DISCLAIMER: RH characters not mine, but all other aspects of the story are, so please do not print, copy or reproduce without my permission. It is now finally finished! What was supposed to be a small epilogue turned into almost another story! I hope you don't mind the length and thank you to all that reviewed!
Derek Lloyd entered his hotel room, dropped his duffle bag and set a 12 pack of beer and a large pizza on the small corner table. This last mission had been a bitch. They'd lost two of their agents and the big catch they had wanted had escaped.
But, they got four of his middle men and his right hand guy. They'd talk after a couple of sessions in interrogation, so all he could do was eat, sleep and wait for the next call.
He pulled his laptop out of his bag, set it on the bed and powered it up. Popping open a beer, he grabbed a slice of pizza, returned to the bed and kicked off his shoes. He took a bite of pizza as he logged into one of his many secure E-Mail accounts, to see if any of his snitches had anything for him.
He was pleasantly surprised to find several e-mails, including one with a video attachment from Sir_Gabriel_Lives. He grinned, set his virus software to clear the document before opening and he took several long swallows of beer.
It had been almost four months since Nigel and Sydney's wedding, and this was the first opportunity he'd had to check this particular E-mail.
The first one read simply :NEED TO KNOW: and Derek laughed aloud. "Cheeky bastard," he muttered as he opened the file from Nigel.
'You miserable sod!' it began.
'How did you know about the Brownstone and what were you thinking of buying it for us? Now Sydney feels she has to forgive you for past transgressions and…God help us…is even considering letting you come 'round to play with me'
Derek laughed again, delighted, and took another bite of pizza as he continued reading.
'There is a procedure that needs to be followed, however, one you have employed countless times and frankly taught us to use. The inevitable catch. We have agreed that we cannot accept the house unless the below conditions are met.
You will become a partner in Foxbail Consulting, thus we can consider the house as your investment in the company. You will have full consideration for any jobs we take (when you are in town), you will receive a portion of the proceeds of the company (whether you are here or not) and you will be allowed to come along with Sydney and me whenever you are free to do so.
You will have the services of Foxbail Consulting whenever the need arises for one of your 'need to know' cases; however Sydney insists on full disclosure. (I'll leave that to be discussed between the two of you)
You may have your own apartment on premises to stay in whenever you are in town, and while we understand your job often keeps you away for months at a time, we expect you to try and make it home for birthdays, Christmas and assorted weekends as available.
Please write me back ASAP as Sydney is eager to move in, but won't until you have agreed to these terms.
Derek reread the e-mail twice and felt an unfamiliar twist in his gut. Never had he expected something like this.
It was actually Randall Fox that had told him about the house; a week before the wedding, as the men were shopping for suits. Randall and Jenny had flown in from Hawaii to stay for three weeks and help with the wedding arrangements. Derek had requested the same amount of time off, which had stunned his superiors; he never asked for time off.
Sydney had mentioned the house to her father because he had been asking if they had found a place to set up the business yet. While Nigel had been changing, Randall mentioned to Derek how he'd like to buy it for them, because his baby had been so excited about it, but he couldn't quite afford that much.
Curious Derek had immediately gone to check out the place. It still hadn't been sold because of a decline in the housing market and because of the price. He felt the house would be absolutely perfect for his friends and fell madly in like with Betty, who after months of waiting just wanted to move, but she refused to sell her house for less than what she felt was its true value. Derek and made her a deal she couldn't refuse and pulled some strings so he could have everything arranged before the wedding.
He suspected it would be a hard sell for Sydney, and he deeply regretted what he had said to her at the wedding, but damn if she hadn't wounded him with her mistrust. It wasn't often he let anyone hurt him, he rarely allowed himself to get that personally involved, but she had a way of pushing his buttons.
He finished off his beer, and then opened the next e-mail from Nigel, which had a video attachment, dated two months ago.
The subject of the e-mail was 'Never get in the way of a woman and her decorating.' and Derek smirked as he opened the video attachment.
Nigel immediately appeared on screen. "Where the devil are you?" he asked grinning. "Well, Sydney refused to wait on your response, so we've moved in." He panned the video camera to the brownstone, including the large sign over the door that announced Fox-Bail Consulting. "She couldn't be stopped, mate, so you'd better well accept our terms. I shudder to think what will happen if you don't. "
The camera panned back to the front door as Nigel entered, past several workmen were in the front hall building a large circular desk where Karen would greet people.
