Two’s Company

This story copyright © 2003, 2004 Mia McCroskey

Characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.

Steed Takes a Risk

Emma Throws a Tantrum

Chapter 1

Steed was particularly well practiced at arranging these things: book two adjacent rooms in a large, anonymous inn; Treat her to a fine dinner; Chat about her interests while gazing seductively into her eyes. An after dinner drink in the dim saloon, a moonlit walk along the boardwalk, then on up the stairs to her room. And make a strategic exit some hours later, both parties sated and in need of a few hours sleep. He was immensely discrete – of course there was talk of that rogue Steed, but no real evidence ever surfaced because he chose his companions for their discretion as well. Such get-aways were his reward to himself for performing a dangerous job well, the lady’s company as much a part of the reward as the good wine and restful scenery. It was a formula that, combined with a few quiet days at home and long, late night sessions in the gym, always put him in the right frame of mind for the next assignment.

But as he started the Bentley and smiled over at Emma sitting in the passenger’s seat, he realized his error. His formula was entirely self-centered. It hardly mattered who he went with, so long as she was pleasant, willing company. But not Emma. No matter how their relationship had changed in the last week, she could never be one of his casual weekend companions. Whether she knew it or not, and whatever the depth – or shallowness — of her feelings, Emma mattered to him.

And yet he could no more cancel the outing than he could cut off his right hand. He wanted desperately to spend the next few days with her. To finally allow their delicious post-prandial kisses to transition into the love-making that his body had ached for all these months. Their sexual encounters so far had been intense, tumultuous, spurred by desperate, overwhelming desire and raw emotional need. They had yet to live out his fantasy of talking, and kissing, and slowly undressing one another, gently awakening desire, nurturing it from smolder to flame to raging passion and quenching it with equal care.

His hands gripped the steering wheel so tight his shoulders hunched toward his ears as he navigated out of London and onto the highway.

“Are you all right, Steed,” she asked, her brows knit in concern. He forced his shoulders down and sent her a reassuring little smile.

“Fine, Mrs. Peel, just a bit stiff from tackling Hicks,” he said.

“Perhaps you could use a massage,” she said, her tone completely neutral. He risked a quick glance and she was looking straight ahead, no hint of seduction in her posture or expression.

“Maybe so,” he said weakly.

The case they had just concluded would have been one of the more frivolous of his career if it hadn’t begun with two – no three – murders, if you counted the raven. Certainly it had been peopled with typically eccentric English characters – the Tower yeomen, the bakers, and, of course, those annoying ravens. But it had concluded well enough, with no further casualties to man or beast, only the vandalism of the Queen Mother’s crown. Steed still couldn’t get over how his plan to protect the real jewels while allowing the villains to proceed with their crime so that they could be caught red handed had failed. It just reinforced his growing realization that he should advise Emma of all his plans. She had caught the hole in this one the moment he told her, but by then it was too late. Still, the crown jeweler had assured the ministry that the damage was not severe, the returned jewels could be reset and the integrity of the crown had not been compromised. Except, of course, for that one jewel tucked away in a box in Steed’s desk. He should have brought it along and stopped off at the Tower to return it. As it was he was certain his telephone tape machine would be full of messages from Mother by the time he got home. He smiled mischievously at the thought.

“What devious plot are you hatching?” Emma asked idly, seeing his smile.

“Just thinking about that jewel in my desk. Should have returned it. Someone is bound to be frantic.”

“It is real, then?”

He looked over at her, realized that he hadn’t told her – probably because she’d been right about his plan being a poor one. He sighed.

“Yes. Bradford did manage to get hold of the real crown instead of the fake.”

To her credit, she didn’t look smug. But she did chuckle. “So just about now the Tower jeweler is resetting all those precious gems and he’s going to discover that one is missing. And here we are jaunting off on a holiday. Why don’t you call someone, when we get there?”

“Because it’s rather more amusing to let them fret for a few days. It’s only a jewel – not a life and death situation.”

“So is that the test then? Things are only important if they’re a matter of life and death?”

She was peering at him, looking a bit disappointed. Surprised at the intensity of her reaction, he shrugged to counteract the twinge to his conscious. “No, you’re right. I’ll call Mother. If they’re desperate, someone can go round to my place and get it.”

Emma reached over and squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. She hadn’t meant to sound so sharp. She knew he was annoyed with himself for failing to protect the jewels, but allowing himself to neglect his duty was not like him. She was annoyed with herself for not even thinking about preventing Bradford from removing the jewels from the crown – at least Steed had thought of it and tried to prevent it. But if he’d discussed it with her when he implemented his plan, she would have pointed out the flaw in it and the real crown would have remained intact. She hoped it had taught him not to exclude her.

Steed parked the Bentley not far from the entrance to a sprawling seaside inn. It was a little remote — the village it was attached to was about a mile up the coastal road. Although the season was just beginning, other weekend guests had already arrived and the car park was half full. Steed took both their bags from the back seat and surrendered them to a porter who met them at the inn door, holding it wide for them to enter. He checked them in to their separate rooms, noting that Emma showed no reaction to this arrangement and wondering if she really had none, or was simply hiding it. Of course there was no other option – they simply could not share a room. Even if nobody in either of their social circles ever found out, it simply would not be appropriate.

They were shown to their rooms, which were conveniently across the end of the hall from one another – Steed’s looking south and west across the sea, Emma’s looking north and east across the lovely sweeping hills toward a fringe of what was once a great forest. They both changed into casual clothes and met up in Emma’s room.

“What’s your pleasure, my dear?” Steed asked, trying not to admire her shapely behind in the capri pants she’d put on below a short, sleeveless blouse that hung loosely away from her body and revealed an enticing slice of skin when she moved. She had a sweater knotted over her shoulders against the inevitable evening chill. “A walk along the boardwalk? A drink before dinner?”

“Yes,” she said, her deep brown eyes capturing his, her crooked smile drawing him to her despite his efforts to keep things light.

“Yes to which one?” he asked, finding himself standing very close to her, his hands rising to envelop her. She smelled of honey and coconut. She pressed her hands onto his chest, fingering the fine weave of the silk shirt beneath his cardigan.

“Both!” she replied as if it would have been obvious if he hadn’t been so easily distracted, ignoring the fact that she was as enticing as a bowl of fresh cream before a thirsty cat. Her hands slipped up to either side of his neck and she gently pulled his face to hers for a soft, light kiss with still smiling lips. He tried to hold on to her and steal another, but she ducked out of his arms and headed for the door grinning at him over her shoulder like the Cheshire cat.

They walked along the boardwalk, close but not touching. Steed studiously not taking her hand although he desperately wanted to. It seemed so school boyish, and yet that was exactly the innocent, warm contact he craved. Other couples stood together looking out at the sea, or walked along as well, interspersed with family groups and the occasional single walker. It was that lovely twilight hour when the sunbathers had retired to their rooms to prepare for dinner, and the sun’s slanting rays gilded everything with lingering warmth.

At one of the many sets of steps that let down onto the beach, Emma veered away from Steed, pausing on the bottom step to remove her sandals before stepping onto the sand.

“Come on,” she said, heading toward the water, “I love to walk on the hard sand at the tide line.” Her last words were thinned by the sea breeze, which played with her hair as well.

Steed didn’t especially like sand in his shoes and socks. But, he realized, there were sacrifices he was willing to make for Emma that he wouldn’t for others. Smiling indulgently he descended the steps and followed her, trying unsuccessfully to keep his topsiders on top of the sand.

“This is lovely,” she said as he caught up with her. The damp sand was easier to walk on. Steed glanced back at their footprints – her barefoot, rounded indents next to his oval, hard-edged prints trailing behind seemed to describe them perfectly. He smiled to himself, then at her.

“It is,” he agreed, taking a deep breath of moist, salty air.

“Come on,” she challenged, trotting ahead then darting toward the water as it receded. Steed picked up his pace, but refused to chase after her. He plunged his hands into his trouser pockets and watched as she tossed her sandals to the beach above the tide line, then approached the water again. She followed it out onto the soft wet sand, then ran backwards, arms reeling like a little girl’s as the next wave approached, squealing as the cold water touched her toes. Steed was mesmerized by her childlike joy. She beckoned to him, but he grinned and shook his head, holding his ground above the sea’s limit as she challenged it once again.

She stopped and turned, her hands extended to him as a small wave broke around her feet. “Come on, Steed, it feels wonderful!” she said.

“Not tonight,” he said, finally drawing the line for his own comfort, much as he wanted to capture her lithe body against his. Her expression flitted from pouty to mocking to bold challenge.

“Come get me, then,” she said as if she sensed his desire. He stood his ground, smiling, watching a wave break behind her, it’s rushing edge soaking her feet and ankles. Her feet would be getting buried in the sand now – he could imagine the cool pressure, the rush of the water, the mysterious touches of unknown objects carried in the water. He knew it felt good, began to regret being so stubborn. Tomorrow, he promised himself.

“Chicken?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips, her pelvis angled toward him, her sweater accentuating the swell of her breasts. He watched the water recede. In three long strides he was with her. He wrapped his arms around her, lifted her, and carried her back up the beach above the water line. He set her on her feet but didn’t let go. Her arms were around his neck, her face turned up at the slight angle necessary for their eyes to meet. Her scent of honey and coconut mixed with the salt air filled his lungs. The breeze drew locks of her hair, luminous in the sun’s last rays, across her face. He brought his hand up to sweep them off and cupped the back of her head to keep them there. The child was gone; the woman in his arms aligned her body to his as if they were one being.

“Emma,” he whispered, feeling himself falling into the deep, sensuous depths of her knowing eyes. He couldn’t restrain his kiss, couldn’t stop his tongue from plunging into her mouth and caressing the inside of her lips. He needed her, and he needed her to know it. She responded, fingers tangling in his hair, mouth open and inviting. He sucked in a ragged breath, consciously containing the flames of desire that urged him to press her into the sand. She sighed, tipping her head back as instead he placed kisses along her jaw, down her neck and up the other side. She nibbled his ear, blew into it so lightly his knees weakened.

Wordlessly they parted so that Emma could pick up her sandals. They walked up the beach to the boardwalk, never fully breaking contact. His hand sought hers, then released it and pressed into the hollow of her lower back. Then her hand slid around his waist. As they approached an elderly couple their hands slipped back to a discrete clasp, nodding at the seniors as they passed. Half a step behind her on the stairs inside the inn, he placed his hand on her buttocks, feeling the muscles work as she climbed, letting his fingers slip between her legs to feel her heat and breathing a needy groan against the back of her neck.

He crowded against her as she unlocked her room. They slipped inside as one, Steed closing the door behind him. She dropped her sandals with a thud and turned into his arms, lips finding his in a continuation of the kiss on the beach. His hands slipped under her sweater and blouse sliding up her warm back. As the fabric bunched around her she grabbed it with both hands and pulled both garments off over her head. She dropped them on the floor and shook her hair back into place, her breasts bobbing in her lacy white bra. He lowered his lips to them, dropping kisses into her warm cleavage, inhaling her sweet, salty, musky scent. His hands caressed her ribs then rose to cup her breasts as she traced his ear with her tongue, curling it around his earlobe and drawing it down his neck. His skin tingled as she placed feather-light kisses just above his collar. One hand played with the short hairs at the back of his neck while the other slipped to his chest to unbutton his sweater.

Impatient, he lifted his head and pulled the sweater off over it, dropping it on top of hers. With his hands on either side of her neck, fingers slipping into her hair, he took her mouth again with great, demanding kisses that she eagerly returned. He pressed against her, guiding her backwards onto the bed, his tongue tracing the ridges on the roof of her mouth.

Gently, controlling his strength and weight, he pressed her down, drinking again of her delicious mouth. She fed him with animal moans of pleasure as his solid erection pressed against her own aroused center through their pants. One of her hands remained tangled in his curly hair, the other groped down his shoulder to his chest to find his nipple through his shirt. His lips drifted over her face and down her neck, nipping at her ear as she sighed wordlessly into his. Sharp desire made him drive his aching penis against her as she rubbed two fingers over his hardening nipple. With one hand he stroked her from shoulder to navel then back up, circling her breast, hovering over it to tease the nipple solidly erect within her bra.

She reached for the buttons of his shirt. While her fingers worked at it, he raised his hips enough to slip his hand between her legs and stroke her inner thighs and press strong fingers against her hot, aching center. She shuddered, back arching to press her breasts against him. She used the hand on the back of his head to drive his mouth back against hers as she groaned in hungry need. Her raw urgency sent his hand plunging under the waistband of her pants. His fingers slid through damp curls to part soft lips and stroke her vulva. She moaned again, one hand gripping his forearm, the other clutching the front of his shirt, buttons forgotten as she shuddered against his hand.

Desperate for a similar release he withdrew his hand and pressed his pelvis against hers, grinding his solid erection into her through their pants, squeezing his eyes shut in concentration to keep from coming too soon.

She bent her knee up and forced him to roll onto his back, pinning him with one knee between his legs, leaning one arm on his chest as she unfastened his belt and unbuttoned his trousers. With the flys parted, she drew his briefs down, freeing his penis and balls, caressing them lightly, feeling their heat and weight and size. He moaned at her touch as she ran her thumb over the tip of his shaft, spreading a drizzle of his hot semen over it, then down the underside.

Then she was gone. His eyes shot open. She was standing up, hands on her hips. When she saw that he was watching she slid her pants down, squirming her hips out of them and bending first one knee, then the other to free herself, offering him glimpses of her wet, flushed genitals as she moved. Then, naked except for her bra, she climbed back on top of him, pressing her self against his erection but not taking it inside. She walked her hands up his chest and onto his shoulders, bending her head to suck at his nipples as she ground her pelvis against him, rubbing herself on his hardness and shuddering with controlled pleasure. His penis filled her vagina, it’s tip rubbing her vulva as she moved.

With a mighty groan he rolled on top of her, parting her legs with his, driving himself all the way into her in a single thrust. She cried out, a sound of animal pleasure, her fingers digging painfully into his shoulders as he withdrew part way and thrust again. The tip of his long, solid penis pressed against her sensitive cervix making her moan again and again with each penetrating stroke. She pressed up to meet him, her legs wrapped around his back, her mouth dragging at his, sucking his tongue and his lips as he drove himself into her over and over, filling her, fulfilling her, giving her everything until they both cried out again in a massive, shivering climax.

He wrapped his arms beneath her shoulders, supporting his weight on his elbows as he squeezed her in a bear hug, pressing his lips to hers in a slow, grateful kiss. He shrank within her and she slowly lowered her legs to the bed on either side of his. He opened his eyes to look into hers and felt that she was looking into his soul. His need for her must be written all over his face, his exquisite happiness at their joining must be audible in each gradually slowing heartbeat. She caressed his shoulders where she’d dug her fingers so deeply she’d made bruises. He kissed her forehead, then one delicately sculpted cheek, then the other. He lowered his head beside hers, kissing her ear.

“Emma,” he whispered, putting everything that he could not say into that one exhalation. She slid her fingers into the hair on the back of his head.

“John,” she sighed, and he was sure he heard I love you in that single syllable.

At last he grew uncomfortable and realized he was still in his pants and shirt. He rolled to the side, then reached across her to drag a folded quilt from the foot of the bed over her nearly naked body. She stretched luxuriously under it, putting her hands behind her head. He took his pants off, then unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and took it off too. Then he got under the quilt with her and gathered her into his arms. She came most willingly, snuggling against him almost like the child she’d been on the beach.

They drifted for a while, half dozing, stroking one another, comfortable and safe under the quilt. Finally Emma opened her eyes and saw that the room was nearly pitch dark. The sun was long set, their dinner reservation probably long past.

“My mother would have been appalled,” she said softly. Steed’s eyes glinted, amazingly picking up what little light there was in the room.

“We’re the reason she taught you to take the hotel coverlet off and not use it as a blanket,” he agreed.

She snorted with laughter. “I meant at the way we went at one another. Again.” she said.

“I don’t know, I think we were very restrained to make it this far,” he replied, stroking the side of her face with one finger. She smiled dreamily.

“If you’d asked me on the beach, I would have, no matter who might have seen,” she said. He smiled, his white teeth flashing in the darkness.

“I very nearly did,” he admitted, “but the sand would get everywhere. Very uncomfortable.”

“Ummmm,” she traced his face with the back of her hand, studying the contours she could barely see in the darkness. “I’ve never felt anything like this before,” she said.

He considered asking if she meant his cheek or the stubble of his beard. “It’s remarkably powerful, isn’t it,” he said instead, understanding that she meant their mutual attraction.

“I thought that once we’d been together it would lessen,” she chuckled, snuggling herself closer to him, “the big mystery solved, the desire fulfilled. But if anything it’s gotten stronger.”

“Enjoy it, darling,” he sighed, pressing his face into her hair.

“Because it’s bound to end?”

“God I hope not.”

They cuddled a while longer until Steed rose to relieve himself. He returned to find Emma sitting on the bed with the quilt covering her lower body.

“I’m trying to decide whether to take my bra off and drag you under the covers proper, or leave it on and get dressed. Are you hungry?” she said, watching his silhouette against the bathroom light, which he’d left on to provide some indirect illumination in the room. He scratched his chest, then looked toward the bedside clock, but it was too dark to read.

“I am, a bit. We’ve missed our dinner reservation, though.”

“I know. And I don’t fancy sitting in a stuffy dining room. Wasn’t there a pub in the village? Maybe it’s still serving something. I’d love some nice, greasy fish and chips.”

Steed couldn’t help grinning. Emma was the first woman he’d ever brought on a holiday who gladly turn down an expensive, romantic dinner in favor of fish and chips in a pub. She was neither interested in impressing him nor in being impressed.

“What do you think?” she added, since he was mysteriously silent.

“I think a little drive and some salty food and beer sounds perfect.”

