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Verity's One of Us

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Verity’s One of Us
By
Dawnwind

The Cotswolds were generally beautiful with rolling green hills and grazing sheep. On any other day, Doyle would have been ecstatic to drive to a remote village in early June. Especially if he had a buxom bird in the passenger seat and a fortnight off to enjoy her pulchritude. As it was, rain was sheeting down and any bucolic sights of the countryside were hidden in gray mist. The sheep were huddled in sodden clumps of cotton wadding, and the only person sitting in the passenger seat was Bodie—who had ignored his partner for the better part of the drive from London.

“Twenty-three down, Arthur Conan---“ Bodie muttered to himself. He’d picked up a discarded newspaper on the way out of CI5 headquarters and had been doing the crossword —with a pen, no less—for miles. “Five letters with a Y in the centre.”

“Doyle,” Doyle responded, as he’d been expected to. He looked over at his partner, feeling a bit surly. Bodie’s tongue peeped out between his lips as he filled in the letters.

“Ta, mate,” Bodie said, flashing that devastating grin.

“There a Sherlock, Watson and Moriarity on that puzzle, as well?” Doyle asked, peering at a small signpost about two yards ahead. How was anyone supposed to read such small print in this weather?

“It’s the Times!” Bodie protested, rattling the paper. “This is posh and educational.”

“So why’re you doing it?”

“Superior mental acuity,” Bodie boasted, filling in another square or two. “Horse drawn vehicle with four wheels—cart.”

“Well, if your eyes are as good as your so-called superior mindpower, read that bloody sign.” Doyle would have driven closer but a cluster of dripping sheep had decided that it was time to cross to the other side of the road. He was in no mood for a quadruped variation on the old joke.

“Once the sheep have passed, dear boy,” Bodie said loftily. “Have a bit of patience.”

That was certainly in short supply. Doyle glared at Bodie, but got nothing except the reverse side of the paper and the headline: Fair Trading ruling on Int’l Money Laundering. He wasn’t interested in the least. Clenching his jaw, he stared out at the dreary road clogged with sheep. “What the hell reason could there be to meet Ruth Pettifer way out in the middle of nowhere?”

“Heard that Castle Cranley is a lovely village,” Bodie replied, crossing a T and dotting an I. “There, all done.” He glanced through the windscreen as the last of the sheep meandered past. “And the roadway is clear as well.”

“You consider this a lark,” Doyle muttered, inching the Capri past a deposit left by one of the cotton balls. “Now I can read the bloody thing myself.”

Castle Cranley car park, 0.5 yards ahead.

“Car park?” Bodie asked suspiciously, his nose practically touching the windscreen. “I don’t even see a village.”

“Just there,” Doyle said, pointing to the only thing visible beyond a small paved area containing maybe a dozen cars. The spire of a stone church rose out of the gloam like a lighthouse. Brilliant. As if the lashing gales hadn’t been enough, there was no motor vehicle access into Castle Cranley. He pulled the car into one of the marked spaces. To their left was a formidable looking metal gate bearing a sign: ‘Access granted to Castle Cranley Residents only’. A narrow track led down a slope into the village.

“Reckon no-one will believe we live here and let us drive in,” Bodie observed. “We’ll be soaked through to the smalls by the time we walk down that lane.” He didn’t look inclined to go out in the inclement weather.

Being of a perverse nature, Doyle was suddenly all for a walk in the rain. Humming the famous song that had featured Gene Kelly splashing in puddles with an umbrella, Doyle shoved open his car door, reaching for the brolly he kept stowed behind the seat. He opened the umbrella, ducking underneath to close the car door. Savage wind gusted suddenly, turning the umbrella inside out.

“Bloody hell!” Doyle grabbed frantically for the useless device, slipping in a puddle. He would have gone down on his knees in the mud if Bodie hadn’t dashed around the Capri and hooked a hand under his elbow.

“Up you go, my lad,” Bodie said encouragingly. “We’re both wet now.”

“Look at this thing!” Doyle snatched the umbrella off the bonnet of the car to their right, trying to invert the black fabric. “The spokes are broken.”

“Stretchers,“ Bodie said over his shoulder as he slogged toward the metal gate.