"This is where the reception area will be, but it's loud in here, so let me go upstairs."
There was an obvious skip where the camera was turned off, and then there was a view of a door.
"Here we are, second floor, mens ware, ladies shoes," Nigel commented from behind the camera in a snotty British accent then chuckled as he reached a hand into view to open the door. "Actually, this will be our place."
He stepped into the parlor area that Derek had seen when he had been at the house; where Betty lived, he recognized it by the huge bay window that brightened up the room. A long sofa and two matching chairs in soft brown leather replaced Betty's older couch and chairs, positioned invitingly near the window. A large, flat screen had been mounted to the wall and Nigel's assortment of movies filled several shelves of an oak entertainment bench.
"This is our sitting room, so far," Nigel announced and panned the camera around the room to show the walls held a collection of Sydney's knick nacks, masks and memoirs. "We're still taking things out of boxes, of course, but we wanted to get this room set up right away to give us a place to relax."
Derek grinned when the screen panned in on long black box on one of the shelves of the entertainment bench.
"This was Claudia's wedding gift to me, some state of the art video game thing. I've never used one in my life so you'll have to come round and show me how to play the thing. There are some games included and she claims it will help me relax, although I have no idea how."
The camera turned towards the kitchen area, where there was a lovely, rounded archway leading to the kitchen adjacent to a window cut out in the wall with a green granite breakfast bar and four small stools. He moved across the parlor through and into the large, spacious kitchen. "This is our kitchen, all new appliances, or within a couple of years or so." He zoomed in on the microwave. "I think this is the one we will be using most as neither I nor Syd can cook worth spit."
Derek took a bite of his pizza and made a mental note to give Nigel some cooking lessons next time he saw him. He scowled as he realized that he was actually considering their offer. He couldn't of course, he couldn't afford to have friends; not in his line of work.
He shook off the sudden melancholy and tuned back to the video.
The camera panned a smaller spiral staircase leading up to the third floor. "That leads to our bedroom and loo, and spans the whole left side of the house," Nigel announced, but instead of going up, he headed through the other archway into what Derek recalled had been Betty's dining room.
"We're going to paint in here," Nigel was saying as he panned around the empty room, and then down to the grey carpet. "And this has to come up. Sydney and I agree that you shouldn't have carpet where you're eating; it just makes it harder to clean."
The camera led through the dining room across a small hallway with a set of double doors against the wall on one side and a large antique wardrobe on the other.
"Laundry," Nigel advised as he pulled open the double doors to show the machines and shelves above it for washing materials. He aimed at the wardrobe, moved closer and opened the doors. "Betty left several pieces behind and I fell in love with this the minute I saw it. It reminds me of the wardrobe that led to Narnia." He reached into the deep closet and knocked at the back. "I already locked Claudia's inside to see if it works, she wasn't impressed with me I'm afraid."
Derek laughed so hard he almost fell off the bed, envisioning Nigel convincing the blonde bombshell to step inside so he could close the door. She must have been livid!
"I imagine Sydney will use it for linens and things." Nigel moved on.
Nigel opened a door and stepped into a large suite, fully furnished. "This is a guest room and the loo is on the other side. He stepped across the bedroom and bathroom through another door into a slightly smaller room, with older furniture. "This will be our personal office, we have a room downstairs as well that will be the company office," he announced and indicated the door to the right. "Also accesses the hallway."
He stepped out into the hallway and the camera was immediately treated to a lovely vision of Claudia dressed in a multi coloured tie-shirt and denim cut offs. She was carrying a box down from the third floor.
"Claudia will be staying with us until she gets her own place," Nigel announced from behind the camera. "Say hi to Derek, Claudia. I'm just showing him the house."
She leaned forward, giving ample view of her cleavage. "Is this like, a web cam? Can he hear me?"
"No, it's a recording I'm making for him."
She leaned closer. "You sure he isn't there?"
"Quite sure and if you don't back up he'll think he's watching an episode of 'Girls Gone Wild.'
"Whatever." She waved her hand and straightened and continued downstairs. "Syd's looking for you."