They did find the pub open and willing to serve them a late batch of fish and chips. They sipped rich, dark local ale and doused their fish in malt vinegar, licking greasy fingers and ordering more ale to counteract the salt.

“Tell me about your mother,” Steed said, well into their second pints.

“Tell me what you already know,” she countered. She found it difficult sometimes knowing that he had access to the extensive background checks the ministry had conducted on her, while she had to make do with the couple of peeks she’d managed to get into his rather thick file. He certainly was not a fount of information about himself, his past, or his family — other than his multitude of probably fictional aunties.

“That her family is very well-placed. That she had a sister and a brother, although you have never mentioned them. That your father married very well and it caused a rift between her and her family – which might account for your reticence,” he paused, studying her face to determine whether he’d said too much. Her expression was unreadable. “I know that she died when you were a girl – twelve years old, weren’t you?”

“Yes. Almost thirteen.”

“That’s very young. Do you remember her well?”

She stared into her beer, holding the glass with both hands, elbows on the table.

“I think that some of my memories of her are not real – that I imagined them, or dreamt them, or that they are wishful thinking,” she said. When she looked up at him her eyes were bright.

“I’m sorry,” he said, meaning for upsetting her.

“It’s all right,” she replied, “They’re good memories, whether they’re real or not.”

“Tell me?”

Only Peter had ever asked her to talk about her mother – and it had seemed rather like he regarded it as a duty as her fiancée. She had friends who’d known Elizabeth Knight, so they didn’t ask, and friends who had not who did not inquire. Men typically avoided the subject. Except Peter, her deceased husband, and now Steed. The association made her smile to herself, even though she had no illusions that her relationship with Steed could ever possibly become that of husband and wife. Still they shared a similar bond.

“She was very proper and demanded the same of those around her. In public she seemed aloof – my father told me that people thought she was cold –,” she stopped, looking curiously at Steed’s amused expression.

“And I thought you got that from your father,” he said lightly.

“You think I’m cold?” she asked, eyebrows arched, mouth mocking.

“I think you work very hard at being self possessed and independent. Some people see it as aloof and cold,” he replied. “I find it extremely alluring.”

“Good answer, Steed,” she smirked. Steed smiled, sipping his beer and watching her, waiting for her to go on. “In my earliest memories she’s rather like an ethereal being. Nanny would bring me in while she was dressing for an event with father and I’d watch her flit around the bedroom selecting her outfit, accessorizing, putting on makeup. Looking back I know she must have been very bright, to be able to split her attention between me prattling on about my swimming lessons and pony club and the loss of a favorite doll and her own need to look fantastic on father’s arm. She made it look easy, looking devastatingly attractive. My father relied upon her in those days, when I was very young. He was just getting Knight Industries started, and her family contacts were invaluable.”

“So the family rift was not as bad as reported?” Steed could picture young Emma watching her mother dressing. The small girl had probably wished the adult would sit with her on the bed and comfort her about the lost doll or admire a dressage ribbon, but was afraid to ask her intimidating mother. But Emma seemed to regard what sounded like a daily interview with great fondness.

“As my father grew more successful, he gained acceptance from his in-laws. But mother never forgave them for their initial objections. It was only because my father so needed the contacts that they could help him make that she remained cordial with her parents. My maternal aunt, Emma, was around then. She was also my Godmother, and I was named after her. Now she lives in Japan. She married a diplomat who was posted there after the war. He retired and they stayed on. My uncle Alex lives in Sussex. I see him now and then. He raises horses, in fact. You’d probably like him.”

“Probably,” Steed agreed, waving at the barman for another round while Emma looked into her half-empty glass as if it were a crystal ball.

“Father surprised us with his first sailboat when I was nine or ten. He firmly informed us that such a small, modest craft was not to be called a yacht,” she grinned up at Steed, then glanced at the waiter who placed two more pints on the table. She lifted her old glass and drank about half of its contents. “We cruised for two months that summer, living practically on top of one another, father teaching me to sail, mother watching. I think that in some ways she disapproved – I was not the young lady that she wished for. But years later father told me that she understood that I needed to learn. Sailing is so complex, but also so natural and basic. It’s just wind, water, and sails. But it’s also language, command structure, details, planning, safety, tactics –,” she took another long gulp, nearly draining the glass. She set it aside and centered the fresh one in front of her. “Father used it to teach me discipline, which I needed, and inspire my interest in navigation, among other things.

“At night, anchored somewhere, while father was on the radio with someone from his office, mother and I would lie in the cockpit and look at the stars. She knew all the constellations. We talked about everything those nights. I treasure them, because the next two summers I was too busy with ponies and parties and I didn’t have time for dull old star watching with mum.”

Emma took a sip of her fresh ale and looked up at Steed. Her eyes were bright again and he thought he should tell her to stop, but he couldn’t. He wanted to know more, to know about the youthful experiences that had made her the only woman he had ever met that he could love. Instead he reached across the table and took her hand in his, squeezing it gently.

“I only found out several years later that she’d known she was dying that summer. They both knew. It was as if she was trying to transfer all of her knowledge and wisdom and values to me before it was too late. I sometimes wonder if I’d known, would I have listened more closely? Or would I have been to grief-stricken to pay attention at all?” She shrugged, pulling her bottom lip between her teeth. “In any case, I came away from that summer with a clear understanding of what my mother expected of me. Of what she would approve of, and what she would not. And an equally clear realization that it was up to me to make my own decisions.”

“Do you think she’d approve of the decisions you’ve made?”

“I think she never dreamt I’d be a widow in my twenties. She never dreamt of the world that we live in today, either – it’s so different from the one she left me in just a decade and a half ago.”

Steed looked at their joined hands, stroked her fingers with his thumb. She looked too, and smiled. She took another sip of beer and her smile turned slightly wicked.

“She would probably disapprove of my current career path. She would certainly have advised me to develop my relationship with Freddy Leighton,” her eyes rose to meet Steed’s, who’s brows were rising in pretended alarm, “he’s dependable, has the right background, and is pleasant to be with,” she explained, knowing that her friendship with Lord Freddy was a recent sore spot and wanting to exorcise it.

Steed smirked. “But I’m a much better dancer,” he said smoothly.

“And my mother would most certainly disapprove of the direction our relationship has taken.”

Steed leaned back in his chair, stretching his arm out in front of him to maintain his grip on her hand. “But you’ve said it yourself, Mrs. Peel, we were lovers from nearly the day we met – it was just a matter of degree.”

She nodded, smiling down at her beer. Suddenly her head popped up and she skewered him with a probing stare. “Are you trying to get me drunk, Steed, to put me in a –,” a hiccough erupted from her chest and she put her free hand over her mouth in surprise, “in a compromising position?” she finished with a giggle and another hiccough.

Steed laughed outright, leaning across the table and squeezing her hand. “I know several good remedies for your condition,” he said, ignoring her question. She hiccoughed again. “You could hold your breath until they stop, or drink the rest of this beer in one long gulp – no, wait, I suppose the beer’s what’s caused it, isn’t it,” he tsked a few times as she hiccoughed again.

“Come on,” he stood up, releasing her hand to find his wallet and drop several folded bills on the table. She stood up as well, hiccoughing again and drawing the attention of the few other late patrons slouching at the bar. Steed put his hand on her shoulder and guided her outside. The pub was on the edge of the village along the main road. Steed walked her to the passenger side of the Bentley, smiling as she alternately shook with more hiccoughs and drew in deep gasps of the crisp, salt air. She reached for the door but he reached around her to hold it closed, then turned her around by the shoulder with his other hand and kissed her mid-hiccough. He kept kissing her until she kissed him back, both of them ignoring her occasional little shivers. He breathed through his nose, not releasing her lips for a moment, and allowed his hands to wander up and down her back. She reached around him, one hand sliding up to tickle the back of his neck, the other creeping down to his belt, then below it to squeeze his buttocks.

After a long while they both realized that she had stopped hiccoughing. She pulled her face away from his, sucking in a deep breath and grinning up into his twinkling eyes.

“My mother would not approve of your remedy, Mr. Steed,” she chuckled.

“But you make your own decisions, Mrs. Peel.”

“Yes. I fear there may be another bout coming on in a bit. Perhaps you should get me back to the inn to administer it again.”

“It would be my pleasure, Mrs. Peel.”

“Yes it would,” she agreed, turning to climb into the car.

She really was a bit tipsy, Steed realized as he lent her his arm to climb the stairs. Am I taking advantage if we already made love once tonight? he wondered as she missed the lock with her key. He deftly took it from her and opened her door. She pulled him inside by the hand, flipping on the wall switch with the other. She was clearly unaware of his hesitation. It was one of his personal rules – nothing beyond kissing when the lady is unsteady on her feet.

Emma walked into the room and sat down on the bed, then jumped back up. “Ugh, damp,” she groaned, dragging the coverlet to the floor. Thinking of what her mother would say, and slightly appalled himself, Steed stepped over and gathered the soiled bedspread, roughly folding it and placing it on a side chair. Emma picked up the quilt and spread it over the bed with a lofty flip. She wavered on her feet as it landed, bending forward to lean straight-armed on the bed. She straightened slowly and turned to face Steed.

“Steed, would you mind terribly –.”

Steed stepped to her, placing his hands on her upper arms to steady her. “Why don’t you get a good night’s sleep, Mrs. Peel,” he said, leaning close to kiss her forehead. “I’ll check on you in the morning, if I may?”

“Take my key so you can come in,” she said.

“You sure?”

“Certain,” she nodded firmly, “I’m going to try to stay on my feet long enough to clean my teeth. If you find me on the bathroom floor in the morning, please just put me in the bed and don’t mention it.”

Steed smiled at her enduring good humor, placed a gentle kiss on her lips, and carefully released her arms. He pocketed her key, which he was still holding, and went to the door. “Lock this,” he reminded her as he stepped out. She crossed to the door, a bit steadier this time, and closed it after him. He heard the lock click behind him, then dug in his pockets for his own key and crossed the hall.

Chapter 2

“Mrs. Peel?” Steed tapped on her door with one hand, holding a tray against his hip with the other. It was nine o’clock Saturday morning. Steed had procured coffee, thick slabs of buttered toast, and the morning paper, using flattery and a five-Pound note to have it placed on the tray so he could deliver it himself. There was no answer. He was confident that she had not been so drunk last night that she’d need a more specialized hangover remedy. But she could still be asleep. He put her key in the lock and opened the door.

She was sitting on the floor with her back to the door, cross-legged on a towel in the square of sunshine coming through the window. She was wearing a light blue catsuit, the color contrasting brightly with her hair where its curl brushed her shoulders. Her hands were resting palm up on her knees, index fingers and thumbs forming circles.

Steed stepped in and closed the door, setting the tray on a side table. Eyeing her still form, he poured himself a cup of coffee, then carried the cup and saucer around the room to lean against the wall next to the window. Emma slowly inhaled a long breath, let it out, and opened her eyes. Her smile was radiant.

“Good morning,” he said, raising his cup to her. She untangled her legs from the lotus position and stood up, picking up the towel. Tossing it on the same chair with the coverlet she crossed to Steed’s tray to pour her coffee.

“Good morning,” she said. “And thank you.” She took a long sip of coffee, eyes smiling at him over the rim of her cup. Steed could see that she was not in the least hung over. He wondered how long she’d been awake.

“There’s toast, too. Or we can go downstairs for something else,” he said, pushing away from the wall and crossing back to the tray.

“What’s on for today?” she asked. “By the way, did you ever call the ministry about the jewel?”

Steed smiled as he selected a piece of toast.

“This morning,” he said with a guilty shrug. She set her cup down to take a piece of toast too. He didn’t want to tell her how angry they’d been when he admitted having the missing jewel, so he changed the subject. “The scenery along this stretch of coast is magnificent – we could drive a bit, stop for lunch, find a stretch we like and walk…”

Emma was nodding enthusiastically so he let his suggestions trail off. “Only if you promise to bring something to swim in –,” she pressed an index finger against his lips before he could voice his objection, “Just a quick dip somewhere. People do it, you know.”

He sighed, reminding himself of his personal promise last night not to be rigid. “A dip it is, then, Mrs. Peel,” he agreed. He was rewarded with a spectacular smile followed by a kiss, complete with toast crumbs.

They drove along the coast on a the two-lane road that dipped down and ran along the beach, then climbed up to meander along hilltops and through pastures with the ocean an azure carpet to their left. There were whitecaps out on the sea, but nearer shore the waters were calmer, sending tame-looking rollers to break listlessly on the beach. An hour or so along at a place where the road ran along a built-up embankment with a hundred yards of beach and the sea just beyond it Emma urged Steed to stop. He pulled the Bentley over along the generous shoulder where litter indicated that it was common practice to park. Emma hopped over the car door and stood on the running board to reach into the back seat for her woven straw tote bag. Steed watched her suspiciously. She cocked an eyebrow at him as she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal an aquamarine tank suit.

“You did agree to a swim,” she pointed out, covering the car seat with her blouse to shade it from the hot sun. “Come on then.”

“Here, Mrs. Peel?”

Emma turned to look at the stretch of beach. There was one other car parked a quarter mile further along, its owners a family who’d set up umbrellas and chairs near it. There were no facilities – which Emma realized was probably why Steed hesitated. She did have to agree that a rinse off would be nice afterwards, but she’d brought a couple liters of water that would serve.

“For a man of your experience, your reluctance is certainly amusing,” she said.

Steed opened his door, glancing in the rearview mirror for traffic first, and got out. He pulled a towel out of the back seat and came around to her side of the car.

“I am a man of my experience because I am extremely cautious, Mrs. Peel,” he said as he removed his shoes, socks, trousers, and finally his shirt. Emma was pleased and a little surprised to see that he was wearing a clinging, navy blue, European swimsuit. She’d had him pegged for baggier swim trunks, although the sleek euro look was extremely flattering on his smoothly muscled 38-year-old figure.

Half way to the water Emma stopped to spread out her towel and put her bag on top of it. Then she slipped off her shorts and sandals and headed for the sea. Steed spread his towel next to hers, just touching along one long edge, and followed her.

She knew it was chilly, but she believed a short swim would be refreshing. She waded in quickly, feeling her way as the sand turned to gravel, then back to sand and the little wavelets crashed around her ankles then her knees. She was making good progress, she thought, until Steed came barreling in past her. He roared out a howling laugh as he plunged headfirst into the next small wave. Surprised, Emma turned sideways to take the wave, then plunged in after him.

She’d hoped to reach Steed’s playful side and the tactic had worked. They played in the water, splashing and chasing one another and trying to bodysurf the too-small waves. Steed would disappear beneath a wave, then surface under her, heaving her up to splash into the next rushing wave.

They staggered up the beach and flopped down side-by-side on their towels, Emma on her stomach and Steed leaning back on his elbows to watch the sea.

“Ummm, this feels delicious,” Emma sighed. “That was just what I needed to clear my head.”

Steed looked at her in surprise – he’d been certain she wasn’t hung over at all. “You’re not going to be able to lay there for too long in this sun,” he pointed out, admiring the clear, alabaster skin of her back. She reached into her bag and pulled out a plastic bottle.

“Would you mind?” she asked, holding the sunscreen out to him. He took it, smiling as he rose up onto his knees and unscrewed the cap. She pulled her wet hair to one side and he drew a line of the cool, white cream from the nape of her neck to the edge of her swimsuit at the small of her back. She sighed with pleasure as he rubbed the lotion into her skin, slipping his fingers under the straps of her swimsuit, then smoothing more down the backs of her arms. He moved to her legs, applying lotion to the backs of her thighs and on down her calves to where sand was clinging to them. Knowing it was completely acceptable there on the beach to touch her in this way gave him a flutter of excitement. He placed a kiss at the nape of her neck, then sat back on his towel and spread more lotion on his own legs and chest.

“Tell me about your family, Steed. And I don’t mean your miscellaneous aunties,” she said, turning her head to face him and resting it on her folded arms. He screwed the cap on the sunscreen bottle and leaned back on his elbows again, glancing at her then looking out at the sea. This was uncharted territory and she knew it. But he reckoned that he owed her, after last night. “How many do you really have?” she added, smiling teasingly.

“I really have nine,” he said. “My mother’s five sisters and my father’s four. I don’t make these things up, Mrs. Peel.”

“And what about your siblings?” Emma prodded, seeing that he was going to try to stop there. She knew he had a sister, but that was all.

“Caroline. She just had her sixth child, a boy. Says he’s to be the last, although she’s said that at least four times before. Her husband Harry manages a copper mine – doing rather well on the financial management side, I understand. They have a sprawling old house full of second-rate antiques, children, dogs, a couple horses and cows out in the barn, and Harry’s collection of cars. Last time I asked he was working on two and had three fully restored.”

“I’ll bet you enjoy visiting,” Emma said, visualizing Steed amid what sounded like homey chaos. He nodded, smiling.

“I get to be the generous uncle. And I enjoy tinkering on the cars with Harry. He’s worked out a few problems with mine over the years, too.”

“I’ll bet,” Emma lifted her head to look at the stately vehicle, wondering idly about how much it took the place of a family of his own. “And I’ll bet you enjoy returning to your flat, too,” she added.

He settled back, rolling onto his side with his head propped on one arm. His face was inches from hers.

“I do. I think I’ve become rather set in my ways. Years ago I imagined that sort of life for myself, but things changed, my choices took me along a different path.”

Their eyes locked, but Emma was unable to read his. “Any regrets?” She asked softly, regretting it as soon as she said it. He stared at her for a long time, then reached up to remove a stray lock of hair from across her face.

“Not at the moment, no,” he replied at last, brushing his thumb across her lips, inadvertently leaving sand behind. She was sure he could hear her heart beating as it fluttered with joy at his simple statement.