“What?” Doyle caught up with him, shivering from the water running down the back of his neck and under the collar of his tweed jacket. He ditched the umbrella in a rubbish bin.

“Those rods that hold the umbrella open are called stretchers,” Bodie explained. “Learned that from doing the crossword. As I said, educational.”

Scowling, Doyle peered down the lane. He had to push dripping curls out of his eyes to do so. There was something coming toward them. A horse—with a small cart behind.

“Oi!” Bodie called out, waving. “Give us a ride?”

“Aye.” A man with a wide brimmed hat pulled down low stopped the shaggy pony just short of the gate. “Tha’s wha’ I’m here for. Get in.”

“Has Castle Cranley always been…” Doyle bit off inhospitable to strangers and inserted “So accommodating to visitors? With the car park and taxi service?” He glanced at Bodie who rolled his eyes with a smirk.

“Michael O’Shea. Pleased to make yer acquaintance. I’m from Killarney, Ireland, originally,” the man started in conversationally without giving them any instruction on how to get around or over the metal gate. “Been driving a jaunting car—“ He ruffled his pony’s wet mane. “Since I was a wee lad, long b’fore I married my English rose, Margaret, so when Castle Cranley Parish Council voted to restrict traffic access here, I was the one to…”

Bodie had discovered a small pedestrian turnstile on the left side of the gate and beckoned Doyle around. They clambered into the unstable pony cart while O’Shea continued his mini history lesson. Bodie perched on the narrow wooden ledge against the right side of the cart, leaving the left side for Doyle The cart was tiny enough that their knees bumped. Water sloshed in the well between them, drenching their trouser legs bottoms and shoes. Doyle’s socks were already wet and his toes were cold.

“This is my third pony, Robin. He were born in the winter, a wee brown mite like the birdies on Christmas cards…” O’Shea continued, giving the reins a flick. The pony began plodding along, turning the cart carefully back onto the lane for the return trek.

Doyle got the feeling that Robin could have made the short journey on his own, without any guidance from O’Shea. In sunshine, with a lovely companion by his side, Doyle would have rhapsodised about the countryside and the colourful local characters. Instead, he scowled in irritation at Bodie’s beatific smile.

“Mr O’Shea, would you know a Ruth Pettifer, by any chance?” Bodie asked cheerfully. “We’re friends, down from London for a day trip.”

“Our Ruthie?” he declared with delight, turning on his bench seat to give them an amiable grin, blue eyes bright. He seemed oblivious to the incessant rain. “’Course I do. Her family’s from way back in Castle Cranley. She moved here a year past, I’d say? Just when her mother, Maisie, took ill and died. She’s living in the home tha’ been in the Pettifer family for generations.”

Doyle had the decency to give Bodie a grateful nod. They were wet through, as predicted, but had gleaned important information from the chatty old gent. “Ray Doyle,” he introduced himself belatedly. “And this one’s Bodie.”

“She’s been popular t’day, our Ruthie. Usually works hiring out holiday cottages at the tourist information centre,” O’Shea continued, clucking his tongue at Robin. “But she’s had two visitors to her house in the last hour.”

“Did you drive them up, as well?” Bodie asked urgently, sitting up straighter.

“Nah, they were couple of foreign, stiff-necked berks, yelling their heads off, demanding to be let through the gate. I ignored ‘em ‘til they legged it over from the car park on their own. Got quite a soaking.” He flashed an impish grin.

Was that significant or simply a coincidence? A former CI5 agent, on a sabbatical for nearly two years, suddenly resurfaces—at least Doyle hadn’t heard about her in ages—and they were assigned to meet with her, specifically. Could there be something sinister going on?

Robin stopped the cart in a quaint town square featuring a strange lumpy stone monument in the middle with a slate roofed gazebo-like building alongside. Old-world stone buildings formed the four sides of the square, some of them ancient enough to have been around when the Magna Carta was signed.

“That’s the buttercross.” O’Shea pointed to the strange stone which looked like a mill wheel slotted down into an antique horse watering trough. “As old as the village church, and that’s back to the thirteenth century. And that be the tourist centre.” He indicated a stone building sandwiched between two other almost identical ones.

