This story copyright © 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Mia McCroskey

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

Mathematics

Steed plays the weakest link,

Emma does her figures.

A sharp thud accompanied by her car stopping with a jolt brought Emma Peel out of her reverie. The rear end of a big, green car – an old car – loomed beyond the windscreen of her brand new Lotus Elan. She'd rear-ended someone. Damn!

John Steed felt the jolt from behind and swiveled in his seat to identify its source – have I made more progress on this case than I thought? He wondered, Is someone trying to stop me? At least that would be progress, in a retrograde sort of a way.

At first he saw nothing behind the Bentley, then a figure rose – a tall, auburn tressed woman emerging, he realized, from a very small car. He glanced at his wristwatch and realized he did not have time to deal with hysterical women. Best to turn on the charm and close the matter. Bearing this in mind, he put aside his annoyance at having the Bentley damaged and climbed out to meet the damager.

Emma leaned over the front of her car to study the dent and scratches in the bonnet. The green Bentley also bore a dent embedded with silvery blue paint. She straightened, fingers still resting on her injured car, and faced the tall, impeccably dressed man who'd climbed out of the Bentley. His handsome face bore a look of concern, but his eyes – soft grey twinkling eyes – conveyed a pleasant nature with no hint of anger.

"I'm terribly sorry," she said, disarmed by the smile that filled his face as she spoke. He looked down at the damage and put his hands in his trouser pockets, affecting a casual stance that she had the distinct impression was carefully constructed to conceal something else. It had once been Emma's natural tendency to trust people, to trust her instincts and first impressions. But recent events in her life had changed her. She felt herself stiffen with the suspicion that this seeming gentleman was actually very angry and waiting for the best moment to lash out at her.

"Oh well," he said. His voice, soft as velvet, washed softly over her, subtly easing her suspicions. He patted the Bentley's undamaged taillight, a fond gesture not unlike her own light touch on her Lotus. "She's seen worse, inflicted by much less pleasant people."

"I am insured," Emma assured him. "They'll take care of it, of course."

"Of course," Steed replied, studying the young woman. She was tense, certainly upset about damaging her pretty new car, but she covered it well under a shell of genteel composure. He was impressed. He was also quite captivated by her big, brown eyes. Not to mention her shining auburn hair, and her slim figure accented by a perfectly tailored, feminine suit, and – "Steed. John Steed," he held out his hand. As his eyes had appreciated her, his mind had made an assessment and reached a conclusion. She was not a suspect. She had not intentionally hit him to delay him. It was safe to give her his real name.

"Peel," she replied, shaking his hand. "Mrs. Emma Peel."

She watched him closely, waiting for the "Mrs." to sink in as it always did. She sometimes wondered when she'd stop using it. She knew she was hiding behind it, but in the six months since her husband's disappearance – death – she had found being a "Mrs." comforting. Too much change too quickly is dangerous, she'd told herself.

But John Steed didn't react. His face didn't assume that slightly disappointed look she had gotten used to after marrying Peter. He nodded and released her hand, still smiling pleasantly.

"A pleasure to meet you, despite the circumstances, Mrs. Peel," he said. And again his voice brushed against her like the touch of silken fabric on bare skin. Good lord, get a hold of yourself Emma. It's only been a few months!

"Yes," she drawled, then stepped back to her car door and reached in the window for her bag, "let me give you my card," she said, straightening and opening the bag to find her calling cards. Steed watched her, enjoying her graceful movements while studiously not checking his watch again. "If you'd care to call me, we can arrange everything. My insurance company will probably want an estimate for the repairs," she said as she held out her card. He took it and glanced at it. Her name and telephone number were embossed on it – not decorative nor full of unneeded flourishes, but clean, elegant lettering. Just like her, he thought. Stop it! Get going.

"Thank you, Mrs. Peel. I'll see to the estimate and get in touch," he said.

She nodded, "I'll alert my insurance company. And please be assured, I won't try to run out on this," she said, reaching for her car door handle.

"The thought never crossed my mind, madam!" Steed said, stepping back toward his own car door. And it hadn't, once he'd decided she was not related to his case, he'd felt a surprising willingness to trust her. He watched her get into the Lotus, back up, and pull around the Bentley. Fortunately they had collided on a deserted lane that was one of Steed's favorite rural shortcuts on the outskirts of London. There were no other cars or irate drivers to placate. Steed slipped her calling card into his breast pocket and got back into the Bentley. He looked forward to making that call – he'd have to get an estimate on the Bentley first thing tomorrow.

oo0oo

Steed was one of the last to enter the lecture hall, which was not full, but did contain more people than he'd expected would want to hear about applied mathematics. As he was not especially interested in the topic, and knew he would not be able to follow the complex discussion when it reached its apex, he stayed at the rear where he could study the rest of the crowd.