“Good,” was all she could say, barely more than a whisper. His lips curled in a little smile, his eyes joining in so that the skin around them crinkled into the familiar little crow’s feet. “I think I’m hungry,” she said, rolling over and sitting up. “Yes,” she added, “definitely hungry.”

“Shall we see what we can find in the next village? After lunch there’s a marked hiking trail over the hills near here – nothing too strenuous, but beautiful scenery.”

“Sounds lovely Steed,” she agreed, picking up the sunscreen and dropping it in her bag.

At the car she produced a bottle of water to rinse the sand off their ankles and feet. Steed drove them into the next village where a café had tables in its garden. They enjoyed sandwiches and lemonade, Emma still staying away from anything stronger and Steed deciding to keep at her pace since he was driving. They each slipped into the café’s toilets to change out of their swimsuits, which might become uncomfortable walking, then they set out to find the trail Steed remembered.

They found it, and walked for hours across the countryside, stopping to admire views of the sea and coastal villages, pausing to watch hawks circle on the air currents high above, and standing still in the shadows of trees as a timid doe and fawn walked across the path ahead.

They returned to the Inn late in the afternoon, tired and in need of baths. Opening the door to his room, Steed paused and turned to her as she opened hers. “I’ll meet you in the bar in an hour – is that enough time?” he asked.

“Perfect. I’ll look for something tall and cool, holding on to something equally tall and cool for me to drink,” she said, winking at him as she disappeared into her room.

They enjoyed a surprisingly romantic candlelit dinner in one of the inn’s smaller dining rooms. Emma realized that the friendly intimacy that they’d shared all day probably had a great deal to do with the romantic mood. Steed had opened up to her about one of his most private personal relationships, and he’d dove into the sea with her just because she had wished it. She felt certain that whatever affection he felt toward her, it was different from what he felt for his other lady friends. And if she couldn’t have love, she must at least demand distinctiveness.

Emma was enjoying sipping the last of her wine and smiling into Steed’s eyes, but she could see that he didn’t wish to linger once their coffee was gone and the check signed.

“I get the distinct impression you have more plans for the evening,” she said, offering him her most winsome smile. He leaned back in his chair and smiled back, his expression the essence of patience. She wasn’t fooled. “Shall we go upstairs?” she asked.

“If you like,” he replied, rising immediately. She joined him.

Steed opened the door to his room and she entered, wandering toward the loveseat in the little seating area. Steed went to his bag and produced a bottle of his favorite brandy and two snifters. She grinned appreciatively at his penchant for being ready for every occasion as he poured the drinks and brought them to her. He settled in beside her, the loveseat offering them just enough room to sit cozily. He crossed his legs, leaning toward her with one arm behind her shoulders on the back of the seat.

“This has been a wonderful day, Steed,” she said, sipping her brandy, then allowing herself to meet his gaze. His eyes were smoldering darkly with restrained desire. She placed her free hand on his thigh, watching his reaction. His nostrils flared and the corners of his mouth curled slightly. The hand on the back of the loveseat drifted down to her shoulder and he drew a line along her collarbone.

“There’s something I’ve been wanting to do,” he said, his voice husky. Emma’s imagination started to drift, and she raised one eyebrow in inquiry. He let his smile deepen as his fingers traced up her neck to her jaw. “I want to kiss you.”

Now she smiled, knowing there must be more. He ran his finger back to her neck, pausing at the sensitive spot just below her ear. She half closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation as his touch tingled through her body. “And?” she finally asked.

“Like all those evenings before last week,” he said. “When we kissed and kissed.” He illustrated his point by leaning in to lightly kiss the side of her mouth, his hand sliding to the back of her neck as he did so. “But tonight I don’t want to stop.” His breath caressed her face, followed by his lips as he kissed her again. This time she turned her face into it, parting her lips to his and drawing her hand from his thigh up to his waist inside of his jacket. His kiss grew more demanding, his hand on her neck slipping up into her hair possessively. She responded in kind, caressing his tongue with hers and sucking hungrily at his lower lip.

Steed came up for a breath, and another sip of brandy, drawing his fingers back along her collarbone. Emma sipped her brandy as well, at the same time letting her other hand wander up his waistcoat to his chest.

“Is this what you mean?” she asked, rubbing circles over his breast, knowing that although the fabric of his shirt and vest concealed it, she was teasing his very sensitive nipple. His fingers in turn slipped down the front of her dress to pause on her breast.

“Yes,” he breathed, eyes half closed as he enjoyed her touch, “to follow through with what was once forbidden. To finally live out a thousand fantasies, endured after you left me, or I left you.”

“Slow,” she said, willing him to move his hand on her, to caress her, “careful,” she added as he complied, his fingers rubbing the small protrusion of her nipple, “delicious,” she sighed.

She was barely aware of Steed taking her glass from her hand, but noticed when he leaned forward to place it with his on the table in front of the loveseat. He came back, slipping his newly freed hand around her waist and returning his lips to hers. She replaced her hand on his chest, inching toward the buttons of his vest as he explored her face with his kisses. She drew her other hand up his thigh, stopping at his hip tantalizingly close to the swelling evidence of his arousal.

He nibbled on her earlobe, whispering his need for her with tingly breaths. It was intensely erotic, all the more so because he had never done it before – never pressured her for more before she offered it. But now he could. They had crossed that line and, as she’d said last night, knowing how good it would be made the desire even stronger.

She responded in kind, telling him how she wanted him to touch her, and how she wanted to touch him. He moaned as she allowed her hand to brush across his groin, the solid feel of him exciting her as much as her touch did him. He brought both hands to the back of her neck, groping with the zipper of her dress, then pulling it half way down her back. He ran his fingers lightly up the wedge of exposed skin, one hand pausing on the clasp of her bra. She redoubled her efforts on the buttons of his vest, using both hands to open the last of them. Then she ran her hands over his chest to feel his hardened nipples through his shirt.

He traced his finger along her collarbone again, following his hand with a trail of kisses and drawing her dress down her arm to expose the top of her breast to his searching mouth. Her head fell back, her lips parted, as he slid her bra strap off her shoulder as well, exposing more of her heaving breast to his lips. She buried one hand in his hair, gently urging him to go on. His other hand started at her knee, inching up her thigh to find the tops of her stockings under the hem of her short dress. He stroked the bare skin of her upper thigh, fingers temptingly close to her moist, burning center. She dropped her face to the back of his neck, planting light kisses just above his collar as his tongue slid into her bra to tickle her nipple.

“Fewer clothes,” she breathed against his neck, feeling the short hairs there stand on end under her light touch. He kissed his way up her neck and along her jaw, eventually finding her mouth and filling it with his demanding tongue. She brought her hand to his face, feeling the muscles of his jaw work as he kissed her aggressively. He was all hardness and angles and restrained animal desire. She wanted to release the animal and feel him enter her and fill her. She moaned into him and he released her mouth, turning his face to place a sucking kiss on her palm.

“Let’s move to the bed,” he said, his eyes searching hers, but brooking no argument. They rose, Steed’s arms firmly around her waist as they started across the room. They paused part way as he pulled her to him, his fingers sliding into her hair to bring her face to his. She pressed against him, his erection against her belly sending flames of need through her, her breasts against his chest burning for the touch of his bare flesh. Still kissing her, he groped again for her zipper, lowering it the rest of the way. Then he drew her dress up her back, gathering it around her waist as he stroked her buttocks through her silk panties. She parted her legs, wanting him to reach between them, to touch her, to enter her.

Abruptly he released her lips and pulled her dress off over her head. He took a moment to look at her, unashamed to admire her as she stood in her bra and stockings that were held up by a black garter belt under her panties. It pleased him to know she’d dressed for him, her discrete white dress concealing tempting, sexy lingerie. 

“Sit down,” she said, nodding toward the bed. He cocked one eyebrow, then complied, pulling back the covers before turning to sit facing her. She crouched before him, unlacing his shoes and removing them, then rolling down his socks. While she worked, he shrugged off his jacket and vest and took of his tie. She parted his legs enough to press between them, reaching to his neck to begin unbuttoning his shirt. Remembering previous awkward moments, he raised his arms above her head to remove his cufflinks and tuck them into the pocket. Then he lowered his hands to her bare shoulders just as she undid the last button she could reach – the rest were inside his trousers.

She placed her hands on his chest, pushing him back so that he had to put his hands behind him on the bed for support. Then she drew a finger from his Adam’s apple down his chest and stomach, over his belt buckle to the tented fabric of his trousers. He closed his eyes as she kept drawing over his solid penis and down between his legs to where his balls were concealed in his pants. Then she did it again, her finger tracing the same path, making no moved to unfasten his belt or open his trousers. He heard himself moan, but was powerless to move. He felt her shift, realized she had risen up to lean over him and place a kiss on his throat. Then she licked him, just as slowly as she’d drawn her finger, from Adam’s apple all the way down to his belt buckle. Her tongue left a burning trail.

“Do it again,” he pleaded, shivering in anticipation.

“No,” she replied, her hands on his belt. He opened his eyes to watch her unbuckle it, her face a mask of concentration.

“Vixen,” he hissed as she unbuttoned his fly.

“You love it,” she replied, eyes flicking to his face, then away. In that glance he’d seen something unexpected – a flash of uncertainty. He leaned his weight on one hand and brought the other around to caress her face.

“Yes I do,” he said, tilting her chin up to look into her eyes. There it is, she’s still not sure. How do I reassure her? The answer was obvious, but he couldn’t do it, couldn’t simply tell her that what he loved was not just her sexual playfulness, but her – all of her, everything about her. He passed his thumb over her lips and she caught it, sucking on it for a moment then releasing it. The uncertainty was gone from her eyes, but he wasn’t sure if she had just concealed it, or had understood the real meaning of his words.

“Lay back,” she ordered, and he complied, leaning back on his elbows so that he could watch her. She pulled his trousers off, then slipped her fingers inside the waistband of his briefs, caressing his pelvis with the backs of her hands as she lifted them over his erection. She removed them, then rose to bend over him again, kissing his throat once more. He shuddered as she once again drew her tongue down his chest, deviating this time to flick it over first one solid little nipple, then the other.

“Oh God,” he moaned, “Emma please.”

“Emma please what?” she asked, sucking at his nipple until she felt his penis stiffen against her belly. Her loins burned with an urgent desire to climb up on him and take his enormous, solid erection inside herself.

“Please never stop,” he moaned. She smiled, regaining the discipline to continue with her game. The longer they held out, the better it would ultimately be. She returned her tongue to its original course, drawing a line down over his belly. As her chin touched his erection, she slid her lips wetly up and over it, sucking the bit of semen on its head and kissing her way down the other side like it was a dripping ice cream cone. She pressed light kisses on his engorged balls, taking one gently into her mouth as he drew his foot up onto the edge of the bed to open himself more fully to her. She slid her tongue back up, then took his penis into her mouth. It didn’t all fit, she felt the head tickle the back of her throat and pulled back a little to avoid an instinctive gag. She tightened her lips around him and sucked gently, pulling her mouth off like she was milking him. She was rewarded with the musky flavor of his semen.

“Stop, or I’ll come,” he said with tense urgency. She looked at his flushed, glistening genitals, once again fighting the urge to rise up and impale herself. He sucked in a deep, ragged breath and sat up, reaching out to her. “Come here,” he said.

She climbed up onto the bed beside him, stretching out on her back as he loomed over her. He removed his shirt, tossing it aside to land on the floor near the rest of his clothes. Then he pressed kisses on her stomach and over her bra, sucking her nipples through it until they strained against the moist lace. Then he worked his way down tracing a fiery line to her navel. Abruptly he slipped off her panties, leaving the garter belt and stockings framing her enticing thatch of auburn curls.

She opened her legs, silently begging him to fill her, but not voicing her need for fear that he would and it would be over too soon. He pressed his face to the inside of her thighs, breathing, kissing, and licking the bare skin above her stockings. She groaned, reaching down to tangle her fingers in his hair. With one finger he parted and stroked her, his mere touch releasing the pent-up desire in a shivering orgasm. She inhaled deeply, savoring it as he went on caressing her thighs and labia, one hand pressing lightly on her pelvis as if to contain her. She came again, her warm essence drenching his fingers. Peering down at him from under hooded eyes she saw a proud look on his face. It pleased him to pleasure her.

He kissed along one thigh through her stockings down to her knee, caressing the other thigh as he went. Finally he sat between her legs, lifting her right leg over his left and his right over her left so that they were scissored together.

“Take my hand,” he instructed, reaching out with his left hand. She took it and he used her grip to pull himself closer to her, directing his penis into her with his other hand.

“Oh God,” she wailed as he slowly filled her, pressing himself in more deeply than ever before. It felt as if he were cramming himself into her, subsuming her with his powerful maleness. She had never felt so fulfilled, so complete. He brushed his toes over her breasts, slowly rotating his hips. “Oh God John,” she cried again and he felt a welling heat as she came once more. The slightest movement brought exquisite pleasure, and simply holding still extended the moment before orgasm indefinitely. “Where did you learn this?” she asked as he caressed her stockinged calf with his free hand.

“Read it in a book,” he said, barely able to form the words.

“That’s some book,” she hissed as he wiggled his hips again and she tightened around him in a powerful spasm. He moaned and held still to prolong the effect, his penis throbbing, his balls crushed against her. “I want to go on like this forever,” she sighed as the spasm passed.

And they did go on, the minutes lengthening, their bodies alternately rigid, then limp, the sexual tension never subsiding, but repeatedly building to the edge of utter climax before slipping back to the low thrum of excitement. Eventually the were riding the edge, both clinging to reason, hardly breathing with the effort of keeping their bodies from total, crashing climax.

“Emma, I can’t –,” Steed gasped, his pelvis thrusting against her of its own volition.

“I know,” she wailed as his movement exploded inside her, stripping her of all thought for anything but her own overheated center. Their mutual orgasm went on and on, one shuddering and the other reacting with a desperate spasm until they were limp and aching, their legs and torsos a tangle on the sweat-dampened sheets.

For as long as they had maintained intercourse, they lay still, hearts thumping, breath slowing, for even longer. His erection subsided, slipping out of her, as limp as the rest of his body. Finally Emma raised her shoulders up and pulled herself up on the bed to rest her head on the cool pillows. Steed untangled his legs from hers, then crawled up to stretch out beside her, twining his fingers with hers.

“Let’s do that again sometime,” she said softly, turning her head to face him, the rest of her body still too spent to move, “but not right away.”

He turned his head too, a satisfied smile filling his face. “Only once a night for that, I’m afraid,” he agreed and she wondered if he was serious. Once a month, maybe . . .

Chapter 3

After a few minutes Emma rose and went to the toilet. She paused to examine herself in the mirror and discovered that what little makeup she’d been wearing was in a terrible state. She ran warm water and, clenching her eyes shut tight, washed her face with the inn’s complimentary soap. By the time she came out Steed had gathered up their clothes and folded them on the dresser. He was back on the bed, reclining against the pillows looking gloriously, nakedly sensuous. She realized with an amazing rush of desire that they were not yet done for the night. She twisted her arms behind herself to unhook her bra.

“No, let me,” Steed said, sitting up and beckoning to her to join him. She complied, sitting facing him as he reached around her and undid the hooks. “Now your legs,” he said as he slipped the bra down her arms. She shifted, extending one leg out in front of her. He carefully undid the fasteners on the top of the stocking and slowly slid it down her leg, caressing her as he went. She sighed at the warmth of his touch, leaning back on her hands, watching him work. He tossed the limp stocking over his shoulder along with her bra. “Now the other one,” he ordered like a shoe salesman taking a fitting. She extended her other leg and he repeated his slow, sensuous removal. She was tingling all over by the time he added the second stocking to his collection. He started to move off the bed and she cleared her throat.

“The belt, please?” she said.

“Ah, sorry madam,” he smiled. He reached around her waist, feeling for the fastener. His face, inches from hers, frowned in concentration. She wanted to giggle and kiss him as she watched his frustration. Instead she took pity.

“It’s a big hook, like a bikini top,” she said, certain that he was familiar with removing that type of garment. He looked sheepish as his fingers comprehended the fastening and he undid it. Then he took everything to the dresser and set it on top of her dress.

She reclined on her elbows, legs sprawled, waiting to see what he had in mind next. Moments ago she’d been deliciously sated, but in the process of undressing her he’d brought her back to the edge of arousal. If he climbed into bed and dozed off, she’d be happy to do the same. But if he pounced on her she’d be equally enthusiastic.

He did neither. Instead he crawled up between her legs, stretching out on his stomach. He kissed her inner thighs as he had earlier, then he parted her with his fingertips and lowered his mouth to her. She gasped at his kisses and half cried, half moaned as his tongue teased her vulva to renewed wetness. She fell back on the pillows, running her hands through her hair, stretching her long body to extend it toward him and feed his insatiable appetite for her.

Peter had never been willing, and she had never overcome embarrassment enough to beg. But with Steed there was no embarrassment. He used his sensual mouth to bring her pleasure in every way he could. He lapped at her as she shivered with a little orgasm, stroking her clitoris with his tongue, then sucking gently at her vulva to draw her to climax yet again. And as much as their previous round had been the most fulfilling, sating yet, this delicate, cool sensation was even more amazing.

At last he rose, climbing up her body to kiss her mouth, bringing her a taste of herself. He buried his renewed erection in her moist folds, rubbing it against her as she kissed his cheeks and his chin, sucking the taste of herself from his skin. He reached down and guided his penis into her, slipping into her wetness with easy familiarity. His pace was slow, almost casual. He pressed all the way in, his pelvis driving her deep into the mattress. He bent his head to her breasts, finally giving them his full attention. Her loins constricted around him as he licked and kissed her breasts, drawing her nipples to sharp, red peaks more swollen than she had ever seen them before.