“Which house is Ruthie’s?” Doyle asked.

Robin shook his dripping mane and stomped one hoof on the rain-filled cobbles. “He’ll be wanting his reward for going out in the damp,” O’Shea said with a ready grin. “Pettifer Hall, a grand name for a regular sized house, be down Park Lane. Can’t miss it. Big crest over th’door. With hands raised up like that.” He put his hand up, palm forward, fingers stiff and straight. “Haven’t a clue what that’s in reference to.” He shrugged. “Give us a ring if you need a ride back to your car.”

He rattled off a series of numbers so quickly Doyle only caught half of them, especially since he had no paper or pencil to jot them down. Leading Robin away, O’Shea walked across the road to a small thatched roofed cottage with a barn behind. A tiny sign posted on the fence enclosing his vegetable garden advertised his jaunting car service. The phone number underneath was written so minute that Doyle would have needed a magnifying glass to read it.

“Why does everyone in this village put the pertinent notices in fine print?” he asked gloomily. The rain was bucketing down even heavier than when they were in the car park, the wind whipping ‘round the village church like spirits rising from the medieval cemetery.

“This way,” Bodie muttered, tugging his tan coat closer around his polo neck. “What do you think of O’Shea’s description of Ruth’s earlier visitors?”

“Don’t like it, for no particular reason,” Doyle replied. “We’ve no idea why George sent us here in the first place. She’s been out of the squad for ages…” He tried to recall when he’d seen her last. Had to be before he was shot in 1980, because he’d been out of commission for quite a while after that. No doubt why he hadn’t realised how long she had been gone.

Then it hit him and he stopped, directly under a drain spout. A torrent of water from the broken guttering of one house poured down on him, icy cold. He hadn’t thought he could get any more wet and miserable than he already was. He’d been wrong. “Fuck!” he said explosively.

“What are you doing?” Bodie asked, regarding him as if he was mad. “Move it. We can get out of the rain at Ruth’s house. It’s just there, ‘round the bend.”

“B-bodie,” Doyle shivered, hunching his shoulders against the monotonous wet. His tweed jacket and white shirt were soaked through. “When was the last time you saw her?”

Bodie stopped but he had the good sense to do so under the overhang from a slanted roof. “Back in…” His brow furrowed as he thought it out and then a dawning revelation changed his whole expression. “Guy Fawkes, was it? Bonfire night, don’t you remember?” He chuckled, doing the old Monty Python routine. “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”

Memories of that night blossomed bright enough to take Doyle’s breath away and he had to force himself to walk the half dozen steps toward Pettifer Hall. He and Bodie had persuaded Ruth and one of the CI5 clerks back to his flat. He’d put Brahms on the record player. They’d danced: he with—what was her name? Jane? And Bodie with Ruth. They’d switched partners, kissing soft, perfumed necks, unhooking bras… He had no idea when Jane had disappeared but later, it had been him, Bodie and Ruth, limbs intertwined on the bed, stroking and nuzzling whichever body part was closest…

“Doyle!”

Bodie’s voice shattered his reverie and he peered through the pouring rain to see that the door of Pettifer Hall was ajar, rain gathering on the parquet flooring. Doyle inhaled, swift and hard, focusing on the situation. “O’Shea said that the other two visitors came through in the last hour. Do you think…”

His gun drawn, Bodie crept into the house, leaving Doyle as back up. He visually swept the street, looking for anything out of place. A woman was framed in the window of the house across the lane, holding a baby in her arms. She was the only person Doyle saw, and her face was distorted by the steamy, wet, mullioned glass panes. He turned and advanced into the house, listening for Bodie.

Puddles led a path down the passageway —too many to be just Bodie’s wet footprints. There were obvious signs of a struggle: chairs overturned in the lounge, a smashed tea cup, brownish liquid seeping into a braided rug, and a ripped jumper in the hallway leading to the back of the house. He took one step into the modernised kitchen and saw Bodie bending over a body behind the kitchen table. Just beyond him, the back door was open, rain pouring in. Must have been how the assailants had left.

“Hey?” Doyle hailed quietly, dripping on the flooring.

“No-one’s about, but check upstairs anyway,” Bodie replied.