Nigel panned the camera back to show himself rolling his eyes, then turned it to a last door in the hallway. "We haven't decided for this one yet." He opened the door and gave a quick view of the second room that was empty of furniture, then stepped into the hall.
He panned the camera up the stairs. "Third floor right side will be other guest rooms, mostly, we're having an extra loo installed there."
The camera skipped, and then Nigel's voice appeared again in a different part of the house. "Sorry about that, had to come downstairs and get past the workmen," he offered and then turned the camera around to see Sydney, who was currently on a ladder painting a room a soft shade of blue. "And there is the lady of the house."
"You're supposed to be helping, man of the house," Sydney teased and waved. "Hi Derek!"
"I'll be back to help in a few minutes, I just want to finish this up so I can send it."
"Well, hurry up." Sydney stepped off the ladder and approached him with a smoldering look. "I want to get you dirty so we can have fun cleaning up again."
"Sydney!" Nigel squeaked from behind the camera, and then suddenly the camera was aimed at the floor. "I…you…oh…that…that's quite nice, you…Just let me… Sydney, the bloody camera is still on!"
There was more movement along with Sydney's laughter and then the screen went black.
A moment later, although Derek was quite sure it was more than a moment that had passed, the screen was filled with shelves and shelves of books. "This is my favorite place in the house," he sighed contentedly from behind the camera. "I don't know how you convinced Betty to leave these lovely treasures, but I am forever in your debt, Derek."
Derek smiled, knowing that Nigel would enjoy his little sanctuary.
"Sydney says this room is all mine to do with what I will, and I don't intend to touch a thing! I really can't tell you what it means to have all these wonderful books at my disposal. Anyway, before I get all misty eyed, let's continue the tour." He stepped back into the hallway, walked a few feet then opened another door, which held a treadmill, Sydney's boxing mannequin and a few other gym necessities. "The gym, apparently. I won't be in here much, but Sydney says you are welcome to use it whenever you are here."
"There are two large rooms in the front that will be our reception and office areas," he said as he crossed the hallway to the noise of the workmen and opened up another door that led to a huge parlor area, with sliding wall that he pushed open to reveal a second room. "We were going to offer these rooms as your flat, because they were next to the kitchen, but we found something better, so we're actually going to set these rooms up for seminars and extra classes, when we have the time."
He walked through the large, kitchen. "No idea what she plans to do here," he said as he stepped out the back door. "But it probably won't interest you so let's get to the main feature on your tour."
Derek watched as Nigel crossed along gabled walkway through lush green grass bordered with flowers and trees. "It's a good walk from the house," Nigel was saying as he passed a woodshed, an outdoor pool lined with white sand stone, and a large, closed garage. "We didn't even know it was on the property, until we were up on the second floor and spotted the chimney from one of the guest room windows."
Finally, he stopped by the small guest house, obviously built much later than the brownstone, but in the same terracotta bricks, surrounded by large, lush trees.
"This is your very place." he announced and walked around the structure to record the paved driveway from the side of the house that led off through the a line of trees. "Separate driveway, just off Bakersfield Road, which is north of Junction 19. It's not easy to spot, so I've marked it for you."
He returned to the front off the house and opened the door. "You can change the colors and whatever when you get here and will have plenty of privacy to come and go as you please. We can barely see this place from our house."
The living room was fairly large, had its own wood burning fireplace and was bathed in sunlight light from an enormous bay window. There was currently a dark blue sofa and chair set, wooden end tables and coffee table, and a large oak cabinet chest.
"You'll have to fill it out with furniture, not sure what you would want for your own place," Nigel advised from behind the camera as he opened the cabinet doors and revealed a 47 inch flat screen along with devices below for playing movies. "The tele and toys, however, are from me. A thank you for the library."
Derek grinned again and felt something sharp pull at his heart.
Nigel showed off the open concept kitchenette, separated by a wood-topped island, and a small dinette close to a set of patio doors. He pulled open the doors and showed a small wooden deck area. "Perfect for the occasional grilling party. I'll like my steaks medium, thank you."
Derek's smile started to waver. He honestly couldn't believe they were serious, and not only that but Nigel was talking as if he actually expected them to socialize when and if he moved in. He couldn't understand it. Too many years of being anonymous and closing people off had him flabbergasted that anyone would do so much for him.