Then he reared up, reaching back and hooking his arms around first one leg, then the other. He folded her nearly in half, shifting her beneath him as he thrust into her, his pace quickening. She gasped at the sudden raw urgency, her arousal intensifying as his balls slapped against her. She was building toward a powerful orgasm, her muscles tightening around him, seeming to resist his thrusts. He groaned, shaking his head as if to clear it, his eyes pinched shut.

And then he stopped, pulling out of her as he pushed back onto his knees and grabbed her shoulders. She lowered her legs to either side of him, looking up in utter surprise, a growl of pure lust stopping in her throat. She felt strangely violated by his sudden absence. Her body burned with frustration.

“Suck me,” he hissed, pulling her toward him. Too amazed to argue, she sat up and took his glistening wet cock into her mouth. He held her shoulders as she sucked, not forcing her, but caressing her absently, completely subsumed in himself. She was fascinated by the feel of his engorged member, by the way it pulsed and drizzled musky, salty semen even before he began to cry out in his orgasm. He came forcefully, his warm cum gushing against the back of her mouth. She swallowed once, then again as the stream gradually abated. He clenched her shoulders and cried out her name over and over. She continued to suck as he softened, then pulled away from her with a little gasp. “Oh God,” he moaned, looking down at her.

She drew her legs in under her and rose up on her knees. He looked stricken and guilty. She pressed her mouth to his, forcing his lips to part as she drove her tongue in, carrying with it the last of his cum. He took it willingly, sucking it from her. Satisfied that he had willingly tasted himself as she had, she drew him down to the mattress. Then she reached to the foot of the bed and sorted out the blankets, pulling the sheet up to cover them. He watched her curiously, trying to decide what to say, how to apologize for what she surely must think was an outrageous demand. And yet she did it, without hesitating.

At last she stretched out with him, lying half on her side, half on top of him, her hand on his chest, her chin on top of it. She looked into his eyes. Her other hand wandered over his abdomen and stroked the ridges of his ribs.

“You needed to dominate me,” she said.

“I don’t know why I did that,” he replied, even though she was exactly right.

“Don’t you?” she asked. She wasn’t angry, but with her careful actions and gentle words she’d easily taken control. He was glad. He regretted his selfish, impulsive demand. Isn’t it enough that she’s become your lover, man? 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

She smiled knowingly, her hand wandering down his stomach.

“If we define our relationship here, we will know exactly what to expect of one another out there, when it’s a matter of survival, not pleasure. I enjoy giving you pleasure like that. But you do have to finish what you started.”

He smiled agreeably, very willing to fulfill her demand. The fingers of the hand that was trapped between their bodies moved toward her groin. She shifted her hips and grabbed the hand, stopping it.

“No. Not good enough,” she said with a devious smile.

“I — .”

“Oh you will,” she assured him, moving her hand back up to cup his limp member, her fingers passing lightly over his scrotum. Far from being repulsed by his aggressive behavior, she still burned for him. Of course he dominated her – her life depended on his skill and knowledge and when the situation warranted she would always do exactly as he told her. But he didn’t rule her, and in all other facets of her life she would always do exactly as she wished. Right now she wished to bring him back to stiff arousal and make him finish her as she had him.

Rising over him, she bent to suck at his nipple, all the while holding her fingers over his scrotum, touching the frizz of hairs there without making contact with his flesh. He closed his eyes, reaching up to run his fingers through her hair. She knew he would revive, although it might take a little longer this time. She was curious to see how long, when her mood was not playful but demanding, and he was battling a guilty conscious.

His body proved oblivious to his conscious, his penis soon showing signs of life as she moved to his other nipple and let her hand slide over the hair on his thighs. He moaned softly.

She stroked his hardening penis, encircling it with her fingers and sliding them slowly up and down until his erection was solid. She rose over him and brushed the tip against her nipples, shivering at the sensation as his flesh quivered in her hand.

She straddled him with her back to him, gently guiding him inside of her. Steed slid his hands around her hips as she bore down on him, praying that his erection was solid enough to satisfy her. He didn’t think he could rebound again, not without a rest.

She rocked back and forth, one hand on his solid thigh, the other lightly touching his balls. Behind her he hissed out a long breath and his grip on her hips tightened. Suddenly flooded with desire, he heaved upward into her and she contracted around him, making him work. She wanted him to come, but she knew it simply might not be possible a third time so soon. She let her body take over, forcing her mind not to think about him. She was surprised at how easy it was to focus on her own need, to use him for her pleasure, rising and falling on him to fan the ache of desire into flame. Her climax was so explosive she cried out, digging her fingers into both his thighs and grinding her pelvis into him. She thought he came too, but she wasn’t sure. He might have simply lost his erection with the force of her orgasm. On some levels she cared, and she understood that he really had felt guilty for his selfish act. But at her basest level, the carnal creature that Steed had awakened in her was already curling contentedly up to rest, oblivious to how it had achieved such complete satisfaction.

She joined it, moving off of him and stretching back out, pulling one hand through her hair and reaching with the other to twine her fingers with his. He raised her hand to his lips to kiss it, then sat up and pulled the sheet up over them. He rolled onto his side, laying one arm across her stomach and burying his face in her hair.

“I want you to be my partner, my equal. I don’t want to dominate you,” he whispered.

“Not most of the time,” she agreed, reaching up to cover the hand that lay on her stomach, “but sometimes you must. You need to know that I’ll behave as you wish, when you do.”

“Emma, how can you be so understanding? How can you understand me so well?”

She didn’t answer, couldn’t say that she was understanding because she loved him so much it hurt. That she understood his need for her trust because she shared it. She suspected that Steed was capable of deep self-examination, that he knew himself better than most men and accepted his own appetites and failings. He knew why he’d demanded that she service him, and he accepted it. But he was afraid she did not.

Once she had been equally self-aware, before her deceased husband had taken advantage of her and she’d learned that fooling herself hurt less than facing the truth. But the truth about her relationship with Peter no longer mattered. He was dead and it was over. The truth about her relationship with Steed was clear to her and after almost two years of self-delusion both before and after Peter’s death she was finally getting reacquainted with herself. And learning things about her own appetites that she’d never known.

Steed didn’t press her when she didn’t answer. He’d already asked enough.

After a while she turned her head to press a kiss on Steed’s cheek, realizing that she had never answered him. But he smiled contentedly at her, returning her kiss with one on the tip of her nose. She slipped out of the bed and went to the bathroom, cleaning herself up and using Steed’s toothbrush to replace the taste of him with toothpaste. He had turned out the lights and pulled up the blanket when she came back. She snuggled in, her back to his front, his arms around her amazingly comforting.

“That was quite a fantasy, Steed,” she said. He pressed a kiss to her shoulder.

“I think that outstripped all of my little imaginings,” he said with a chuckle.

On Sunday evening Steed parked the Bentley outside Emma’s building and hopped out, coming around to open her door for her. He took her bag from the back seat and followed her inside.

They had slept late and awakened to cuddle comfortably in his bed, kissing and touching, both of them still sated from the night before. The inn restaurant had served them a late breakfast, and they’d taken a long walk along the beach, talking, laughing, and holding hands. Other strollers smiled knowingly at them, lovers on a warm spring Sunday afternoon. They’d talked about staying on another day, but Emma had an article due on Tuesday and Steed’s sense of duty was beginning to play on his conscious. He needed to check in at the ministry.

Emma unlocked her apartment door and bent to pick up her mail, then walked in. Steed followed her, setting her bag on the floor.

“Thank you for the weekend, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said.

She shuffled through the envelopes, pausing at a creamy square one. It was obviously an invitation, from Lord Frederick Leighton. What’s he up to? she wondered with dread.

“Mrs. Peel?” Steed couldn’t see what she was looking at. She shuffled the envelopes to hide the invitation and set the mail on the side table, turning to him.

“Thank you, Steed. It was marvelous. Can we do it again?”

“I hope so. Can I call you later?”

“I hope so,” she smiled, stepping close to him. His arms slipped around her waist and hers slid up his chest and around his neck. Suddenly she wanted their weekend not to end. “Or you could just stay . . .”

Chapter 4

He did stay, pouring them a drink while she unpacked, then going back out to the Bentley to get his bag. They settled in on her sofa and she lifted her bare feet into his lap, immensely happy to be in his company for one more night. The mysterious invitation from Freddy was still buried in her pile of mail, but she’d put it out of her mind.

He caressed her feet, playing with her toes.

“That’s a nice habit, going off for a few days when you finish a case,” she said, mainly to let him know that she’d noticed him doing it prior to this past weekend.

“It clears the head,” he agreed, thinking how different this weekend had been from previous junkets. “Perhaps next time we’ll try something a little more exotic,” he cocked an eyebrow at her hopefully. She smiled, sipping her drink, watching him over the rim of the glass.

“I don’t know, I think we managed to get pretty exotic this time,” she said. He coughed to cover an embarrassed snort. She smiled and decided to take another little risk. “Did you take these little breaks with your previous partner?” she asked, tracing her finger around the rim of her glass and studiously not looking at him.

“Ah, no,” he replied. She forced herself to look at him and found him watching her. He stroked her foot, his eyes locked with hers. “Mrs. Gale was not particularly interested in spending time in my company, outside of those occasions when I convinced her to assist me with a case.”

“Why ever not?” Emma asked, genuinely surprised that any woman would not want to spend time with Steed, and suddenly much more curious about his relationship with the woman. He looked uncomfortable, which amused her.

“It’s hardly an appropriate topic, Mrs. Peel,” he muttered, staring across the room.

“Why, Steed? You’ve just said you didn’t have a ‘personal’ relationship, so I’m hardly prying about an ex-girlfriend. I’m just curious why she wasn’t susceptible to your considerable charms.”

“Then I think, Mrs. Peel, that you should ask her – it’s hardly fair to ask me to describe my faults!” He let himself look at her and his stormy expression told her that his discomfort had turned to genuine displeasure. She’d better act quickly to diffuse the mood.

“Of course not darling,” she said, lifting her feet from his lap and setting her glass on the table. She moved close to him, placing one hand on his shoulder. It was surprisingly stiff. “I just thought perhaps you didn’t have any shared interests, or she was seriously involved with someone else.” She set her chin on her hand, peering at him from the edge of his shoulder with wide, apologetic eyes.

His face softened immediately. He couldn’t stay angry with her for long, not when she looked at him like that. She had come to understand her power over him, and more importantly, to judiciously use it.

He smiled at her, his eyes twinkling again. Then he switched his glass to his right hand and lifted his left to wrap it around her. She snuggled in close to him, laying one hand on his chest as he pulled her closer still and placed a light kiss on her lips. She returned it, moving her hand up to his jaw.

“And for the record, I find your faults quite intriguing,” she said when their lips parted.

“All of them?” he asked, then gave her another lush little kiss. She let herself study his face for a moment as if considering her answer. In fact she was trying to decide whether to answer at all, or just kiss him. She opted for both.

“Some more than others,” she whispered, sliding her hand around the back of his neck and pulling him into another kiss.

“Yours too,” he said when they’d finished, making her twist her lips in a mock scowl. But she couldn’t maintain it long. She smiled and laid her head on his shoulder.

“Any idea what our next case will be?” she asked, lifting their informal moratorium on talk of work now that they were back in London. He shook his head. “No series of mysterious disappearances starting to raise eyebrows? No important dignitaries found dead in the Thames?”

He grinned and sipped his drink. “No, not before we left, anyway. But who knows what nefarious activities our enemies have been engaged in over the weekend.”

“No more nefarious than our activities, I’m sure,” she said, indulging in a brief, internal replay of certain parts of Saturday night. “Let’s go to bed.”

He didn’t see any point in arguing.

She slipped out of her clothes quickly, settling in under the covers to watch him undress. He drew it out for her, carefully removing and folding his sweater, then sitting down to remove his shoes and socks. He slowly unbuttoned his shirt, pausing to lean across the bed and kiss her between every few buttons. He finally removed his trousers and briefs and climbed into the bed with her.

They made gentle love, kissing and caressing one another into arousal. The raw urgency of most of their encounters had finally been dissipated, and they were both happy to take it slow. The need for dominance was also gone, or at least had been assuaged. This was simple sex, and what it lacked in athletics and prolonging tactics, it made up for in lingering, comforting kisses and genuine joy at being together. Steed used his long fingers to give Emma two hot little orgasms while she stroked his erect penis, cupping both hands around it to envelop it lovingly. He entered her slowly, taking time to place kisses all over her face as he went.

“Oh John,” she sighed against his gentle mouth, drawing her legs up to his waist to allow him to go just a little deeper. “Can’t we stay just like this? It feels so very good.”

“It would be awkward to chase the villains,” he chuckled, kissing her ear, then her eyes as he slowly pulled back out.

“Come back,” she sighed, running her hands up and down his back. He pressed back in, just a little bit faster this time. “Ummm,” she reached between her own legs to squeeze his buttocks.

He pulled back and thrust in faster, and began to repeat the move at the same pace. Feeling Emma contract around him, he slowed down, stopping again in the position she liked so much.

“How’s that?” he asked, slowly wiggling his hips. She shivered with pleasure, running her hands up and down his back again.

“Yes, right there. That’s the spot,” she sighed, then as he planted a row of kisses down her throat she squeezed her legs tighter around him. He felt her shudder with a long intake of breath, “I think you should move –.”

He cut her off with an open-mouthed, grasping kiss. He’d felt what she had, a powerful orgasm building against him, already beyond her control. He thrust into her, her muscles contracting so hard against him he was driven to the edge in just a few strokes. They came together, still kissing, tongues searching each other’s mouths, as their bodies fused, if only for a short time, in utter bliss.

When they’d recovered their senses, Steed shifted to her side with his arms around her. She ran her fingers into his hair and pulled him to her for a kiss.

“You are staying, I hope,” she said.

“Mrs. Peel, sleeping with you has become one of my favorite pastimes,” he replied, burying his face in her hair to inhale its scent of honey and sea air.

“I’m flattered,” she whispered, closing her eyes to avoid seeing his reaction.

“You’re intoxicating,” he whispered back, and she could tell he was drifting off to sleep. Soon he’d release her and roll away and she’d settle in to a more comfortable position as well. But for just a little while she felt like his one true love, wrapped securely in his arms. She longed for it to be true.

Steed was stroking her thigh, his long, hard body curled around hers, his lips feathering little kisses on the back of her shoulder. Emma decided it was a far better way to be awakened than a standard alarm clock. Of course, with Steed performing the task wake-up time would never be much before nine.

Sensing that Emma was awake, Steed moved his caressing hand up her torso to draw warm, slow circles on her stomach. She sighed and reached back to run her hand into his hair, leaning her upper body against him. Smiling with satisfaction through his kisses at having achieved the desired effect, he moved his circling caresses further up to her exposed breast, then smiled again when he found the nipple already taut.

“You’re spoiling me,” she sighed.

“I thought it was the other way around,” he said, drawing her hair away from her ear so that he could suck the lobe and trace it with his tongue. She disrupted his ministrations by lifting up and rolling over to face him, feeling that the overall advantages to that position were worth it. He contentedly transferred his lips from her ear to her mouth. She caressed the smooth, soft skin of his stomach with the back of her hand, stopping to draw small circles around a puckered scar near the side. She reached around to his back to find its mate.

“Tell me about these scars,” she said. They were two of many that she’d noted and touched over the last couple weeks, but the first she’d risked asking about.

“A sniper in the Loire,” he said, eyes closed as if remembering. She almost regretted asking as his expression turned sad.

“During the war.”

“Yes. I was very lucky. A farmer sympathetic to the resistance dragged me off the road while our lads found the shooter. But there was a bit of confusion, and nobody came looking for me. The farmer hid me in his barn for two months. He was accustomed to being his own veterinarian, so he did a passable job on me.”

“Doctored and bedded down with his horses, hum?” she smiled, imagining that it had been a very painful two months, with the Nazi regime in control of the country and medical supplies in short supply. “How did you finally get out?” She had been caressing his toes with hers. Now she gradually ran her foot up his calf, bending her knee to nestle her thigh in the soft flesh of his waist. He responded as she’d expected, leaning into her. His erect member found its target on the first try.

“Gerard learned of a rendezvous of another intelligence cell. He dressed me like a peasant and put me on one of his horses,” he said, his voice remarkably even. She pressed her hips against his, wrapping her leg around his buttocks. “The hardest part was developing a country French accent – my prep school pronunciation was a dead giveaway. But we were only challenged once, by careless French nationals. He got me to the rendezvous and I was brought back to England.”

“And did you ever see him again?” she asked, torn between concentrating on the way he was moving inside her and hearing the answer.

“Yes. He and his family survived the war. They still live in their farmhouse – it’s really a small, degenerate chateau,” he reached down to press the small of her back, his fingers stretching out to clutch her buttocks. “Perhaps we could go visit some time. They make wine, of course,” he added, thrusting into her more purposefully.

She bit her lower lip, eyes shut in concentration as an orgasm shuddered through her body. Steed sucked her lower lip out from between her teeth, sliding his tongue along her gums.

“Now pay attention, Mrs. Peel,” he said against her mouth, driving into her again and again as she shuddered against him. She twined her fingers into his tousled curls and pressed her lips to his neck, letting her mind concentrate on the glorious heat in her loins as it erupted around his urgent thrusts. His climax came a moment later, his warmth filling her in long surging waves. He groaned out his pleasure, his face half buried in the pillows. They held each other for a long while, Steed staying inside of her until his penis slipped out limply.

“I think I’d like to visit your French farmer so that I can thank him personally for saving you,” she said after a while.

“I’m sure he’d enjoy meeting you, my dear,” he replied, leaning away a little so he could smile into her eyes.

Emma pried him out of her bed a little later, making a pot of strong coffee while he showered and dressed. He let her feed him buttered toast with his coffee, but he didn’t linger. She had her article to get to, and he wanted to stop at home before going to the ministry.