A lamp hanging from the ceiling above the table left most of Ruth in shadow, but Doyle could see her long blonde hair spread out across the floor.

“She’s breathing,” Bodie added. “I’ll find the telephone.”

Halfway up the stairs, the lights sputtered once, then brightened, only to go out completely a moment later. Putting out a hand on the inky stairwell, Doyle mounted the rest of the steps very carefully, alert for danger. Clutching his gun, he ran his fingers along the roughly plastered wall. There were two small rooms upstairs; one clearly Ruth’s. From the illumination from the windows, he could make out a bed with a blue or possibly gray duvet. The other room was shrouded in darkness. It would be the height of impetuousness to charge in blind there—and Bodie needed him below. He didn’t hear signs of another person, and concluded that no-one was inside.

Doyle hurried down to the kitchen to find Bodie had draped a thick woollen blanket over Ruth. Her face was ivory pale in the gloom.

“No service.” Still kneeling next to Ruth, Bodie pointed an accusatory finger at an old fashioned telephone tucked into a small alcove which had been hidden when the back door was open. Doyle had last seen that model of phone when he was in his teens.

“Does that thing even work anymore?” Ignoring his wet clothing sticking to his body and the squishing moisture of his shoes, Doyle searched the room for clues.

“No way to tell,” Bodie ground out. “Power’s shut off. We need to get Ruth to hospital. She’s unresponsive, got a goose egg on the side of her head.”

“There’s a woman lives across the way…” His body still zinging with unused adrenalin, Doyle nearly jumped as a voice called out from the front of the house.

A bright beam of light from a torch preceded a woman with a shawl wrapped around her head and upper body. “You are RaymondBodieDoyle?” she asked in a thick accent, jamming both their names together into one single word. “I haf seen pictures…” She pushed the wet shawl back from her forehead, eyeing them suspiciously, although she nodded. She was older, with a permanent scowl and an Eastern European complexion. Almost black hair and eyes, thick eyebrows.

“Did you see two men come into Miss Pettifer’s home?” Bodie asked formally, standing up.

“I am only—how to say? Minder, I cannot…” She trailed off as if unable to retrieve the word in English and shoved a bundle at Doyle. “I cannot ‘sociate with such violenz!”

“We need a telephone, to call an ambulance.” Doyle grunted with the sudden weight in his arms, still focused on the startling woman.

“Dr Brazelton live two houses on,” she concluded, clutching at the trailing shawl and crossing her now empty arms. “He haz automobile. I late, haf my real job!”

“Hang about! What’s your name?” Bodie grabbed her arm. “What did the men look like? Do you know which way they went?”

The bundle Doyle clutched moved, and he unwound a damp pink and blue blanket from the squirming form. A round head peeked out, with wide blue eyes and an even wider pink mouth. The baby let out a wail of distress.

~*~

“She waiting for you—say, Klari, take baby ‘til after men come,” the woman proclaimed. “She tell me trust RaymondBodieDoyle.”

Bodie snorted at the combined name, the word ‘baby’ overlaid with the sound of crying. He swivelled enough to see Doyle staring down into the face of a very angry infant. Doyle looked like he was about to drop the baby and bolt for the door.
“We,” Bodie waved a hand between the two of them, settling his fingers on Doyle’s arm to steady his partner, “are Bodie and Doyle, and you can most certainly trust us.”

“I seen your pictures, when I care for baby,” Klari declared, taking a step farther back to separate herself from involvement. “Firs’ men bad.” She clicked her tongue, flicking her fingers as if warding off evil. “I know they hurt Ruthie, I keep baby safe. One tall, like you.” She pointed to Bodie. “Not British, maybe Russian, who can tell? Th’other German. I haf German language. He cursing, saying he not find information.” She looped the shawl up over her head again, scurrying back into the foyer. “I tell Dr Brazelton to come. I go my real job.”

“Where did the baby come from?” Doyle called out to her. There was no reply except for the baby’s screams.

“D’you think it’s hers?” Bodie asked, quite disconcerted.

“That old woman’s?” Doyle bounced the squalling bundle on his shoulder, looking around wildly. He finally bent down to open the squat refrigerator.

