over the body. Weems and Plath, who’d walked up on the other side of the table, leaned in too. Steed ignored them.
“What do you think, Mrs. Peel?” Steed shifted, clearly making room for her to crouch beside him, which she did. “How long has he been dead?”
She touched the hand holding the gun. It was cool, but not cold. She reached to the face and pressed the flesh around the eyes, which stared blankly at the ceiling. “Not long,” she said. “Less than an hour.”
Steed nodded, looking at the gun, then back at the massive wound. “Shot himself in the temple, it appears,” he said.
“Yes. It’s not the usual way they do it. Most suicides shoot through the mouth, to be sure. Too easy to move your hand at the last moment and miss, this way,” Emma said. She glanced up and met Weems’s surprised stare. She stood up, feeling distinctly unwelcome so close to the body, despite Steed’s presence.
“What do we have here?” Plath said, taking a pen out of his pocket and using it to shift a piece of paper that was on the floor half under Milk’s left arm.
“A note?” Weems asked.
“Looks like it,” Plath replied, trying to see the paper without moving it any further.
“So Milk’s offed himself,” a new voice filled the room. Emma half turned to see Birch coming up behind her. Figures.
“Perhaps,” Steed said, rising to face the newcomer. “Mr. Birch is it?” he added, eyes flicking to Emma and back to Birch. Who’ll be more surprised that I know who he is? he wondered. Neither reacted.
“This is a crime scene, Mr. Birch,” Emma said. “You may contaminate the evidence.”
Birch smirked at her, “and you, my dear? Or have you already done your damage?”
“This is not appropriate, Mr. Birch,” Emma said haughtily. “These men need to secure this room.”
“Miss Knight, you are not in charge yet,” Birch hissed.
“Yes you’re right. We have a board meeting to convene,” she turned toward Weems and Plath, “We’ll leave this to you, gentlemen,” she said, then turned further around to Steed, who was close behind her, “Mr. Steed.” That close she could see his lips quivering, containing the smile of what? Appreciation of my nerve? Encouragement? She let one eyebrow rise slightly at him, then spun away, forcefully escorting Birch out of the room.
Steed had missed Emma’s call and Weems had had no compunctions about leaving the Ministry for Knight without looking for him. But Plath had left a message that Steed received when he finished arranging for the care of Washington’s corpse. He’d gone after them immediately, taking a taxi, and entered the building just as the lift door opened. He’d called out for them to wait, and Weems and Plath had while the policemen had not. The next lift arrived a moment later and they’d ridden up together.
As Emma escorted Birch out of the boardroom Steed realized that he’d been treating her as he always had in such a situation – asking her very informed medical opinion about the body and even calling her Mrs. Peel. He was certainly giving Weems every excuse to demand that he be removed from the case. Of course, this incident might have nothing to do with Peter Peel. Mr. Milk might have simply decided that death was preferable to being removed from office by Emma. But she was right about the way he’d shot himself, or been shot. Then again, most people didn’t research the best way to shoot themselves before doing it.
“What are you doing, Steed?” Weems asked. Steed turned back to the other agents, and the body, eyebrows raised in inquiry. “You’ve allowed our chief suspect to touch the body!”
“Suspect?” Steed snorted. “I dropped Mrs. Peel off here no more than forty minutes ago. She didn’t have time to come up here and do this, then go out and come back in again to discover the body.”
“She said it herself, he hasn’t been dead for long,” Plath pointed out.
“Which she would not have, if she’d done it, don’t you think?” Steed asked. Plath shrugged noncommittally, but Weems shook his head.
“We all know how smart she is, Steed. She’ll manipulate the situation to her advantage.”
He couldn’t argue with that. “The security cameras in the lifts will show us when she arrived,” he said instead. “And the patrolman who was just here can verify what time she entered the building – he was outside – if my word isn’t good enough. You can review all of that data if you wish. I’m more interested in what Mr. Milk here has to tell us, and Mrs. Emerson.”
They were soon joined by a ministry clean-up team and Steed left them to process the scene. He went out and had a long chat with Mrs. Emerson, who was shaken, but bearing up well nonetheless. He settled in on the corner of her desk, offering her is most kindly, sympathetic look. Knowing she had served refreshments to the board members, he asked how they were taking the news.
“Miss Knight walked in and told them immediately,” she said, a hint of pleasure in her voice, “Mr. Birch did not look happy about that. He’s got a lot of nerve, thinking she can’t come back to her own company. Oh,” she looked embarrassed, “forgive me, that was inappropriate.”
“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Emerson. You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you?”
“Yes sir. I was in the pool when Mr. Knight was here – I worked for him now and then. Miss Knight made me full time in this office. I suppose these others have valued me for the consistency. I know where all the skeletons are hidden, so to speak.”
Steed’s brows rose in alarm. “Oh dear,” she said. He patted her hand, which was on the desk in front of her.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Emerson, I understand. But tell me, is your opinion commonly held here? About Miss Knight?”
“Why, yes, among those of us who were here before she left. We were all terribly sad to see her go, but I understood. It’s hard for a woman to be both a wife and run a business.”
Steed refrained from suggesting that if anyone could do it, it would be Miss Knight. He just nodded thoughtfully and waited.
“She was a very good manager. She inspired confidence, and such loyalty.”
Don’t I know it.
“It’s really too bad. This will be a hard day for her.”
Steed frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, Mr. Birch won’t allow it. I know him. He’s got two or three others who’ll vote however he does. When the rest see it, they’ll follow along. She’ll leave here disappointed.”
“You never know, Mrs. Emerson. Miss Knight may have a few surprises of her own,” he said.
“Do you think so?” she asked, apparently not questioning whom this man was to know anything about Miss Knight. “I hope you’re right.”
Steed stood up and patted her hand again. “My associates will need to take your statement, Mrs. Emerson. “Be sure to tell them everything.”
“Yes sir, of course.”
Weems found Steed standing in the CEO’s office staring at a Renoir over the fireplace. He’d been trying to get a feel for the place, knowing that her father had inhabited it for several years, and then it had been hers. He wondered about the furnishings – the old imposing desk seemed like the sort of thing a man of her father’s reputation would have used, and he was sure Emma would have used her father’s desk. But the more modern armchairs and sofa, not to mention the utilitarian bank of filing cabinets, didn’t seem to fit. The Renoir had to have been his, probably acquired with company funds, or Emma would have taken it.
There were other clues in the room – an antique French barometer on the wall, a chess set on a side table, a yacht racing starter’s canon on the hearth, a bookcase full of the same sorts of esoteric titles Emma had at home. Had Milk really worked here for seven years without changing the books? Or did he have the same interests as the Knights?
“What have you found?” Weems asked, moving behind the desk and pulling out the chair.
“Puzzles,” Steed said, then turned to the other agent and saw that he was going through the desk. Even thought it wasn’t Emma’s, hadn’t been hers since before he’d met her, it still bothered him. “Don’t take anything,” he said.
Weems looked up, holding the bottom right drawer open. “What?”
“We’re not removing anything. Photograph anything you want.”
“Steed, we have every right to seize everything here. What are you up to?”
“Milk’s death may have nothing to do with our investigation. If we remove papers that are vital to this company, but have no bearing on our case, Mrs. Peel won’t hesitate to prosecute.”
“Mrs. Peel, is it?” Weems said, closing the drawer and rocking back and forth in the desk chair. Steed realized his error and mentally cringed. “Intimidates you, does she?”
Steed snorted, grateful for the man’s single-mindedness. All he saw when he looked at Emma was the ice queen reputation, and he apparently couldn’t comprehend the real nature of their relationship. “I’m looking out for your interests, Weems. We both know you and Plath should have made more progress by now. Let’s not make any mistakes on this.”
Emma sat in the only empty chair and surveyed the twenty-two board members around the hastily arranged conference table. Reports and papers had been brought in and distributed, along with coffee and tea served in black mugs with the Knight logo on the sides. The mug at Emma’s place held plain water. She took a gulp and looked at the agenda.
As chairman, Harold Milk should convene the meeting. Out of the corner of her eye Emma saw Birch start to open his mouth. She jumped in before he could speak.
“Mr. Williams,” she said, addressing the corporate secretary, also one of the company’s attorneys, who was in attendance to take the minutes. “Perhaps it would be best if you moderate the meeting, at least until the first few items on the agenda have been addressed,” she said.
Birch’s mouth snapped shut. Dixon and Stafford both looked toward him, as did a few others, but an equal number nodded at her approvingly, or looked expectantly at Williams.
“Certainly, Miss Knight. If the board agrees?” Williams replied, lowering his reading glasses to look around the table. There were several nods, a few spoken “yeses.” No overt disagreement. “Very well then. The first item is approval of the minutes . . .”
The board members seemed as anxious as Emma was to get to the important matters. They approved the minutes without comment and listened to a few reports on old business, read by Williams from the prepared materials. Normally the CEO would have presented these reports on key projects and financial status in glowing terms. Emma tried to imagine how she would have couched the information, had she been presenting it. She was glad she was not – the news was not all that good.
As with the minutes, nobody questioned the reports. She wondered if this really was because of her presence, or if these meetings were always just exercises. They hadn’t been when she was in charge. New business was next. Williams read her first proposal, first made at the shareholder meeting, that she be elected to the board.
This is it, she thought, allowing herself to look first toward Stafford, who refused to meet her eyes, then Dixon, who leered at her suggestively, then Birch, whose stare was unreadable. To her surprise, when Williams asked for discussion, old Mr. Trask spoke up.
“I’m not sure if I share the popular opinion, but I welcome Miss Knight back into the fold,” he said. “This company has been too long without a Knight at the helm.”
Emma felt an overwhelming desire to dart around the table and hug him. Instead she nodded politely, accepting his kindness, and tried to gauge the reaction of the others. There were a few nods, even a mumbled agreement or two. Birch’s glare burned into her from her right. She was glad there were two board members between them.
And then Williams was recording the vote, working his way around the table. Trask was the first vote recorded, and his neighbor voted with him. Dixon was next. Emma watched him shift in his seat, angling his body as much away from Birch as possible.
“For.” He said, then looked out the window. Emma was certain Birch was about to leap across the table, but she didn’t look his way. There were a couple dissenting votes, and then it was Stafford’s turn. He did not lift his eyes from the papers in front of him. His “agreed” was so mumbled Williams paused, then decided he’d heard right and went on. There were more positive votes, and then it was Birch’s turn. Emma let herself look, expecting to be seared by the man’s hatred. But he was staring at Stafford.
It was as if he were trying to squeeze the word out without using any air. Unaffected, Williams recorded his vote and moved on, recording another yes, another no, then four more yeses from the members on Emma’s left.
It was over.
“The proposal carries by majority vote,” Williams said. “Welcome, or welcome back, I should say, to the board, Miss Knight.” He stood up and came around behind her. She rose and accepted his proffered hand. The tension broke and the rest of the members moved to welcome her as well, including Dixon. Stafford did not move, nor did Birch.
“Thank you all,” she said as they began returning to their seats. “It means a great deal to me to return to my father’s company.”
There were nods of approval and looks of appropriate, guarded sympathy at her mention of her deceased father. Let’s get on with it, she thought uncharitably.
“The next item of new business is the appointment of Miss Knight as Chair of this body and CEO. Given this morning’s events, this is a very timely matter. Miss Knight, would you care to address the board?”
Emma had been preparing for this for weeks, during the quiet moments, between the attacks on my life. She’d rehearsed it in front of reporters in the last few days, and even poor James had had to hear it back at lunch weeks ago. But all of a sudden her prepared remarks seemed stale. Given Milk’s suicide, or murder, and Peter’s involvement with the company, whatever it was, and the presence of the agents in the boardroom, her comments about carrying on refocusing the founding vision of the company on technological advances rang emptily in her head.
“Thank you, Mr. Williams,” she said, rising, but staying in her place at the table. “This has been a difficult morning for us all. I can only imagine mental and emotional turmoil that drove Mr. Milk to such drastic action. But whatever the reason, he has left Knight Industries with a vacuum of leadership at a time when strong leadership is exactly what it needs.” She paused, praying that she hadn’t taken the ice queen bit too far. These men, she knew, were not comfortable dealing with emotions. Playing on their grief, whether real or feigned, would not win them. Getting back to business would. They would expect her, as a woman, to be emotional. She didn’t want them to think of her as a woman. “I understand this company. I grew up within these walls. Its people know and trust me. Many will regard today’s events as disastrous. I will see that they are proven wrong through swift action based on clear-headed decisions. We can allow Knight Industries to founder, or we can use this tragedy as a springboard to increased productivity and profits.”
She paused again, assessing her audience. She had them. None of them were grieving over the loss of Milk. All of them were shareholders, and although Knight’s stock had gone up twelve percent since the shareholder meeting, they wanted more. They all knew that Milk’s suicide would be public soon, and the stock would certainly fall. But announcement that Emma Knight, daughter of the company founder, former CEO during a period of solid earnings, was back in charge would turn things right back around.
She smiled, a cool, professional expression nothing like the joyful looks she shared with Steed. “Opportunity, gentlemen. I am here today to explore every opportunity.” She nodded at Williams and sat down. There were murmurs up and down the table, but Stafford continued to stare at the table. Birch was staring at Stafford, perhaps because they were across from one another. Dixon was looking out the window, a smile on his face that she thought looked like appreciation. Maybe it was. Maybe Dixon’s loyalties were flexible. Or maybe her performance for him the other day had gone too far. That did not worry her.
“Discussion?” Williams asked, following form.
“Call the question,” Birch barked. Emma fought not to frown. She had expected him to want discussion, to cloud the situation with words of doubt about her.
“Very well,” Williams said. “Mr. Clark?” he began the vote, noting only yeses as he worked his way around the table. Dixon’s was nearly a laugh as he turned to face her, grinning. She raised an eyebrow at him, then looked away quickly as the voting proceeded. Stafford’s “yes” was nearly a whisper. Birch’s “no” was as clipped as last time. His was the only dissenting vote.
“The proposal carries,” Williams said. “Once again, congratulations Miss Knight. Gentlemen, Knight Industries has a new chief executive officer and this board has a new chair. I turn over the meeting to Miss Knight.”
Emma swallowed hard, suppressing the elation that threatened to turn her limbs to jelly. She wanted to leap up and cry out her happiness. She wanted to run from the room to find Steed and tell him everything was wonderful. She sat quite still for a moment, then looked at the papers in front of her. Turning to the printed version of her proposals that had been distributed, she cleared her throat and said, “Thank you, Mr. Williams. Let’s get down to business, shall we?”
Emma felt both drained and elated as she unlocked the door to the CEO’s office and stepped inside. It had been her father’s office, and then hers. And now it was hers again. Once she cleared the ministry personnel – most of them anyway — out of it. She stood just inside the door. The lights were out and it was quiet. Evening light filtered in through the windows on two walls, casting dim shadows across the furniture in the large room.
As she stepped further in, the big chair behind the desk rotated toward her.
“Miss Knight is it?” Steed smiled at her, brows arched in inquiry. She returned his smile, walking on around the desk to lean on it beside the chair. He reached out and took her hand, bringing it to his lips. “CEO of Knight Industries?” he added, his breath tickling her hand. She nodded. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you. The others left?”
Steed nodded, standing up and walking to the windows. She followed. “I saw that they photographed what they wanted, they didn’t take any originals. But they may be back, if they get a warrant. I won’t be able to stop them.”
She stood beside him looking out at the city. “I understand. I’ll have it all copied, then they can take what they want. Thank you Steed.” She stepped in front of him, placing her hands on his lapels and looking in to his eyes. “I know you were overstepping your authority to look after my interests.”
He didn’t say anything, just put his hands on her waist and returned her gaze. Even in the dim light devotion and desire shone clearly in his eyes. She shivered with the realization that he would do anything for her, including things that contradicted his vows to his employers. She knew there was a limit, and she hoped never to put him in a position to have to reach it. Watchdogging the other agents today had been a minor infraction. Pulling her out of their interrogation room the other day had been more drastic, but he’d assured her that he’d won Mother’s approval. Still, she knew she was putting him close to the line and it bothered her because she didn’t understand why.
Why does their investigation of Peter’s crimes involve me and Knight’s current activities? She wanted to ask him, but his expression, the solidity of his body against hers as he slipped his hands around to the small of her back and pulled her to him, stilled her. She laid her head on his shoulder and relaxed against him, drawing strength from him to replace all that she’d spent during that long, tense day.
Finally he pulled away from her, taking her hand and leading her to the big, deep couch in the seating area in front of the dark fireplace. He drew her down into it, cradling her in his arms. She wished there was a fire, wondered if the flue was still functional. She remembered many quiet afternoons spent with books or paints in front of that fireplace, occupying herself while her father worked. The furniture was all different now, except for the desk and some art and decorations. She was glad her father’s desk was still there, even though knowing someone else had used it felt like a violation. She was confident that she could reclaim it, emotionally, in time, and that it would give her strength much as Steed did now.
He shifted, bringing their faces together, and slid his hand into her hair as he kissed her deeply. What he was asking of her with his urgent kisses was everything. He had given it, risking his reputation, his career, on her behalf. Would she make love with him here? Would she surrender herself to him in this place that was finally, wholly hers?