Once Steed had gone, the lure of the creamy envelope in her pile of mail re-exerted itself. She sorted through the mail, dividing bills from junk and personal letters. The odd sense of dread returned as she slipped a paper knife into the fold of the envelope from Lord Frederick and sliced it open. It was an invitation to a dinner party on the coming Friday. At the bottom of the richly printed invitation was a hand written note in Freddy’s distinctive scrawl: Please don’t say no, Emma – Freddy.

Emma tapped the corner of the stiff card on her teeth, thinking back through her last encounter with Freddy. It had been at the museum benefit ball a week and a half ago. He’d asked her about the man she’d been seen with recently – Freddy had an enormous social network that he ceaselessly mined for gossip. She had not told him anything about Steed, but he’d seemed to understand the situation anyway. Over the years of their friendship he’d frequently made his interest in her known, and she’d equally frequently responded as no more than a friend. As she had teased Steed over the weekend, Freddy was pleasant company. But he didn’t make her pulse pound with a glance or her groin fizzle with excitement at a touch. At first glance her mother might have approved of Freddy over Steed, but had Emma been able to describe her feelings about each man, she was certain which one her mother would have advised her to pursue. Elizabeth Knight had married for love, after all.

She couldn’t decide whether to accept so that she could try again to make Freddy understand, or to beg off, hopefully conveying her intentions in the process. She would rather spend Friday evening with Steed, but she had the impression he was expecting to become busy with work by the end of the week. And she could not allow herself to drop her friends in favor of Steed – she already had allowed herself to become distanced from them.

Unable to make a decision, she set the matter aside, turning to her article on bidding theory in bridge. She spent the rest of the day finishing it with just a short break to go round to the local grocery for some provisions. While she wrote, the problem of Freddy kept turning around in the back of her mind. Late in the afternoon she pulled the final page from her typewriter, squared the pages, and slipped it into a large envelope. The magazine would have their artists create diagrams that she’d sign off on, but otherwise the article was complete. So was her plan regarding Freddy. She picked up the telephone and dialed, pleased when the call was answered quickly.

“Nancy? It’s Emma.”

“Emma! You do exist!” Nancy Belmont replied excitedly.

“Yes, I do. I’ve just finished an article, and I was away for the weekend.”

“Oh? Business or pleasure?” Nancy fairly purred.

“Pleasure, actually. I was wondering, I know it’s short notice, but would you like to meet for a drink?”

“Tonight?”

“Well, yes, if you like.”

“I’d love it. In fact, why not dinner, or do you have plans?”

“Dinner would be brilliant. Shall I come to your neighborhood? There are so many choices there.”

“All right – that’s easy for me. What time?”

“Let’s not make it too late a night – in about an hour?”

“See you then.”

The lovely weekend weather had deteriorated. Emma decided not to try to traverse London by car in showers and rush-hour traffic. Instead she popped open her umbrella and made for the tube. Nancy’s flat was a short walk from the South Kensington station, and even with changing lines at Leicester Square the trip from door to door was only a half an hour.

“Come in! Let’s have a drink,” Nancy said, taking Emma’s raincoat and dropping her umbrella into a stand by the door. “I’ve just opened a bottle of red – will that do?”

“Famously,” Emma replied, moving into her friend’s little parlor.

“I’ll be right in then,” Nancy said, retreating into the kitchen. Emma studied a collection of framed photographs on the top of a bookcase, noting more than one picture of the gentleman who had accompanied Nancy to the museum benefit. Freddy had said it was rather serious. “I’m so glad you called,” Nancy appeared with two glasses and a bottle. “You disappeared at the benefit before we could chat. What happened?”

Emma watched her friend pour the wine, then took her glass. “Freddy was –,” she began, but Nancy interrupted her.

“He didn’t misbehave, did he? The little rat!”

“No! And I thought I had finally made him understand that we’re just friends. I’m afraid I left him rather melancholy.”

“But why did you leave early? Ruth Middleton was perfectly gloating that you were not there to accept your little plaque.”

“I’m sure,” Emma grinned, imagining the benefit committee chair’s pleasure at not having to acknowledge Emma’s participation in fund-raising. “I just suddenly didn’t feel very social,” she shrugged, unwilling to explain the emotional impact Freddy had had on her that night. He’d inadvertently made her face up to the fact that there were things she would never have with Steed – marriage and a family chief among them.

“That’s been the case a lot lately, Em,” Nancy said, truncating Emma’s name, which always made her feel twelve years old. “Are you all right? I mean, I suppose that’s a silly question. But Peter has been gone for almost a year now. Wasn’t there someone you were interested in a few months ago?”

Emma had forgotten. She’d had lunch with Nancy shortly after meeting Steed. She’d admitted that she’d met someone who interested her. She’d also told her it was too early to tell if it would go anywhere. Could she possibly tell her now that it had just developed into a friendship? That was the tacit agreement between her and Steed. They were good friends and a working team. Anything more was entirely in the minds of those observing them, because they studiously gave no public clues.

But then there was Freddy with his endless supply of gossip. At the benefit he’d known about Steed, even though he hadn’t known his name or the extent of their relationship. How much had he discussed with Nancy? Freddy and Nancy were not close friends, but Emma knew that Nancy was not above quizzing Freddy if the opportunity arose – everyone did it: gossip was Freddy’s stock in trade. Denying that she was involved with someone – with Steed – might just backfire.

“I’m fine,” she said at last, “and there was someone. There still is.”

“So Freddy said,” Nancy admitted, shrugging off any reproach for prying Emma might level at her.

“So why has he so urgently invited me – just me, no guest – to a dinner party Friday night?” Emma blurted. She hoped that Nancy was among the invitees.

“Did he?” her friend replied, delicately shaped eyebrows arching.

“With a hand-written note on top of the formal invitation,” Emma said. “Are you going to be there?”

“Yes, he invited Howard and me.”

Howard. That was the name of the man in the pictures. “Then maybe I’ll accept,” Emma said. “Maybe you can help me try to get through to Freddy.”

“Maybe. If you’ll tell me about your mysterious alternate choice.”

“Let’s go to dinner,” Emma suggested. She’d learned to use Steed’s tactic of changing the subject, although she wasn’t as skilled as he at it yet.

They walked to a Polish restaurant that was a neighborhood institution. The prospect of hearty food had appealed to a lot of people on that rainy evening, so the dining room was busy. But the service was typically efficient and they were seated at a table for two within moments of shaking off their umbrellas at the door.

“You’re not getting out of it, Em,” Nancy said once they were settled with glasses of Polish beer before them. “You’ve been positively incommunicado for months. Who is he? Where did you meet him? And why have you been hiding him?”

Nancy’s tone was light, but Emma knew she couldn’t evade her questions without seeming rude. They had known one another since their school days when they’d compared notes about boys and made up lists of their perfect husbands’ imagined attributes. Peter certainly met most of my requirements, Emma reflected, the irony not lost on her – if he hadn’t crashed, their marriage most certainly would have.

“I obviously haven’t been hiding him, Nan,” Emma replied, intentionally shortening her friend’s name. “We’ve been seen together, according to Freddy.”

Nancy frowned in annoyance at her. “You haven’t brought him round – nobody’s met him and everyone is curious.”

“I hardly think my social life is of such burning interest to that many people,” Emma countered. But she knew that the mystery of the unknown man would, in fact, have caused more comment than if she’d simply found time to bring Steed to a few social gatherings of her limited circle of friends. But the nature of the work they did combined with the tension of their relationship had made her reluctant to expose him to their scrutiny. He could handle it, of course, but there would have been questions that she wouldn’t have known how to answer. She still didn’t, and now Nancy was asking them.

“Must you be this stubborn?” Nancy grumbled, glowering across the table. “You were much more open about Peter. So this is either much less, or much more,” she squinted, studying Emma. Emma wrapped herself in her best cloak of implacability, but she missed her left hand, which was fidgeting with her fork. Nancy’s eyes darted to it and she smiled deviously. “He’s handsome, tall, and always impeccably dressed, according to Freddy,” she said. “And he’s older – at least a little. Is he a barrister?”

Emma sighed and purposefully set her fork on the table, putting her betraying hand in her lap. “No, he’s not a barrister. He works for the government. Sort of an investigator.”

“What, a tax collector?” Nancy asked as if she knew Emma would simply have to contradict her.

“No. He’s in security,” Emma tried.

Nancy frowned at her, clearly trying to understand what that meant. “You mean, security for important people? Government officials, the royal family?”

“Yes. And events. He’s called in to look into things, too. Things that might be a threat to the crown.”

“Oh just say it, why won’t you, Emma? He’s a spy.”

Emma frowned. “You knew.”

“There were rumors.”

“I think you’d better tell me what people are saying, Nan.”

“That’s it. Really Emma. He’s gorgeous, he’s older, and he’s some sort of intelligence agent. I think Freddy called in a lot of favors to find out the last bit.”

Emma felt her anger building. “Why has nobody told me? What is Freddy planning for Friday?”

Nancy’s hackles rose, but she had years of experience with Emma’s temper. “As you may recall, I have left several messages on that tape recorder of yours. If you had returned my calls I would have told you.”

Emma leaned back in her seat and glared at her friend. She couldn’t argue with Nancy. She had left more than one message that had gone unreturned. Emma wanted to say that if any of the messages had mentioned that Freddy was up to something she would have called back right away, but she stopped herself in time.

“You’re right. I have been inconsiderate. Please accept my apology.”

“Accepted,” Nancy smiled. “You’ve obviously had other things on your mind.”

“So will you tell me now? What is Freddy up to?”

“I don’t know, Em. Honestly. But I think he’s got it into his head that there’s no future for you with this man. He wants to save you.”

Emma groaned.

Their food arrived. While they ate they speculated about what sort of rescue Lord Freddy might have in mind. The more they chatted, the more they giggled about it, and by the time they’d finished Emma felt quite prepared to accept Freddy’s invitation and face him down on Friday, whatever he had in mind.

Emma got home later than she had intended, but she made herself read through her article once more, just managing to concentrate on it when her thoughts kept drifting to Steed. Finally, near midnight, she picked up the telephone and dialed his number. She was sure he was awake. She prayed he was alone.

“Hello, Steed here,” he answered as brightly as ever.

“Steed,” she said, a happy sigh.

“Mrs. Peel,” he replied and her heart thumped. “I was thinking about you.”

“Good thoughts, I hope,” she quipped.

“I think so, but your mother wouldn’t approve of them,” he replied, his voice quite low and as smooth as satin. “How is your article coming?”

“Finished. I’m delivering it to my publisher in the morning.”

“So you’ll be out and about for lunch?”

“I’ll be having lunch with my editor.”

“Dinner, then?” he suggested.

“You left out tea.”

“It’s too short, and too easy for you to have another engagement afterwards,” he chuckled, making her smile too. “Dinner, then. And dancing.”

“Really?”

“If you want to.”

“I would love to Steed,” she replied, already imagining being in his arms. “Say, were you serious when you said I could use the ministry’s gymnasium?”

“I didn’t know dancing was so athletic as to require training.”

“I had Polish food with a friend tonight. I’m thinking about my starch intake.”

“Why don’t you meet me at the ministry late tomorrow afternoon. I’ll introduce you to Hemming, the ministry trainer. You can work with him, not that you need his self defense training.”

“Thank you Steed, that will be perfect,” she replied.

Steed hung up the telephone and glanced over at Major Carson, who was sitting cross-legged in a chair reading the newspaper. If he’d been listening he showed no sign of it. Steed rose to go prepare for bed when the other man spoke.

“No dinner and dancing,” he said without looking up. Steed stopped and turned to stare at him.

“Pardon?” he asked. Carson folded his paper and looked at Steed.

“No dinner and dancing – it’s too exposed this close to the conference. You could be compromised.”

“Oh come on Major, it’s a full week away. Psev isn’t even in the country yet.”

Carson shook his head, looking apologetic but determined. “I’ve been pursuing Colonel Psev for six years and this is the closest I’ve ever come. Please humor me. Tell your lady friend that you’ll have to give her a rain check. She’ll understand. They always do,” his smile turned just a little lecherous. Steed knew that Carson was thinking of his deserved reputation as a lady’s man, but it irked him anyway. But he couldn’t argue – Emma would understand, and he was, as of this morning, in partnership with Carson for the duration. With a scowl he nodded his agreement to Carson and retired to the bedroom.

Chapter 5

Most active agents avoided the ministry file room like the plague; Steed was no exception. Consequently Emma was a regular visitor there locating and signing out files related to their cases. Miss Adams, the file clerk, barely looked up as Emma entered, waving her through the hinged counter. Emma headed directly for the H drawer and located the file on the villain that she and Steed had captured the previous week. She took it out and carried it between the rows of cabinets to a locked door at the back.

Mrs. Adams turned the page of her book and adjusted her reading glasses.

Emma crouched in front of the door and inserted a rake and tension wrench into the lock, clicking it open in five seconds. Rising, she glanced over the tops of the cabinets at Mrs. Adams. The clerk still sat with her back to the files. Emma opened the door to the personnel file room and slipped inside.

Tempted as she was to find Steed’s file, she knew it was too big to fit into her tote bag, and she could not camp out on the file room floor to read it at her leisure. She stuck to her original plan, going directly to the G drawer to locate the file labeled “Cathy Gale” and slip it into her tote bag. On her way out she signed out Hicks’s file.

“Come,” Steed said, closing the file he was reading and setting it on his desk. His office door opened and Emma slipped inside, closing it behind her. Steed stood up and came around his desk.

“Right on time,” he said, letting his hands caress her upper arms, then slip around her to pull her into an embrace. Her lips met his eagerly, tongue caressing his, hands wandering down his back to squeeze him playfully. He ended the kiss far sooner than he wanted to, bringing his hands back to her arms, then up her shoulders to cup her face. He hated what he had to do, but it was his only choice. Best to get it over with. “I have to cancel tonight,” he said. Her face instantly reflected his own disappointment. It was not the first time that work had interfered with their personal plans, but it was harder this time.

“Is it something I can help with?” she asked hopefully. He pressed his forehead to hers, smiling into her eyes, grateful for her eagerness to work with him if he couldn’t play with her.

“No. Not yet, anyway. I can’t get out of the meeting tonight, and I’m going to be kept very busy the rest of the week. But I won’t renege on all of our plans for today. Let’s go see Hemming.”

He lead her to the ministry athletic facility, which included a large gymnasium, several smaller rooms fitted with exercise equipment, and a lap pool, steam sauna, and locker rooms for men and women. Hemming, the ministry trainer, had a small office off the large gym. He met Steed and Emma half way across the gym, eyeing them through small, round eyes, his beefy hands planted on slim hips. His physique, which was hardly concealed by close fitting athletic gear, was all bulging muscles. It was impressive and completely different from Steed’s lithe strength.

Hemming reached out and seized Steed’s upper arm, roughly compressing his sleeve as he wrapped his hands around it.

“What are you lifting, Steed,” he asked, his voice a basso rumble with a cockney accent.

“Fifteen stone. Thirty reps,” Steed replied, eyes darting at Emma and away. Hemming pawed Steed’s shoulders, then his other arm.

“Add another half stone, but take it slow,” he said, releasing Steed’s arm and turning to Emma.

“Hemming, this is Mrs. Emma Peel. My partner,” Steed said, remarkably unflustered by the trainer’s treatment of his body, let alone his suit. Emma was intrigued. She’d been wondering how he maintained his physique. Now she had a clue. And she was willing to bet Steed wasn’t happy about Hemming revealing a bit of his secret. But she could see that Hemming wasn’t the type to cater to Steed’s eccentricities.

“Yes,” Hemming said, shaking Emma’s hand, “so I’ve heard.”

His grip was powerful but controlled. He was a gentle giant. Emma immediately liked him.

“I’d like to use the facilities,” she said, “and perhaps you could give me some pointers?”

“I have heard that you are quite capable, Mrs. Peel,” he said, subjecting her to the same appraising look he’d given Steed. “But what do they know?” He laughed, a sharp barking sound. “Let’s schedule you for an appraisal. Then we’ll see just how many ‘pointers’ you need.”

He led them to his office where he and Emma scheduled her appointment for Friday. Emma hoped the session wouldn’t leave her exhausted for Freddy’s party that night.

Emma was disappointed that Steed had cancelled their date, but she made the best of it. She worked her way through Cathy Gale’s file, which included copies of Steed’s typically terse reports on the cases she’d helped with. Emma was as fascinated by his tone in the earliest reports as by the exploits of her predecessor. Mrs. Gale had set the bar very high for partnering with Steed. Emma was intensely relieved that she’d managed to live up to the woman’s standards. In one way she had not. Steed described Gale’s actions with admiration and it was clear that he trusted the woman, but his reports lacked a certain familiarity she read in his current reports. She couldn’t figure out exactly what it was, but she could tell that Steed and Gale’s relationship had been as he’d described it – strictly professional. Emma allowed an intimacy of which she suspected Mrs. Gale would not approve. She didn’t regret it for a moment.

“It’s weak, Steed. We need insurance,” Carson was puffing his pipe, seated in one of the guest chairs in Steed’s office. The plan to infiltrate Psev’s organization was coming together, but the key element – convincing Psev’s staff that Steed had a corruptible double – was still not assured.

They had arranged to show the double to Psev’s people during a fashion show to which Psev had requested tickets. They knew he wouldn’t be there himself – in fact they had serious doubts about his very existence. But someone from the Soviet embassy would use the fashion show tickets, and that person would see Gordon Webster on the runway. The soviets would hire Webster because they wanted access to the conference for which Steed was providing security. They would replace Steed with Webster and send him inside to collect the secrets that Psev was after.

The hitch was that there was no Gordon Webster – Steed had no double. He would have to play Webster, convincing the soviets of his identity through changed mannerisms, carefully orchestrated recordings, and a portable telephone. It was weak, Steed had to agree with the Major, and so dangerous that he would never have asked any other agent to do it. But Mother had made it quite clear that Carson was running this show. In fact, it was probably his last chance – he’d been after Psev for so long his supervisors in military intelligence were fed up. If he and Steed couldn’t pull this off, Carson was very likely going to be put behind a desk.