Professor Reginald Spivey entered stage-left wearing his academic gown and college hood. He was carrying a chalk holder in one hand and had a stack of books and papers under his other arm. He dumped these unceremoniously on a table and, with a perfunctory glance at the audience, turned to the chalkboard and began writing. As Steed had feared, as soon as the man started speaking he stared to feel drowsy. He pinched himself. He forced himself to sit forward in his seat. He chewed the inside of his lips. His mind wandered to Mrs. Emma Peel. What a figure! What a self-possessed, confident attitude. What beautiful eyes. Mrs. Emma Peel. Lucky Mr. Peel. The professor droned on. Steed focused on it. Watched Spivey scratching out long lines of equations, working his way all the way across the long chalkboard at the front of the hall, then doubling back to continue on another line. A flick of auburn hair down near the front caught Steed's eye. Stop it! This is business. Then, as the professor turned to his audience and asked for questions, her voice filled the hall.

"Professor, shouldn't that negative one, two rows up near the right end, be a positive one?"

It was her. Mrs. Emma Peel, sitting near the front of the hall, dissecting Spivey's incredibly complex mathematical formula. He watched Spivey, wondering if she had embarrassed herself, and how she would recover. With style, he hoped, for her sake. Stop it! She's married.

Spivey turned to study his equation, working his way along through it while the audience fidgeted. Steed watched Mrs. Peel. She appeared to be completely composed. Steed glanced at Wolf, off to his left, and Williams, seated not far from Mrs. Peel. Both ministry mathematicians were scratching away at their notebooks, doubtlessly checking Spivey's work for themselves.

"No, madam," Spivey said at last, "negative one is correct. You see, the negative value . . ." Steed allowed himself to ignore the man's words, which were not meaningless to him, but beyond the scope of what he needed to understand, with Wolf and Williams in the room to pay attention. Instead he watched Spivey's behavior, and that of Mrs. Peel. She visibly stiffened at the Professor's ongoing explanation, but when he finished she remained silent. She was not, Steed was certain, satisfied. But for some reason she chose to let it pass. Seeing no further dissention, Spivey looked satisfied, even relieved, and went on taking a few more questions before ending the lecture.

oo0oo

"The woman was correct," Wolf said, turning from the chalkboard in his cramped ministry office to face Steed and Williams, who sat like students in uncomfortable chairs.

"Yes, I agree," Williams said. Wolf turned back to the equation he'd written out.

"I had missed it, that negative," Wolf went on, "But once she pointed it out, I could see there was a problem."

"It started to look quite different, once I started to solve for the value of Y," Williams said, tapping his pencil on his notepad.

"Right," Wolf said, scribbling on the board some more, adding another line of figures and symbols. "If you solve it, with that negative one, you get this." He tapped the board under what he'd written.

Steed stared at it, eyes narrowing. It was a much simpler mathematical expression. And it looked vaguely familiar. "And what is that?" he asked, "the secret formula for laundry detergent?"

Williams chuckled – he was always an admiring audience for Steed's repartee. Wolf grimaced – he was not such a willing foil. "No, Steed. It's part of the model for the new jet wing design that research is so excited about."

Steed's eyebrows shot up. He stood up and approached the board, studying the formula. "Only part of it, though?" he asked. Wolf nodded.

"It's about a third of it. Very clever the way Spivey buried it in his example. Brilliant, in fact."

"But you spotted it," Steed pointed out.

Wolf and Williams exchanged a glance, then Williams cleared his throat and spoke into an embarrassed silence, "No, not really. The woman did. Neither of us caught it before she pointed it out."

Steed looked from one to the other, his hand reaching inside his jacket to his breast pocket to feel the calling card there.

"Well then," he said, smiling cheerfully at his colleagues, "we shall have to enlist her further aid in spotting Spivey's little transgressions."

The two ministry mathematicians exchanged puzzled looks as Steed strode out of Wolf's office twirling his umbrella. They had no doubt that somehow Steed would produce the woman, though she was a total stranger, in time for the professor's next lecture in three days. That was what John Steed did.

oo0oo

"May I speak with Mrs. Peel please, John Steed calling."

"This is Mrs. Peel. I was expecting to hear from you, Mr. Steed," Emma replied. Perhaps not this quickly, though, she added to herself. "I've warned my agent about the situation."

"Your agent?"

"My insurance agent," she added, frowning. Who else could I have meant?

"Ah, of course," Steed replied, feeling foolish. "Excellent. I have an estimate. Could we meet for coffee, or lunch?"

"I'm sure we can take care of this matter through the mail, Mr. Steed."

"Just Steed, please."

"I'm sorry?"

"No 'Mr.' Just call me Steed – everybody does."

"Very well, Steed. If you'd like to mail the estimate to my agent. My insurance agent --."

"I would really very much like to meet with you, Mrs. Peel," Steed said surprised at her obstinacy. He was accustomed to women being very accommodating.

"It's hardly necessary --."

"Please join me and allow me to reassure you that I hold no grudge. And neither does the car."

Emma laughed in spite of herself. On the other end of the line Steed smiled. What a lovely laugh. This is business!

"Oh very well. When, and where? I imagine your car would like to be spruced back up quickly."

"This afternoon. How about tea?"

"All right. I'll meet you."