She would, without hesitation. She returned his kisses, her hands on his chest, finding the most sensitive spots even through layers of clothes. He moaned, touching her in the same way. They made love there on the couch, nearly fully clothed, their sighs and moans escalating to raw cries as their bodies drove together to mutual, exquisite pleasure.
Steed slipped to her side, holding her close to keep her comfortably on the couch beside him. Sated and half sleepy, he had long forgotten the possibility of a ministry bug in the room. And even before they’d started, when he was aware of the listeners and held his tongue regarding Weems and Plath, the part of him that was most male, most self-confident, didn’t really care. It was pleased by the notion of some ministry technician listening to them, hearing her pleasure and knowing he gave it, hearing his and knowing she was his. He was not proud of that small part of himself, but he accepted it.
“I love you, Emma. Always know that,” he said softly, caressing her temple, watching her still face as she breathed. She’d been panting, there was sweat on her brow. He smiled, pleased that he could do that to her so easily.
Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled. “All my love, John,” she sighed, “you’re everything to me.”
They lay still for a while longer, until they heard a humming sound out in the corridor. Steed frowned, glancing at the locked door. Emma struggled to sit up, not hurrying, but clearly ready to move on.
“It’s the janitors running the vacuum,” she explained. She stood up and smoothed her skirt down, then bent to pick up her panties. She found her bag on the desk and crossed to it, stuffing them inside. Steed stood and arranged his own clothing, suffering a sudden surge of renewed desire as he contemplated what she was not wearing under her very professional suit.
“Let’s go home,” he suggested, his voice husky.
She turned to him, grinning. “Let’s. Which one?”
“Just like the old days,” he sighed, stepping to her to offer her his arm. She took it.
“Mine, then,” she said, “you haven’t seen it since it was painted.”
If the janitorial staff was surprised to see the new CEO, Miss Knight, emerge from the CEO’s office with a strange man at nearly seven p.m. they showed no sign of it.
“Miss Knight, I have a Miss Tara King on the line for you. She says it’s personal,” Mrs. Emerson spoke through the intercom.
Emma pressed the talk button, “Please put her through.” What could Tara possibly want?
Emma’s first day as CEO of Knight Industries had gone so quickly she barely noticed it. She’d reluctantly left Steed still sleeping in her apartment at the unimaginable hour of seven, placing a rather suggestive note on her pillow that she hoped he’d destroyed after reading. They’d chatted once during the day, a quick check-in around two during which he’d insisted he would pick her up that evening. He was still concerned for her safety, although it seemed to her that the danger had passed with the conclusion of the board meeting. Nonetheless she’d been glad to see him and the great green Bentley outside the Knight building – her building – when she finally emerged nearly twelve hours after starting her day.
She’d been terrible company, but he’d insisted on serving her a dinner that he prepared in her scantily supplied kitchen and staying with her, allowing her to fall asleep on the sofa in front of the television while he unpacked and shelved her books. At one point when she’d awakened enough to see what he was doing she’d asked what organizational scheme he was using.
“Color and size,” he’d replied jovially. She’d closed her eyes and gone back to sleep rather than contemplate having to reorganize the shelves.
Later he’d awakened her to lead her to bed, and seeing that she was awake enough to pay attention had asked if Knight could afford a car for her – surely a chauffeur was a standard benefit for the CEO. She’d said it was, but that she preferred to drive herself, as he well knew. He’d asked her – not demanded – that she use the limo and allow him to supply a Ministry trained driver. Understanding that despite his light tone he was very serious, she had agreed.
Emma had put the car at the top of her “to do” list for Friday morning, along with organizing a job offer for Sally, and set Mrs. Emerson to tackling both tasks. She had been about to call Steed to tell him the car was arranged when Tara’s call came through.
The telephone on her desk rang and Emma picked up the receiver. “Tara, how lovely to hear from you.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, Emma, but there’s something that I thought you would want to know about. I don’t think anyone else at the Ministry will tell you,” Tara’s voice had an edge – anger, but something else too. Apprehension? Emma got the distinct impression that Tara was not calling with good news.
“What is it, Tara?” So many thoughts raced through Emma’s head she rested her elbow on the desk and braced her forehead on her hand as she spoke. Was it Steed? Had someone decided that he’d overstepped his bounds on her behalf? Or were Weems and Plath still suspicious of her? Were they seeking to have her clearances revoked? While she had a growing realization that her official association with the Ministry might become inappropriate as she took over Knight, she was not ready to give it up yet. She couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to work with Steed, even if she didn’t have time.
“This is awkward, Emma. There’s a tape circulating. It came to us in a diplomatic pouch. I walked in on my men listening to it and confiscated it. But I fear this one isn’t the only copy,” Tara spoke in a rush, as if trying to communicate more than she was actually willing to say aloud.
“What’s on the tape, Tara?” Emma asked. Obviously, me. Or Steed. For a moment the possibilities seemed endless, but by the time Emma had asked the question she thought she could guess the answer.
“It’s you and Steed. I don’t know where it came from. But you aren’t talking. You understand what I mean?” Tara simply couldn’t bring herself to say it. Having sex. Loud, satisfying, joyful sex. Sex unlike any I ever had with Steed. I was an idiot to think I had a chance against his memory of you.
“It’s – intimate? Something I wouldn’t want anyone listening to?”
“I’m sorry Emma,” Tara’s tone confirmed Emma’s guess. “They said it’s a surveillance tape. That’s all I know about it.”
Emma felt her face coloring with a strong mixture of rage and embarrassment. This was unimaginable. How many leering agents had listened to it? Emma was mortified. But she was also very, very angry.
“Thank you for telling me, Tara. I think you’ll be hearing from Steed shortly. Will you be in?”
“Emma, I can’t imagine that he knew about this,” Tara felt a strange impulse to protect Steed from his enraged lover, “I’m sure he wouldn’t want anyone to hear it, either.”
“Perhaps not, although he’s considerably less modest than I. In any case, he’s going to have to put a stop to it.”
“I didn’t mean –,” Tara hesitated, wishing she hadn’t said anything more, but she was committed now, “Steed will not be happy that others have heard him tell you he loves you. That’s just not something he’d want discussed – you know.”
Emma did know. She thought that Steed had loved her from within a few weeks of their meeting. But he had only managed to say it a few months ago, when she’d come back to him for help. He was the epitome of British reserve, as was she for that matter. The confusing emotional landscape of their relationship aside, they had both enjoyed the game of keeping the world guessing about them for so long.
“And I suppose this recording includes me telling him –,” Emma said, thinking about when, and where, it must have come from.
“Yes. It’s really very – Emma, I’m sorry to have heard it, it’s such an invasion of your privacy. But it’s also so – beautiful. You are the only person who knows that side of Steed. I think that’s part of why they’re listening to it.”
“Well, he will hardly feel that way, I should think. It won’t help him to have the entire ministry find out that I’m his weak spot.”
Tara laughed. She couldn’t help it, but she cut it short quickly. “Emma, do you really believe anyone who’s ever seen you together doesn’t know?”
“I never –,” Emma stopped, realizing how absurd it sounded.
“Never what?” Tara asked, a shred of the old jealousy tickling at her pride, “Never kissed him in public? And he always keeps it formal, calls you Mrs. Peel? Do you really imagine that the rest of us couldn’t see through that? Do you see the way he looks at you? Or are you just so used to it you don’t notice?”
“Thank you, Tara. I get your point,” Emma said icily, “But in any case, whoever circulated the recording is going to regret it.”
Emma hung up the telephone and rose, glancing across the office at the couch. It was here. This office is bugged. She was certain of it. And equally certain, quite suddenly, that Steed must have known.
Containing her anger as she had learned to do so well, she went out to her secretary’s desk and picked up the phone. Mrs. Emerson glanced up with a puzzled look, but said nothing.
“Dr. Chivers? Emma Knight. “Would you come to my office with a signal sensor – the model we make for the Ministry of Defense. Yes. Thank you.”
She hung up the telephone and returned to her office, standing in the middle of the large room studying the furnishings. There were dozens of good places for it. She checked the telephone first and found nothing. The line’s probably tapped from the outside. By the time she had checked behind the pictures and inside the lampshades, Dr. William Chivers, a mousy, stoop shouldered scientist wearing a rumpled white lab coat, appeared in the doorway with a small black box.
“Shall I –,” he started to speak. She held up a hand, palm outward, and escorted him out of the office.
“There’s a listening device in there,” she said. “Find it, and don’t speak until you do.”
“Yes miss Knight,” Dr. Chivers replied, peering through thick glasses at her. He’d been with Knight for more than twenty-five years – he was one of the steadfast, morally incorruptible scientists that her father had recruited from the military after the war. If he thought of Emma as the little girl he once knew, he gave no sign of it. He stepped into the office and began working his way around the room, his device beeping every few seconds. As he passed the fireplace the beeping increased in frequency. He quickly narrowed down the source of the signal to the starter’s cannon sitting on the hearth.
Emma stared down at it, her rage growing. It was a trophy that she and her father had won one summer when they’d raced a Soling almost every weekend. She’d meet him at the office on Friday afternoons and they’d rush to his car, covering the distance to the Solent in what seemed like no time, having a late dinner together at the inn and racing all day Saturday. How she cherished those memories. How dare Weems and Plath use the cannon for their foul device? She was tempted to bring the thing along to the ministry – it fired shotgun shells. She could make good use of it when she found them.
Instead she picked up the heavy object and tipped it. A small, round device clattered out of the barrel onto the hearth. Dr. Chivers pointed his sweeper at it and it beeped wildly. Emma picked up the device, located a small switch on the side, and turned it off. The beeping stopped.
“Thank you Dr. Chivers,” she said. “If you can spare it, will you leave that here? I suspect this will be replaced.”
“Er, yes Miss Knight. Of course. Is everything all right? If I may ask?”
Emma had to smile at the man. “There have been some security problems here, Dr. Chivers. I’m afraid we’ve attracted the attention of the intelligence community. I intend to see that my office is not placed back under surveillance, but one can never be sure, unless one checks, right?”
“Yes, miss. Certainly. Do you want me to come check for you? Each morning?”
“No, doctor, I can do it. You have more important work to do. But thank you.”
The door to Steed’s office at the Ministry slammed open. He looked up from the report on his Liverpool assignment that he was forcing himself to complete before allowing himself to go to his club for lunch. Emma stepped inside and closed the door.
“Mrs. Peel!” he said, rising to greet her. She stopped in front of his desk and dropped a small round object on top of his report. Her expression, which had been unreadable as she entered, transformed to rage in the privacy of his office. She’d felt as if she were under a microscope getting there past dozens of ministry staff who, for all she knew, had listened to her at her most vulnerable.
“Did you know this was in my office?” she growled, eyes flicking from his to the object and back to his face. Steed picked up the device, identifying it easily as soon as he touched it.
“Are you asking whether I knew it was there, or whether I put it there?” he replied cooly, turning it over in his fingers, then looking up at her narrowing eyes. “The answer to both questions is ‘no.’ But if you’re asking whether I suspected, then yes. I suspected.”
She nodded curtly, swallowing hard. He waited. He could tell there was more.
“Tara called me this morning. Her men have a recording. Of us.”
Steed’s face went white. He set the bug down, then sat down himself. Emma watched the anger take over the set of his shoulders, his hands, and his face. She sat down across from him.
“You suspected it was there, but you allowed us to have sex anyway? You – we — said things we never would have wanted anyone else to hear.”
Steed shut his eyes tight, trying to think back over that evening, but only able to concentrate on the anger coursing through his veins. “Mrs. Peel, I never imagined that anyone in this organization would have the unmitigated gall to copy and distribute such a recording. Never. It is beyond unacceptable behavior,” he opened his eyes to look at her.
She believed him. Such an ungentlemanly act was beyond Steed’s comprehension. He didn’t mind the technician monitoring the device to hear them – it stroked his ego, she knew it, accepted it as part of his nature. But for the technician to distribute the recording was so far outside Steed’s moral sphere he never could have predicted it.
“By the time we were finished I had forgotten where we were, for a little while,” his expression had grown pained. She nodded slowly, seeing that he remembered the words they’d shared. “It’s all on the tape?”
“Tara says it is.”
“She listened to it,” he sighed, controlling his anger, but just barely. She cocked an eyebrow at him, questioning the regret in his tone. He winced. “I would not want to hurt her, and hearing us must have, even now.”
“Why?” Emma blurted, remembering how strangely irate Tara had become when she described what she’d heard on the tape.
Steed looked uncomfortable, eyes locked on Emma’s. He inhaled a sharp breath, closed his eyes, and said, “because what happens between you and I is unlike anything she knew — with me. And because to hear those words spoken is far more painful than simply knowing it must be so.”
Emma sat quietly, absorbing his admittance of what she’d already known. It didn’t matter. Tara wasn’t the only one. She thought back to a morning a few months ago when she’d asked him, indirectly, whether he and Tara had been lovers. Gallant, gentlemanly Steed had refused to say. She smiled ever so slightly at him, her old fashioned hero. But he didn’t see, his eyes were still closed.
He hadn’t wanted to ever have to admit it to Emma. Tara had been her immediate successor and it must seem to her as if he’d easily moved from one to the next. It had been nothing like that, but he did not know how to explain that Tara had been like a bandage, covering, but never filling the hole left in his heart by Emma. And since he couldn’t, he would rather just change the subject.
He opened his eyes and reached for the telephone on his desk. He dialed the many digits required to reach Tara’s office in Paris.
“This is Steed. Put Tara on,” he said, his sharp tone completely out of character. “Now!”
A few hundred miles away, Tara reluctantly picked up the telephone. “Steed,” she said as gently as she could, knowing he was in a rage from the look on poor Nelson’s face.
“Where did they get it, Tara?”
She had anticipated that. “I pinned Nelson to the wall and made him talk,” she said, wanting Steed to understand that she realized how serious this was. “He said Tony Jenkins sent it over.”
“And where is it now?” Steed asked.
“I burned it.”
“Thank you, Tara.” Steed hung up the telephone and stood up. “Come on,” he said to Emma, picking up the bug and going to the door. Emma rose and followed.
Emma was certain that ministry staff grinned slyly at them as they walked past. She could only imagine the impact they were having. What would Emma Peel do? Track down the culprits and make them pay, that’s what.
They entered the bullpen – the open work area where a number of agents collaborated on various cases. Steed moved to a cluttered desk, stopping to loom over it. Emma came up next to him, looking curiously at the agent seated there.
“Jenkins,” Steed growled. The agent had frozen, his hand half way to the telephone.
“Hello, Steed,” he said, his tone forced.
Without warning, Steed swung his arm back and slammed his fist into Jenkins’s jaw. The agent tumbled off his chair to the floor, arms and legs flailing. Several other agents rose to look, but nobody moved to help him up. Except Steed. He shoved the chair out of the way and grabbed Jenkins by the shirtfront.
“That was for Miss Knight,” Steed hissed. Emma started at his use of the unfamiliar name. But it was correct, after all. “You can save yourself another one if you tell me where you got the tape.”
Jenkins’s lip was split. Blood trickled from the wound. Steed raised him, his necktie bunched up under his chin, his feet nearly off the ground. “Hopkins,” he said weakly. “In communications.”
Steed dropped him and turned toward Emma. She nodded at him approvingly and they moved on.
Steed opened a glass-paneled door with “Communications” lettered on it in black. Emma entered and he followed. There were three desks against the walls amid banks of recording devices, transmitters, and windows looking into small listening booths.
“Hopkins?” Steed said. Emma realized he might not know the man. Two of the three agents in the room turned to look at Steed and Emma. The third was just replacing the telephone receiver. He didn’t turn. Emma could guess who had called. So could Steed. He walked over and put a hand on the man’s shoulder, turning him in his swivel chair.
Hopkins peered up at Steed through thick spectacles. Undaunted, Steed hauled him to his feet by his shirtfront. “Well, since Jenkins has seen fit to warn you, we’ll get right to it. Where did you get the recording?”
“Surveillance. Strictly routine,” Hopkins replied.
“Except the technician suggested you make a few extra copies, humm?”
“He, ah, may have suggested it,” Hopkins said, blinking behind his glasses. Steed dropped him and he stood leaning against his desk, supporting himself with his hands on it.
“So you did. No thought to the lady’s feelings? No thought of how I might react? No thought of your own well-being when I found out?” Steed’s tone was terrifyingly even. He actually concluded with a small, menacing smile.
Hopkins swallowed hard, eyes darting from Steed to Emma then back at Steed. “Now look here, Steed, it was all in fun. No harm meant, none done, eh?”
Emma cleared her throat.
“Yes, my dear,” Steed said, punching Hopkins in the gut so swiftly the man never saw it coming.
“Who was the technician?” Emma asked. Steed glanced at her.
“And how many did you make?” he added, putting his left hand on Hopkins shoulder to straighten him up. Hopkins held his hands across his middle, raising his head to glare at Steed.
“Steed, you can’t just go around slugging people,” one of the other men in the room said. Steed maintained his grip on Hopkins as he turned his head to look at the other man.
“On the contrary, Ralph,” he said, “It’s what I’m paid to do. As you may know, I’m rather good at it. Have you had the extremely poor judgment to listen to that recording?”