He'd been weak with Sydney, and recognized that she had the ability to crash through his barriers and completely destroy the anti-social walls he had erected. That had been the main reason he had ended their affair.
Granted, a portion of their generosity probably came from gratitude for the house, but seriously, they hadn't needed to go to all of this trouble and planning. He shook his head, wondering how he was going to turn them down?
The camera moved to a small alcove off the kitchen that held a laundry area. "Necessities of life, even for a secret agent," Nigel commented showing a close up of the washer and dryer set, then returned to the kitchen and pulled open the refrigerator to show the top shelf stocked with Derek's preferred beer. "More necessities."
Derek smiled, but was alarmed to feel tears prick his eyes at his friend's thoughtfulness. Sonofabitch. He was actually considering accepting their offer. What was wrong with him?
Nigel stepped into a rounded bathroom, fair sized, with a corner shower as well as a bath tub, double sink and commode. "Not much to the loo, but we're men, we don't need much." The camera moved through an open door into a large bedroom that held a king sized bed in cherry wood, with matching dressers and end tables. "This was Sydney's contribution, she hopes you like it, and she says if you don't, then you have no taste."
Nigel moved out of the bedroom, back into the living room and across to another area. "This can be a second bedroom or a den, as you like. But the best thing about it is…" The camera showed Nigel's hand pressing against a section of molding and suddenly a small rectangle of wall moved inward. "A secret room for a secret agent."
The sound of a click had the room bathed in a soft glow as Nigel stepped down three steps to a solid concrete floor. There were no windows, just a floor, cement walls and a selection of shelves on one of the walls. walls that held two antique kerosene lamps. "I think this was meant to be some sort of storm or fallout shelter, but I figure you could store whatever. Syd and I promise to stay out, after all, this will be your flat." He panned back to his face. "Please, no bodies. They'll smell up the place."
The tension that had been coiled inside of him released and Derek laughed, long and hard. He had to rewind the video because he had missed the rest of what Nigel had said.
Nigel set the camera on the kitchen counter and moved in front of it. "So, this is what we are offering. We hope you can accept it in the spirit in which it is given. You'll of course be encouraged to visit us at the main house, and you can have full access to the pool as well as the hot tub, which Sydney insists on installing." His expression grew serious. "There is one thing I feel I have to mention, however and I hope you will also accept it in the spirit in which I give it."
"I love you like a brother, Derek, and I hope we can remain friends for as long as possible, but despite what I have told Sydney, I also know that sometimes you do have your own agenda. I am not as gullible as she thinks I am. I don't believe you do in this case, but if you do, you should know that I'm aware of the relationship you had with Sydney previously. I've always known, but it is in the past and that is where it needs to stay. I've already been through this with Sydney and while I am not worried about her betraying me, I do feel I have to say this."
Derek's frown deepened and he set his pizza down.
Nigel moved closer to the camera. "If you have any thoughts, any at all, of taking advantage of myself or of Sydney, of betraying our trust or luring Sydney away from me, just remember what I did to that Gural Nataz agent in Monaco and know that regardless of your connections and multiple identities, I will find you. If you hurt Sydney in any way, I will destroy you."
Derek swallowed, hard. He wasn't easily intimidated, but there was something about such a mild mannered person making such a secure threat that caused his heart to skip a beat. Also, Nigel was his friend, and the fact that he would make such a threat proved to Derek that it was not an idle one.
Nigel stepped back and smiled. "There now. You've seen all of it, I think. Hopefully you can get in touch soon and let us know what you think. I have to go help Syd finish up painting." He waved. "See you soon, my friend."
Derek closed his laptop and sat there, lost in thought. He could pretend that he never received the e-mail. He could stay away from them and disappear from their lives, he was damn good at that, but something in Nigel's tone when he was showing the house told him that the Englishman truly wanted him to accept their offer.
Granted, the warning had been a surprise, but when he considered it, Derek would have done exactly the same thing. He rose to get himself another slice of pizza and another beer.