As much as he wanted to admire Doyle’s impressive dexterity: juggling the baby and getting out a chilled infant bottle of milk, Bodie tried to stay on task. “No, Ruth’s.”

Doyle’s eyes went so wide that Bodie could see the whites around his green-blue irises for a moment. “How could that be? She’s not married.”

“Ah, the innocent amongst us,” Bodie said pretentiously, using humour to steady his nerves. “There are ways, you know.”

“Not what I mean, is it?” Doyle snapped, clearly not in the mood for teasing. “Do us a favour? Heat up a pan of water to warm the baby’s bottle.” He winced when the baby gave another shriek that should have woken the dead.

Glad of something to do instead of worrying about Ruth and what the bloody hell was going on, Bodie hurried to the cooker and turned on the gas. Thank goodness for small miracles; they could have heat despite no electricity. Now that he thought about it, he was frozen through and even his underwear was sopping. “I’ll make us a cup of tea whilst we wait for the doctor.” He filled the kettle and a pan, watching Doyle unwrap the baby beside the warmth of the stove. Had to be a girl baby; she had two tiny black onyx earrings in her pink ears. “It’s a girl, then?” he asked, belatedly realising how idiotic that sounded.

“Berk,” Doyle chided gently, unsnapping the legs of her green striped baby grow. Now being attended to, the baby had stopped screaming. She whimpered, giving little hiccupy sobs once in a while. “She’s soaked.”

“So are you.” Truth be told, Doyle looked like some waif from a Dickens novel, his curls in limp corkscrews plastered against his forehead, rainwater dripping intermittently down his cheeks. Bodie had to squelch the oddest urge to fetch a towel and rub Doyle down until his skin glowed.

“Her nappy.” Doyle waved a hand as if to encompass the rest of the house. “Must be more supplies, if Ruth is her mum. There’s a second bedroom upstairs, in the back. I couldn’t see a blessed thing in the dark.” Thunder punctuated the end of his sentence.

“We’ll need a torch,” Bodie mused, glancing over at Ruth. Lightning briefly brightened the room; he could see her pallor clearly. She hadn’t moved, and he was getting more worried by the minute. Unconsciousness of any length meant a severe head injury; that he knew. He hadn’t seen much blood except for a small wound on her temple, but there could be internal damage, or worse. They had no way to reach headquarters, a slog in the rain back to the Capri unless they rounded up O’Shea’s jaunting car, and no clear idea of who or why Ruth had been assaulted. Then there was the baby.

Doyle was cooing nonsense at the little girl and her snuffles had segued into giggling, a delightfully giddy sound Bodie wasn’t used to. It alleviated the tense atmosphere to sublime, if even just for a moment. He hadn’t spent much time with babies; he’d been an only child raised by his nan. Not much opportunity to care for little ones. Doyle, on the other hand, now that his initial shock had subsided, seemed a natural.

Spying a candle, Bodie lit it from the gas ring. The tiny flame shone bravely in the dark, providing a cheery glow. Checking cupboards and closets for supplies, Bodie was loath to leave the warmth of the kitchen for the dark unknown of the rest of the house. He hit pay-dirt on a small door not far from where Ruth was laid out. Disposable nappies and jars of baby food were neatly lined on white wooden shelves, alongside jars of preserves and other home-canned food. He grabbed what Doyle needed and got back to the cooker just in time to rescue the pan from boiling over. Doyle exchanged the bottle for the nappy.

“How’d you learn to do that?” Bodie asked, setting the bottle in the water to warm before going through a few more cupboards in search of tea and sugar. Found the necessary components and an assortment of mugs. Outside, rain splattered the window panes.

“Me sisters were always watching the neighbour’s little ones,” Doyle replied absently, refastening the baby grow after the nappy change. He snagged the bottle and popped it into her round pink mouth. Her bluish eyes went wide with interest and then, after a few sucks, closed with pleasure. “I was often conscripted as an unwilling helper, accompanied by threats of violence if I didn’t comply.”

Bodie almost chuckled, imagining young Raymond sassed by his older sisters. “Never realised what a well rounded gent you were.” Tea made, he swallowed a few mouthfuls, musing on what they had to deal with. The heat from the cooker was making his backside delightfully warm and Doyle’s wet clothes steam. Contented sounds came from the baby nursing on her bottle. “If this doctor doesn’t arrive soon, I’ll go out in search of him.”