“Ah, no Steed. Certainly not,” Ralph, who apparently knew Steed, raised both hands, palm outward and took a step away.
“Uh huh,” Steed said, clearly not believing him. He turned back to Hopkins. “Well?”
“Three copies,” he said, his eyes darting to a double reel-to-reel tape recorder on a rack by his desk. Emma caught the glance. She stepped to the device, which was running, and turned up the volume. Her voice filled the room, “. . .I know you were overstepping your authority . . .”
She knocked the rack bearing the heavy device to the floor. Inside it, vacuum tubes shattered with multiple pops as the plastic case smashed open. She bent down and pulled the reels of the source tape off the pins.
“Didn’t you mean four?” she asked.
Hopkins groaned. “Damn you, Andrew,” he muttered. Steed pressed on his shoulders, forcing him to lean back across his desk, his spine pressed painfully against the edge.
“Andrew Smith?” Steed asked.
“Yes,” Hopkins whispered, trying to push back against the unyielding pressure of Steed’s hand. Steed stepped away from him and he leaned forward, doubling over. Steed gestured Emma toward the door. She tossed him an angled nod and preceded him out, still holding the tape.
“You’re enjoying this,” she muttered as they strode down the hall.
“So are you,” he said, giving her a sideways glance, a glint in his eyes.
Steed opened the door to surveillance and followed Emma in. They stopped just inside facing the last person they expected to see there.
“Steed, Emma,” Mother said, “I suspected you’d find your way here.”
“Mother,” Steed said stiffly. Emma only nodded.
“You’ve punched enough ministry staff today, Steed. I’ll take care of it from here.”
“No offense, Mother, but this is a personal matter,” Steed said. Mother shook his head, raising his hand. Rhonda, his rather spooky favorite assistant emerged from between two tall racks of monitoring devices. She stepped behind Mother’s wheelchair and turned it, pushing him between the rows of devices, further into the room. Steed and Emma followed.
They stopped at the back of the room where a work counter lined the wall. Andrew Smith, the technician, sat at the counter looking very unhappy. He looked even unhappier when he saw Steed and Emma. Mother held out his hand. Andrew held out a tape that Rhonda took and handed to Mother. Mother raised a lighter and flicked it on, then held it to the cellulose tape on the reel. Rhonda lifted a metal wastebasket and Mother dropped the burning tape in. He looked up at Steed.
“Mr. Hopkins will tell me who he gave copies to. I’ll see that they are located.”
Steed looked at Emma. She shrugged, acceding to Mother’s authority. Steed turned back to the head of the ministry. “Very well. Thank you for attending to it, Mother.”
“I would prefer that this situation had never arisen,” Mother said. “Please see that it does not occur again, Steed. Emma.”
“What are you going to do with that tape you have in your bag?” Steed asked as they walked along Whitehall toward his club. He had suggested she join him for lunch, in the ladies parlor.
“Not sure,” she said, fitting her arm though his. “Listen to it, perhaps.”
She looked at the side of his face, shaded beneath his bowler. A smile curled the edges of his lips. “I think not,” she said with a chuckle.
Emma woke up as early on Saturday morning as she had the rest of the week and decided not to break the habit of starting her day before the sun. She made herself coffee and toast, then settled in on the couch with some of the reports she’d brought home from the office. She knew it was just a matter of time before Steed turned up, but she was surprised when the doorbell rang at barely past nine.
“Come in Steed,” she called out. The door opened and Steed stepped in, one hand on the knob and the other behind his back.
“How did you know it was me?”
“I had a premonition.”
“Did your premonition included these?” he brought a dozen white roses out from behind his back. That got her off the couch.
“Hey!” she said, her face lighting up with delight, “what’s the occasion?” She took the flowers from him.
“Your first week back in charge of Knight,” he replied. She pressed her face into the blooms, inhaling deeply.
“Technically speaking,” she said, giving him a sly look, “it was only half a week. Will there be twice as many next weekend?”
“Possibly,” he replied.
“I’ll just put them in some water,” she said, heading for the kitchen. He set down his hat and umbrella and followed her.
“It’s rather early for you, Steed. What are your plans for the day?” she asked as she found a suitable vase in an open box and half filled it with water – the unpacking was far from complete — “and am I in them?”
He nearly filled the doorway, standing at ease watching her trim the flower stems. “My friend Reginald Styles has invited us down for an afternoon gallop, followed by a game dinner.”
“Well, me and a guest. We can stop for a quick lunch at a pleasant little pub I know along the way, and stay the night, if it gets late. Reggie’s got fine horses and a finer cellar. And he brings in a fortune in fresh truffles every season. Please say you’ll come.”
Emma smiled, wondering if he really thought she would say no. He might, she supposed, and I probably shouldn’t go.
“My favorite words!” she said, sighing as if enraptured, “fresh truffles.” Steed smirked at her and she grinned. “And I could use a good gallop,” she said, waving him out of the way as she carried the vase of roses back to the living room.
“How about a roll in the hay?” he asked, his voice dropping to a suggestive rumble. She rolled her eyes at him, but couldn’t help smiling at the notion. They’d ended up at their own apartments the previous night, both working late after their morning campaign at the ministry and lunch. The catharsis of getting revenge on the circulators of the tape, combined with an excellent cabernet with lunch, had fairly well erased the anger they’d both been feeling. Emma had returned to her office to two more press interviews and three meetings. When they’d spoken on the telephone in the evening Steed claimed to have finished his Liverpool report. Drifting off to sleep in her own bed she’d been surprised at how much she missed his presence, although it had also felt good to stretch out and be greedy with the pillows.
“It sounds lovely, Steed,” she said, to be sure he understood her answer.
Now his face lit up. “Excellent! I’ve a few errands to run.” He glanced at his watch, then collected his hat and umbrella. “I’ll pick you up in an hour?”
“I’ll be ready,” she said, setting the vase on a side table. She watched him open the door. “Steed, how formal is your friend’s game dinner?”
He paused, lips pursed for a moment. “Rather,” he said. “but not black tie.” Emma nodded, already thinking about what to bring. Steed closed the door behind him.
Steed parked the Bentley along side a sleek, white Ferrari and a dusty brown Renault in front of a rambling brick farmhouse. Emma looked at the structure with suspicion and Steed grinned.
“Wait until you see the interior,” he said, getting out of the car and coming around to her side. She stepped out, hand in his, just as the house door opened. A slight man with a shock of red hair walked purposefully across the yard toward them.
“Steed!” he said, raising a hand in a wave as he walked. Steed released Emma’s hand to shake his friend’s. “I’m so glad you were able to come, the horses are positively hopping for a good run.” Steed dwarfed Reginald, but the small man still had a strong presence. His energy level alone was tiring – he seemed never to stop moving, even when he was standing still. He turned to Emma. “Well hello,” he said, “Steed, you did not tell me you were bringing the latest sensation of the business world!”
“Emma Knight, Reginald Styles,” Steed said, his proud, slightly possessive expression making Emma smile first at him, then at his friend.
“Yes I know. I’ve read all about you, Miss Knight. Call me Reggie, please,” Styles said, taking Emma’s hand.
“Emma,” she replied warmly. “And don’t believe everything you read.”
“You mean that you’re a shrewd business woman, not to be trifled with?” Reggie asked. Stepping between Steed and Emma he held his arm behind her back to guide her toward the house.
“Oh, you can believe that,” Emma said. He laughed.
“Come inside, meet the others. Now you’re here the party can begin!” Emma glanced back over her shoulder at Steed, eyebrows raised. Steed shrugged, smiled patiently, and followed them.
There were three other guests – Reggie’s business partner, his wife, and a moderately well known steeplechaser who admitted he was considering buying one of Reggie’s horses. Reggie was an active host, constantly making the rounds of his guests to see that they were enjoying the afternoon. But he managed to spend more of his attentions on Emma than anyone else. Steed fell happily into a discussion with the jockey as they made their way to the stables and Reggie’s grooms brought them their horses. But Emma did not miss his frequent glances that gradually looked more endearingly peevish.
She nearly giggled as he stood back and watched Reggie take pains to show her how to check her saddle girth. She caught his eye and shrugged apologetically before politely returning her attention to their host’s unnecessary lesson. But if Reggie’s intention was to monopolize Emma, he miscalculated by putting Steed on a horse. The party set off and Emma gleefully spurred her spirited mare ahead. Steed would have taken up the chase under any circumstances, but she knew that Reggie’s behavior guaranteed that he’d stick with her.
Their mutually competitive natures transmitted to their horses, which bounded effortlessly across the wintry fields. The jockey kept up easily, pushing his mount over the fences and walls and commenting on all the horses’ suitability, or lack thereof, for the racetrack. When they slowed to rest the horses Steed once again fell into discussion with him and Emma enjoyed walking along beside them listening. Steed knew a great deal about horses – more than even she had realized. It pleased her to see him enjoying himself at something so completely unrelated to his work. There had been times in the past when she’d believed him incapable of being happy when not trying to solve a crime.
They returned to the stables, horses and riders all pleasantly tired from their exercise. Reggie begged them all to plan on staying overnight, since he had ordered up such a marvelous supper they would simply be unable to drive later. They all agreed except the jockey, who patted his stomach and smiled apologetically. He’d stay for dinner, but he couldn’t afford to eat to excess during the racing season. Reggie’s butler and a maid appeared to show the guests to their rooms where they could freshen up. Emma was about to follow Steed and the maid when Reggie wrapped her arm in his and insisted that he would show her to her room himself.
But despite their host’s flirtation, he remained a perfect gentleman. He proudly showed off her room, which was lushly decorated in florals and stripes. It was tasteful, if not to her taste. She made appropriate compliments and Reggie excused himself. Her bag, inappropriately monogrammed with “EP,” had been removed from the Bentley and placed in the room. She supposed it had not required a terribly clever person to tell her white bag from Steed’s brown leather valise.
She had washed and changed and was applying fresh lipstick when Steed knocked on the door then entered.
“How did you know which room to knock at?” she asked, capping her lipstick. She turned toward him and he crossed the room to her. She reached out, wanting to feel his solid presence. He obliged, holding her close but just pecking the tip of her nose.
“I bribed the maid,” he said, eyes twinkling.
“Scandalous!” she quipped, exercising great willpower not to return his peck and leave lipstick on his nose. “You might have warned me you were bringing me to visit a satyr,” she added, realizing as she said it just how satyr-like their diminutive host actually was. Steed seemed to stiffen, his eyes narrowing.
“I didn’t know,” he said, “I’ve never seen Reggie behave this way before. You have apparently cast a spell on him, my dear.”
“Surely you don’t think I’m encouraging –.”
“Of course not!” he cut her off with a little squeeze. “But something about you has clearly caught his fancy. I can’t imagine what . . .” his gaze was so full of mischief she had to push away from him in mock annoyance. His mood changed abruptly, which after so many years did not surprise her. “Stay alert. There could be more going on here than simple attraction.”
“But Steed, he’s your friend – he invited you here, not me.”
“And he might have known I’d bring you.”
Emma paused. It wouldn’t be the first time someone with an unpleasant agenda had used one of them to get to the other – although it had usually been the other way around. But she was certainly the more visible one just now.
“Perhaps it’s business after all,” she suggested. “What does Reggie do? Neither he nor Mr. Blanchard have mentioned.”
“Investments, capitalization, private placements.”
“Deal makers. Of course. I so detest men who try to get to my business through me.”
But if Knight was Reggie’s true goal, he did not reveal it during dinner. His staff served them a menu of game dishes including boar and rabbit, venison and partridge. Amid all the richness, the truffle risotto was Emma’s favorite, but she couldn’t fault any of it. Nor could she fault the wines, which changed with the courses. As promised, and despite trying very hard to only sample each dish, Emma was very happy not to have to endure a long car ride home when they were through. Only the jockey maintained his self-discipline, tasting all that was served but consuming no more than a bite or two of each dish.
At last, over coffee and brandy in a richly appointed parlor, the walls hung with the heads of unfortunate animals, Reggie exposed his hand. Emma was almost relieved when he brought up the subject of a large, well-known American firm that was seeking partners for a project related to computers. He addressed his comment to his partner but it was certainly intended for her. The dulling effect of the dinner and wine faded as his description of the project, having to do with replacing computer punch cards with more manageable forms of data storage, pricked her interest. It just might be a direction that Knight should look, she thought as he described their search for deep-pocketed business partners. But when he turned to her and said he hoped they weren’t boring her by discussing business she only smiled coldly. She still detested his tactics.
He looked somewhat deflated, glancing at Steed, who had managed to convince the jockey to stay for coffee and was back in deep conversation with him. Emma realized that she should probably not treat Steed’s friend as harshly as she might a random opportunist.
“Perhaps you would care to call at my office on Monday Reggie?” she said. “It would be much easier to concentrate on this interesting opportunity of yours then.” Reggie’s eyes widened as he absorbed what she’d offered. Then he broke into boisterous laughter. His partner cocked an eyebrow at him, but had to join in, Reggie’s hysterics were so contagious. Steed, the jockey, and Mrs. Blanchard looked on and smiled, thinking they’d missed a particularly amusing joke.
“I’m sorry to contradict you, Miss Knight,” Reggie finally managed, “but everything I have read about you is positively true. How do you manage to get along with her, Steed?”
Steed looked from Reggie to Emma, who widened her eyes in tacit inquiry. Answer that one, darling, her challenging gaze said.
“Years of painful experience, Reggie,” Steed said, raising his brandy snifter to Emma. The others laughed, Mrs. Blanchard more politely than genuinely, catching Emma’s eye with a sympathetic look. Emma felt a pang of guilt, wondering what the woman must think Steed meant, to show such pity. But she hadn’t had much opportunity to talk with Mrs. Blanchard. Perhaps in the morning, she thought, not wanting to leave the woman with the wrong impression.
The evening soon wound down with the departure of the jockey. Reggie bid his guests good night and they all made their way to their rooms.
Steed’s suggestion of a roll in the hay had spurred Emma to bring a pair of black silk boxers that she’d borrowed from his dresser a couple months before. They had turned up when she was packing her clothes for the move and she’d been trying to come up with a way to return them, although she was fairly certain Steed had not missed them – a fact that pleased her. They were completely unsuitable for him, even at his most sensual, which meant someone who did not know him very well must have given them to him. She didn’t want to know who, or when. But, perversely, she did want him to know she had found them. She undressed, leaving on her black lacy bra, and slipped the boxers on. Then she stretched out on the bed with her reports and waited. She knew Steed would come, once the house was quiet.
And he did, tapping on the door and opening it just wide enough to peek in. Seeing her, he slipped in and closed it behind him.
“What was that about?” she asked, setting her reports on the nightstand. He was wearing his dressing gown over dark blue silk pajamas. She wanted to remove them, slowly and deliberately.
“I was afraid Reggie might be here trying to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said, standing with his hands in his dressing gown pockets.
“If he’d tried, I’d have seen him out rather unceremoniously,” she said, wondering why he was just standing there. His expression was a strange mix of puzzlement and concern. She swung her feet to the floor and walked slowly toward him, the black boxers barely clinging to her hips. The bra held her breasts high, nipples deep red knots beneath the lace. She saw his eyes travel from the boxers to her breasts, then settle on her face as she stood in front of him. She reached out and pulled on the silk belt of his dressing gown, untying it.
“Where did you get those?” his voice was husky. His eyes held hers, but she knew he meant the boxers.
“I borrowed them from your dresser when you were missing in December,” she said, touching his Adam’s apple and tracing her finger down to the top button of his pajamas. His nostrils flared as he took a deep breath. “I assume they were a gift?”
“Yes,” he said. “They suit you much better than me.”
For just an instant she’d thought he might be angry. But there was a sensual undertone in his voice that let her know that her intrusion into his dresser was not important, and that he was sincere in his admiration of the garment on her. She smiled crookedly, unbuttoning his top button, wondering what she’d find if she let her hands wander lower. Not so fast.
Steed put his hands on her waist just above the waistband of the boxers, then slid them up, his fingers and palms like fire on her sensitized skin. He cupped both her breasts, thumbs rubbing across her nipples, feeling them harden and strain against the delicate lace. She undid another button, and another as he bent to kiss first one nipple and then the other through the lace. She shivered, a little moan escaping her lips. He removed his hands from her to shrug off his dressing gown, then brought them back, wrapping his arms around her, trapping her hands against his chest, pressing against her so she knew what she’d find if she reached lower. He ran a trail of kisses from her neck to her shoulder and back, climbing at last the rest of the way to her ready mouth.
“Where’s that hay?” she whispered as his lips wandered over her face. She felt him smile, felt him bring a hand to her face to caress her chin, then her cheek. His hand gradually made its way back to her breast as he kissed her, this time to pull the lacy fabric down and free the nipple. His mouth possessed hers as he pinched lightly. She gasped at the divine little shock, opening her mouth to devour him as he did her.
“Perhaps you could wear your bra this way, just for me?” he said, freeing her other nipple. “I could think about it while we are at the theatre, or in a restaurant.”