Steed gave her the address of a favorite teashop run by one of his contacts. It was a safe venue where he would be assured of a table with enough privacy to have a serious conversation. He hung up the phone with a remarkable feeling of anticipation.

oo0oo

"Mrs. Peel, thank you for agreeing to meet with me," Steed said, rising to extend his hand, which she shook, then seating her at the table he'd selected. She was dressed in a very becoming yellow linen dress with a matching jacket. She set a darker yellow leather handbag on the floor next to her matching shoes. Not a detail out of place, Steed thought. And then: Stop it!

"Well, who could turn down an appeal from that vintage Bentley of yours. I feel terrible for injuring her."

Steed did not miss that she'd picked up his use of the feminine in describing his car.

The proprietor, Steed's contact, came and took their order for hot Earl Grey and scones then moved away quickly.

"Mrs. Peel, I've asked you here under partially false pretenses," Steed said, feeling that being direct was the best approach with her. For all her composure, he sensed skittishness in her. She would resent any further deception.

She glared at him, a withering look that he found difficult to bear. "I know the pretenses," she said icily. "so what is the truth?"

Oops. Go carefully, Steed.

He cleared his throat, thinking for an instant of Williams' awkward admission back at the office.

"I work for the government --."

"And you're here to help me?" she interrupted, the edges of her mouth curling in a smile despite her otherwise irritated expression. It wasn't what she'd expected. A proposition, a slightly inappropriate suggestion, more lies to get closer to her – she'd experienced all of those before. But she wasn't sure what to do with his assertion of employment. Or his disarming smile. The great irony was, for the first time since Peter's death, she'd been just a little bit willing to consider one of these inelegant approaches.

"The reverse, actually," he said. "I need your help."

Her brows shot up. She waited, staring at him as the proprietor placed teapot, cups, and plates of scones on their table. He stared back, barely acknowledging the service with a slight nod. The proprietor didn't seem concerned, fading away as quickly as he'd come.

"All right," she said, breaking their staring match to reach for the teapot. "I'm intrigued. What is it you imagine I can help you with?"

He watched her pour his tea then her own with neat economy of movement. She picked up a sugar cube with the tongs and looked inquiringly at him.

"Two," he said with a nod. She dropped the cube into his tea and added another. Then added one to her own cup and stirred it. All while he watched her in silence.

"Well?" She finally asked, lifting her cup to her lips. He picked up his spoon and stirred his tea, watching it swirl anti-clockwise near the rim of the cup.

"Mathematics," he finally said, looking up at her.

"Mathematics," she repeated with a small nod.

"You were at Professor Reginald Spivey's lecture two days ago. You questioned his formula."

"You were there?"

"Yes."

"He was wrong. His explanation was just so much blather. I was so disgusted I simply could not carry on the discussion, or try to reason with him."

"Are you a mathematician?"

"It's a hobby."

Steed sat back in his chair, studying her. "Advanced applied mathematics is a hobby? I'd love to hear about your others," he blurted out. At her shocked expression he added, "Forgive me. It's just a bit – dense – to address casually, isn't it?"

She shrugged, "You think it's dull?"

"No. I think it requires a great deal of mind power, and mental discipline. I'm impressed."

"Flattery, sir, will get you nowhere," she replied. And he knew she meant it. "So how do you see my hobby fitting in with your career – for the government?" She sipped her tea again, and he thought he could see the wheels turning. He imagined that they turned very quickly and efficiently in her lovely head.

"Professor Spivey is speaking again tomorrow. Are you planning to attend?"

"No. As I said, I was disgusted by his response to me. I'd prefer to read his colleagues work than listen to him."

"Can I persuade you to reconsider?"

"Why?"

He grinned at her. He'd won, he knew it. She'd go. He just had to give her a good enough reason. A personal appeal? No. She did not seem in the least impressed with him, personally, which stung. A professional approach? He still didn't know whether she considered herself to have a profession, despite having run a preliminary background check on her yesterday. A challenge then. She would jump at a mental challenge.

"I'm certain that he'll make a similar error tomorrow. My associates missed the one you caught. I need you there to catch the next one."

"And why do you care, if I'm allowed to ask, about the errors of an applied mathematician?"

Steed swallowed hard and looked at her, searching for clues about her. He'd learned that she was a recent widow, heir to an industrial fortune, and that she dabbled in the arts. For a time she'd successfully run the company that her deceased father founded, but she'd given it up. He didn't question her financial resources – family money, investments, her deceased husband's benefits. But he did wonder what drove her. What were her passions? In fact, he admitted as he tried to decide how to answer her, he was altogether too curious about her passions for his own good.

"You are not allowed to ask, actually. But it would hardly be cricket for me to expect you to comply without some explanation."

She nodded and smiled, a gentle expression that he rather suddenly hoped he'd see a lot more of. Good lord, man, what are you doing here? He inhaled a deep breath through his nose, holding it for a moment. Working. This is business. He exhaled and smiled at her.

"We suspect that Spivey is conveying very important secrets to someone. We've got him covered so tight that nothing he says or writes isn't recorded and analyzed. His lectures are his only possible venue for communicating with an unknown recipient. You, my dear, have unknowingly caught him at it."