Doyle hefted the baby girl on his shoulder and she burped obligingly, as if on cue. “Why do you think Ruth was so concerned that she sent her daughter to the neighbour? And what exactly were we meant to find here?” He gazed at the baby’s face. “What did your mum have her fingers in?”

“And where did the German and the presumed Russian go?” Bodie asked. “Cowley said we were to collect some important information from her, but I’d assumed it would be—“

“Documents?” Doyle suggested. The baby gave a happy sigh, snuggling against her Uncle Raymond. “Possibly a recording or something of that sort, but damned Cowley and his insistence on secrecy. We’re up a river—nearly literally—without a paddle.”

“This isn’t a very big town, and they tossed some of the house, but not every room?” Bodie glanced upwards, sure that Doyle would correct him if he was incorrect. Doyle nodded, tucking the baby into his lap so that his hands were free. “So Ruth must have convinced them that either she didn’t have the info or she’d hidden it elsewhere.”

Doyle sucked in his bottom lip speculatively and raked the drying curls across his forehead. “Which means, that once they do not find the item they are looking for, they’ll come back here for a second reconnoitre?” he guessed.

Just as he’d surmised. Bodie gazed at the darkened hallway and then back at Ruth. The blood on her temple had dried to a crusty patch. She wasn’t actively bleeding, but that hadn’t altered her well-being. “I’ve had a thought.”

His lips crinkling in amusement, Doyle nodded gravely. “Don’t strain something.”

“No more than usual,” Bodie retorted, crossing his arms. He was still quite wet, but less so than earlier. Would that either of them had brought a change of clothes. “We don’t know what this Dr Brazelton looks like. How’re we to know he isn’t one of the assailants?”

Glancing over at Ruth, Doyle was thoughtful. “This would be a good time to chime in, Miss Pettifer,” he called out softly, patting the baby’s bum. “I s’ppose a German or Russia accent would give him away instantly. Possibly our baby girl’s name?” he suggested, stroking her hair.

“One hopes Ruth didn’t mention it to her attackers during her thrashing,” Bodie said with an affected upper class accent. Thunder and lightning boomed and flashed at almost the same moment, proving the storm was directly over Castle Cranley. If he hadn’t been straining his ears for any aberrant sounds, Bodie would never have heard the knock at the front door. “This could be him now.”

“Steady on,” Doyle said, rising and shifting the baby into the crook of his right arm so he could have a gun hand free.

Bodie had always been impressed with Doyle’s ambidexterity. He put a hand on the butt of his own pistol holstered under his arm to reassure himself that it was there and walked down the hall. Opening the door a crack, he had to look down to see a small man wearing a rain slicker with an enormous yellow hat. “Dr Brazelton?”

“Which are you, Bodie or Doyle?” The man pushed in with a brusque but friendly manner, shedding his dripping hat. He was a leprechaun come to life: fiery red hair, a shaggy moustache to match and the craggy face of an Irishman who’d lived his life chuckling at his own jokes. “Ian Brazelton. Klari Deukmejian called round to say Ruthie’d been injured?”

“Bodie,” he replied, sticking out a hand. He was usually a good judge of character and there was no way in hell that this man had assaulted Ruth Pettifer. “We’ve been here the better part of an hour and she’s not stirred since then. You have a car to take her to hospital?”

Brazelton shook Bodie’s hand in passing, already halfway down the hall. He’d been protecting his medical bag under his mac and had whipped out a stethoscope before he knelt down beside the patient. “Ruthie?”

“You old softie, really grilled him,” Doyle said out of the side of his mouth as Bodie followed in the doctor’s wake.

Lighting another candle for the doctor’s benefit, Bodie watched as his partner discovered a playpen in a small dark alcove off the kitchen. Doyle carefully placed the baby down on the soft surface, covering her with a blanket.