“You might go quite mad,” she said as she imagined the sensation of a silk blouse bushing against her nipples all day, “I might go quite mad,” she added, pressing him back just enough to give herself room to undo the last button on his pajama top. She slipped her hand inside, running her fingers through the patch of curly hair on his chest, and finding and caressing one of his small nipples. She felt his reaction against her belly. He moaned, his eyes growing hazy as his body focused his attention on two inextricably linked parts. She drew small circles around his areole as the little hard knot in the center grew harder and taller. She parted his top and brought her mouth to it, using tongue and lips to enlarge it even more.
His hands held her ribs, fingers curling against them. Suddenly he lifted her. She instinctively braced her hands on his shoulders as he carried her across the room to the bed and laid her down. He reached behind her back and undid her bra with one hand. Removing the flimsy garment and letting it fall away in the sheets. He suckled at one breast, caressing the other, supporting his weight with his other arm and one knee. He slid the other knee between her thighs, pressing against her through the black boxers. She pressed back, the solid presence of his knee, combined with his attention to her breasts, enough to trigger an orgasm. He felt it too, and reached down, hand sliding beneath the silky waistband, fingers delving inside of her to feel her wetness. She cried out with pleasure as he caressed her clitoris.
She ran her hands from his shoulders along his sides and slid them inside his pajama bottoms, exploring the folds of muscle, skin, and bone of his bent leg, then reaching inward, finding his hot, hard penis already moist. He froze as she caressed it, allowing himself to fully enjoy the sensation, indulging in her attentions exactly as she desired that he should. With one hand she reached beneath it to caress his engorged balls. She barely touched them, her feathery caress drawing a long, low moan from deep within his chest. He fell back on the bed beside her and she followed, pulling down his pajama bottoms. He obliged by lifting his hips. She slipped them off of his legs, then worked her way back up touching, licking, kissing his calves, knees, and thighs, and finally his shaft. His fingers tangled into her hair as she used her lips and tongue to intensify the fire in his loins. She would have finished him, had her own desire not been building throughout the day. She was too greedy to subsume her needs this time, and she knew it was not what he wanted, not given the glorious alternative.
“Emma,” he whispered, lifting her head, “your turn.”
She released him, finishing with an incongruously chaste kiss on the tip of his penis before moving upward to bring her face to his. His hands slid down her body and into the boxers, drawing them down her hips. He sat up to finish removing them, then pressed her to the bed and rose over her. They had experimented with many positions and found some of the most unusual to be extremely satisfying. But neither of them was ashamed to admit to liking the tried and true. Face to face, the solid mattress beneath her, they joined as one with no thought to mechanics. Their mouths as demanding of one another as their loins, he thrust and she bucked. Her legs were drawn up nearly to his chest, his thrusts drove them deep into the soft mattress. Then, buried as deep as he could go, he held her and moved within her, eliciting a cry that he muffled with his mouth. He moved his lips back to her nipple, making her cry again as her body shuddered with pleasure. He withdrew a few inches and thrust again, feeling her contract around him in waves of heat. He thrust again as if pressing through wet, searing fire, and again, and she began a long, slow moan that he knew would trigger him. He thrust faster, driving deep again and again as she went on moaning, her fingers clawing at his back, her head rolling from side to side. She was lost within herself, her brilliant mind subsumed by the rapacious creature that he adored releasing. He closed his eyes and let himself go as well, giving her his most precious gift – his trust. His body took over, driving into her as fast as it could, releasing his essence into her, filling her, mingling with her, becoming her.
After that night on the stairs a few days ago they had reached a tacit agreement. If her pills had failed because of that one missed day and she was, or became, pregnant, then they would have a child. If not, then the time wasn’t right. To many it would have been a tremendous decision to leave to fate. But it was how they’d always been together – courting risk, facing it head on, dealing with it together. She wanted a child, but she also wanted to manage Knight. Leaving the choice to fate allowed her to absolve herself of this most difficult choice. Steed wanted her more than anything, and he would happily father a child in the bargain, so long as she was with him. They had not discussed it since that night: neither of them recognized a need to say more.
“How early will we be expected to get up in the morning?” Emma asked, laying on her side, her body pressed against Steed’s along its whole length. She was using her toes to caress his foot, and her fingers to stroke the hard flesh of his abdomen. They both knew they were not finished yet.
“Reggie’s a church goer,” Steed said. “He’ll not look for any of us until he gets back.”
“Which service?” she asked.
Steed rolled onto his side to face her and she realized that her soft little touches had revived him rather quickly. He ran his hand from her shoulder down her side to her flank and she drew her leg up over his thigh comfortably.
“We can probably laze about until noon, although it would be unseemly to be seen emerging from the same room, my bed unslept in.”
“Oh bother,” she sighed, “Then you might as well go on back to it.”
He snorted, and proceeded to demonstrate to her why that was bloody unlikely just then.
In the end Steed crept back to his room mid-morning when the house was quite still. It wasn’t that they’d overslept. Emma had awakened as early as usual and taken the opportunity to remind Steed of the pleasures of watching the sunrise, for which she dutifully rewarded him. Then he’d thanked her for the reward. Then they’d dozed, sated and deliriously happy, until they heard a door close somewhere and realized that time was their enemy. But the door had been Reggie leaving for church, not returning. Steed burrowed into his bed and rolled around a bit, then rose and dressed, more interested in regaining Emma’s company, even clothed and publicly presentable, than sleeping.
Mrs. Blanchard was alone at the breakfast table when Emma entered. She had washed and dressed as soon as Steed left, contriving to get downstairs ahead of him to support their ruse.
“Good morning, Miss Knight. Have you seen Mr. Steed this morning?” Mrs. Blanchard asked as Emma took the seat across from her.
“Good morning Mrs. Blanchard. No, I haven’t,” Emma replied, thinking of just how much of him she’d seen just a quarter hour earlier. “He’s not an early riser, but this is about his usual hour.”
“It’s just as well, I wanted a quiet word with you,” Mrs. Blanchard said. Emma tilted her head in inquiry. “I know you saw that I was surprised by his comment about you last night. Men can be so unfeeling when they egg one another on. It must be very difficult running a large company, as a woman.”
“But Mrs. Blanchard, Steed was joking!”
“You looked quite irate, Miss Knight,” she replied knowingly.
“If I did, it was at our host, Mrs. Blanchard. I did not appreciate his tactic for getting me to agree to a meeting.”
“Oh I see,” Mrs. Blanchard frowned, then sipped her tea. The butler appeared with a teapot in one hand a coffee pot in the other. Emma asked for coffee, which he poured. Then he disappeared promising her toast momentarily.
“Yes. He might just as well have asked Steed to ask me for a meeting. I would have agreed. In fact, the only reason I suggested it last night after all was because he’s Steed’s friend.”
Mrs. Blanchard had gone slightly pale. She focused her eyes on the plate of toast in front of her. “Oh dear,” she said, then let her eyes dart up to Emma’s. “Then I’m afraid my husband may be to blame. He insisted that you would not have time to meet just now, at least not before it’s too late for their deal.”
“That might be true, actually,” Emma admitted. “But was this entire weekend contrived to approach me about it? What if Steed had not invited me, or I’d refused?”
Mrs. Blanchard shook her head firmly, “No, no, the weekend was planned ages ago – ask Mr. Steed, he’s had the invitation. But I do believe Reggie was hoping he’d bring you. He did know of your association with one another.”
“I see,” Emma said, glad to see the kitchen door open as the butler returned with her toast. “Well, it’s been lovely all the same, and I do look forward to discussing this matter with Reggie. So all’s well.”
But Mrs. Blanchard’s expression was still somewhat troubled. She watched Emma butter a piece of toast. “And you’re quite certain Mr. Steed was joking?” she finally asked.
Emma put marmalade from a pot in the center of the table on her toast, taking her time, wondering how this woman had misconstrued her relationship with Steed when so many others declared that their true feelings were patently obvious.
“Quite, Mrs. Blanchard. Steed and I –.” She was interrupted by a pair of hands on her shoulders, followed by a light kiss on her cheek.
“Good morning darling. ‘Steed and I are’ what?” he asked as he sat down beside her. She couldn’t help smiling fondly at him. Mrs. Blanchard’s face assumed a pleased, knowing look. “Good morning, Mrs. Blanchard,” Steed added, then returned his gaze to Emma, waiting expectantly.
“Are very old, very good friends, I was going to say, darling,” she replied wryly.
“I see,” Mrs. Blanchard said with amusement. “I did not mean to pry.”
“Don’t be silly. Mrs. Peel is correct. We are very old, very good friends.”
If Mrs. Blanchard was confused by Steed’s use of Emma’s married name she made no comment. Mr. Blanchard soon joined them, and Reggie returned to round out the party. They said their farewells at mid-day, and Steed drove Emma home.
“I’ll call you later, Steed. I really have to finish reading these reports before I drift off. I seem not to have gotten much sleep last night, despite being in bed for quite a few hours,” Emma said before getting out of the Bentley. Steed’s face slipped into an expression of fond reminiscence and he took her hand to kiss it.
“Thank you for coming, Mrs. Peel,” he said. “It felt awfully good to have your full attention, away from Knight, for a few hours.”
“Dear Steed,” Emma sighed, wondering just how serious he was. He turned her hand to kiss her palm, then released it to reach up and run his fingers through her hair.
“Go on, back to work,” he said gently. “And don’t forget to get the correct passwords from your driver in the morning.”
He’d watched her inside, then drove away so that by the time she looked out the window of her flat the Bentley was gone.
“What’s on the agenda for today, Mrs. Emerson?”
It was eight o’clock Monday morning and Emma was ensconced behind her desk. She felt dwarfed by it and by the history it represented. And she felt her father’s presence here more than anywhere else in the room. The chair was not his; one of her predecessors had changed it to a sleek, modern model. She liked it, but it didn’t match the desk and she wanted to replace it. Another item for Mrs. Emerson.
The secretary, seated opposite her, indicated a pile of folders and papers in front of Emma. Today’s priorities, to be dealt with or reprioritized as she saw fit. Mrs. Emerson provided a summary.
“Weaponry and Software have staff meetings today at ten and one. Locations are on your calendar,” she began. Emma had started attending senior staff meetings of all divisions of Knight on Friday. The accounting department’s meeting had been thoroughly dull, but she’d sensed a discomfort at her presence that made her want to look a little more closely. None of the senior people had been there more than a few years, so she did not know them, nor they her. Which could account for it, but she intended to pay close attention to their activities nonetheless. Today she’d get a feel for two of Knight’s most critical groups. If her alarms went off at Weaponry and Software’s meetings she’d know she was in trouble.
“The agendas for those meetings are in your pile. You’ll also find the offer letter you requested for Sally Howard. There are status reports from several other divisions who have meetings this week and next week. And I trust your car was on time this morning?”
“Yes,” Emma said, flipping thorough the files to find Sally’s offer letter. Steed’s appointed driver had met her at her flat promptly at seven thirty. He was a big, stern looking fellow whose face split into a friendly smile when he greeted her. He introduced himself as Fred, providing the code words Steed had told her to be sure to receive. Steed was being overprotective, and she hadn’t yet decided what to do about it. She found the letter for Sally and pulled it out of the pile.
She had explained to Mrs. Emerson that she was not bringing Sally on to replace her, but rather to continue providing the more personal assistance she’d been doing for several months. While it could be argued that Emma should continue to employ Sally herself rather than making her a member of the Knight staff, she felt that Sally fell into the same category as the car and driver – and she would give those up before Sally.
Mrs. Emerson had accepted her instructions to arrange the job without comment, and Emma hoped her outward understanding was sincere. She absolutely needed Mrs. Emerson’s experience and wisdom guarding her office door. Sally, she hoped, would learn a great deal from her.
She skimmed the standard letter, her eye passing over and then skittering back to the salary figure in the second paragraph.
“Is this right?” she asked, holding up the letter and pointing to the paltry sum. “Is this what we pay entry level staff?”
“Yes Miss Knight. It’s actually on the higher end of the range, since it’s a direct request from you.”
“And do we actually attract bright prospects by paying at this level?” Emma knew that her prospective was somewhat distorted – she had never had to live on a salary. She tried to recall what she’d been paid when she’d had a summer job at Knight during college. It had to have been at least this much, and she was just a student. Her father had not shown her any favoritism; she’d been paid the same as the other summer employees.
“I couldn’t say, Miss Knight,” Mrs. Emerson replied. “Shall I set up an appointment for you with Mr. Griffith in personnel?”
“Yes, please do. We can’t build a future on poor talent. And if we hire them and train them and then they move on for more money elsewhere there’s no return on our investment,” Emma realized she was lecturing and stopped. Mrs. Emerson smiled indulgently. “By the way, if a Reginald Styles calls, set up an appointment this week. Include Mr., um, Benson? From software, and Simmons from research and development, and Edmond Stanton.”
Emma looked around the conference room at the Knight Weaponry senior staff. Of all Knight’s departments and endeavors, Weaponry was the oldest — the foundation of her father’s original dream. She recognized several faces: old Parker who had designed rocket launchers used at one time or another by most militaries in the world; Gordon Lewis, whose research into laser technology had helped her understand the details of a case she’d once worked on with Steed; and the fellow near the far end of the table. She couldn’t place him, but she was sure she recognized him.
Alistair Josephs, the executive vice president in charge of Weaponry, chaired the meeting. He introduced Emma and asked his staff to go around the table introducing themselves. Emma, who had a very good memory for names, did not recognize Alex Harper, the man she thought looked familiar, as a Knight employee from her previous years there. She turned over the puzzle in her mind as the meeting progressed. Harper, she learned, had been recently promoted to the Weaponry senior staff. As he reported on the projects under his oversight in measured tones, it was the way he bobbed his head between sentences that gave him away.
When the meeting adjourned, Emma exchanged appropriate pleasantries with Josephs, but placed herself so that she could exit the conference room just behind Harper. She took a quick step to put herself next to him in the hall.
“Come to my office please, Mr. Harper,” she said pleasantly. He stopped, staring at her and she turned back to him. “Now, please,” she added with a friendly smile. He nodded, not smiling, then seemed to recover himself and moved to follow her.
“Mrs. Emerson, has anyone been in my office?” she asked as she approached her secretary’s desk.
“No, Miss Knight.”
“Thank you. Mr. Harper.” She ushered him in and closed the door. “I have to regularly sweep for listening devices,” she said, “but perhaps you knew that. Have a seat.”
He sat, following her with his eyes as she walked around behind her desk and sat down.
“After Steed pulled you out from under that hay truck four years ago, we thought you were dead. I was amazed that you were all right,” she said. “That was a deep cover job too, wasn’t it?”
He stared at her.
“We’re quite alone here, Mr. Harper. And I do have a certain – status – with the ministry. You can check,” she reached for the telephone receiver and held it out to him. He shook his head, so she replaced it. “How long have you been here?” she asked.
“Who put you here? Weems?”
Harper nodded, still regarding her with a very guarded look.
“And what have you found out about my company in that time?”
“Miss Knight you know I can’t discuss it with you.”
Emma sighed, turning her chair sideways so that she could recline a little and cross her legs. “All right,” she said patiently, “then I’ll tell you. My ex-husband bought his way into this organization through three board members who are, I must add, still on the board. He was captured purchasing the software that runs on Knight missile guidance systems, which means he probably got the guidance systems from Knight Weaponry. You have been inside Weaponry for six weeks and you haven’t been able to determine who sold our secrets. You were just promoted – presumably by the Ministry, not Mr. Josephs – to give you more room to look. I suspect your file in personnel would not bear close scrutiny by someone, like me, who knows what to look for.” She turned to face the desk and leaned across it toward him. “Mr. Harper, tell me where you think the leak is and I’ll see that you get as close as you need to get to plug it. Immediately. Weeding out the criminals from this organization is my highest priority, that and keeping the company afloat.”
“I,” he paused, took a deep breath, and blew it out in a way that reminded her of Steed, “I think it might be Josephs, but I don’t have anything more than a feeling,” he said. Emma nodded. She’d acted on little more than a feeling often enough – it was something that good agents learned to do. “I do think that the next vulnerable project is something that encryption is working on.”
Emma leaned back in her chair to consider this. The “next” vulnerable project. Harper was here because Weems believed the security breaches at Knight had not stopped with Peter’s arrest. She had suspected as much, but Harper’s confirmation still gave her a chill. Everything she’d worked toward for the last six months would be pointless if she couldn’t put a stop to it.
She thought about their current encryption projects. That whole business segment was heavily monitored by the Ministry of Defense, and therefore by Harper’s own associates. Emma had signed more security agreements on her first day as CEO – the Secrets Act she’d signed upon reuniting with Steed had not been enough – that allowed her free knowledge of all the government projects Knight was engaged in. Although encryption technology and techniques had been considered weaponry since the war, Emma believed that computerization was going to alter that. Computers could be considered weapons, but they were also civilian tools. Secret codes were going to be needed for all kinds of confidential information. Computers transmitted financial information to one another. It had to be encoded. The days of ranks of humans decoding messages using mechanical devices were gone.
It made a great deal of sense to her to move Knight’s encryption efforts out of Weaponry and into the computer division that Emma planned to create. Right now, the closest thing to it was Software, the division she wanted to spin of into a subsidiary. There were quite a few hurdles – many presented by the government’s security concerns – to such reorganization. But Emma believed she could convince their largest customer that the ultimate arrangement would be more secure.