She nodded slowly, absorbing his words. She did not appear to be alarmed. "So his formula, with the negative one, is meaningful – in a different way from what he was lecturing," she said. It was not a question, so Steed did not respond to it. He watched her think, saw her consider his request, saw that flattery would, in fact, get him somewhere. But not overt flattery. "What if I miss his error, this time?" she asked.

Steed shrugged, "Nobody's perfect, Mrs. Peel."

oo0oo

Emma found a seat near the front of Spivey's lecture hall. It was not as crowded as the previous session, but she was early. She studied those already seated, wondering which, if any, were Steed's colleagues.

She had reconsidered her decision several times since her meeting with the man. But in the end it had seemed like an interesting diversion – that's what she'd assured herself. Not that she found him devastatingly handsome, nor that she was terribly curious about his profession. It had not been hard to peg him as some sort of intelligence agent – his confusion over her use of the word in reference to her insurance representative was her first clue, in retrospect. On some levels she thought it would be amusing to get to know a genuine spy. On others, she realized that it could be extremely dangerous.

But here she was, prepared to endure another of Spivey's arrogant discourses. The idea of looking for mistakes in his work was really very appealing.

A man appeared seemingly out of nowhere and took the seat next to hers.

"Steed!" she said quietly, glancing at him then back at the notepad she'd been doodling on.

"Shush, my dear," he said softly. "I thought you might appreciate company, since you're so certain to dislike the presentation."

"Misery loves company, Steed?" she asked through pursed lips. She was delighted he was there, and perturbed with herself for being delighted.

"Something like that. If he makes an error, nudge me immediately; don't wait until he pauses for questions. I'll signal my men, in case they miss what you catch. We may be able to wrap this up today, with your help."

"I'll do my best," she replied, glancing again around the hall wondering where his men were.

Steed and the ministry investigators had had a breakthrough on the case the previous night. They had identified the ultimate recipient of Spivey's information. Now they wanted to catch whoever was carrying it from the lecture hall to the buyer. If they could follow the trail then all parties would be arrested.

The hall fell silent as Spivey entered. He began his lecture once again by writing a lengthy formula on the board. Steed watched Mrs. Peel out of the corner of his eye. She was intent upon Spivey, her eyes squinting, then opening wide, her lips moving in silent calculation as she watched the professor write. Mid-way through the second line, she stiffened.

"What?" Steed whispered so quietly only she could hear. She glanced at him, her whole body tingling at the intimacy of his whisper.

"The factor of three there makes no sense. It would have to be five," she replied, then scribbled a section of the formula on her note pad, indicating the difference she meant. Steed straightened in his seat and uncrossed and re-crossed his legs.

"Was that a signal?" she asked.

"No. My legs were getting stiff," he looked at her, grinning. Then he checked his watch and straightened his tie. "That was the signal," he added.

"And they'll know the error?" she asked, suddenly skeptical of his seemingly casual air.

"They'll know. They aren't stupid, Mrs. Peel, just not as quick-minded as you."

"Flattery, Steed – you know what I told you," she said. Behind her someone shifted and cleared their throat. She faced forward, returning her focus to Spivey. But the professor made no more errors, intentional or not. In the end, she actually found his lecture interesting. Perhaps because she knew that his error was not genuine. She could continue to respect his mathematical theory, even if he was a traitor.

oo0oo

"You'll have to excuse me, Mrs. Peel – duty calls," Steed muttered as soon as Spivey finished answering questions. He started to rise, then leaned back close to her, "May I call you?"

"Can you tell me whether this has concluded favorably, or will it all be completely hush-hush?" she asked.

He didn't hesitate, "I will tell you as much as I can – certainly whether your assistance proves as useful as I expect it to."

"I'll look forward to your call," she said, rising herself so that he could go without feeling rude.

oo0oo

Why did I do that? She wondered as she drove home. Why didn't I just tell him he could call? I'd like him to call. He's the first man I've met since Peter died who interests me. Why not let him know it? She parked her car and got out. Why indeed.

His name had been Peter and she'd allowed herself to fall completely in love with him. In exchange he'd taken advantage of her trust, persuaded her to give up her father's business, and, ultimately, sealed that fate by selling her majority ownership of the company. And then, six months ago, he'd died test flying a prototype jet.

Since then she'd been drifting. Torn between mourning the loss of her husband, and raging at his treatment of her while he was alive. Her marriage had not been all bad, her husband not always the unpleasant, controlling man he'd become near the end. In the beginning he'd been a tender, romantic lover and a good companion. She mourned the loss of those times.

During the first month, while the air force still held out hope that Peter might be found, she had simply mourned as any woman in her position should. It was the easiest thing to do, outwardly. Nobody suspected that her grief had as much to do with the loss of her father's company as the loss of her husband. Of that only her attorney and the members of Knight Industries board who'd purchased her shares from her husband were aware.

Gradually, though, the time for black dresses and somber visits had ended and she'd found herself at loose ends. So she'd painted, and delved into the mathematics articles and books that Peter had always frowned upon her reading. And she'd deflected the attentions of various well-meaning, interested gentlemen who were aware of her situation. Or thought that they were aware.