“She’s had a severe blow to the head.” Brazelton frowned, stroking Ruth’s pale cheek. “I felt the fracture in her skull. There’s danger of a haemorrhage on the brain which would be dire indeed.” He shook his head. “I’ll nip down the road to get the transfer begun and be back in two ticks.” He looked up at Bodie, clearly accustomed to issuing orders with junior doctors hopping to comply. “My son will drive the ambulance into Chippenham Community Hospital, but I can’t bring Verity. You’ll have to watch her whilst her mother is in—“

“Verity?” Doyle repeated.

Overlapping Doyle, Bodie protested, “We can’t watch a baby. We’ve got—“

“Where is she?” Brazelton asked, looking around.

“In her cot,” Doyle supplied, pointing. “Exactly how old is she?”

“I presumed you were friends of Ruth’s?” His manner had suddenly gone hard and protective. He stepped in front of the prostrate woman, crossing his arms over his bright yellow outer wear.

“We’ve been out of touch, clearly since—“ Bodie was generally good at thinking on his feet, but he felt completely out of the loop here. Even her name had gone from his brain, albeit he’d only known it for a minute. “Since the baby—“

“Verity,” Doyle added helpfully, eyeing him with a combination of superiority and amusement that rankled.

“Verity’s birth,” Bodie went on. “Doyle here was injured in late November, 1980, about the same time that Ruth took a sabbatical, assumedly because her mother—“

“Yes, yes,” Brazelton said, relaxing with a shake of his head. He packed his stethoscope into his bag. “Verity’s ten months old. I knew that Ruthie was with CI5, but her mother’s health, combined with an apparently unexpected pregnancy, forestalled her plans and she came back to be amongst family and friends.”

“I hate to be blunt, but when she asked us down for the day, the call came out of the blue,” Bodie fished for as much gossip as he could from the old man. “A husband…?”

“I never met one.” Brazelton hurried toward the door. “You’ve done a brilliant job of keeping her warm, I’ll take it from here. Colum will bring the ambulance ‘round shortly.”

“Any chance we can get a ride out to…?” Doyle petered off when the door shut behind the little man. “Apparently we won’t be catching a ride to the car park from him.”

“I suspect that the ambulance will be full,” Bodie answered, looking around, searching for answers. What the bloody hell had Ruth wanted to give them? Why had there been no mention of her daughter? Why hadn’t Cowley warned them?

Thunder and lightning hit almost simultaneously, lighting up the house like fireworks. Verity cried out in sudden terror, turning on the waterworks. Bodie bent to pick her up, seeing her wide eyes closely for the first time. As with some babies, the colour was halfway between one thing and another, blue one moment, an oddly familiar green the next. A vice seized him around the chest. He’d last seen Ruth November fifth, Guy Fawkes night. Fireworks around the bonfire and then minor explosions of a very different sort later: he, Ruth, Doyle and some bird he couldn’t recall.

“She all right?” Doyle asked, reaching for the baby Bodie had never picked up.

“What?” Bodie looked straight into Doyle’s cat-like green eyes and nearly choked. “Ray, when we—“

“Oi!” a voice called from the front door. “I’m Colum Brazelton, come to collect Ruthie?”

There was no doubt that he was his father’s son, the resemblance was uncanny, the leprechaun’s face twenty years younger.

“She’s right over there,” Doyle answered, hoisting Verity onto his hip.

She’d quieted but when Colum brought the gurney around beside Ruth, Verity shrieked in fear and set up a siren-like scream. “Mamamamama!”

“Let me help,” Bodie offered, too disconcerted, not to mention deafened, to sort out his feelings. He and Doyle needed to talk, and soon, but now was not the right time.

~*~

“Your mum’s going to be all right,” Doyle murmured, patting Verity on the back. She hiccupped sobs, collapsed against his shoulder like a warm limpet. It occurred to him that he was still far from dry, which was getting her wetter, so he pulled the baby blanket out of the playpen to insert between her body and his shoulder. Swirling it about her, he watched Bodie and Colum tuck Ruth onto the gurney and push it out to the door.

With all the commotion in the foyer, Doyle moved to the window to stay out of the way. Despite the heavy downpour, a group of locals had gathered to view the transfer.

“Excellent.” Dr Brazelton appeared from around the end of a smallish ambulance parked in front of the house. “Since the phone lines are down, I’ve contacted Chippenham Hospital by the CB radio and they are expecting us.”