“Mr. Harper, you are about to become an organizational expert. We’re going to reorganize, move our wily code makers and breakers over to our software and computing division. You’re going to be responsible for recommending the best way to handle the transition. If anyone asks, that’s what you’ve been here for all along, you’ve been analyzing company structure. I’m sure you have the resources to come up with a creditable plan.”
She gave him time to think about it, watching him without seeming to. After several minutes, he said, “And you plan to make that division a subsidiary. That will put a wall between it and whoever is trying to compromise it,” he nodded appreciatively. “I’ll need to talk to the encryption staff. Determine whether the current structure makes sense to move intact or a lower level reorganization is appropriate,” he said. Emma nodded, understanding that the real point of these conversations would be to look for a possible traitor. “What about Benson? Isn’t he in charge of Software? Do you trust him?”
“I don’t know him, but I’m about to go to his staff meeting. Surely Weems and Plath have run a background check on him?”
“Yes, I skimmed it once. I’ll ask them to bring it to me at our next meeting. Unless you want to ask them for it?”
Emma smiled and shook her head, “No, the less interaction I have with those two the better for all concerned,” she replied, wondering if he knew about their questioning last week.
“I understand. I’ll get it for you then.”
Emma wasn’t really sure why Harper had decided to throw in with her, but she was grateful. She had no intention of asking him to do anything that would contradict his assignment. On the contrary, she wanted to help.
The Software staff meeting went much as the others had, with introductions and project reports. Emma thought about the data storage technology opportunity that Reggie had brought up on Saturday. It could revolutionize this business, getting rid of having to manage all those data entry cards. She wondered if Reggie had called. And she wondered about Angus Benson, the vice president in charge of Software. He was soft spoken with a lilting accent that was sometimes difficult to understand. But it was clear his staff respected him, and it was equally clear that he had a solid understanding of both computers and the business. In some ways that was a relief – much as Emma loved mad scientists, it was pleasant to speak in terms of financial and organizational benefits sometimes. But it was also a concern, because if he understood the business, he would have an easier time manipulating it. She left the software staff meeting feeling none the wiser about Benson and wishing she’d thought to ask Harper when he was next meeting with Weems.
Emma had poured herself a small glass of brandy from the bar in her office and taken it to the window to look out across the evening lights of London. The first day of her first full week in charge of Knight was over. Contrary to her expectations, she felt no sense of success. There were still security leaks within the company. Peter was in jail, but his network was still in place and someone was manipulating it. Probably Birch, but if Harper and the other ministry agents didn’t already have enough evidence to arrest him, then it fell to her to cut off his access. And what about Dixon and Stafford? She suspected that they also had connections within the company that they valued enough to risk staying on the board, even knowing that she suspected them.
She heard her office door open before his voice reached her. She set her glass on the windowsill and spun around, prepared for a greeting, or a fight. Angus Benson was closing the door behind himself.
“Mr. Benson?” she said, still unsure what to expect. His head popped up and he turned to face her.
“Forgive me, Miss Knight. Mrs. Emerson was not at her desk. I wonder if you can spare a moment?”
Emma relaxed. She picked up her drink and approached the head of Knight Software.
“Certainly Mr. Benson. Would you like a drink?”
Benson looked at her glass with surprise, then nodded. “I would, Miss. I could use a bit of Dutch courage,” he said. She moved to the bar built into an unattractive shelving unit.
“Why is that, Mr. Benson?” she asked, pouring him brandy. “I’m sorry,” she added, turning to hand him the glass, “There’s no ice.”
He took the glass, staring at the amber liquid as if he wasn’t sure what to do with it.
“Shall we sit down?” Emma suggested, gesturing at the sofa and chairs. He followed her, sitting awkwardly on the sofa while she took the armchair across from him. She waited while he took a sip of the brandy and set the glass on the table. He pressed his palms together between his knees and closed his eyes. Then his eyes popped open and he looked at her curiously.
“I have heard many opinions of you, Miss Knight, from my staff and colleagues,” he said softly. Emma leaned forward and set her glass on the table, then sat back and crossed her legs. “You inspire strong reactions.”
She smiled, but didn’t reply, so he went on. “I don’t suppose it matters to you that you are not universally liked. But you would probably like to know that everyone, friends and enemies alike, believes you are honest, ethical, and fair.”
Emma felt herself flinch at the word “enemies,” but she made no comment.
“I have given this a great deal of thought, Miss Knight. I believe that you are here to do what you have said – to redirect this company. But I also think that you suspect there are problems that you have not mentioned publicly.”
He stopped, watching her. She realized that she needed to give him a sign or he would not go on.
“I am aware of some problems, Mr. Benson. I aim to eliminate them. Which will require making some difficult choices,” she said.
“Then perhaps I am about to add to your burden, but I don’t think so. You have proposed making my division a subsidiary of Knight. I wanted you to know that I support your proposal. In fact, I have suggested it more than once in the past. Mr. Milk was not interested in discussing it.”
“I’m not surprised,” Emma said too quickly. Benson looked curious. She shrugged. “Mr. Milk was a puppet of the board, Mr. Benson. Do you suspect anyone in particular in your organization of violating this company’s security policies?”
Benson sat up straight, a hint of a smile curling the corners of his mouth. Then he reached for his glass and took a sip of brandy. “We understand one another, Miss Knight,” he said. “And no, I have no specific suspicions. But something is not right.”
“Mr. Benson, your division, as a subsidiary, could be very important to Knight’s future. I have two important plans in mind. Let me tell you about them.”
Emma presented her theory about the future of encryption, watching Benson’s face go from concern to interest to relief as she spoke. As they discussed computerized encryption she became confident that he understood the concepts that she had been contemplating. Then she mentioned the opportunity that Reggie had proposed. Benson was very well informed about the American firm and the direction they were taking their research. He became positively enthusiastic at the prospect of Knight participating.
Two hours after he’d gingerly entered her office, Benson exited, shaking Emma’s hand warmly. She stood outside her door watching him walk to the lifts. Mrs. Emerson was at her desk, although it was after seven p.m.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Knight. I just got up to visit the ladies’ room. He must have come then,” she said.
“It’s all right, Mrs. Emerson. What on earth are you still doing here?”
“Some catching up, Miss Knight. I’m about to go. Are you staying much longer?”
“Not a moment longer,” Emma said, realizing that she was both hungry and exhausted. She had not made it to her planned training session with Hemming that afternoon and she could feel the effects of not enough exercise. Maybe I need to join Steed in his midnight work outs, she thought as she retrieved her bag and headed for the lifts.
Tuesday was as overwhelmingly busy as Monday, but Emma ruthlessly set aside two hours at midday to go to the Ministry and work with Hemming. She allowed herself to think through the morning’s meetings as she stretched stiff muscles before joining him on the mats.
Griffith from personnel had been just as humorless as she’d feared. She’d asked him what Knight’s salary structure was based on and he’d said history and experience, with increases based on economic variables. When she’d asked about industry standards he’d shrugged, saying he didn’t know what their competitors were paying – how could he? She’d been tempted to fire him on the spot, but realized that that would leave his duties in her hands until she could appoint a replacement. So she’d stilled her tongue and handed him clippings she’d collected from several journals that discussed salary surveys by industry. She’d authorized him to purchase some of the research and come up with a proposal for revamping Knight’s salaries accordingly. And she nearly doubled the figure he’d put in Sally’s offer letter.
She allowed herself ten minutes in the sauna after sparring with Hemming for nearly an hour. He’d been as demanding as ever, but she had the impression that he was growing satisfied that her condition was not being adversely affected by either overwork or rich meals.
Harper turned up in the afternoon, demanding to see her personally, only for a moment, so that Mrs. Emerson finally buzzed her. He handed her a file and left. It was the Ministry’s background check on Benson. She was relieved to find that the head of software had no black marks on his record and a very solid reputation.
Mrs. Emerson reported that the revised letter for Sally had been completed, so she signed it and asked Mrs. Emerson to have it hand delivered to the Peel estate. “Have Fred drive it out in my car,” she said when Mrs. Emerson looked surprised at the extravagance. “I’m not going anywhere for hours. It will give him something to do.”
An hour later Mrs. Emerson buzzed her to tell her Sally Howard was on the line. Smiling, she took the call.
“Oh ma’am, I don’t know what to say,” Sally said when she came on the line. “This is incredible. Are you sure there’s no mistake?”
Emma chuckled, saying, “No, there’s no mistake Sally. But really, it’s not all that much. Not when you take out tax and living expenses.”
“I don’t need much, Lady Emma. This will be far more than I need to live.” Sally had not yet trained herself away from the title Emma had given up in the divorce.
“Nonetheless, it is what we are offering.”
“Then I accept, ma’am. How do I do that? I mean, what do I do next?”
“Why don’t you come to the office. We can show you around, talk about your duties, figure out your start date, and help you get comfortable.”
“That sounds lovely, ma’am. When shall I come?”
“Actually, I’m not sure. I’m going to have Mrs. Emerson work that out with you. Hold on and I’ll have her pick up. I’ll see you very soon, Sally.”
After two rather difficult days, Sally’s enthusiasm raised her mood surprisingly. She was further boosted by the call that came much later. It was nearly half past six when Mrs. Emerson informed her that a Mr. Steed was on the line.
“Steed,” she sighed, picking up the phone near the sofa and sinking down onto it as she spoke.
“Are you hungry, Mrs. Peel?” his velvety voice was so soothing.
“For you, Steed,” she smiled wickedly, wondering if Weems or Plath had managed to place another device in her office that afternoon. She had not checked. She had come to regard it as a game – so far she’d deactivated four devices, each one located by the sweeper in a different location from the last. She had no idea how they were getting in to place them – it was as frustrating as Steed’s old “We’re Needed” messages that turned up in the most unlikely places. In any case her growing collection of electronic bugs had her thinking that Knight should have the ministry contract on making them. Must be very lucrative.
“That’s a craving I’d be happy to help you with, Mrs. Peel. But I was thinking of dinner first. Can I tempt you away from your tower?”
“You most certainly can. But I do need to go home – I’ve left some papers there that I will need tomorrow.”
“No problem. Dinner will come to you at home. I’ll bring it by in about an hour – will that suit?”
“Perfectly. Thank you Steed.”
Emma turned off the lights in her office, closed the door and locked it. It was nearly seven p.m. again, and Mrs. Emerson was still at her desk.
“Mrs. Emerson, I refuse to believe that you are still catching up. You are far too efficient.”
“No Miss Knight. But I thought you might need something.”
“Mrs. Emerson, you do not need to keep the same hours that I do. I will not have you out here waiting for me to leave when I’m lost in the depths of some report until midnight.”
“No Miss, of course not. It’s just that, well, the gentleman asked me to.”
Emma cocked one eyebrow and focused her most searching gaze on her secretary. “What gentleman, Mrs. Emerson?”
“It was one of those security men who came when Mr. Milk died. He seemed very concerned for your safety, Miss Knight.”
Emma nodded. She had not identified who the ministry people were, allowing Mrs. Emerson and others to think they were from some sort of security organization rather than government intelligence.
“That’s all very well, Mrs. Emerson, but the gentleman has no authority here at Knight. You do not have to do as he asked. In fact, I won’t have it.”
“But Miss Knight, if there is a danger to you, I would prefer to help keep you safe in some small way.”
Emma was touched, but there was little that Mrs. Emerson could do if someone were really intent on attacking her in her office. “Let’s compromise, Mrs. Emerson,” she said. “You will work as late as you like, but not as late as I do, if I’m very late. But you will tell me when you’re going so that I can lock my office door. Does that sound reasonable?”
Mrs. Emerson considered it for a moment and Emma had to admire her dedication. “Very well, Miss Knight. So long is your door is locked and you promise to pay attention to sounds outside,” she said. Emma nodded.
“Now, let’s both go, shall we?” she suggested. Mrs. Emerson took just a moment to lock her desk and put on her coat, then they rode down the lift together chatting about tomorrow’s schedule.
The guard in reception wished them goodnight as they passed, and they stepped outside, Emma stopping at the top of the three steps leading to the sidewalk. Steed was leaning against the Bentley right in front of the building. Mrs. Emerson recognized him and stopped too, looking to Emma for guidance.
“Good evening ladies,” Steed said pushing away from the car to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and tip his hat. Emma descended the steps, Mrs. Emerson following her.
“Steed, where’s my car?” Emma asked, nerves suddenly on high alert seeing the glint of tension in his eyes.
“There,” he said, glancing at the black limo that she hadn’t noticed parked in front of the Bentley. “I told him he could go, that I’d take you, but he refused.” Steed said, one brow rising to communicate more than he’d said. The ministry driver should have followed Steed’s instructions without question. Emma frowned and Steed nodded slightly.
“Mrs. Emerson, Mr. Steed will drive me home, but you can take my car,” she said, leading the secretary toward the black car.
“Miss Knight, that’s very generous,” she said as she followed. The driver got out and opened the rear passenger door. It was not Fred. Emma put her hand on Mrs. Emerson’s arm, stopping her from getting in. She glanced back at Steed. He was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, arms loosely at his sides, his posture tensed to act.
“Good evening. Where’s Fred?” Emma asked the driver. He looked her in the eye, one of his drooped slightly.
“Ill, madam,” he replied. Emma took a step away from him dragging Mrs. Emerson with her.
“I’m sorry you’ve waited. We won’t need you this evening after all,” she said firmly, then turned and ushered the confused Mrs. Emerson back toward Steed. She glanced over her shoulder to see the driver get back in the car, start it, and pull away.
Steed was visibly relaxed, smiling warmly at them as they reached him.
“What happened to Fred, Steed,” Emma asked.
Steed glanced at Mrs. Emerson, then replied, “Dead. He was found in the garage about 5:30.”
Mrs. Emerson gasped, putting a hand to her mouth. Emma stared into Steed’s expressive eyes, searching for and finding reassurance.
“We’ll take you home, Mrs. Emerson,” she said, taking her secretary’s arm.
“It’s rather out of your way, Miss Knight. I can take the bus.”
“Nonsense,” Emma stepped over to the Bentley and opened the rear door. Mrs. Emerson followed docily, climbing into the car with Emma’s help. Emma turned back to a scowling Steed and gave him a mischievous look. “She would have left hours ago if you hadn’t asked her to stay as long as I do,” she said quietly. “It’s the least you can do.”
Emma realized as they set out that Steed hadn’t asked Mrs. Emerson where she lived. She chuckled, realizing that he knew – he had checked her out. He swiveled his head to look at her as she tried to conceal her amusement. She winked at him, then turned toward the back seat, “Where do you live, Mrs. Emerson?” she saw Steed’s face fall as he realized he’d been discovered.
“Yes, where are we going, Mrs. Emerson?” he added, looking at the woman in his rear view mirror.
The drive to London’s extreme eastern suburbs took forty minutes during which Emma continued her discussion of business matters with her secretary. If Mrs. Emerson found her willingness to talk about Knight in front of Steed odd she did not show it. Nor did she ask how he had known about the driver. Emma could not decide whether the woman was remarkably incurious, terribly discrete, or in shock. They finally dropped her off in front of her home in a strip of row houses. They watched to see that she safely entered the front door. When she had vanished and a light came on inside Steed accelerated the Bentley rather faster than was appropriate. His annoyance was clear through his tight grip on the steering wheel.
“What happened to Fred? Why do you know about it, and why didn’t you tell me when you called?” Emma asked, allowing his irritability to rub off on her.
“Broken neck,” he replied, “and I didn’t know when I called. I found out about it because, as you may recall Mrs. Peel, I am informed whenever anything threatening to you occurs – you’re on my ‘associates’ list. When I found out I decided to meet you. Finding the substitute driver – who was not assigned by the ministry, by the way – justified my decision, don’t you think?”
Emma sighed, suddenly feeling very vulnerable despite being safe in Steed’s dear old Bentley. “Thank you, Steed. I’m sorry for snapping,” she said. He glanced at her, a forgiving smile on his face, then reached out to find her hand as he returned his gaze to the road ahead.
“Well, I’m sorry about this long drive,” he said, sounding more peevish than regretful, “our dinner will be quite cold.”
Emma set about warming the lovely take-away meal Steed had brought while he returned to her neglected bookshelves, opening another box to begin shelving. She set a timer in the kitchen and wandered out with a bottle of wine and two glasses. Steed was sitting on the floor beside the box looking at a photograph. He glanced up as she handed him a glass of wine.
“Do you remember this?” he asked, holding up the picture so she could see it. She smiled at both the memory and the coincidence that he should find that picture.
“Venice,” she said, dropping to her knees beside him. “You sent your copy of that to your sister. She mentioned it to me.”
“No, I’m sure I still have it. I must have made an extra,” he said. “They look happy, don’t they?”
“Oh I don’t know,” she said, taking the picture to study it closely, although she knew every shadow and highlight very well already. “I think she looks rather smug and he’s just a bit frustrated.”
Steed took it back. “You’re right,” he sighed, “Miserable, the both of them.” He set the picture on the floor and reached into the box it had come from, pulling out a photo album. “It must have come out of this,” he said. Emma frowned and looked at the box he was unpacking. Her eyes widened. “What is it Mrs. Peel?”