And now John Steed had entered her life, and, with an impish grin and twirl of his ever-present umbrella, he'd twisted it all around again. She wondered when he'd call.

oo0oo

She didn't have long to wait. Her telephone rang that very evening and his sensuous voice spoke her name.

"Mrs. Peel? It's Steed."

Her heart thumped embarrassingly in her chest. "Steed," she repeated, savoring the name a little more than was proper. He took a moment to respond.

"I wanted to let you know that we've been successful. May I offer my thanks by buying you dinner?"

Her heart thumped again. "I would be delighted," she replied, and before she knew it their date was arranged for the following evening.

oo0oo

Steed rang Mrs. Peel's doorbell at precisely the appointed time, presenting a single yellow rose to her when she answered.

"You wore yellow the other day," he explained. "It was quite becoming."

"Thank you, Steed," she took the flower and gestured him into her apartment.

"This," he added, presenting a chilled bottle of champagne that he'd held behind his back, "is to start the evening off properly."

Emma took it, smiling with delight. "Let's see how it works," she said.

oo0oo

It worked perfectly. They sipped it in her living room as he studied her and her living space. He admired the quality of her furnishings and art, even if he didn't appreciate some of the more modern pieces. He admired her even more.

They'd moved on to dinner at one of his favorite South Kensington French bistros that was casual, but excellent. He'd thought to show off his knowledge of wine, but she met him vintage for vintage with her own equally appropriate preferences. The ministry had turned up a little more information about her – that she listed her occupation on her tax returns as "writer," and had recently published articles on bridge and chess strategy. He managed to bring up these subjects without letting on that he knew, and as their conversation progressed he learned of her skill in the martial arts.

"You do have interesting hobbies," he said appreciatively. "I'm going to a shooting party on the weekend. At Lord Asbury's – a fine fellow. Will you come, as my guest? I could teach you to shoot."

"I know how to shoot, Steed," she replied. "And I've met Lord Asbury. He's as lecherous as they come," she continued to smile at him, no malice in her statements. Steed chuckled.

"Perhaps it would simplify matters if you told me what you don't know how to do," he said. She was quiet for a moment, taking a sip of her wine and studying Steed. He wondered if he'd taken a misstep.

"Skydiving. And Australia. I have always wanted to explore Australia."

"I would very much like to explore Australia with you, Mrs. Peel," Steed said, and for a moment she was not sure what to expect next. "But my calendar is rather full just now. So how about skydiving. On Saturday?"

"I thought you were going to a shooting party?"

"I've just had a better offer."

"You're serious."

"Completely."

"All right. Skydiving it is."

oo0oo

Steed drove her home and escorted her to her door with its strange eye mounted in the center. He hadn't yet decided whether it was art or science, that eye. Either way, it was disturbing. She unlocked the door and opened it, then turned to him.

"Will you come in for a nightcap?" she asked.

He was tempted. "Not tonight, Mrs. Peel," he heard himself saying out of habit. "But thank you. I shall call for you at eleven on Saturday."

"I'll look forward to it," she replied, stepping inside. He tipped his bowler and strode away and she closed the door, leaning against it. Skydiving?

oo0oo

Emma answered her door at eleven a.m. on Saturday and was faced with a large cardboard box. "Steed?" she stepped back to allow the box, and the man, to enter.

"Good morning Mrs. Peel," he lowered the box as he entered. "This is for you."

She took the box, setting it on a table and opening it. Inside was a military issue dark green jumpsuit. She laughed, pulling it out to hold it up to herself. It looked like a comfortable fit, which didn't surprise her. Steed struck her as the sort of man who knew women's sizes.

"Shall I change here, or there?" she asked.

"There. We'll get some dinner after, if you like."

"I like."

oo0oo

Steed had had little difficulty calling in a few favors to arrange a training jump for that afternoon. He'd lost his own certification through disuse, so both he and Emma would have to jump harnessed to instructors. While he was disappointed not to be able to take her himself, he suspected that being harnessed to her would be something of an unsafe distraction. He really had no regrets about missing the shooting party – Emma was right about Lord Asbury.

Emma felt as if she'd been sucked into Steed's personal whirlwind – and it was a very romantic one. He was charming, handsome, attentive, sensual, mysterious, funny, and she wanted desperately to kiss him. She wanted desperately to do more than that, but she refused to admit that, even to herself.

oo0oo

Lieutenant Sharpe tapped Emma's shoulder in the pre-arranged signal. It was time to jump. She glanced over at Steed, harnessed to Lieutenant Howard. He grinned at her, his biggest wolfish smile of encouragement and glee.

They all stepped out of the airplane, and the wind took Emma's breath away. They fell, arms and legs spread, the wind rustling their jumpsuits making a tremendous racket. The buzz of the airplane engine faded away and they were alone, four people falling through space. Tractors and cars moving across the rural landscape far below were like so many toys and Emma was fascinated. Then they passed through a thin cloud and the chilly vapor made her shiver. All too soon Sharpe tapped on her shoulder again, and she nodded. He pulled the cord, freeing their parachute from the pack on his back. She felt them slow down as the leader 'chute deployed, and then they jerked to a stop – what felt like a stop – as the full 'chute opened above them.