He did remember the Gural Nataz agent that had cornered Nigel during their operation, when they accidentally got separated in the catacombs of the thieves hide-out. He hadn't been there to witness what the agent had said to set Nigel off, but it had obviously been about Sydney Fox; it always was. When Derek found Nigel, he had a few minor injuries, but the agent…the agent was dead, pierced in the throat by his own knife.
Derek had given Nigel a gun, but he learned later that it had not been fired. Nigel did not discuss what had happened, there hadn't really been time if they wanted to conclude the operation successfully, but nor would he speak about it afterwards.
He sat there thinking about the life he had chosen. He'd been recruited when he was twenty-three and had been an agent for over twenty years now. Promotions had been offered to him, but he couldn't see himself riding a desk, and besides; he honestly felt that he was more valuable in the field.
He had no family to worry about, no one to be concerned if he never returned from somewhere. If he was injured captured or killed. There's be no questions. He was the best kind of CIA agent, completely expendable and practically non-existent. For over two decades that had been enough, now…Maybe it was time for something more. Maybe he should give life another shot.
It wouldn't be easy. There would still be so much he couldn't reveal of himself, yet Sydney and Nigel were opening up their home to him, despite that fact. Could he settle down was the real question. Sure he had cash, passports and weapons stashed in places all over the world and had been in almost every kind of hotel or motel, both five star and flea-bag. He hadn't had a real home in so long he couldn't even imagine what it would be like.
He powered down his computer without replying to Nigel's e-mails. This decision wouldn't be easy. He had some serious thinking to do.
Sydney entered their apartment and immediately heard Frank Sinatra's 'Too Marvelous For Words' playing from the stereo system. She set her purse down, pulled off her jacket, and wandered into the kitchen, where she spotted Nigel dancing to the music as he poured to glasses of red wine.
"I'm home," she announced and felt a little thrill and her own announcement as she and watched him turn and smile at her.
"So you are." He immediately stepped forward to pull her into his arms and danced her around the kitchen. "I missed you."
Sydney could tell that when he pressed his hips against her. "You just want me for my body."
"Absolutely," he agreed. "Who wouldn't? But I also love your mind." She laughed and he sighed. "And that smile. I'd do anything for that smile."
Sydney continued to smile as they danced. "You're in a good mood."
"I am." He touched his lips to hers and pressed against her again. "A very good mood."
She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Yeah?" She kissed him. "Care to show me?"
They kissed, long and slow, then he pulled back reluctantly. "That will have to wait." He turned, picked up the two glasses of wine and offered her one. "Or dinner will spoil."
Sydney's eyebrows rose. "Dinner? You cooked?"
"Don't be ridiculous, we have to eat it." He wrapped his arm around her waist and guided her to the living room where a candle lit table awaited, set for two, complete with flowers and several delicious smelling dishes. "I ordered from Donatello's."
"Oooh, yummy." She turned in his arms, impressed with the effort he had gone to. "My hero." She kissed him again, slid her free hand down between them and heard him moan in appreciation. "Sure dinner can't wait?"
"You shameless hussy!" He grinned, stepped back and lifted her fingers to his lips. "You can show your appreciation after dinner. Besides, we're celebrating."
"What are we celebrating?" she asked, smiling at him as he held out her chair. She'd spent a long day pitching to the people in the area that might like their service, while Nigel had stayed home to create their website. Karen and Claudia were in the process of booking seminars or classes for them.
Nigel set his wine down in front of the seat across from her and pulled an envelope from his pocket. "FoxBail Consulting's first client."
Sydney was out of her seat in an instant and reaching for the envelope but Nigel held it away from her. "Gimmie!"
"No." He wagged a finger at her. "You can read it after dinner."
"I know you, Sydney, and if you read it now, we'll immediately be leaving to fly off somewhere."
"But it's our first one as a company!" She bounced on her heels in excitement and again tried to snatch the envelope. "Come on! Let me see it at least!"
"On one condition."
"Only one, Sydney."
He grabbed her with his free hand and pulled her against him. "I want tonight for just the two of us. Deal?"
He looked at her with such need, such love how could she say no? "Deal." She kissed him, then snatched the envelope he held behind his back, ripped the letter out and perused the information. "It's from my friend Marela. She thinks she's found documents pertaining to the recovery of the sword of Joan of Arc."