“That box,” she said. “I had forgotten about it. It’s been packed since I moved out of here. I,” she ran one hand through her hair, her expression growing melancholy. Steed looked into the box and smiled, reaching in to pull out a stuffed bear. Emma’s melancholy softened into a reminiscent smile.
“How remarkably sentimental, Mrs. Peel,” he said. “Do you think this fellow would like to stay out?”
“I’m sure he would,” she replied softly, taking the bear to cuddle. Steed watched her for a moment, amazed to see the brightness of kept tears in her eyes. Turning from her to allow her to recover, he opened the photo album.
“Remember this party?” he asked, pointing at a picture of her in a spectacular blue velvet gown beside him in white tie and tails. They looked like a fashion plate – the perfect couple.
“Romanian Embassy, wasn’t it? They served a breakfast of caviar at four,” she said, licking her lips.
“Yes – that’s a breakfast even I will eat,” he sighed, turning the page.
“And this was for the Russian Embassy’s fairy tale party, remember that case?” she pointed to a picture taken in Steed’s flat. He was dressed as a giant white rabbit. Beside him Emma as the Red Queen was holding up a white puffball – his tail — giving him a skeptical look.
“Four and twenty black birds,” he said with a reminiscent chuckle. “Didn’t Brodney dress as Humpty Dumpty?”
“Yes!” she laughed.
“But who took this picture?”
“I had that new camera, I was testing the auto controls – I think there was a whole roll of us getting ready,” she said, turning the page. “There’s that lovely carpet the prince gave you,” she pointed to a picture of herself laying on her stomach an oriental rug with a chess set in front of her, “What became of it? It was quite valuable.”
“Not really. It turned out to be a reproduction, machine knotted. I never mentioned it to the prince, of course. I thought he might not have forgiven me for taking you back out of his harem.”
“Umm,” she agreed, glad there were no pictures of her in the harem girl costume he’d convinced her to wear on that case. “Which trip to Paris is that?” she asked, pointing to a small picture. Steed lifted the album for a closer look. He shrugged.
“Montmartre, could have been any time,” he said. “But you do have to admit we look happy in it.”
“We are always happy in Paris, Steed,” she said, leaning close to kiss his temple. He set the album down and reached for her. In the kitchen the timer dinged insistently and she pulled away from him with a rueful smile. “Let’s eat!”
Emma found her mood swinging from contented to wary as they ate dinner and discussed the last two days. Steed asked her to recount her meetings with the board members again, clearly convinced that Fred’s murder was their doing. Too tired to dredge up the memories accurately, she got out her tape recorder and loaded the tape of the meetings instead.
“You recorded them,” Steed said with a mix of pride and appreciation. She threw him a condescending look and pressed the “play” button.
Steed chuckled at her interview with Dixon. “You may just have him wrapped around your little finger, Mrs. Peel,” he said.
Emma smiled, not denying it. “Sally thought you’d be jealous,” she said. One of Steed’s eyebrows rose sharply, but he didn’t reply as Emma’s conversation with Evan Birch began. The ministry had not had a listening device at the restaurant, so Weems and Plath had not heard this conversation. If I could include her in this investigation, we would have had this tape sooner, he thought with irritation. The venom in Birch’s voice was chilling, further convincing Steed that he was the source of the attempts on Emma’s life. How soon will he resort to more direct measures?
Birch’s interview ended and the next meeting on the tape came on. Steed looked inquisitively at Emma.
“Peter’s lawyers,” she said. “I’d forgotten about it.”
They listened to Emma speaking to White and Everett. When it ended Steed rewound the tape and listened to it a second time, his expression unreadable.
“May I take this? I’ll have it copied and return it to you,” Steed asked. He frowned at Emma’s amused expression.
“I suppose this is somewhat less embarrassing than the last recording they copied,” she finally said. Steed cringed.
Emma decided to have a private little celebration to mark her one-week anniversary at Knight – a double latte with whole milk and a pain chocolat delivered from a little café around the corner from the Knight building. Mrs. Emerson brought them in with a smile and the morning papers.
“Wait, Mrs. Emerson,” Emma said. The secretary stood in front of her desk, hands folded in front of her. “What happened last night was upsetting. Do you want to discuss it?”
“Yes, actually, Miss Knight,” she said. Emma nodded toward one of the chairs in front of her desk and the secretary sat down. “Shall I report the car stolen? I understand that the driver was an imposter.”
Emma frowned, “Um, yes. Do that. But that’s not what I meant,” she said. Steed had actually roused himself as early as she that morning to personally drive her to work. He’d told her that he’d be sending a ministry car for her that evening if he couldn’t come himself. She hadn’t bothered to argue. “Fred was the second death here at Knight in less than a week. I thought you might be disturbed by that.” Not to mention Washington.
“Oh I see,” Mrs. Emerson looked at her hands in her lap. “Miss Knight, I try to keep my work at a professional level. I am disturbed, but I prefer to discuss it with my pastor,” she raised her eyes to meet Emma’s. “I hope you understand.”
Emma tried not to show her relief. “That’s fine, Mrs. Emerson. But are you curious about Mr. Steed’s involvement? I would prefer that if you have any questions you ask me directly.”
“You said he was in security, Miss Knight. And he is investigating Mr. Milk’s death. I see no need to know more than that.”
And that’s how you’ve lasted this long in the executive suite, Emma thought, even more relieved. “That’s correct, Mrs. Emerson. That’s all then.”
“Yes Miss Knight,” the secretary nodded curtly and stood up. “I’ll just go confirm your appointments. And I have not yet received the financial reports you asked for. I’ll check on them again.”
Emma took the lid off her latte and leaned back in her chair watching the door close behind her secretary. I’ve just been out ice queened!
Steed had Emma’s tape copied and brought it to Weems and Plath’s office to listen to again. After Weems’s predictable blow up because Emma had a recording of her meeting with Birch that they hadn’t known about, they concentrated on Peter Peel’s lawyers. Steed had started contemplating a way to use the conversation as soon as he heard it. He didn’t really need his associate’s input on his plan, but despite their conflicts over this case he did respect their opinions.
“Weems, a few weeks ago you suggested that I should try talking to Peter Peel,” he said when they’d played the tape a second time, then handed it off to a secretary to transcribe.
“You didn’t think I was serious?” Weems said, eyebrows knitting in surprise.
“I think you were inspired.”
“Why would he talk to you, of all people, Steed?” Plath asked, but Steed could see that he was not discounting the idea after hearing the tape.
“Because I’m going to tell him that he’s going to be charged with blackmail for his lawyers’ threats on his behalf against his ex-wife. Unless he wants to counteract those threats with some information. He can work with me, or he can work with them. But they aren’t doing him much good.”
“You think he’ll buy that?” Plath asked.
“I think he’ll be surprised at his lawyers’ actions. He’ll wonder what’s in it for them, keeping Mrs. Peel out of Knight Industries. He’s dependent on them right now – they’re his only means of communicating with Birch and the other board members, and whoever else he’s tied into at Knight.”
“So you don’t think he told his lawyers to make the threat?” Weems asked, nodding thoughtfully. Steed sighed. That was the hole. He wasn’t sure. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
“Even if he did, if I offer him a lifeline, he may grab it. After all, my threat is quite real. I doubt he wants to be in jail for the rest of his life.”
“And you don’t mind offering him a deal, Steed? I should think you’d want him permanently out of your way,” Plath said.
Of course he was right. For that matter Steed would prefer that Peter Peel had never existed. But his personal desire to rid Emma of her ex-husband had no bearing on the more urgent business at hand – identifying the traitors within the Knight organization.
Reggie Styles was a different man in the executive offices of Knight Industries. That afternoon he presented the partnership opportunity in concise, if exceptionally positive, terms to Emma, Edmond Stanton, Angus Benson, and Phillip Simmons from Knight Research and Development. Emma could see that Benson was enthusiastic, but she’d known that. After Reggie left she was pleased to see Simmons delve into the information he’d left, a delighted smile on his face.
“Miss Knight, do you know how much we spend annually on card storage? And the lost productivity when someone drops a box!” Benson said. “We’re not alone. Every corporation in the world faces the same challenges to efficiency. What they’re developing will revolutionize computing.”
Simmons was nodding as he continued to read. Emma turned to Stanton, who sat with his long legs stretched out in front of him, fingers templed in front of his face and his lips pursed. She knew that look. He was calculating.
He pressed his hands to the arms of his chairs and stood up to pace. “They want a sizeable investment, but the return could be orders of magnitude larger. They’re notorious for bulletproof agreements that favor their interests . . .”
“. . . so?” Emma prompted. Stanton clapped his hands together and rubbed them enthusiastically, pacing more furiously.
“I’ll need to study the contract very carefully. We’ll have to push them on the percentages,” he paused, looked around at them. Benson and Simmons were watching him wide-eyed. Emma was smiling. He laughed. “This is going to be fun!”
Emma pressed the secret latch on Steed’s apartment door and entered.
“Steed?” she called out, pausing in the archway. There was a bowler on the handle of one of the umbrellas in the stand, so he was probably home. She took off her coat and left it with her briefcase in the chair by the door, then wandered further into his apartment. She smiled, seeing a card with her name on it propped on the mantle.
She picked it up and looked at the back. “I’m down in the garage tinkering.” She smiled, thinking that at least his skill at auto mechanics was better than his talent with the tuba. Actually, she pointed out to herself as she went into the kitchen to see what there was for supper, Steed was good at most things. As she poked around in the cupboards, which were never organized the same way from one week to the next, she tried to think of activities that she had never seen him undertake. He was better at some things than others – his skill with a saber was better than with a foil, for example. But he could still hold his own in a fencing match. As she opened a canister labeled cornmeal and found it to be full of cotton balls she realized with a start that she had never seen him ski, either on snow or water. Now there was something to investigate. She put away the canister of cotton balls, her mind drifting to snow covered Alps, and cozy little alpine cottages with big fireplaces and –.
“Mrs. Peel! Why didn’t you come tell me you were here?” Steed stepped into the kitchen holding his hands away from his body and everything else. They appeared to be covered in shiny, greyish goo. She looked at them in alarm. “Grease remover,” he explained. “I’ll just wash it off.”
“I was thinking about supper,” she said, watching him use his elbow to turn on the water.
“And I found that you have one roasted chicken drumstick, three slices of something that I think is bologna, heaven help me, and a rather soft tomato. Your eggs are suspect, too.”
Steed finished scrubbing his hands and dried them on a dishtowel. “Yes, I’m afraid since we were away for most of the weekend I haven’t had time to re-provision. Let me take you out. I have some news for you.”
“I won’t argue with that – letting someone else do the washing up suits me to a tee this evening.”
“Tough day at the office, dear?” he said with a mischievous grin. She moved close to him, running her hands up his chest and around his neck to tickle the short hairs in the back. His arms wrapped around her instinctively and he lowered his face to hers for a long, slow kiss. “How hungry are you?” he asked after a while. She considered this for a moment.
“Hungry enough to eat first, I think,” she replied.
In the months just before Peter’s surprise return, they had been spending as many as four nights out of seven together, often up most of the night talking and making love. While their renewed relationship had not developed to that intensity, it had, so far, been very unrestrained. Working full time, Emma had realized after only a week, was quite restricting. She wanted to be with Steed, but she couldn’t match his late hours. No midnight dinners during the week for her. And she’d worked with Hemming again today, so lunch had been a banana.
Steed didn’t seem disappointed at her deferment of intimacy in favor of supper. He took her to their favorite local northern Italian restaurant where their usual table was waiting for them. She pinched him lightly on the arm when she realized that he’d had a reservation all along, and he chuckled.
“You mentioned news,” she said when they had placed their orders and were sipping a crisp white wine from the Venetto.
“Yes,” he took a long sip of wine, to create suspense, she was certain, “They’ve completed the analysis of Milk’s suicide note.”
“It’s genuine. He wrote it.”
“Could he have been forced to write it?”
Steed shook his head. “They don’t think so. The handwriting indicates deep emotional despair, but not the sort of stress you’d see if he were being coerced when he wrote it. Also, he incriminated Birch.”
Emma looked a little surprised. “What did it say?”
“That he regretted taking direction from Birch since he’d been CEO, and he wanted to stop. But that Birch knew things about him that he could not allow anyone to find out. If he told Birch he was stopping, Birch would have revealed whatever it was. Death was, apparently, preferable.”
Emma took a deep breath and looked across the restaurant at nothing in particular. She had lost count of how many men she’d seen die or even killed herself while working with Steed. And she did not feel guilty for the lives she’d taken in self defense or defense of her partner. But the deaths around her now were preying on her soul. Milk’s suicide, and Washington and Fred’s murders had been committed because of her. She knew what Steed would say: Washington and Fred were doing their jobs, and they accepted the risks. Milk was conspiring to steal from Knight and chose his own death. But assuring her that it was not her fault did not help.
“Emma,” Steed’s soothing voice interrupted her grim thoughts. “Don’t dwell on it. You know how to move on. You know you must.”
She drew in a ragged breath and met his gaze. Gentle, competent, understanding. He’d seen so much pain and dealt with so many losses. He always moved on, presenting his jovial face to the world and even, most of the time, convincing himself that he could float above the turmoil. And he succeeded because he had to. Because if he didn’t he’d lose his edge. He’d become one of the agents who accepted the risks and met their deaths.
“This is different, Steed. These men are dead because of my personal quest.”
Steed shook his head and reached across the table to take her hand. “The Knight shareholders and board members who support you don’t think so. Your quest is to overcome a gang of criminals who’ve infiltrated one of Britain’s most prestigious corporations. It’s not much different from any other case we’ve worked on. You just thought you were in it for the glory.”
Sally felt ready to jump out of her skin when she stepped off the lift and into the Knight executive offices on Thursday morning. She’d ridden in on the train an hour after the rush hour crowds had abated. Just a few weeks ago that trip had seemed terrifying, but now it felt like the one predictable part of the day. Mrs. Emerson had scheduled her to have lunch with Miss Knight, by her tone making it clear that this was a privilege, followed by meetings with several other Knight employees who would show her around and arrange for her to start working there. She vaguely recalled seeing Mrs. Emerson when she’d attended the shareholders meeting. Now she approached the older woman as confidently as she could, which was not terribly much by the time she’d crossed the expanse of gold carpet to reach her desk.
“Miss Howard?” Mrs. Emerson asked, watching her approach.
“Yes. I’m afraid I’m a little early.”
“Quite all right. I’ll let Miss Knight know you’re here.”
Sally watched the secretary – she’s a real executive secretary – use an intercom to speak to Emma. She was gratified when her employer’s familiar voice replied, sounding pleased. Mrs. Emerson rose and opened the door behind her desk, ushering Sally in.
Miss Knight’s office was as large has Sally’s family sitting room and dining room combined. The huge windows revealed an amazing view of London, and the desk that Emma was walking out from behind looked as big as Sally’s bed.
“Sally, come in!” Emma shook her hand, “Welcome to Knight Industries.”
“Thank you, ma’am. It’s exciting to be here.”
“First we’re going to get some lunch so we can talk about your job. Then we’ll come back here and I’m turning you over to some staff members to show you around – I’m sorry I can’t do it personally. But you’ll probably learn more useful information from them anyway. But I want you to stop back by here before you go. Understood?”
“That sounds lovely, ma’am.”
And it was, for them both. Emma enjoyed Sally’s report on the Peel estate, which was progressing rapidly, and her unguarded opinion of metropolitan London. Sally was still in a state of disbelief about the salary Emma had offered, although Emma knew the girl would soon understand how London’s cost of living would absorb it. Emma tried to keep the conversation focused on the job, but they kept drifting to more personal topics – was the apartment all unpacked? Not yet. Had she seen Mr. Steed. Certainly. Was the man who’d been in the grey Volvo really dead? Unfortunately, yes.
They lingered a little longer than Emma had intended, so she knew that the administrative assistant who was to show Sally around would be waiting. Oh well, rank has its privileges, she thought as they rode the lift back up to her office. Sally went off for her orientation, and Emma grabbed her portfolio to take to the Electronics staff meeting. She paused at Mrs. Emerson’s desk on her way out.
“Any sign of the financials, Mrs. Emerson? This is becoming more than just inconvenient,” she said. There was no way to make a decision about Reggie’s proposal without reviewing the distribution of Knight’s cash reserves. She did not want to cash out of lucrative investments in favor of his deal. It was unclear just what the holdup was. Up-to-date account statements ought to be instantly available, especially to her.
“No, Miss Knight. I went to accounting myself this morning. Mr. Haas was not in, but I spoke to Miss Gifford, his secretary. She said the hold-up is with the investment firm that manages Knight’s portfolio.”
“Find out who that is, and get the name of our account manager.”
“Yes, Miss Knight!”
Peter Peel sat stiffly in an unpadded wooden chair at a plain wooden table with a scarred top. He’d been awakened in his cell in Fort Glamorgan before dawn and brought blindfolded by car to this room. He didn’t have to see where he’d been brought to know he was inside the ministry. Once here they’d removed the blindfold and brought him a plastic cup of coffee and a stale doughnut. The walls were cinderblock, painted tan. There were no windows to the outside, but a large mirror on one wall was obviously a window to the next room. There were two more chairs on the opposite side of the table. It was a dull, empty room. But to Peter, who had not been out of his cell in three months, it was visually stimulating.