Emma looked up at the thin white fabric that supported them and was amazed. She understood the principle, but it had no bearing on the actual experience. They floated slowly downward, Steed and his instructor not far away. Sharpe controlled the rest of their descent, steering them to a perfect landing at the airfield. He unclipped Emma and she turned to thank him.

Steed and Howard made an equally perfect landing, and Howard unclipped Steed with a friendly pat on the shoulder. Steed turned to see how Emma had done just in time to see her remove her helmet, her glorious auburn hair flowing out onto her shoulders. He inhaled a sharp breath, unable to move as she strode over to him, hands outstretched. He took them, returning her dazzling smile.

"It was wonderful. Thank you, Steed."

"My pleasure," he replied, his voice husky, his eyes locked on hers. He felt his body betray him, leaning toward her, desperate to claim her. She took her hands from his to smooth her hair and he recovered, straightening his shoulders and half turning toward his car.

"Shall we?" he asked.

"Shouldn't we change?"

"Ah, yes." He reached to his neck and unzipped his jumpsuit, watching her eyebrows rise in alarm. He shrugged out of the jumpsuit to reveal his favorite blue three-piece suit. He straightened his tie and looked expectantly at Emma. She smiled insouciantly at him, reaching up to open her own zipper. Now his eyebrows rose as she revealed an indigo floral print pantsuit. He cleared his throat. Unaccustomed to being outmatched this way. She chuckled at his obvious discomfiture and reached up to brush off his shoulders, although they didn't need it.

"Let's go," he said, recovering quickly. He could get used to this.

Emma hadn't planned on revealing her clothes in such a dramatic manner. She'd just found it simplest to wear the comfortable but elegant pantsuit under the jumpsuit rather than dealing with a change of clothes. Steed, she was certain, had planned his move for effect. It delighted her to have matched him without even trying. She could get used to that.

oo0oo

After a cozy dinner near the air base Steed drove Emma home and once again escorted her to her door.

"Come in?" she asked, expecting him to decline but still hoping. He watched her for a moment, eyes twinkling. She nodded encouragingly.

"I'd like that very much," he said. Her heart soared. She opened the door wide and he followed her in.

"Pour us brandies? I really have to get out of these shoes," she said, gesturing at the bar and heading for her bedroom. Steed poured two brandies and brought them to the coffee table. He stood sipping his, looking at the painting over her fireplace. He didn't really care for it. She returned barefoot and sat down in the center of the sofa, taking up her glass. He sat down beside her and raised his glass to her.

"This was a perfect day, Steed. Thank you."

"You're very welcome, Mrs. Peel. I am glad to have been able to treat you to a new experience."

She smiled, running her finger around the rim of her glass. "I can think of another," she said so quietly he thought he hadn't heard correctly. She took another sip of her brandy, then leaned forward to set the glass on the table. He set his beside it, shifting on the sofa to face her. He touched her cheek, fingers lightly caressing her perfect skin.

She sighed, his feathery touch tingling pleasantly. She leaned her head into it and he responded, cupping her face with his full hand, drawing her to him. Their lips met, a light, dry touch that jolted Emma back. She inhaled sharply, gathering his scent of fine cologne, brandy, and a musky maleness that drew her back to him. Her hands found his shoulders, used them to pull them closer together as they kissed again.

Steed slid into the kiss. It had been so inevitable from the moment he'd agreed to come in he could not have stopped it if he'd wanted to. She was soft and firm in his arms, her mouth was sweet with brandy and salty -- she tasted like nothing else he'd ever known. Her fingers slid into his hair, his into hers. They paused for breath, then kissed again. His tongue danced along her lips, but he held it back from its true goal. Not yet. Maybe next time.

Emma felt his tongue touch her lips, fought to keep from responding with her own. Oh how she wanted to. How she wanted to explore him with her mouth and her hands. But she felt him holding back, knew even before he said it that he would leave before they went any further. But there was promise in his eyes, promise and passion.

oo0oo

And then there was nothing. For the next three days Emma paced around her flat like a caged cat, railing at herself for behaving like a lovelorn schoolgirl. But she had only felt this way once before in her entire life: when Peter had been courting her. And even then the intensity wasn't the same. She had not been distracted to the point where she sat staring at the telephone willing it to ring like she was doing now. She forced herself to go out, to accept a lunch invitation from a female friend and endure Nancy's curious looks.

"You look different, Emma," she said carefully. Emma's friends knew the effect of Emma's quick temper. Many grew weary of it and simply stopped being friends. The few who continued to endure it learned to avoid it through careful conversation. But this time Emma had smiled wickedly and shrugged.

"There's a man, isn't there?" the friend had dared.

"There is. But it's very new. You don't think it's too soon, do you?"

"I think I like seeing you this way – you're nearly glowing."

oo0oo

But after five days Emma's glow had started to tarnish. She suspected that Steed was busy with work. She hoped that if he could call, he would. She prayed that the reason he couldn't call was benign. And she realized that if it wasn't, she would probably never know. This brief, lovely interlude would simply be over and none would be the wiser.