Nigel nodded, even as he guided Sydney back to her chair and gently pushed her into it. "Joan claimed she found it in the Church of St. Catherine and the voices told her to take it and use it."
Sydney nodded. "Most relics that survived past her execution were thrown into a bonfire by revolutionaries in 1782, and with her body burned and the remains thrown in the river, any possible article of hers would be a phenomenal find."
Nigel filled Sydney's plate from the dishes provided, and then settled in his chair and filled his own. "It would certainly establish us in the history books," he agreed. "And would be great publicity for the company."
"She wants us to come right away." Sydney took a bite of her dinner then focused on the letter again. "She's in France, so it won't be much of a trip. We could get Karen to arrange…"
"All the arrangements are made," Nigel advised as he scooped up some pasta. "We leave tomorrow morning."
"For our air fare, or maybe we should…" She paused as his words sank in. "What?"
"I called Marella as soon as I received the letter, told her to expect us tomorrow morning and Karen already has us booked in at the Marseau. Renee LaPierre is on standby at Jean Moulin, if we need anything authenticated or dated and, I've already refreshed my memory on everything Joan of Arc." Nigel took a bite of his food and rolled his eyes. "God, this is good." He chewed, set his fork down and reached for his wine as his gaze settled back on an open-mouthed Sydney. "What?"
"I…You did all this? Before I even read the letter and decided we'd go, you made all the arrangements?"
"There was no question you'd accept the request." He smirked and sipped his wine. "And this is what I do, remember? This was the reason you hired me originally- to research and assist."
Of course, but she had honestly forgotten how good he was at it. For the last several years she had been relying on herself or Karen; she'd forgotten how damn good Nigel was at anticipating her needs and providing for them. He'd made set up their website, dealt with whatever tasks regarding the company that had been on his agenda, researched and arranged for their first hunt and prepared a candle-lit dinner for her.
"Nigel…" It wasn't that she didn't appreciate all he had done, she most certainly did, but she wanted him to understand that he wasn't her assistant anymore. He was her partner. "I…Thank you for doing all of that…all of…" She gestured to the meal. "This, but I don't expect you to…" How did she word it without offending him? "You're not my assistant anymore. You can let Claudia or Karen do…most things."
He smiled at her. "I don't mind," he assured and took another bite of pasta. "We can both do whatever needs doing, now will you please eat before your food gets cold."
She stared at him only a moment longer, before setting the letter aside and picking up her fork. "I love you," she sighed and took her first bite of pasta. "And this is wonderful. Thank you."
Sydney pulled up to Foxbail Consulting and switched off her jeep. She sat for a moment, exhausted but elated to be home. It felt good coming home. Their hunt for the sword had been victorious, although it certainly hadn't been as cut and dried as they had hoped. It felt odd at first to charge her friend for their services, but Marealla seemed impressed that Sydney had her own company now. She also reminded Sydney that as the University was no longer paying her a finder's fee, she had to get money from somewhere.
It had taken them almost three full days to find the sword, based on the information and clues they had, and then they had to fend off several French zealots, part of a secret sect that still believed St. Joan was a witch and denied her canonization by the church.
It had been just like old times, both of them working towards a common goal and dispatching any trouble that came their way. She had been a little surprised that instead of letting her handle their attackers, Nigel had jumped into the fray and dealt with his fare share.
She'd been immensely proud of him, and, although loathe to admit it, extremely grateful. She wasn't as young as she used to be and despite her rule of keeping in shape, her reflexes weren't what they once were, and she felt the blows far more than she used to.
They'd managed to dispatch the trouble and found the sword. It had been a wondrous moment for both of them, and Sydney had felt a thrill when Marella handed over a check for their fee, and then the three of them presented the sword to the Musée Jean Moulin. The Museum promptly offered to set up a retainer for Foxbail Consulting, for any future finds.
Sydney turned her head and smiled at Nigel who was snoozing in the passenger seat. She reached a hand across and shook his shoulder. "Hey, baby. We're home."
Nigel's eyes fluttered open and he sat up, wearily. "Thank God. I think I'm going to sleep for a week."
Sydney stepped out of the jeep. "Well, at least for a few hours." She opened the back and retrieved her satchel and small suitcase; smiling when Nigel immediately took the case from her and reached in for his own. "We did good."