“Ambassador Brodny knows you, Steed. You’ll have a hard time convincing him you’re Webster,” Carson said.

“Brodny’s not that clever, Major. He’ll take what he sees at face value. I’ll be sure he sees Webster.”

“I don’t like having to depend just on him. I’d like to give Psev’s people a second opinion. Someone who knows you, who they can show Webster to. And you have to first convince this person that Webster is real, and then convince them that Webster is Steed – all in front of Psev’s people.”

Steed planted his forehead on his hand and squeezed his eyes shut trying to follow Carson’s switchbacks.

“Oh come on, it’s simple Steed. We need someone who the soviets know is close to you. Another agent? Who would Brodny think of when he thinks of you?”

Steed knew who it must be, of course. They’d stood together in the Embassy foyer looking down at Brodny on the floor just a week ago.

“Mrs. Peel will do it,” he said. “She’s not afraid of Brodny. And she knows me,” he stopped there, afraid if he said anything more it would be too revealing. Carson’s eyes narrowed as he puffed his pipe. If he recognized the name from Steed’s phone conversation earlier in the week he showed no sign.

“A woman?”

“Mrs. Emma Peel. She works with me on most cases. Brodny knows her,” Steed was rather surprised at Carson’s obvious sexism. “Look here, you want someone who’ll be concerned for my welfare. Someone who can look upset when they get me out of the way to replace me with Webster.”

Carson was nodding agreement that what Steed described was exactly what he wanted.

“Then she’s the one.”

Carson still looked skeptical.

“I’ll bet you five pounds. We’ll stage a little scene and you see how she comes to my aid.”

Carson frowned, then pulled his pipe out of his mouth and pointed it at Steed. “All right. Five pounds it is. But she’d better be right for the job, or you’ll need to find someone else.”

“She’s very good – I’ll get you her file. She’ll convince Brodny and the others.”

“When you say she’ll convince them, you mean she’ll be upset when they appear to have killed you, right?”

“She’ll be as upset as we need her to be.”

“No, she’ll be genuinely upset. Steed, she can’t know. We need her to believe you have a double. We need her to be utterly convinced, so that they are convinced. And then you need to convince her that the double is actually you, so they’ll believe it’s possible for Webster to pull it off.”

“Not tell her? No, Major, I can’t do that. That’s not fair to her – she needs to have all the cards. Especially if we have to let them hold her inside the embassy. If she thinks I’m dead, I’m not sure what she might do.”

Carson was shaking his head, looking much like he had when he vetoed Steed’s date with Emma the other night. Frustrated, with a growing sense of unease, Steed acquiesced to Carson’s demand. Emma would be led to believe Webster existed and allowed to believe Steed was dead.

Steed paused outside the gymnasium door to watch through the window as Emma effortlessly threw Hemming over her shoulder to the floor. He couldn’t suppress a proud smile, although he had nothing to do with her fighting skills — she’d been studying martial arts since childhood. Still, she was his discovery, his partner, and his love.

He was beginning to accept the warm buzz of emotion she had awakened in him. For months he’d actively disregarded it, enjoying her company but continuing to pursue other women as he always had. But just over two weeks ago she’d invited him into her bed and his carefully constructed emotional barriers had come crashing down. She turned him on, lit him up, and left him desperate for more. But desperate was not a condition he liked to be in – it was distracting, which compromised his safety. So he’d resolved to get over her without ever giving her a clue about his emotional turmoil.

But with each passing day, particularly the last few days when he’d been unable to see her, his resolve melted. I love her. I can’t change it. I don’t want to try.

The gym door opened — Steed had been so lost in thought he hadn’t seen Emma leave for the locker rooms or Hemming spot him watching.

“You look at her like that and folks will talk, Steed,” Hemming said gruffly. Steed’s brows shot up in alarm and Hemming barked a laugh and winked. “She’s a pleasure to watch, I don’t fault you,” he added.

“What’s your assessment, Hemming,” Steed asked, trying to sound all business.

“You’re safe with her watching your back, if that’s what you mean,” Hemming said. “She’s flexible and strong, and more competent at self defense than any of the trainees. I was going to suggest that she join the current crop, but she’s too good. I’m going to work with her myself.”

Steed ignored a flash of envy and nodded at the trainer. “Good. I know she’ll enjoy that.”

Emma sat for a few minutes in her car looking at Freddy Leighton’s big country house. The windows all glowed with cheerful light, the shadows of dinner guests passing in front of them now and then. There were quite a few cars, so it must be a large gathering. Emma was relieved about that – Freddy would be better behaved in front of a larger crowd.

You can get through this, she assured herself. Nothing Freddy says will change your feelings about Steed. And your future is none of Freddy’s business. Feeling determined, she got out of the car and headed for the front door. A butler opened it for her before she could knock. The changeable weather had gone benign again, so she’d not bothered with a coat. She was shown through to the formal sitting room where most of the guests were gathered.

“Emma,” Nancy hurried over, smiling wisely. “You remember Howard?” she added, indicating her current beau. Emma shook his hand and nodded, although she didn’t think she’d ever actually spoken with him. Now he seemed intent on chatting her up, asking her about her drive and what route she’d taken. Nancy slipped away and returned with a glass of champagne for Emma, who took it gratefully. Howard was launching into an analysis of the weather when another familiar voice interrupted. Emma turned to find that her father’s business partner and old friend Edmond Stanton had just arrived with his wife June.

“Edmond!” she half cried. She was delighted to see him, and not just for his good timing. Edmond had served in the war with Emma’s father and had been a part of Knight Industries from the beginning. He was a notorious negotiator who’d helped build her father’s fledging weapons company into a diverse international corporation. As CEO she’d depended upon him for advice and moral support. He’d been disappointed when she’d stepped down to focus on her marriage, but he hadn’t condemned her for it and they had remained friends despite the great difference in their ages.

He pulled her into a gentle hug, then held her at arm’s length to look at her. He was tall and skinny with a mop of unruly white hair that had once been blond. Before he could comment on her appearance his wife June had interposed herself between them, pecking Emma on both cheeks.

“It’s so good to see you, Emma,” she said warmly. June was the opposite of her husband – she was demure and small and always carefully groomed and dressed. But everyone who knew them knew that in matters of their marriage she ruled Edmond. Emma had always admired their relationship.

“It is wonderful to see you both,” Emma said, “I didn’t realize you knew Freddy.” And I’ll bet you don’t, really. He’s been doing his homework.

“Met him at a conference last year,” Edmond offered, but his expression was a little sheepish and Emma’s skeptical glare only made it worse.

“We don’t know him all that well,” June said, not oblivious to Emma’s expression, “but he promised an interesting crowd and mentioned that you were coming.”

I wonder if he invited the Peels, Emma mused as she moved with the Stantons to talk with other guests. Her fears that this was to be some sort of “This is Your Life, Emma Peel,” evening were dispelled as many of the other guests turned out to be friends of Freddy who she didn’t know at all. They did all have one thing in common, however – each one was part of a couple. Emma, it seemed, was the only unattached guest.

Finally Freddy appeared, working the room, greeting everyone with a few words. Halfway through his procession he hooked his arm through Emma’s and dragged her along with him, creating the impression that she was his hostess. She behaved herself, allowing him to introduce her in a proprietary manner to his friends. His tone with their mutual friends was almost victorious and Emma looked appealingly at Nancy for help setting things straight. Nancy only shrugged as if to say, I don’t know how to stop him.

Freddy seated her at his right hand and doted on her throughout dinner, all the while keeping up with his duties as the host. He managed the conversation expertly, continuously bringing it around to the pleasures of home, family, and marriage. Emma was very impressed at his ability to seem genuine – after all, Freddy was a bachelor who’d flirted with marriage a few times but never committed. Emma realized that if she challenged him in that regard he’d tell her he just had to find the right woman and give her a meaningful look. He’d said as much before, and she’d delicately declined his advances.

After dinner the party retired to the game room, dividing into smaller groups. Some of the men lit cigars and pipes, and a few of the ladies had cigarettes. Most accepted an aperitif, whether they drank it or not. Freddy held on to Emma and she found herself seated among the Stantons and Bill and Mary Haverstraw, friends of Freddy. Bill and Mary were recently engaged, Emma quickly learned. She had to admire Freddy’s manipulative skill, if not his motives. He quizzed his friends about their courtship and they happily answered, too wrapped up in their new love to notice that he was prying.

“I think it’s grand, to know you’ll have one another to rely on. Like Edmond and June, here,” Freddy said. “Stability is so important, don’t you think, Em?”

If he hadn’t shortened her name she might have fallen into his little trap, agreeing so as not to belittle the other guests. But the familiarity of the nickname her father had given her as a child jarred her when it tripped so easily from his lips. Steed never calls me “Em.” Steed respects me. Freddy just wants to possess me.

“I don’t know,” she said carefully. “I tend to think that deep emotion is very important. Having both is ideal, but if you have to choose –.”

“It’s better to have loved and lost, then, Em?” he asked, his voice gentle, but his gaze piercing.

Bill Haverstraw shifted uncomfortably, apparently finally sensing the undercurrent between them.

“If you’ll excuse us,” he said, rising and nearly pulling Mary to her feet, “I just want a word with Eric over there.”

Only June acknowledged their departure.

“It can be,” Emma replied coolly, determined to keep from sounding harsh. But her eyes locked with Freddy’s, and she could see that he was not going to back down.

“Our Emma’s become involved in a very unstable relationship,” he said. “But she seems not to want to see it that way.”

“Emma?” Edmond asked, sounding very concerned.

“Freddy has outdone himself, Edmond,” Emma said. “He’s pried just a little too deeply. You know, Freddy, if you poke any further it could actually be dangerous?”

“Emma!” Edmond had known her since before she was born. He was the only man alive who could, and would, speak to her like her father.

“Perhaps you should explain, Em,” Freddy said calmly.

“Why don’t you, Freddy, since you went to such trouble to find out?” Emma realized that she’d been suppressing anger at him for poking into her business. With a great effort she continued to keep it contained.

“Emma’s been dating a rather interesting fellow – at least he seems to interest her. He’s an intelligence agent – works for some mysterious ministry. That’s right, isn’t it Em?”

Emma grit her teeth and nodded. Edmond and June both looked shocked. Freddy smiled, a hint of victory in it, but not gloating. “Is he all action and adventure, Em? Does he kill people? Do you really think you can go on forever working with him?”

Emma felt her jaw drop and clamped it shut. She’d no idea Freddy’s information was that complete.

“Is it true, Emma? Are you working with a spy?” Edmond asked. Emma broke her stare away from Freddy and looked at Edmond. To her surprise, his expression was neither reproachful nor shocked. If anything he looked impressed and just a little bit proud. It made her feel much better. She found herself smiling warmly at him.

“Yes, it’s true. He asked for my help on a case a while back. I find the work challenging, interesting, and fulfilling – unlike most of the activities a woman in my position is supposed to undertake,” she let herself look back at Freddy. He’d become unreadable. She realized with a flash of triumph that the focus had shifted from personal to professional.

“But is it dangerous, dear?” June asked. Emma winced. Although Edmond was a father figure to her, June was not like a second mother. Edmond had married much later than John Knight, so June had been neither part of the foundation of the business nor of their emotional bond. She was, in fact, Edmond’s escape from the pressures of Knight, so he’d always kept her somewhat apart from it. Now Edmond came to Emma’s rescue.

“Emma has two black belts and can accurately shoot any weapon you put in her hand. I’d say the villains are the ones in danger,” he said. Emma grinned with relief. He doesn’t know how right he is! She thought, well aware of the “highly dangerous” rating assigned her by many enemy agencies.

“But where’s the future, Emma?” Freddy asked softly. Emma saw June nodding out of the corner of her eye. “One of you is bound to get hurt, eventually. And if not, do you expect to go on chasing England’s enemies forever?”

“No, Freddy. I’m not deceiving myself. But I am frightfully determined to live my life now, not someday. Eventually I will decide that I’m done with it and I’ll do something else. Until then, I’m afraid you won’t embarrass me out of it.”

“Or away from this gentleman spy, either,” Edmond added, winking at Emma. Freddy sighed, looking at his hands, looking defeated. Emma rose, thinking it was a good time to make her escape, but wanting to make one more important point.

“Freddy, I meant it when I said prying any deeper could be dangerous. Please let it go. Steed won’t allow you to compromise his safety, or mine.”

“Steed, is it?” Edmond asked, drawing all their eyes. He looked around at them, finishing looking up at Emma, “John Steed?”

“Yes, Edmond. Why?” she frowned, eyes darting to Freddy’s fascinated face then back to Edmond’s thoughtful one. The older man seemed to think for a moment, then he smiled.

“Name’s familiar,” he said at last, shrugging in a way that meant he knew a great deal more. He knew Emma would recognize the gesture. “Was he in the war?”

“Yes. Guards, and intelligence,” Emma said, suspecting that both men already knew it. “He was – is — a Major.”

“Major Steed. Yes. It rings a bell. Must have run across him,” Edmond said, once again shrugging it off. Emma let her eyes narrow at him but he only smiled back at her. He knew she’d be calling him soon.

“If you’ll all excuse me, I really must be off,” she said. Freddy and Edmond rose as they should have when she did a few moments before.

“Must you?” Freddy said, taking her arm. But it was just for form. He seemed deflated and Emma felt terrible. He walked her around to the other guests so that she could say goodnight, then escorted her all the way out to her car.

“Freddy,” she said, turning to him when they had reached it. He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and sighed, looking at her. “This is really how it’s got to be. I won’t give it up. Not now. Not yet.”

“It, or him?” he asked, eyes glistening. She closed hers to hide from the hurt she saw there. I have never led him on. He said so himself.

“Both, Freddy. Please try to accept it.”

“Good bye, Emma.” Without removing his hands from his pockets he leaned in and kissed her on the lips, then turned and strode quickly back toward his house. She opened the car door and climbed in, gripping the wheel. He sounded so final it hurts. But why should it hurt if you don’t have any feelings for him? Because he’s a friend and you’ve injured him whether you meant to or not. Frustrated and emotionally drained, Emma drove home. She wanted to get a good night’s sleep – Steed had asked her to come around first thing to discuss a case.

Chapter 6

Steed left Emma in the Aero Models shop on Saturday morning, insisting that there might be another call from the Embassy, knowing that he would do everything he could to ensure it. Carson’s elaborate scheme required that Emma visit the Embassy and see Gordon Webster. Steed, meanwhile, had to rush to Brodney’s favorite bar – according to his surveillance team the ambassador had left the embassy to go in search of the Crème de Violets liquor that only Steed could provide.

Emma’s response that morning had been exactly as he’d expected: she’d found Steed’s apartment door open and him lying unresponsive on the sofa. She’d immediately come to his aid. Carson had approached her and she’d quickly subdued him. In fact, she seemed to have left Carson’s hands rather sore, which Steed didn’t particularly regret. At least Carson had handed over the fiver, although Steed could tell Emma wasn’t pleased at being the subject of a bet.

She’d been all cool efficiency since then, donning severe eyeglasses to enhance the image. She concentrated on familiarizing herself with the shop inventory while Steed paced in the back room waiting for Ivenko to turn up. He could have moved on, but being apart from her for several days had left him craving her company. He wanted to ask what she’d been doing, let her know that he’d missed her. But she was more interested in the case than in him. Had these few days been enough to diffuse her enthusiasm, or was she more miffed than he thought about his bet with Carson? After all, he argued silently, I bet on her loyalty and won. She rushed to my aid. But he needed to know: was he a pleasant diversion, or did she share the depth of emotion that he’d come to accept in himself? Much as he disliked withholding the details of the plan from her, her performance would tell him what he so desperately needed to know. Did she know him well enough to recognize him no matter how he behaved?

Ivanko had finally arrived to buy Psev’s model and Steed had left Emma minding the shop. He reached the bar just in time to intercept Brodny and provide him with the liquor he so desperately needed. Then he headed to the hotel where the fashion show was being staged.

Brodny’s expression when he was convinced that Gordon Webster was not Steed was worth the discomfort of applying and removing the silly little false mustache. After the show Steed returned to his flat to wait for Brodny to react. Like clockwork the Soviets tracked down Webster through the talent agency that was one of the ministry’s regular fronts. Webster’s telephone number was a ministry spare forwarded to Steed’s portable telephone.

“That Mrs. Peel is a bit of a handful, eh Steed,” Carson said from the living room as Steed studied the clothes he’d borrowed from the ministry for Gordon Webster’s wardrobe. Carson’s salacious tone made him bristle, but he forced himself to smile amiably as he poked his head out the bedroom door.

“She’s extremely professional, Major,” he said.

Carson chuckled. “Always Steed? Or does she let her hair down when you get her alone?”

Like Hemming yesterday, he’d hit very close to home. “Mrs. Peel and I are just good friends, Major,” he said too sharply, retreating into the bathroom to clean his teeth before changing into his Webster persona.

Emma was fuming. How could Steed just disregard the idea that the soviets had his double at the Embassy? She knew him too well to believe he would be so incautious. Either he knew they had a double and wasn’t admitting it to her, or it had been him she’d seen there, and he was denying it. Either way he was deceiving her. That wasn’t like him, either. She suspected Major Carson was behind it all, but that didn’t make her any less annoyed with Steed.

She wished she could get Steed alone for a few minutes. But Major Carson would not be budged, and Steed had densely ignored her subtle signals. He almost seemed to be using the Major’s presence to avoid her. She’d finally stalked out of his apartment, leaving the boys to play with their model ship. Tomorrow morning she’d get a good start on the article on magnetic field theory she’d promised to a quarterly journal, and maybe by the afternoon she’d be feeling more cordial toward her supposed partner.