The cell had changed Peel. After years in the jungle, years contending with his fractious wife, years traveling the globe procuring arms and mercenaries for the Camino Victorioso, the solitude of the cell was surprisingly comforting. For the first time in a decade he’d been able to sit and think. Just think. At first he’d just thought about what had happened, and that had lead to venting his anger. He’d yelled, pounded his fists on the mattress and howled his anger at Emma, at Wentworth, at Hughes, at himself. He’d thrown food trays across the cell a few times, aiming at Emma’s imagined face. But after having to live with the decaying food for nearly a week he’d learned to stop doing that.
Gradually his anger had subsided. One of his lawyers had brought Emma’s divorce papers with numerous clauses marked for dispute. He’d signed them unread, to White’s annoyance. That life was over. Emma was over – doubtlessly back with John Steed by now. Peter had probed his emotions about that for a full week. He found emptiness and, gradually, acceptance. Once he had loved her. Once she had loved him. But they had both changed, and he had followed a path that she never would. He’d tried, when he came back to England, to bring her around. But she would never consider breaking the law, no matter how great the rewards.
White, his steadfast attorney, informed him that the ministry’s investigation was very thorough and that the evidence against him was damning. He recommended a plea bargain that would get Peter a lesser sentence – just twenty years instead of life. Peter had refused, suggesting that White think of something else, fast.
There was no sign of White this morning. Peter suspected that his visit here was unofficial, which meant it might be to his benefit to be cooperative. And maybe White was wrong, maybe the investigation wasn’t going so well after all. Maybe he had something to trade.
The door opened and the last man he expected to see stepped into the room. He closed the door and stood with his back to it. His stance was relaxed, his hands at his sides, his face implacable. He wore a black three-piece suit and an Eton tie. He was physically imposing, even though the cut of his clothes made him look slender. His light-eyed, piercing gaze searched Peter’s face for several minutes. Peter was familiar with the technique. He refused to squirm. He stared back at the man he’d thought of as a rival for the past three years and his heart was empty.
Finally Steed stepped to the table and sat in the chair opposite Peter. He folded his hands on the table in front of him and, his expression softening.
“Sir Peter. I don’t believe we’ve ever been introduced. I’m John Steed.”
Excruciatingly well mannered. That’s what they’d said about him.
“Mr. Steed,” Peter replied with a curt nod. “Why am I here?”
“To discuss Knight Industries,” Steed replied, leaning back in his chair, flattening his palms on the table.
Peter frowned. He wasn’t surprised that they’d traced his ongoing dealings with Knight, but it was such a small part of his crimes: A few weapons guidance systems, some missile plans. No actual ordinance. Not that he wouldn’t have used Knight for such supplies, but the company simply hadn’t produced what he needed.
“All right,” he said carefully, watching Steed. He knew from White that Emma had managed to regain control of Knight. For some reason his men had all voted for her, although White had not been able to ascertain why. But at least they were still on the board, still guarding his interests. Steed must know it. Did Emma?
“You sold Mrs. Peel’s shares to three board members – Birch, Stafford, and Dixon,” Steed said. Peter frowned again, but not at Steed’s knowledge. He frowned at the name Steed used for Emma. Mrs. Peel? It sounded strange coming from her lover.
Seeing he wasn’t going to respond, Steed went on. “Since your disappearance, each of them acted as a conduit for you, directing Knight to work on projects that met your needs, then stealing the results for you.”
Peter shrugged. There had been enough evidence in his papers from the estate to deduce that much. Birch, Stafford, and Dixon were already incriminated. It was the next tier in the network that was protected – those names were only in the mens’ heads. If the board members had not yet revealed them, then they were what Steed was after.
“You want to know who, and how. What’s in it for me, Mr. Steed.”
Steed nodded, appreciating directness. “Your attorneys met with Mrs. Peel before the board meeting. Did you know that?”
There it was again, Mrs. Peel. Peter frowned. “No. I did not know.”
“That’s probably just as well,” Steed said, leaning back in his chair to study Peter for a moment. Peter watched him back, wondering when he’d last been with Emma. But the thought held no emotion. He was curious, but not jealous. “Because your lawyers threatened Mrs. Peel in your name.”
“Your lawyers told Mrs. Peel that you were concerned for her safety, if she were to go through with her takeover of Knight.”
“I had nothing to do with their actions,” he said, too quickly. Is Steed making this up?
“Good. Because Mrs. Peel’s attorneys could have a field day with lawyers White and Everett. She’s a smart woman, as you know. She recorded their meeting. It’s not a situation you want to be involved in, I should think.”
“And you can uninvolve me?” Peter asked, then thought about it, “If I sever my relationship with them, I suppose.”
Steed folded his hands in his lap and watched Peter for a minute.
“Are you going to ask me about her?” he asked. Peter was taken completely off guard. He rose, turned to look at the mirror. He saw Steed’s reflection raise one hand, then return it to his lap – a signal to those watching.
“Is she well?” Peter replied, watching Steed’s reflection.
Steed nodded. “She’s working very hard to salvage Knight.”
“And you are helping her.”
“No. I am negotiating with you for information related to the Ministry’s investigation.”
Peter stared into the mirror, thinking about the distinction Steed had made.
“Is she happy?” he asked, turning to look at the real Steed.
“Yes,” he said flatly.
Steed shrugged ever so slightly, neither a denial nor agreement. He had not known what to expect when he entered the room to talk to Peter Peel. He’d been unsure of his own reaction to the man, let alone Peel’s reaction to him. So he’d opted for caution, gave Peel plenty of time to show anger or hatred. Gave himself time, too. Peter’s reserve was a surprise. Steed found himself responding to it with equal calm. The anger he’d felt toward the man for hurting Emma dissipated as he realized that Peter himself seemed to feel nothing. Or if he did, he had buried it very deeply. Was he even going to mention her if I didn’t?
“Fire them and talk to me. I can do more for you,” he said.
Peter took a deep breath, looked back at the mirror, then turned and sat back down across from Steed.
“Why would you, of all people?” he asked.
“It’s my job.”
“And I’m sure you enjoy doing it, at times like these,” Peter nearly laughed at the irony.
Steed shrugged. “There is a certain satisfaction in seeing this matter concluded,” he said.
Peter realized that he believed Steed. He believed that the man regarded this as a professional situation and not a meeting of rivals. And he believed that if he made a deal in this room, it would be honored. “What do you want to talk about?”
Steed leaned forward and smiled. It was a devilish expression. “Names. Communications channels. Affected projects. Who inside Knight is a threat to Mrs. Peel, other than Birch, Stafford, and Dixon?”
“Why do you call her that? Why do you keep calling her Mrs. Peel?”
Steed frowned, eyes flicking to the mirror and back. Peter got the distinct impression that Steed hadn’t realized what name he was using to refer to Emma. But he regained his composure as quickly as he’d lost it. He shrugged indolently, “I always have. Old habits and all that. Speaking of names, Sir Peter?”
“Names,” Peter sighed, understanding how this man’s single-mindedness would appeal to Emma. He was as dogged as she was.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Steed folded his arms on the table.
Peter nodded, taking a moment to organize his thoughts. “Are you going to take notes?” he asked. Steed continued to smile, his eyes darting to the mirror, then returning to Peter, waiting patiently. “Right.”
“Mr. Birch, Mr. Stein is here to see you,” Evan Birch’s secretary sounded thinly through the intercom.
“Does he have an appointment?” Birch scowled, sure he knew the answer.
“No sir. He says it’s urgent.”
I’ll bet. “Send him in.”
For all his aggressive demeanor and skill in the market, Matthew Stein was a very malleable man. That’s why Birch had selected him to manage Knight’s investments. That, and the fact that Stein owed him. Stein had developed a taste for side deals at his first job as a broker in Birch’s investment firm. Fortunately for them both, Birch had found out. He’d covered Stein’s trail and negotiated a better job for him at another firm. And he’d kept him on his personal payroll. None of the shareholders or other board members could cry “conflict of interest” when Birch recommended that Stein handle the Knight account – after all, Stein worked for a rival firm, where he had a solid record.
Stein strode across Birch’s big office and slapped a file on his desk. Birch stared at it for a moment, then raised his eyes toward Stein.
“Knight’s new CEO has requested revised financials three times in the last four days.”
“And this is them?” Birch lowered his eyes back to the file.
Birch opened the file, studied the summary sheet for a moment, and closed it.
“My supervisor knows they’re asking. I’m not going to be able to put them off any longer. If my supervisor looks at the report, then you’re going to have to get me out.”
Birch sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, weighing his choices. Stein still had his uses. Emma Knight had become a complete liability. He stood up, fingertips on the file.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Shall I — ?”
“I said I’ll take care of it. Go back to work.”
Emma relaxed in her chair listening to Alex Harper outline his plan for moving Knight’s encryption department to the software division. Angus Benson, also seated across the desk from her, was listening intently. She had to hand it to the ministry: they’d devised an extremely viable plan. I wonder if I should pay them a consulting fee.
Her intercom buzzed and Harper paused while she answered it.
“Miss Knight, Sally Howard is here – she’s finished and would like to speak to you before she leaves.”
“Send her in, Mrs. Emerson,” Emma rose and stepped out from behind the desk, “Go on, Mr. Harper. This won’t take a moment. Miss Howard is my personal assistant.”
Benson took the opportunity to ask Harper to clarify some of his points as the door opened and Sally came in.
“How did it go?” Emma asked, gesturing Sally to follow her to the sofa near the fireplace. Sally grinned broadly, which was answer enough.
“I’ve seen where I’ll be working, and met the people. A Mr., um,” she paused to look through a collection of business cards in her hand, “Griffith reviewed the health plan and savings and retirement,” she giggled at the notion, which made Emma smile at her youth.
“Good. You’ll start on Monday. We can be flexible about your hours until you move closer to the city – I know it’s a long commute. Have you talked to the Peels about this?”
“Yes, a little,” she sounded unsure. Emma nodded, understanding that Sally might find it awkward.
“I’ll call them.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Sally had left the door open a crack. They heard Mrs. Emerson’s voice outside raised in a firm tone. “Sir, Miss Knight is in a meeting.”
“It’s over,” Evan Birch replied icily, shoving the door open and stepping a few feet into the office. Behind him, Mrs. Emerson hovered in the doorway. She was outwardly calm but her eyes were flashing with anger. Emma stood up, putting a hand on Sally’s shoulder to keep her down. She caught Mrs. Emerson’s eye and rolled her eyes in the direction of the secretary’s desk. Call for help, Emma silently urged the woman.
Time seemed to slow down as Emma watched Birch reach inside his jacket and bring out a large handgun. Emma’s eyes flicked to Harper, wondering if he was armed. He and Benson were standing in front of her desk, Benson closer to Birch. Sally gasped and Emma squeezed her shoulder, silencing her. When she looked back at Birch, the gun was pointed at her.
“You were warned, Miss Knight,” Birch said. “You had every chance to back off, move to San Tropez, play gay divorcee, write your little articles about bridge and chess. Every opportunity. But you just couldn’t let it go.”
“No, Mr. Birch, I could not let Knight go,” Emma agreed coolly. She realized that Mrs. Emerson was no longer in the doorway.
“Well neither will I. Neither will the Peel organization.”
Emma’s brows rose in feigned confusion. Come on Harper, give me a sign. “Peter’s in jail, Mr. Birch, I don’t think his guards will let him direct his organization via telephone on Saturday mornings.”
“Aren’t you clever, Miss Knight?” Birch growled, “Everyone says it. Brilliant Emma Knight, her father’s daughter to the last. Well this is the last, my dear. You’re right. Peter Peel can no longer manage his organization. But I can. And I can find far more clients than his uncouth band of South Americans. But first you will have to go.”
He raised the gun for a better aim, and as he did Benson shouted and lunged awkwardly at him. Birch redirected his aim toward Benson, who was close enough to press his arm downward as he fired. Benson staggered back into Harper, red stains erupting on the front and back of his left thigh.
Emma sprang across the coffee table toward Birch before he could swing the gun back at her. She tackled him, but he kept his feet, hurling her against one of the armchairs. She rolled aside as he aimed and fired at her. Sally screamed as Emma recovered her balance and faced Birch, bracing herself to kick at his gun hand.
The radio crackled as the ministry operator called. In the driver’s seat, agent Plath picked up the microphone to respond.
“This is an a-list notification. Inform Steed that an intruder with a gun has entered the executive offices at Knight Industries,” the operator said blandly. In the back seat, Steed and Peter Peel both jerked to attention.
“Go there. Now,” Steed said.
“Acknowledged. En route now,” Plath replaced the microphone and pressed the accelerator, weaving expertly through the heavy city traffic.
Patrolman Green came around the corner of the Knight building just in time to see a black sedan screech to a stop in the no parking zone in front. He raised his hand and started to trot toward the car as the doors were flung open. The driver got out, then helped a passenger out of the back, while another man got out of the other side and sprinted toward the building. The sight of this third man stopped Green in his tracks. He watched the driver and the other passenger, who was wearing handcuffs, follow the ministry agent inside. Then he walked over to the car and closed the doors.
The lift crept at a snail’s pace to the top of the Knight building. When the floor bell chimed Steed pried the doors open and plunged out, charging across the reception area as the sound of a gun firing echoed from Emma’s office. He peripherally noticed Mrs. Emerson standing beside her desk. Plath followed, dragging Peter Peel along by the handcuffs.
Emma kicked at Birch’s gun hand, connecting as he fired again. She was flung backwards, falling winded on her back between the coffee table and the armchairs. Air rushed past her ears as she tried to catch her breath. She could hear sobbing – Sally must be terrified. There was shouting, and she saw Birch fall beyond her feet. She tried to sit up but a strange burning had begun in her chest. The armchairs were pulled away and Steed was there. She smiled up at him. Everything’s fine. Steed’s here.
Coming through the door Steed saw Emma’s kick and started to smile at her reliable fighting skill. Then the gun went off and the shot, while not aimed quite where Birch intended, hit Emma in the chest. Sally leapt up from the sofa, tossing a handful of business cards at Birch’s face as she screamed in outrage. Steed crossed the room in two long strides and swung a rock hard fist into the side of Birch’s head. He crashed to the floor.
Steed glanced around, saw that Harper had disentangled himself from under Benson. He was using his jacket to put pressure on a wound in Benson’s leg. Plath came in with Peter Peel and moved toward Birch, kicking the gun away from his inert hand. Almost afraid to look, Steed turned to Emma. Sally had grabbed a pillow from the sofa, but was having trouble reaching Emma across the coffee table. Steed heaved away the armchairs and dropped to his knees beside her.
“Give me the pillow,” he said, grabbing it from Sally and pressing it against the horrible, horrible stain on Emma’s chest.
“Steed,” Emma sighed, smiling at him.
“Hold on, darling,” Steed crooned, then glanced over his shoulder, “Plath, get a unit here.”
“Everything’s fine,” Emma whispered.
“Of course it is, Emma. You just lie still.”
“Shhhh. Hold on, Emma.”
“But Steed, why was Peter here? And where is he going?”
Steed frowned and looked over his shoulder toward where Peter Peel was standing by the desk. He wasn’t there. Steed looked back at Emma. Somehow she managed her innocent, rueful little smile. He closed his eyes tight against a rush of emotion, then opened them and bent down to kiss her very gently.
“Stay with me, darling, I’ll be back,” he said.
“Ummm,” she sighed, closing her eyes. Steed looked at Sally.
“Come around here. Keep pressure on the pillow until they get here. Don’t let go.” His voice was filled with desperation.
“Yes sir. I won’t,” she assured him, scrambling around the table to take his place.
Steed stood up, gesturing to Plath, who was just hanging up the telephone next to the sofa.
“Peel’s gone,” he said.
Plath looked around in surprise. “He can’t go far, he’s handcuffed,” he said. Steed stepped over to the desk and shook his head. He reached down and picked up the handcuffs.
“No he isn’t.”
Emma felt Steed leave, knew that Sally was there. She turned her head to watch Steed go out the door, then her eyes fell on the starter’s canon on the hearth. That helped her recognize the sound in her ears – the rushing of wind and water. She closed her eyes to enjoy it. She was sailing the Soling with her father. He sat behind the long tiller with his booted feet braced on the opposite bench. He grinned at her, making her feel warm and happy.
“Prepare to tack, Em,” he ordered her. She looked ahead at the sun glinting on the bright blue sea. Prismatic sparks shot off of whitecaps to create glorious rainbows. It was beautiful.
“Why, father?” she asked. She wanted to feel the rainbows brush against her skin.
“There’s rough water ahead, Em. I want to steer clear of it.”
Emma looked back out across the glistening waves. She wished she could point the fast little boat right into them, to slice through them and enjoy the ride.
“Ready about, Em,” Skipper John Knight repeated. Emma reluctantly prepared the jib sheets for the tack.
“Ready,” she said sadly.