"Yes, we did." They headed up to the house and tried the door, surprised to find it locked. "It's Saturday," he reminded as Sydney pulled out her key.
"Is it really?" she asked as she pushed open the door and they stepped inside. "I've lost a day somewhere."
Nigel stopped at Karen's desk and set one of the bags down to pick up the mail from their in tray. "I've lost two." He paused as the sound of music and laughter caught his attention. "It is Saturday, right?"
Sydney nodded and moved towards the back of the house. "If Claudia is having another party I will strangle her."
Nigel smirked, tossed the mail back in the tray and hurried after her.
"I thought you were tired?" she teased as they entered the kitchen.
"Never too tired to see two birds fighting," he assured as he held open the back door for her. "Will there be Jello?"
She laughed and swiped at him playfully as the music grew even louder. They headed down the path and could see that the festivities were at the pool. She spotted Karen and Aaron in the pool and Claudia lounging by the side.
"Syd!" Claudia, in a barely there two piece yellow bikini waved cheerfully from her lounger. "You're back!" She jumped up and hurried over to hug Sydney and then turned to Nigel, who flushed bright red at having 105 lbs of a wriggling, curvaceous, half-naked bombshell pressed against him. "Honeybun! How was the hunt? Did you find the sword? Did you have any trouble? Are you hungry? We have steaks on!"
Sydney glanced past Claudia to the man standing at the patio grill in a tall white chef's hat. Aaron was in the water, so who was this? "Who?"
The person turned, showing off a red body apron that read 'License To Grill' and Sydney's jaw tightened before she could help it.
"Derek!" Nigel pried Claudia away and hurried across the deck to greet his friend. "You're here!"
"So it seems," Derek agreed, set down the utensil he had been using to turn the steaks, and picked Nigel off his feet in an enthusiastic bear hug.
Hearing Nigel's delighted laugher at seeing Derek warmed Sydney's heart and she felt the most of her resentment melt away. She had been aware that she would be seeing him again, after all they'd invited him here. It was the only way she could abide accepting the house, but she couldn't help herself, she was still angry with him. She did believe that Derek had done everything for Nigel, that he was a good friend to Nigel, so the onus would be on her to let go of her bitterness towards Derek.
Nigel grinned and clapped Derek on the shoulder. "You've accepted our offer then?"
"You made it seem impossible to refuse."
Nigel's smile broadened. "You took your bloody sweet time about it."
"I never do anything without weighing all the options." Derek turned his attention to Sydney as she approached. "And I need to know that the offer is acceptable to you both."
Nigel stepped back as Sydney reached them, and regarded her quietly. It had to be her decision and she needed to face up to it directly.
"Sydney, about before…at the wedding…" Derek had felt horrible for what he had said and felt the need to apologize; especially as he faced her. "I never…"
"It doesn't matter." Sydney shook her head, stepped in and put her arms around him. "Welcome home."
Derek had struggled with the decision to come here, and in the end he had been sure that Sydney would make the choice irrelevant. Despite their proposal, he could not believe she wanted him here, and so he wouldn't really have to make the decision.
However, once he arrived, seeing the cottage that they offered him and enjoying the companionship of Karen and Claudia, once they warmed up to him anyway, had been and eye opener. He couldn't remember the last time he had gone anywhere that he didn't have to concentrate on his mission or where he hadn't needed to use his skills of manipulation to get information.
Claudia made him laugh and Karen, always the perfect hostess, made him feel extremely welcome, offering to take him shopping for necessities, while her husband Aaron connected with Derek about his one secret pass time, soccer. After only a day among them, he felt more at home, more welcome and more relaxed than he could ever remember being.
He had just started to relax around them when Sydney and Nigel arrived and Derek was startled at how good it felt to see them, both of them. He had also felt a knot of anxiety curl inside his stomach at the initial look Sydney had cast him.
Slowly, he returned her embrace, but ended it quickly. "Are you sure?" he asked as he pulled back. "I won't stay unless you're sure, Syd."
She held his gaze and nodded. "I'm sure, Derek. You're a good friend, to both of us."
Derek's eyes closed and he released the breath he had not been aware he had been holding. "Okay then." He smiled and the charming agent returned. "So, how do you like your steak?"