By the seventh day, Emma had sadly, grudgingly reached the worst possible decision. If he did call again, she had to end it. She couldn't endure this. And then, on the tenth day the telephone did ring, but it was Captain Charles Farraday, a kind gentleman who she'd met through a friend. He invited her to dinner a few days hence and she accepted.

oo0oo

Steed warmed his hands over the flames of burning files in a metal rubbish can. It was always cold in Scotland. He'd tried to get out of this assignment for that reason alone, but it hadn't worked. It had taken nearly two weeks to track down and stop the group of mad Scots bent on severing their tiny land's ties to mother England. They'd been mad, but they'd also been quite clever – wily Scots, we should've just let 'em have their freezing heaths.

He was burning a duplicate set of their files, the primary set having already been seized by the ministry. The whole plot had been just frightening enough that he wanted to be personally certain that none of their plans got out. So he was standing outside the ancient stone farmhouse where they'd holed up in the end personally burning every scrap of duplicate evidence not wanted by the ministry clean-up team.

He distracted himself from the self-appointed chore by imaging Emma. He was very aware that she would have expected a call from him days ago, so now he had to turn his considerable brainpower on contriving a way to get back into her good graces. He kept returning to one idea and the more he thought about it the more he liked it. If the lady was willing.

oo0oo

"Mrs. Peel? It's John Steed."

"Steed!" her voice belied surprise and a trace of anxiety. He'd expected that but it still played on his guilt.

"Please accept my apologies for not calling. It was unavoidable. I was incommunicado."

"I understand," she said simply. No blame, no anger. She really did understand. But he knew that didn't make it any easier.

"May I apologize over dinner tomorrow?"

"I'm afraid not, Steed. I have another engagement."

Break it, he wanted to say. Whoa, boy. That would not go over well. "The next night, then?" he asked.

"All right." She sounded uncertain. He didn't like that at all.

"Perhaps that's better anyway," he said. "It gives me a little time to prepare. Come to my apartment. I'd like to make you something special."

"You cook?" now she sounded genuinely surprised.

"When I have the time."

"I'm intrigued, Steed. I'll be there."

oo0oo

Emma was relieved that Steed had asked her to his apartment. It would make it easier to leave, when the time came. She regretted having him take the trouble to make dinner only to hear her decision. But she did not wish to delay it, and she did not wish to do it over the telephone.

Captain Farraday picked her up right on time for their early supper and the opera. He was charming and polite, and shared her interest in bridge. At the end of the evening, at her door, she allowed him a little kiss. It was empty, a dry brush across her lips. She said goodnight and closed her door on him, aching with grief over what she had determined to give up. If Steed kisses me, I shall lose my resolve, she reflected. So I simply must not let him.

oo0oo

It was all arranged. Steed placed the fat envelope full of paperwork on the table behind the sofa and turned his attention to final dinner preparations. He had roasted a duckling stuffed with herbs that permeated the apartment with a heavenly smell. To go with it there were salt roasted potatoes cooked in a special terra cotta pot he'd found in Provence, and tiny squashes steamed to tenderness. It was a simple meal, really, no elaborate sauces or flaming entrees. But he knew he could depend on each element to be perfect.

His doorbell rang and he climbed the short flight of steps to open it, needlessly checking his tie before he did. Emma stood outside wearing her black and white fur coat and a winsome smile. She held out a bottle to him. Champagne.

"Mrs. Peel," he sighed, taking the bottle and leaning toward her. She brushed past him and down the steps, shrugging her coat off her shoulders and turning back to him expectantly. He closed the door, followed her down, and took her coat. Perhaps he had been presumptuous, but he'd hoped for at least a little greeting kiss.

"Please sit down," he said, "and I'll open this."

She complied, seating herself at one end of his long couch. He hung up her coat, then went to the kitchen for glasses. He had chilled a similar bottle, but knew she'd appreciate his serving hers. He brought it out with a pair of tall flutes on a tray and sat down with her to open it.

Their glasses clinked cheerily and they both sipped, each watching the other and thinking their private thoughts.

"As I said on the telephone, I'm very sorry not to have been able to call you," he said.

"I really do understand, Steed. But I --."

"No, it's not fair to you. I want you to know that I've taken some action that I hope will help. I've put you on my "A" list."

"You've rated me?"

"A is for 'associates,' Mrs. Peel. If you report a crime or have an accident – are hospitalized, say -- I or my colleagues will be informed immediately and will investigate to determine whether it's related to your association with me. If it is, appropriate action will be taken."

"What if I'm mugged?" she asked, using flippancy to cover her surprise.

"That would be a police matter, Mrs. Peel. And I would not like the odds on the mugger's success," he sipped his wine, eyebrows cocked at her. She chuckled. "There's more. If something – happens – to me, you'll be informed. Just like members of my family."

Emma sipped her own wine, swallowing hard against a flood of emotion. Not knowing had been the worst part of the past two weeks. Somehow he had realized, and fixed it. Just like that. Of course there would be ways that these things were handled. She was deeply touched that he'd decided to include her in the same category as his family. Her resolve to break off with him disappeared as quickly as her champagne, and before she knew it he was refilling her empty glass.