Emma was feeling less irate by the middle of Sunday afternoon, mostly because she sorely missed Steed’s company. They’d barely had time for more than a few words and one or two quick kisses since they’d returned from the shore. Certain parts of her body were beginning to feel particularly neglected. So despite her lingering doubts about the case, she dressed and went to Steed’s apartment with a sense of happy anticipation. It only got better when it turned out that Major Carson would not be accompanying them to the embassy cocktail party, and even though a last minute phone call meant Steed would have to drop her off, at least they had the drive to themselves. This is what I’m reduced to, she reflected as they got into her car, so desperate to be with him a twenty-minute drive is like a reward. Once she’d shifted the car into high gear she reached over to take Steed’s hand. He raised hers to his lips.

“I’ve missed you this week,” he said, looking at her profile as she drove. She glanced at him, flashing that warm, pulse-quickening smile.

“Me too,” she said. “It’s hard to give up an addiction so abruptly.”

“It’s only temporary, Mrs. Peel. The conference is tomorrow. If all goes well we’ll get a look at Psev, maybe catch him if he gets sloppy, and protect the conferees, and Major Carson will melt back into the woodwork by tomorrow evening.”

Steed’s calm reassurance went a long way toward easing Emma’s mind. She squeezed his hand then released it so that she could change gears. He took it back when she was through shifting, stroking its back with his thumb as he asked her about her session with Hemming. He didn’t let on that he’d spoken to the trainer about her. She enthusiastically described Hemming’s evaluation and the series of sessions they’d scheduled. Once again Steed suppressed a flash of envy at Hemming. Weeks ago Emma had coaxed him into sparring with her, but the physical contact had been so distracting that they’d silently agreed to cut it short. Now that they were lovers touching one another while sparring would not be disturbing, but it would probably interfere with the workout. They had tacitly agreed to restrict their sparring to occasional, impromptu fencing matches, if you didn’t count attacks of tickling in bed.

Emma realized as she turned onto the Embassy drive that she had been prattling on about Hemming’s training program rather than change the subject to the question of Steed’s double. As she stopped the car and they both got out she decided it was just as well – their time together was so limited she was glad not to have raised the tense subject. She trusted his judgment, and if he was not telling her something, he must have a good reason.

There could be no good reason. Either Steed had walked her intentionally into the trap, or he’d been so negligent he hadn’t sensed it at all. She should have been firmer when he’d ignored her concern about the double – he’d never so casually disregarded her instincts before. She was almost as angry with herself as with him. She’d been careless, slipping in to use the telephone at the Embassy, not watching her own back. But then, she was outnumbered five- or six-to-one and the false Steed had had a gun. That alone convinced her that he was not Steed.

She slept sporadically, half expecting Steed to turn up to rescue her. But as the sun rose on Monday morning she was still bound and guarded. The guards hauled her up off the bed in the guest room where they’d put her Sunday night and carried her through the embassy, setting her on the floor beside a fireplace in a large room. She studied her surroundings – chairs and a sofa, a bar, a desk, a large table with the model airplane she’d delivered sitting on it, and a large control panel along one wall. This appeared to be the nerve center of the operation. She was probably here to witness something.

Her anger shifted to dread as the morning’s events played out. Webster easily fooled her into thinking he was Steed about to free her – overnight he’d smoothed out the rough edges that had tipped her off the previous afternoon. When Brodny and Webster left she prayed that Steed was not at home, that he’d already left for the conference. But it was early in the morning and Steed was a notorious late riser. Her dread turned into despair as she listened to the sound of the gunshots carried to the embassy by the bug planted in Steed’s apartment. Oh God, Steed, her heart recoiled from the sound as her mind replayed it over and over. The door being answered, a voice that could have been Steed, or Webster, or Carson, and then the gunshots. Steed.

She wanted to cry out, to charge at Psev’s staff and strike them until the agony was so subsumed by rage she didn’t have to feel it anymore. The loss of Peter had felt nothing like this. She had not loved Peter as deeply as this, at least not at the end. And she had not had to listen to his airplane crash. His final moments remained private, not callously broadcast as confirmation of his death for her and for a gang of murderers.

Despite her firm resolve to avoid the possibility of another devastating loss, she had allowed Steed to become almost a part of her. His wit and charm had wheedled their way so deeply into her psyche that every thought, every idea, was colored by his presence in her life. Now she felt half empty, drained of the joy she’d come to know over the past few months. Empty and aching and angry. Very, very angry.

So she didn’t cry out. And she didn’t lunge at Psev’s staff. She kept working at her bonds with the broken glass that Webster – the boor – had shattered in the fireplace. And when Webster returned victorious from the conference that Steed should have been guarding she redoubled her efforts, finally slicing through the last of the stiff cord they’d used to bind her.

In the end it made no difference. Webster overpowered her as easily as Steed would have, given that she was distracted by grief and rage. She wasn’t at all surprised that Webster had double-crossed the four agents known as Psev. He was a cheap opportunist – they should not have let him out of their sight. Still, his actions had provided her with the answer to the mystery of Psev, and if she could get away and bring that back to the ministry then at least Steed and Carson’s deaths would have served some purpose. She was not in the least consoled by the thought, but a sense of duty forced her to try nonetheless.

And then, when it was almost over, she nearly shot Steed. For Steed it was, pretending to be Webster. She’d regained the gun and held it to his head, disregarding the fact that she should try to arrest him, thinking only of avenging the murder of her lover. But in the heat of that last moment, finger on the trigger, she’d looked closely at the back of Webster’s neck.

She’d scratched Steed on Tuesday morning, clutching his neck in the throes of passion. It had healed to a streak of red at his hairline.

“I’m convinced,” she said, handing him to gun to assure him. He still seemed distant, as if her acts of self-defense against Webster were personal. Speaking no more than was necessary to accomplish their escape, they jammed the radio signal of the last, ridiculous model airplane, and got off of the embassy grounds.

Emma went with Steed back to his apartment; still too stunned to begin discussing all that had just occurred. When Major Carson, alive and well, badgered Steed to accompany him to the ministry to file a report, she asked to be dropped off at home. Steed acquiesced silently, mournful eyes watching her in the rearview mirror as he drove. Major Carson, completely absorbed in their success, had thoughtlessly taken the front passenger seat. For a moment Emma’s thoughts rushed back to last Saturday night, to Steed’s complete self-absorption as she sucked him. She very suddenly wanted nothing to do with arrogant, self-centered men, even the one she was in love with.

“Mrs. Peel? Please answer,” Steed’s voice echoed thinly from the speaker of her tape recorder. Her hand paused over the receiver. She’d let the tape answer, she should just leave it at that. “I’d really like to speak to you,” he added. Squeezing her eyes shut tight she picked up the receiver.

“Hello Steed,” she said as carefully as she could. She didn’t want her anger to come through in her voice. It wouldn’t be fair not to give him a chance.

“Emma,” he said gratefully. “Thank you. I — ,” he paused. He’d thought through what he wanted to say, but now it had completely escaped him. “I was thinking of going riding. Would you join me?”

There it is – he has plans, do I want to fit into them? Emma felt herself bristle and was shocked. This is Steed you’re talking to. He’s not like that. She swallowed her anger and made herself smile before speaking.

“A ride sounds pleasant, Steed,” she said. “Shall I meet you there?”

“Yes. But I’m meeting a new gelding they’ve just acquired – need to have a lap around the heath on him without any of the other horses. Why don’t you join me at two? You’ll find me on the main trail.”

Emma felt that her little joke when she found Steed on the trail fell flat, mostly because she couldn’t maintain her little ruse for very long. Seeing Steed in his riding clothes had sent a shiver of longing all the way to her toes. When he caught up with her astride the new gelding and reached out to touch her – just a light touch on her arm as if he had to reassure himself that she was real – her plan to be cool and distant evaporated. She’d listened to his apology and explanation of the last few days, and for a while she’d been able to forget her anger. But the ride ended, and his explanation still rang dully in her ears.

Emma opened the door to her flat and went in, leaving it open for Steed to follow her. She’d tried again to put aside her annoyance but it wasn’t working. No matter what else she focused on, her anger kept creeping back into her thoughts. And it was hotter each time.

“Drink?” Steed asked as he crossed her living room.

“No. Thank you,” she replied. Steed stopped, bottle in hand, and looked at her, frozen by her sharp tone. She stood by the fireplace, arms crossed under her breasts. He set the bottle down and turned to face her.

“You’re still angry,” he said.

“Very perceptive,” she snapped, wincing at her own tone. He did the same. He took a step toward her and stopped, studying her rigid stance. He could, he realized, wind up out the window if he pushed his luck. Better to exit via a more traditional means. No shame in retreat in the face of superior forces.

“I have explained,” he pointed out weakly. He knew his explanations left much to be desired. He really couldn’t construct an argument to counter her raw anger and hurt at his handling of the case.

“I really don’t want to be with you right now, Steed. Please go,” she said. Her jaw was so set it fairly vibrated. Her eyes burned through him, but they bore no trace of the usual passion.

He nodded, relying on his own steely reserves to maintain a calm outward appearance. Without a word, he turned and left her apartment, quietly closing the door behind himself. Once outside he allowed himself to breathe and felt his heart begin to race. This is bad. This will take exceptional finesse to repair.

Emma buried herself in her article on magnetic field theory, absorbing the necessary research, setting up and experimenting with electromagnets to confirm the more accessible data, and carefully documenting her efforts. She spoke with several scientists in Britain and the U.S., and then brushed up her scientific vocabulary in a conversation with two French researchers. The day after she asked Steed to leave her doorbell rang. A deliveryman held out a two-dozen yellow roses. She looked at the attached card and shook her head.

“I can’t accept them. I’m sorry,” she said, closing the door.

“I understand,” Steed said. “Yes, of course. You might as well. Yes, I’ll be here.” He hung up the telephone and sighed deeply. It’s worse than you thought, if she won’t accept roses. He was on his second brandy when the delivery boy arrived, handing him the rejected flowers and accepting a generous tip. Sadly Steed put the roses in a vase and set them on a table in his living room. He sat and regarded them for a few minutes, then got up and took them into the kitchen. He didn’t want to look at them.

Identifying and therefore effectively eliminating Psev was a big feather in Steed and Emma’s collective cap. They’d both been given a week or so off, and ordinarily Steed would have proposed another get-away to the shore or the Cotswolds, or perhaps Emma would have finally invited him to accompany her to one of her tedious conferences in fascinating locations. In any case, they could have been off somewhere together. But without her, he didn’t feel like doing anything.

He indulged his lethargy for three days, then forcibly roused himself. He returned to the stable for a long ride, then accepted an invitation to dinner from an old service friend. At the end of a week he sent more flowers – daisies this time. They too were summarily returned without comment from their target. Steed paid the delivery boy and put them in the vase, discarding the now limp roses.

He stood in the kitchen staring at the flowers, hating their cheerfulness. He snatched one from the bunch and took hold of a delicate white petal.

“She loved me,” he said, tugging the petal from the stem. He dropped the petal and grasped another. “She loved me not.”

More petals landed in a little pile on the kitchen table. “She loved me. She loved me not.” He held up the decimated flower, a single petal remaining. “She loved me. Oh my Emma, what have I done?”

He collapsed onto a kitchen chair, clutching the flower in one hand, his head in the other. No woman had ever had cause to be so angry with him. He had never allowed another woman to get so close to him. He had never allowed another woman to love him. But Emma had. She’d seen through his façade and slipped into his heart, offering her own in exchange. She’d loved him with her body and her heart, but he’d refused to see it. He’d ignored the truth in her eyes and demanded more proof.

He slowly raised his head to look at the rest of the flowers in the vase. His naturally buoyant nature reasserted itself. She had loved him. She still loved him. He would reach her. He had to.

Emma completed her article, but sending it off did not generate the usual ripple of excitement. With it finished she had to find something else to focus on, or face her anger. It crouched at the back of her mind like a snarling animal. When she reached out to touch it, it snapped. No, she did not want to deal with it. Not yet. She kept her appointment with Hemming, channeling the anger into the controlled performance of martial arts. If Hemming sensed her unhappiness he didn’t mention it, nor did he mention Steed.

Her mother-in-law called, saying she and her husband would be in London, but he had a late meeting – would Emma care to have dinner next week? Emma readily agreed. She avoided thinking about Freddy Leighton, and once again ignored a couple messages from Nancy. She cleaned her apartment thoroughly, gradually allowing herself to construct the arguments she wanted to have with Steed. She played both sides, imitating him cruelly, giving him weak arguments against her fiery anger. It increased the hurt, but amazingly, gradually, the anger weakened.

One morning the doorbell rang again, and she opened it to a massive spray of blue and yellow snapdragons.

“I’m sorry, I can’t accept them,” she said automatically to the deliveryman, who was hidden behind the flowers. But the blooms lowered and Steed’s concerned face peered through them. Emma backed away from the door, leaving it open but not inviting him in. Her underlying feelings for him had not changed, but she was still hurt by his lapse of trust. Trust was – or had been — everything between them.

Steed stepped inside and set the flowers in their vase on a table. He closed the door gently and stood waiting. Emma turned to face him, looking much the same as she had when she’d dismissed him two weeks before – except her features were more weary than tense and there were dark circles under her eyes. He knew he looked much the same.

“Well?” she asked.

“It’s been two weeks – rather like the time you suffered waiting for me return from Scotland,” he said.

“Are you suggesting that you’re the victim here?” she hissed. “That you’ve been suffering for two weeks?”

“No, Emma, no. I simply meant, perhaps it’s time to move on. Won’t you believe how sorry I am?”

“I will believe that you are thoughtless, ruthless, manipulative, and cruel.” Her words hit him like bullets, she imagined that she could see their impact on his powerful frame. “You didn’t trust me, you used me, and sat at home with Major Carson laughing at me.”

“No, Emma. We didn’t laugh,” he tried again. But she shook her head, silencing him.

“Please go.”

“Won’t you at least consider –?”

“No,” she stepped toward him, but her movement wasn’t friendly. Sensing a physical rebuff, and not wishing to experience it first hand, he backed to the door. She followed, emanating menace.

“Good bye, Emma,” he said softly, opening the door and stepping through. Behind him something heavy hit the door and smashed on the floor.

Chapter 7

Emma ignored the mess of flowers and broken glass on the floor, instead scooping up a glass and bottle of brandy from the bar and settling in on the sofa with them. No, Steed, I won’t consider.

Several hours later the doorbell rang again.

“Go away!” Emma shouted, realizing on some level that it was very rude. But she didn’t care. The bell rang again. Rising stiffly, she staggered to it and pulled it open, scraping the shattered vase across the floor. Amelia Peel, her mother-in-law, stood in the hall looking quite proper and cheerful. Surprised, Emma stepped back.

“My dear Emma, had you forgotten I was coming?” Amelia asked, taking in Emma’s disheveled state and the flowers all over the floor. Eyes narrowing with concern, she stepped inside and closed the door.

“No. Yes. It had slipped my mind,” Emma muttered, turning away.

“So I see,” Amelia said, setting her purse on a table and bending to collect the half wilted flowers. Emma drifted back to the sofa, flopping down on it ungracefully. Amelia watched her as she rose with her arms full of snapdragons. Frowning, she carried the flowers into the kitchen and set them in the sink, unwilling to simply discard them without knowing more. Picking up a dishcloth she returned to the entry and bent to collect the shards of broken vase.

“Did you know this was Waterford?” she asked, noting the water stain and gash on the door and realizing that it had not simply been dropped. “Pitty, it was a pretty thing.” Emma’s temper was not unknown to her. It had been one of her son’s largest complaints about his wife after their marriage. Amelia was not proud that her late son had complained about his wife to his mother. But perhaps she could put some of what he’d told her to use now to help Emma. There was certainly a man connected to this smashed vase.

She wiped the floor, trying to capture all the bits of broken crystal, then carried everything into the kitchen and disposed of it. Returning to the living room, she came around the sofa and sat down beside her daughter-in-law. Emma hadn’t moved or made a sound since returning to her seat. Now she turned her head, a forced smile on her lips not touching the rest of her face.

“Forgive me, Amelia. You’ve found me in a rather foul mood,” she said quietly, her voice resonant with controlled anger and sadness. “Perhaps we should reschedule our dinner.”

“Who is he, this fellow who can incite such ire?” Amelia asked, disregarding Emma’s suggestion. Ever since Peter had introduced his fiancée to his parents, Amelia had felt a need to mother the girl. Perhaps it was because she was an orphan, albeit an adult one. Or perhaps it was because she was such a self-sufficient, controlled presence. Amelia had known instinctively that beneath the almost icy facade hid a young woman who needed a mother. Or at least a friend.

“A man I’ve been working with,” Emma said, to Amelia’s surprise. She had expected to have to draw it out of her. “I trusted him. He betrayed that trust.”

“So he tried to apologize with flowers and you threw them at him?” Amelia asked, unable to repress a smile. Emma would go for a grand gesture in her own home. She’d never do it in public, of course. “It must have felt good, hurling that expensive vase,” she added, watching Emma’s response.

“No. I hated it. I hated telling him to go. I hated him being here,” Emma ran her hands through her hair, then brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She laid her cheek on her knee and looked sideways at Amelia. “And I didn’t know it was Waterford.”

“If you had, would you not have thrown it?” Amelia asked, mainly to keep Emma talking, but also because the Emma she knew would not have cared about the monetary value of the vase. She was right.

“No. But I might have aimed more carefully, been sure to hit Steed, not the door.”

“So what did this Steed do to deserve attack by Irish crystal?” Amelia asked lightly.

“As I said, he betrayed my trust,” Emma raised her head and stared straight ahead toward the windows at the far end of the room.