“Helm’s alee,” her father said, pressing the tiller across the boat and switching sides as the boat turned and Emma tacked the jib. Emma cleated the lines and stared wistfully ahead at dull, calm seas.
“Well done, Em,” John Knight said from behind her, “You have to learn to chose the safe course, when the risks are too great.”
“Which way did he go, Mrs. Emerson?” Steed asked as he came out of Emma’s office. Plath was right behind him.
“He took the stairs,” the secretary replied, pointing at a double door under a lighted Way Out sign.
Steed could hear footsteps a few flights down as he and Plath clattered down the steps. An occasional indignant shout from Knight employees who Peel shoved out of the way punctuated his progress. Steed thought the man might divert onto a floor and try to lose them in a maze of offices, but he did not. They were on the third floor when they heard him slam through the exit door at the bottom.
This was when Steed’s midnight runs in the gym paid off. He wasn’t even breathing hard as he dashed through the exit door and sprinted across the lobby toward the doors to the street.
Patrolman Green stood by the ministry car hoping to give the agents a piece of his mind at least. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the importance of their work, but there was a perfectly legal parking space just half a block down. He also intended, should the need arise, to wave off any parking enforcement officer who came along. No need to create paperwork by issuing a parking ticket that would be dismissed.
The man who’d been in handcuffs plunged out of the building, charging right at the car. Seeing that the handcuffs were gone Green moved to intercept him. He doubted that he’d been released and was running for joy.
Adrenaline surging through his veins, Peter Peel shoved the patrolman aside and turned left toward the nearest tube station. Green, who was not especially athletic, which was why he liked his quiet beat populated by workers going about their business, lost his balance and wound up sitting on the sidewalk. He was just recovering his pride when the two agents dashed out of the building. The one he recognized ran up to him and offered him a hand. He took it and stood up.
“Which way did he go?” the man asked, his voice remarkably even for someone who’d been giving chase to a runaway prisoner.
“That way,” Green pointed up the street where Peter Peel’s recent passage was marked by a businessman gathering up scattered sections of a newspaper. The streets were filling with late afternoon traffic, both automobile and foot. Steed and Plath took off after Peel.
“I’ll just keep an eye on your car,” Green called after them, moving to lean against it.
Steed wove through the pedestrians easily following Peter Peel based on the disruption he caused, but, to his surprise, unable to catch up with him. He was vaguely aware of Plath keeping up with him, and of the complaints from civilians who he inadvertently jostled. He tried not to – it grieved him to act so callously, particularly when he bumped a lady – but stopping Peter Peel was one of the few actions in his life for which it was worth discarding his gentlemanly veneer.
“He’s gone down,” Plath panted indicating the steps down into the Underground. Steed followed, pressing between business people – some of them probably Knight employees – to reach the bottom. There were turnstiles to two different lines. Their only clue was the retreating backs of two policemen, obviously after someone who’d jumped the fare. They followed suit, vaulting over the turnstiles.
Steed and Plath soon passed the policemen, who were more accustomed to nabbing prankster teenagers than chasing desperate men. They shouted at the agents to stop. Steed tipped his bowler and kept running down the corridor leading to the westbound platform. They shot out of the passage, across the platform, and slammed into the closed doors of a train. Steed pounded on the doors as the train started to move. He stepped back, finally panting, and watched Peter Peel pushing through the crowd inside the train, clearly uncertain whether his pursuers had gotten on with him.
Plath, panting heavily, went to a nearby telephone. Steed walked over and leaned against the wall beside the device to catch his breath. Plath reported the escape and hung up just as the two policemen reached the platform.
“All right, gents, what’s going on?” one of them asked. Steed reached into his breast pocket and removed his billfold.
“Escaped prisoner, I’m afraid,” he said, a touch of embarrassment in his tone. He displayed his red identification card. The policemen took a step back, one of them bumping into a woman with several shopping bags who snapped at him as he tried to apologize. Steed glanced at Plath and they slipped back up the passage before the officers noticed.
Steed sprinted the last yards back to the Knight building, reaching the rear of the ambulance just as the gurney bearing Emma was about to be loaded into it.
“Emma!” his cry made the medics stop.
“She’s unconscious, sir,” one of them said as he leaned over her. They had put an oxygen mask over her face and covered her with a sheet. There was nothing he could do for her. As often as he had been in the same situation, resigned to the care of the ministry doctors, trusting in their experience and skill, he suddenly had to exercise great willpower to believe that they would save Emma. He’d tried his best, but he knew he was going to lose her anyway – not the way he’d expected, to the failure of Knight – but in a way he should have prevented. He could have done more to protect her. He hadn’t. He’d let her pride rule him, allowed her to refuse more watchful guards. And now she was going to die.
As they loaded her into the ambulance he caught sight of Sally and Mrs. Emerson standing on the sidewalk. Sally’s peaches and cream complexion was grey under streaks of makeup. She dabbed at her eyes with a sodden tissue. Steed summoned the strength to offer comfort because he knew Emma would have wanted him to. He found a clean handkerchief in his pocket and stepped over to Sally, offering it.
“Thank you sir,” she said, using it on her ruined face. Behind him the ambulance bearing Emma pulled away, sirens wailing a pitiful cry that matched that in his heart.
“They said that it was good sign, that she’s still holding on,” Mrs. Emerson said dully. Steed stared at her, realizing that this was her way of offering comfort. He nodded. Then he looked back at Sally. Why is she here? I can’t put her on a train home, and I’m not going to drive her right now, not with Emma in surgery. He reached into his trouser pocket and found his keys.
Searching for one on the ring and beginning to work it off, he said, “Sally, go to Mrs. Peel’s apartment. Wait there and I’ll call you.”
“I want to go to the hospital, Mr. Steed,” she said.
“I’m afraid you can’t, Sally. She’s been taken someplace special. I’ll go there and call you when there’s news.” He handed her the key and she took it, wrapping her fist around it tightly.
“I’ll see that you’re kept informed as well, Mrs. Emerson. For now I suggest you get your publicity department to work on a press release. A board member shooting the CEO will be difficult to explain in positive terms, but you know it will be important to her not to let this damage Knight.”
“Yes, Mr. Steed. I understand.”
Plath came up, having conferred with the ministry team that had arrived with the ambulances.
“Birch is going mad, ranting on about his rights,” he said. “Benson’s been taken to the hospital. His leg will mend, they think. Harper’s all right – feeling guilty for not being more help, I suspect. They’re watching all the tube exits, and they searched that train at its next stop,” he shook his head and Steed understood. Sir Peter had eluded them.
“Plath, will you drive Sally to Mrs. Peel’s apartment? I have to go to the clinic.”
“Of course. Come on Miss Howard.”
Sally squinted at the agent for a moment and looked questioningly at Steed. Plath had interrogated her rather unkindly just a week and a half ago. Steed could see that she was a little frightened.
“Do you trust me, Sally?” he asked. She nodded. “I promise he’ll just drop you off. No more questions.” This last was directed at Plath, who nodded solemnly. Sally allowed him to escort her to the ministry car. Officer Green stepped away from it, watching Steed walk to the curb scanning the traffic.
“Need a taxi, sir?” he asked. Steed looked at him blankly, then recognized him and nodded. Green plunged out into traffic, whistling loudly. A black cab materialized as if by magic and stopped. He gestured to Steed to get in.
“Thank you, officer,” Steed said, slumping back in the cushioned seat.
Beep. Beep. Beep
They’ve bugged my office again. Emma listened to the sweeper signal speed up and grew more annoyed at Weems and Plath. Where is it this time?
“I’m here. Where is what?” He sounded puzzled and weary.
“The bug,” she whispered, her throat almost too dry to allow it.
“There’s no bug darling.”
She opened her eyes. He hovered over her, his face lined with worry, dark shadows under his beautiful eyes. The beeping continued. “You’re in the clinic. The ministry clinic,” Steed said.
“And they’ve bugged my room?” she asked.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Steed frowned, trying to understand her insistence. “The sweeper is beeping,” she croaked. His face lightened. He grinned and looked across the bed.
“It’s your monitor, Emma. It’s telling me that you’re still with me.”
She turned her head slightly and saw the device on a stand by the bed. A thin green line jumped up and down, synchronized with the beeps.
“How am I?” she asked, looking back at Steed.
“The bullet entered just under your left breast and hit a rib. It broke the rib, but that slowed it down. It grazed across your lung, and lodged in the next rib up in your back. It missed most of your critical parts. They repaired your lung. They told me you must have more luck than me. It came very close to your aorta and your spine, but just missed.” He described the wound dispassionately, knowing she wanted the simple, unvarnished truth. Hours before he had absorbed the information, dealt with his own understanding of how it had felt, how much it had hurt, how much it would still hurt for a long time to come. He’d also asked the same question that she asked next.
“And did it – did they have to take my breast?”
“I told them if they did they’d have me to deal with,” he said, finally allowing himself to touch her face, running the back of his fingers from her temple to her jaw. She closed her eyes. “They are very good. The plastic surgeon did the final work. Only you and I will know, once you’re healed.”
“No more bikinis, though,” she smiled and he could see she was slipping back to sleep. “Thank you darling,” she whispered.
He jerked out of a doze and bolted to his feet. She was much more awake this time, and her eyes were bright. He leaned over and kissed her, desperate for the warm, life-filled contact. “Right here,” he said softly.
“How many times have you been shot?” She squirmed in the bed, then closed her eyes, wincing in pain. He winced too, knowing how she felt.
“Six – no, seven times,” he replied.
“How do you bear the pain?” she sighed. “It hurts so much.”
He found her hand and gripped it, wishing he could absorb some of the pain for her.
“I’ll call the nurse. They’ll give you something,” he said.
“No. It’s not – unbearable. I need to feel it,” she looked at his concerned face, “for a little while. I need to know it’s real. I feel like I’ve been dreaming for so long. . .”
“It’s been three days,” he said to distract her from the pain. “You were in surgery for nearly three hours. You first regained consciousness eight hours after that.” I was so worried I nearly died, it took so long. “You’ve been awake once more since then – do you remember?”
“Sort of. But I’ve dreamt, too, and it all seems the same. Did you tell me what happened? I’m not sure I remember.”
Steed reluctantly told her again, watching the same desperate play of emotions cross her face as she imagined the effects of the bullet.
“Was I – am I – pregnant?” she asked at last. He shook his head. He’d asked that, too – warned the doctors that it was possible. They’d said no, and just as well. She needed all her energy for healing. She closed her eyes, a rim of tears trapped in her lashes. He swallowed hard, realizing for the first time just how much she must want a child, to mourn its absence in the face of such pain.
“So we’ll have to get back to that, when you’re well,” he quipped, squeezing her hand. She smiled, opening her eyes.
“I can’t imagine it, being well,” she sighed.
“You must. Trust me, you must set that goal now and never stop reaching for it. Please, Emma. For me.”
She stared listlessly into his intense eyes. He wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her out of her complacency, but he just squeezed her hand again. She was still in great danger, and she had to keep fighting as hard as she had back in her office.
“I need you, Emma. Don’t leave me.” He realized instantly that was the wrong thing to say. She closed her eyes and rolled her head away from him. “Emma,” he sighed, lowering his forehead to her shoulder, still holding her hand. But she seemed to have fallen back to sleep.
“There’s someone here to see you, Miss Knight,” the nurse said. For the first time Emma had awakened to an empty room. She’d found a call button in her hand and pressed it. The nurse had come and explained that Mr. Steed had been there for four days and they’d sent him home on Mother’s orders. Emma had a vague sense of anxiety about Steed. Something she’d said? Something he’d said? She couldn’t remember. Whatever it was, surely it didn’t count when she was hardly conscious.
“Steed?” she asked the nurse.
“No, Mr. Bond.”
“Send him in, please.”
James came right to her bedside, his blue eyes bright, his white teeth shining through a grin.
“Emma, haven’t you learned to stay out of the way of bullets?” he asked flippantly.
“I thought I had, James,” she said with a little shrug. Sharp pains shot through her chest and she winced.
“Are you all right?”
“I just haven’t yet learned how not to move,” she said as the pain subsided.
“Well I have it on good authority that you’ll be up dancing in two weeks. Can we make a date?”
“I don’t know, James. Have you seen Steed?”
James heaved a heavy sigh of mock disappointment. “Still stuck on him, huh?” he asked. “Well, my sources say he’s under house arrest until he sleeps for at least four hours. I expect he’ll be back here any time. Until then, I’m here to entertain you.”
By the time James left Emma was remarkably exhausted. He’d been full of news, having checked up on things that he knew she’d ask about. Sally was installed in her apartment and, as today was Monday, had reported to work at Knight. Mrs. Emerson had taken her under her wing. Peter was still at large, much to Steed and Plath’s chagrin. Birch was in custody and had brought in very expensive lawyers. Dixon and Stafford had also been arrested based on the evidence in Peter’s papers and on the recordings of their meetings with Emma.
James had also explained what Peter was doing with Steed and Plath that day. He had provided the names of every contact within Knight, and Steed and Plath were taking him back to jail. Weems had correctly guessed that Birch’s attack on Emma would spur many of them to flee, so even as the ambulance was carrying her to the clinic, agents had sealed the offices and arrested everyone on Peter’s list. Some had been in the lobby, one was at the door as Weems entered and stopped him to check his identification.
Emma longed to see the list, to know who had been betraying Knight, and how badly the company was affected. But when she’d asked James he’d just shook his head and told her she wasn’t allowed to worry about it for at least the rest of the week. That Harper, Benson, still bandaged and using crutches, and Edmond Stanton had things under control. She’s looked surprised at his mention of Harper and he raised one eyebrow at her. “You know about Harper, don’t you?” he’d asked. She’d shrugged, then winced at the pain, but refused to admit anything – for Harper’s sake.
After he left she drifted back to sleep because she couldn’t stop herself.
“Comfortable Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked as he placed the fourth pillow behind her head. She was sitting in her own bed, the windows opened wide to admit the pleasant breeze of a peculiarly spring-like day. Doubtless they’d have to be closed within the hour, but for the moment it was quite lovely.
“Yes, thank you. It’s so good to be at home.”
Steed walked around to the other side of the bed and sat down, bringing his legs up to sit beside her. With no pillows left, he had to lean his shoulder against the headboard. He reached up to stroke her hair away from her face, then leaned close to offer a gentle little kiss. She returned it, equally gently, and when they finished he stayed close, eyes searching hers for signs of unexpressed pain or discomfort. She would hide them from him, if she could.
“I’m fine, darling,” she said, reading his thoughts. He smiled. Her recovery was going very well. She’d spent two weeks in the clinic, but was up walking at the end of the first. The doctors offered every hope for a complete recovery, scar not withstanding. “Now, tell Sally to come in here, I know she’s hiding in the kitchen.”
Steed complied, leaving them to talk while he made tea. Sally was on her lunch break, and would soon return to the office where Mrs. Emerson had her working on a multitude of projects. Contrary to Emma’s fears that Mrs. Emerson would resent the girl, she seemed to be enjoying training her. And Sally, always thirsty for learning, was absorbing all she could. Seeing Emma safely at home – even though it meant she would have to begin commuting from the country – went a long way toward making her feel more comfortable at Knight, too.
Sally excused herself when Steed appeared with the tea. He prepared Emma’s, then pulled up a chair so he could sit by the bed.
“Steed, I understand that you were questioning Peter that day, that’s why you had him with you,” Emma said after sipping her tea. Steed set his own cup on its saucer and braced it so it wouldn’t clatter. She smiled coyly at him from under lowered lashes.
“Yes,” he said carefully.
“So you were working with Weems, and Plath, after all.” There was nothing in her tone to suggest anger or resentment.
“I had to. I couldn’t let them bungle the job.”
“Were they bungling it?”
“They suspected you,” he shrugged off his disgust.
“That’s when you got involved, isn’t it?”
“Yes. When I stopped them that day I made Mother put me in charge of the investigation. He was reluctant. I couldn’t tell you a thing or he would have changed his mind.”
She nodded, taking another sip of tea. He couldn’t read her, she sat so stiffly because of the healing wound.
“You couldn’t tell me because you thought I’d be angry at you for getting involved with my business,” she said. He cringed, avoiding her eyes.
“I thought you’d be more than angry, after I promised to stay out of it. But I couldn’t stand by and let them destroy Knight — .”
“If anyone was going to do it, it had to be you?” His eyes shot to her face, trying to think of a way to explain that didn’t sound so callous. But she was smiling at him, a warm, loving smile. “I knew you were protecting my interests, Steed. I was worried that you were doing it at your own expense – that you were going to get into trouble with the ministry. I’m relieved to know that you had authorization.”
His whole body relaxed into his normal, lazy posture. He sipped his tea and eyed her narrowly. She cast him a curious look.
“Just how did Peter Peel get out of those handcuffs, do you think?” he asked.
Now she looked nervous, she opened her mouth, then closed it and stared at him for a moment, then she sighed and spoke: “I taught him. When he first came back. He was teasing me about playing spy and wanted to prove to him that it wasn’t a game.”
Steed snorted. He leaned forward and set his cup and saucer on the nightstand, chuckling. Then he leaned over Emma and kissed her. “You’re completely mad, Mrs. Peel. And I adore you for it.”