Then he reached over to the table behind the couch, picked up a thick envelope, and handed it to her. She frowned and started to open it, wondering if he was giving her a copy of his will – it didn't seem to farfetched at that point. But he stopped her with a hand on top of hers.

"Mrs. Peel, would you be interested, that is, I'd like to offer you – what I'm trying to ask is, will you consider working with me?"

She was flabbergasted – more because of his amazing verbal stumbling than the content of his convoluted sentence.

"Another lecture, Steed? I thought you caught Spivey and his gang," she quipped, buying time to absorb what he'd asked.

"No, more than lectures. I'd like your help with investigations, solving puzzles, apprehending criminals."

"But I don't have the training that you obviously do, I'm not qualified."

"On the contrary my dear, you are very qualified. There's very little you can't do. You're brilliant, you can handle a gun, you have two black belts," he paused, realizing she hadn't told him that, it had come from the more detailed background check he'd received when he returned from Scotland. She didn't seem phased by his reference to it, however. "You can ride a horse, can't you?" he added.

"You mean your colleagues haven't unearthed my pony club dressage trophies yet?" she asked.

"I was thinking more along the lines of steeplechase," he replied.

"I'm an excellent rider, Steed," she assured him. Her decision was made. It could have been the temptation of new and mysterious activities, or the inescapable draw of his romantic whirlwind, but there was no way she would turn him down.

"You'd have to sign security agreements – and abide by them," he explained.

"That's what's in here?" she asked, nodding at the envelope.

"I had them prepared," he nodded, unashamed at what could have been described as presumption.

She opened the envelope and pulled out three copies of an agreement. She read through it, wondering if she should have a lawyer review it, then chuckling at herself. The best lawyers in the country had drawn it up, what would her lawyer be able to say?

Steed watched her, refilling his glass. She finished reading and returned to the cover page. Looking at it, not him, she said, "you said 'work.' What is the compensation?"

Steed was startled; she smiled inwardly at scoring a point. "My father taught me never to agree to anything without knowing all of the terms," she added with a smile.

Steed smiled back, admitting to himself that he would have been disappointed in her if she didn't ask that sort of question. He named a figure that was a generous, adding that there were bonuses for successful missions. Emma was certain, however, that it was significantly lower than what he was paid, considering his standard of living. It didn't matter – she didn't need the money. She reached for the pen that was conveniently placed on the table and signed all three copies of the papers. She slipped them back into the envelope and handed it to Steed, who sat watching her with a look of utter joy on his face.

"Welcome to the Ministry, Mrs. Peel," he said, setting the envelope back on the table.

"And just what ministry is it, Steed?" she asked, having never heard him refer to his employers before. The documents she'd just signed had not specified, either.

"That's super hush, hush, my dear – sorry!" he said, and before she could respond he had slipped his arms around her, pulled her close, and kissed her. She didn't resist.

"You have very peculiar interview techniques, Steed," she said when he loosened his embrace just a bit.

"You don't seem to mind them," he said, his grey eyes shining, the tiny lines at their sides crinkling as he smiled at her.

"No, I don't seem to, do I?" she sighed, wondering for a moment how this evening had gone so completely differently from what she'd intended, then giving up, pressing her lips to his again instead. There it was again, his tongue on her lips, not pressing or demanding, but caressing. Her mouth opened under his of its own volition and his tongue slipped inside. She felt as if she were melting into him. His lips took great delicious gulps of hers, sucking first on her lower lip, then pressing at the side. He was, she realized, an amazing kisser. Quite suddenly he pulled away, head snapping around to look toward the kitchen.

"What is it?" she asked, fearing invasion by some dreaded enemy. He turned back to her, saw that he'd startled her and pressed his forehead against hers, their noses just touching.

"Dinner is ready," he said. "Come on."

oo0oo

Dinner was superb. Steed served it on fine English china that he said he'd inherited from an aunt. He opened one of his more special bottles of claret, which they finished back on the couch, in between long, slow kisses.

Emma was well aware of where this activity was bound to lead, even if not tonight. Her body longed for it and more than once she stopped herself from guiding his hands onto her breasts, for he seemed to be scrupulously avoiding any such contact. Not tonight, she told herself. It's too soon. You need to find out what this arrangement you've made is really going to mean.

So when the claret was gone, and her lips were feeling ever so slightly chapped, she pulled delicately out of his arms.

"You're going," he said, a little sadly.

"I really should," she replied, forcing herself to stand. She compulsively smoothed her hair, looking down at him. He nodded, as if making a decision, then stood up too.

"Shall I walk you to your car?" he asked as he retrieved her coat.

"It's right out front," she said, shrugging into the heavy fur. She thought of it as her security blanket.

He brought her hands to his lips, his eyes on hers as he kissed them. "Partners," he whispered. She liked the sound of it. "I'll call you tomorrow."

"I hope so," she replied, forcing herself not to lean close for another kiss, knowing she'd never leave if she did. He released her hands and she hurried out to her car.

oo0oo

The next morning she answered her telephone on the first ring.

"Mrs. Peel? We're needed."

fin