“And this was a business matter?” Amelia asked, certain that it was not. Emma was not easily taken advantage of in matters of business — of that Amelia was painfully aware. In fact, so far as she knew, it had only happened once, and then because Emma had allowed her personal and professional lives to mingle. Emma had, once, been naively in love. Amelia had not forgiven her son, even in death, for destroying his wife’s innocence.

Emma sighed, drawing in a ragged breath and releasing it slowly, thoughtfully. She seemed to reach some conclusion. “I have been working with Steed for a few months. He recruited me. It’s top secret intelligence work, for the government.”

“You’re saying he’s a spy, this Mr. Steed?” Amelia’s eyes widened. Now this was an interesting development. Emma nodded. “And you’re one, too?”

Emma uncurled her legs and rose, pacing around the coffee table and stopping to look at the painting over the fireplace. “After a fashion. Yes.”

Amelia was dumbfounded. She’d been expecting an overworked businessman, a greedy publisher, an unscrupulous lawyer. But a spy? Emma’s in love with a spy? There was no doubt in her mind that Emma was behaving like an angry lover – that was as clear as the broken crystal vase had been. Perhaps in Emma’s mind it was about the work, but it certainly had more to do with their personal relationship. Her role was clear – she had to help Emma untangle the work from the relationship, and help her forgive the man, or move on if he didn’t reciprocate her feelings.

“So you can’t really talk about it, can you?” she asked.

“No.”

“You said he betrayed your trust. Can you tell me how, without revealing the details?”

“He lied to me. To my face. He convinced me that he was – that he had a double. And he let me think that he had been killed.”

“But there was no double?”

“No. It was him all along, and he behaved so that I would believe it was someone else impersonating him. I’m sorry Amelia, it’s very complicated and I can’t explain it.”

“But he let you believe he – the real him — had been killed.”

“Yes. That the double had killed him.”

Amelia sighed, trying to grasp the emotional impact of what Emma described without worrying about the secret details. It was certainly a tangled mess. She had not yet formed a response when the telephone rang. Emma didn’t move. It rang again.

“Shall I answer it, dear?” Amelia asked. Emma glanced toward the device and shook her head.

“There’s a recording machine. Let it answer,” she said. Amelia looked at the table where the phone sat and saw a large reel-to-reel tape recorder next to it. As Emma had said, when the phone rang again the reels began to turn. Emma’s recorded voice filled the room, explaining that she was not available and the caller’s message would be recorded.

“Mrs. Peel, I’ve drawn up the paperwork to release you from your agreement. Since that seems to be what you want. Again, I’m so very sorry. Please . . .” the man’s voice faltered, and then he hung up. Emma grasped the mantle and rested her forehead on the backs of her hands. Her whole body shuddered and Amelia realized she was weeping.

This won’t do. He sounded as miserable as she is. They’re obviously both incapable of managing a personal relationship. If I didn’t care for her so I’d think it pathetic. Grown adults!

Amelia rose and went to Emma, encircling the younger woman with her arms and drawing her head down against her motherly shoulder. Emma accepted the comforting embrace.

“You don’t want to lose him, do you?” she asked.

“I want him to trust me,” Emma replied. Amelia stroked her hair, understanding beginning to dawn.

“Yes, I suppose that would be very important, if you’re working together,” she said. “But it seems to me that he must, if he’s brought you into his organization.”

“Well this time he used me. I was the test. If he could fool me . . .”

“And you were fooled – you thought the double was him. Except it was him . . .” Amelia faltered, she’d lost track of how this strange double deception was so upsetting.

“Yes, yes, it was him all along. That isn’t the problem. It’s that he used me in his plan, but didn’t trust me enough to tell me. I would have behaved the way he needed me to. He could have told me. Then I would have known he wasn’t really killed.”

“But he needed others to see your reaction, perhaps? And it needed to be genuine.” Amelia ventured, not wanting to ask, but needing to get a better understanding. Emma raised her head and nodded, and Amelia took it as a cue to guide her back to the sofa. Emma sat down, her hands clasped on her legs, her back stiff, her head bowed, staring at her hands.

“Will you tell me his telephone number?” Amelia asked.

Emma looked up sharply. Not wanting to give her time to refuse, Amelia rose and went around the sofa to the telephone. She took the receiver off the hook “Please.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to speak to him, this man who has left you so miserable. Something must be done.”

Emma looked up at her, a mixture of fear and gratitude in her eyes. “Has he left me, really?” she whispered, frowning as if trying to think through events.

“I think maybe not yet, not entirely, although you’ve done a fair job of pushing him away, my dear. Now tell me his number and let me see if I can help.”

Emma stared at the telephone, then slowly recited the familiar string of numbers. Amelia dialed them. He probably has one of these tape machines too, she thought. He’d better answer.

“Steed here.” His voice was weary, thin sounding, although he clearly was well practiced at sounding bright and cheerful.

“Mr. Steed, my name is Amelia Peel. You don’t know me. But we have a good friend in common,” she began.

“Mrs. Peel,” he almost whispered.

“Yes, your Mrs. Peel – Emma – is my daughter-in-law.”

“And how can I help you, ah, Mrs. Peel?” he stumbled over her name. He clearly attached a great deal of meaning to it, but it didn’t apply to her.

“I’m with Emma now. Can you join us here at her flat?”

“I am rather unwelcome there,” he said. The sharpness of his tone stung her. She was glad Emma had not heard it.

“I think that my presence will mitigate any further violent behavior on Emma’s part. She does so hate to make a scene, you know.”

He chuckled, a warm, sensuous sound that gave Amelia a glimpse of what Emma saw in the man. “All right. If you’ll be there to referee,” he said. He hung up before she could respond, rushing, she imagined, to suit action to words. She replaced the receiver and went back around to sit beside Emma.

“He’s coming,” she said. “No throwing things, please. I promised.”

Amelia urged Emma to go freshen up while she brewed a pot of tea. She was surprised when Emma returned with combed hair and lipstick dressed in a dark blue catsuit with a wide white belt. Emma returned to her seat on the couch, still looking lifeless despite the grooming. Amelia had just served her a cup of tea when the doorbell rang. She went to the door, then paused and looked back at her daughter-in-law.

“Ready, dear?” she asked. Emma set her cup and saucer on the table and looked at Amelia and the door. She nodded. Amelia nodded back and opened the door.

John Steed was tall and evenly built, his impeccable dove grey suit cut to perfectly accent his classic proportions. He wore a bowler that matched his suit, and carried an umbrella, also a perfect match. His grey eyes scanned her with an appraising look that she would not care to be subjected to often. He emanated grace and intelligence, and, as he stepped into the room and locked his gaze with Emma’s, a raw, emotional edge. Amelia closed the door and watched Steed set down his hat and umbrella and cross the room, skirting the sofa to end up at an armchair across from it. He did not sit down.

“I would offer you a brandy, Mr. Steed,” Amelia said, “but I don’t think either of you needs more to drink.” His eyes flicked to her, an angry flash quickly concealed by light amusement.

“Perhaps not,” he agreed, returning his gaze to Emma.

“Well, as I’m here, you can’t very well discuss this matter openly,” she said, walking purposefully around the sofa and sitting down. “You shall have to address the matter in terms of your feelings toward one another.”

Emma’s head snapped around, her glare burning with livid anger. Amelia took a deep breath as discretely as she could. Withstanding Emma’s anger was a challenge for the strongest personality. She managed it by not meeting her daughter-in-law’s eyes. She looked at Steed instead.

“Mr. Steed, Emma tells me that you engineered a plan that involved her, but did not tell her about her role in it. That, it seems, is the root of the problem.”

Steed sat down in the armchair, studying Emma as he moved. He folded his hands in his lap, waiting for Emma to look at him. She finally released Amelia from her angry stare, turning it on Steed.

“I could say that I had no choice,” Steed said quietly. “Major Carson insisted that the plan go no further than the two of us.”

Emma sat rigid, not even acknowledging that he was speaking.

“But it wouldn’t be true. The Major had authority, but I could have insisted you be told. You are my partner.”

“And yet you did not,” Emma said coldly. Amelia glanced at Steed, expecting him to flinch at Emma’s tone. But he sat complacently. They match one another ice for ice. What happens when they make love? And she realized quite suddenly that these two were most certainly lovers. That was the only explanation for the depth of Emma’s hurt.

“No,” he said. And then there was silence. Amelia looked at Emma and saw that the younger woman was not going to speak. Pride, anger, and hurt all conspired to keep her silent. Lord help them when I’m not around.

“Why, Mr. Steed? Why didn’t you insist?”

“To test her,” he said, his voice nearly a whisper. Emma’s eyes narrowed. Amelia hadn’t thought it was possible for the woman to get angrier. But still she remained silent, leaving it to Amelia to press on for her.

“Why?”

“I want –,” he started, his voice cracking. “I need her to know me. I wanted to know if she knew me so well that I couldn’t deceive her.”

“And I failed.” Emma finally spoke. Her voice so flat, so full of misery Amelia’s heart quailed.

“I was cruel and selfish,” Steed went on. “I treated something very precious to me very casually. I shall regret it forever, Emma.”

And the tension broke. Just like that. In a graceful motion Emma rose, crossed the room, and knelt in front of Steed. She placed her hands on his knees and looked up at him. Amelia regretted that she couldn’t see Emma’s face. But she was sure Steed’s expression must reflect it. His grey eyes softened, little crinkles forming at the corners as he smiled ever so slightly. He looked joyful.

“If you ever test me again, Steed,” Emma said evenly, but there was a lightness in her voice that had been missing before, “then you shall never see me again.”

He nodded, his face suddenly quite serious. He raised one hand to cup the side of her face and Amelia suddenly felt very superfluous in the room with them. As she rose she watched Emma lean her head into his hand, then rise up on her knees. His legs parted and Emma moved in between them sliding her arms around his waist and laying her head on his chest. He lowered his head, burying his face in her hair. The transition from hostility to intimacy was so abrupt it spoke to Amelia of great passion. Amelia knew she was seeing an already powerful bond mended and strengthened, and that she was no longer needed. She quietly retrieved her purse and went to the door, glancing back at them in time to see Emma raise her face to Steed’s. She slipped through the door before their lips met – that was simply too intimate for a proper Englishwoman to observe.

“I’ll promise never to do such a thing again,” Steed whispered, drawing away from her kiss. “If you’ll promise not to throw heavy objects at me.”

Emma tipped her head to one side to regard him, her face alight with a barely contained grin, “that seems fair, if a bit limited,” she said. “You’ll note, for example, that you have not excluded my use of sharp objects.”

Steed laughed, reaching around her to pull her up onto his lap. “I have a sharp object for you,” he said, one hand wandering up and down her back, the other one drifting across her thigh.

“Your tongue?” she asked, feigning innocence, then drawing his face to hers with a hand behind his neck and using her own tongue to test her theory. She abruptly stopped and jumped to her feet, whirling around to face the rest of the room. “Amelia?” she called.

Steed rose, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “She slipped out,” he said.

“Gone?”

“Uh huh. We’ll have to call her later. Take her to dinner.”

“That’s why she came. I’ve been terribly rude to her.”

Steed chuckled into her hair, his hands finding more pleasant areas of her body to caress. “My darling, I think she went away satisfied with her accomplishments,” he said. She lay her head back against his shoulder, her body arching under his touch. One hand rose of its own accord to twine fingers into his hair.

“Steed?”

“Yes Emma?” his lips were at her ear, his breath tickling her as he spoke.

“Did you really file those papers?”

“I prepared them,” he said. “But unfortunately they became somewhat unreadable, so they couldn’t be filed.”

“Unreadable how?”

“I burned them.”

Steed turned her around and scooped her up, one arm around her shoulders, the other under her knees. She gasped, wrapping her arms around his neck, trembling with a rush of pure joy. 

“John,” she moaned as he laid her on her bed, pressing kisses all over her face. “Fill me. Make me whole.”

“You are whole, my darling. You’re my whole world,” he replied, more than willing to comply with her demand just the same. He slowly unzipped her catsuit, then slid it off of her shoulders and freed first one arm and then the other. She slipped her arms around his neck, drawing his face to hers for a long, insistent kiss.

He reached around her to unfasten her bra, drawing a row of kisses down her neck and between her breasts. She arched beneath him, sighing with pleasure as his kisses descended across her stomach. Her nipples burned to be touched, but he moved on down her body as if saving them for later. He pulled her suit and panties off, then stroked her legs, parting them as he crawled back up the bed.

And then he was inside her, filling her with his thick, solid shaft, making them whole again. She’d been so absorbed in his marvelous touches she hadn’t even noticed him opening his flies and lowering his trousers. She moaned his name, mouthed it against his neck, pressed herself up to meet him as he thrust again. His mouth sought hers, sucking her lips and tongue in sharp, demanding kisses.

“Oh please,” she moaned as his thrusts slid in deeper, lubricated by her hot juices, “Faster John, please go faster.”

He rose over her on straightened arms, driven by her cries to frenzied, burning strokes. His orgasm was explosive. Its great throbbing waves filled her and triggered her own climax. She cried out wordlessly, hands gripping his upper arms, hips writhing against him. He lowered himself over her to bury his face against her neck, inhaling her scent as his breathing gradually slowed.

“My Emma,” he sighed into her ear as she wrapped her arms around him. They lay together, pounding hearts slowly quieting, desperate need satisfied, but desire still smoldering.

After a while she rolled him onto his back and carefully opened all of his buttons. She removed his tie and spread his jacket, vest, and shirt open. He watched her work through hooded eyes, sighing as she caressed his chest and ran her hands over his solidly muscled abdomen. He reached up to cup one breast and she froze, squeezing her eyes shut as he rubbed his palm against her solid nipple. She sucked in a sharp breath and released it in a long moan, lowering herself to press her bare flesh against his.

Their mouths met again in a long, wet kiss punctuated by happy little chuckles.

“What was I angry about again?” she asked, nipping at his nose, then sucking his lower lip between hers.

“I was, as you put it, thoughtless, ruthless, and manipulative,” he replied when she’d released his lip.

She winced. “Oh John, I’m so sorry I said all that.”

He shook his head, touching a finger to her lips. “You were right, darling. And I meant what I said. Never again.”

“I believe you, John,” she said. “Now take off your clothes please.” She rose off of him, folding her arms to wait expectantly. He sat up, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek.

“Vixen,” he whispered in her ear, then leaned away to look into her eyes. They shone as they always had, but for the first time he let himself recognize it for what it was.

“You love it,” she whispered, no flash of doubt this time, only clear devotion.

“Yes Emma,” he leaned in to kiss her, “I do.”

Emma had never experienced make-up sex of this magnitude before. Fights with Peter had been followed by activities that could only be described as tepid compared to the next few hours with Steed. Perhaps because of their weeks apart, it was like starting all over again.

Or it could have been because she finally understood the intensity of Steed’s emotions toward her. He may never utter those three little words, but he declared his love for her again and again with each kiss, each caress, each deep, hot thrust into her eager loins. She was precious to him.

Much later, lying secure in his arms she felt a great bloody fool for not allowing herself to see it. It had been there from the start in his searching gaze and passionate kisses. It was why he had never pressured her to sleep with him – she was too important to him to be a casual partner. It was why he did things that she asked that he would not with anyone else, why he confided in her like no one else. It was what he meant when he said she was not “one of them” – the other women he dated. She had wanted it so desperately she’d been unable to believe it could be true if he didn’t actually say it.

All through the evening and night they explored one another, pleased one another, stroked, kissed, and licked one another. They dozed — in each other’s arms, or Emma’s head on Steed’s stomach, or his on her thighs. Then one would awaken and begin again, sucking the other’s toes, drawing circles on a stomach, or boldly teasing a nipple. There were no boundaries or rules, only the need to be together and to prolong the experience of rediscovery.

Bright morning light suffused the bedroom when Emma woke from a deep, dreamless sleep. She rolled onto her side and watched Steed sleeping, his hand tucked under the pillow beneath his face, the slashed scar on the outside of his left shoulder stretched taut. His face, so expressive when wakeful, was cherubic in sleep. She’d lost count of how many times they’d made love, how many times he’d driven her beyond the edge of reason with his fingers and his mouth and his hot, solid penis. She was blissfully exhausted, more emotionally and physically fulfilled than she could ever remember being.

“It’s too early to wake up,” he muttered and she realized that he’d been watching her watching him. Always a spy.

“Sorry. Can’t help it. Go back to sleep.”

“Too late,” he sighed, rolling onto his back to stretch his arms above his head. Lowering them he reached over and caught her, drawing her to him. She settled happily against his side, one arm stretching across his chest. “What time is it anyway?”

Emma squinted at the clock by the bed. “Half ten.”

“I owe you dinner and dancing. How about tonight?”

Emma closed her eyes, listening to his heartbeat. “Um, what day is it?” she asked with a giggle. Steed stroked her hair absently, thinking for a moment.

“Sunday,” he finally said. “I had to think about it.”

“The last couple weeks seem like a dream,” she whispered.

“A nightmare.”

“Um. We can’t go out dancing on Sunday night.”

“No?”

“It’s just not done, Steed,” she insisted, although her real reason was the soreness in her nether regions.

“All right. Tomorrow night then?”

“I think I’ll be able to manage it by then,” she chuckled.

“Long night, Mrs. Peel?” he chuckled back, understanding her problem.

“Nothing a warm bath – alone – won’t help,” she said.

He caressed her back with one hand and her hair with the other, smiling contentedly.

“Steed, will you have dinner with my friend Nancy and her friend Howard some time?”

“Are you planning to join the party too?” he asked. She knew it was a delaying tactic.

“I thought I might throw the party. I’d like you to meet my friends. They keep asking why I’m so busy.”

“And does your friend Lord Frederick ask?”

“Yes, in fact.”

“Then by all means I’ll join you – sounds like I need to make my presence in your life known.”

She stretched to kiss him, caressing his chest. “It’s known, darling. Very known.”