“We can get in touch with you there?” Bodie asked, sounding surprisingly desperate.

“Look, my beauty,” Doyle murmured, holding Verity up to a small pane in the mullioned window. “You mum will be right as rain…” He chuckled slightly at his unconscious choice of words.

Verity sucked her right thumb, tracing the track of a raindrop down the glass with her chubby little fingers. She babbled around the thumb, keeping up a baby-talk commentary on the proceedings.

“A lefty, are you?” Doyle noticed, dropping a kiss on her warm temple. He kept his eye on Bodie, surprised to realise he was admiring the way the wet fabric of Bodie’s trousers moulded to his arse. Tearing himself away from that alluring sight, he scanned the group of townspeople helping Colum and Bodie close the ambulance doors under Brazelton’s direction.

Most who’d braved the wet seemed to be people Doyle saw in every town and hamlet in rural England. Green padded jackets and wellies abounded, with the occasional well worn Macintosh jacket or hand knit jumper. Two men stood out—one so blond and square chinned that he could have been cast as a Nazi storm trooper in a World War Two film. The other was even taller, with the high cheekbones and slightly tilted eyes—somewhat like Doyle’s own—that signalled Slavic origins.

Klari had said, “Not British, maybe Russian, who can tell? Th’other German.” Both men were drenched, their suit jackets completely inappropriate for the weather. The German seemed less than interested in the medical emergency and far more curious about whether there was anyone in Klari Deukmejian’s house. He was surreptitiously peering in through the front window.

Catching his breath, Doyle wanted to call out to his partner, but held his tongue. No sense in letting the opposition know they’d been spotted. With the ambulance and the clutch of Pettifer friends clustered around Ruth, it was possible that the enemy had not seen Bodie, nor the other way around.

“We’d be best to go out the back, Verity,” Doyle said. “As soon as Uncle Bodie returns.”

She turned to look at him with a wary expression but nodded sagely.

It was strangely soothing to talk to the baby. He shifted slightly behind the drapes on the side of the windows to avoid being seen. If the German and Russian had identified Bodie as their opposite, they might not be aware that he had a partner.

Once the ambulance roared to life, the people moved back on either side of the narrow street to let the vehicle pass, which put the German and Russian as far away from Bodie as possible. Doyle wanted to keep it that way. He walked to one side of the still open door. “Oi, mate.” Through the heavy shower, he could see the enemy knocking on Klari’s door.

Bodie turned, wiping rain off his wet face, which did little good and ducked back into the house. “Think we should wait…”

“We’re on the move like yesterday.” Holding Verity close, Doyle went quickly into the kitchen, mentally starting a list of what they’d need to keep her safe whilst on the lam. He knew Bodie would follow. “I spied a blue and pink striped satchel in the cabinet there by the cot,” he called over his shoulder. “That, I suspect, is her baby bag. We’ll need nappies, a tin of formula and a blanket, at the very least. The two men Klari described are breaking into her house right this minute.” He described them rapidly, grabbing the formula from the cupboard.

Catching the sense of urgency, Verity was solemn and watchful, sucking her thumb, her tiny fingers clutching at Doyle’s collar. He could feel the tiny hardness of the onyx earring in her right ear pressing against his neck.

Bodie didn’t need any prompting. He found the bag and stuffed the other necessary supplies inside. “They were watching Brazelton ferry Ruth off in the ambulance?” he asked, snuffing out the candle on the table.

“So they know she’s alive and we still don’t know what they came after,” Doyle finished for him, wishing they had a pram for the baby. Although it would make carting her around easier, it would also create tyre marks, which could be tracked. They needed to be somewhere quiet, wait out the storm, where few would know where they were. Ruth’s house was not at all safe.

~*~

“Where to, MacDuff?” Bodie asked, hefting the baby bag. He felt like he knew even less of what was going on that he did previously. Getting away from the men who had attacked Ruth was undoubtedly a good idea. However, searching her home for clues might have given them some substantial understanding of what the bloody hell they were doing out here in this rain soaked back of beyond. “No car, not a single mode of vehicular transport that was built in the late twentieth century…”

“Exactly!” Doyle said grimly, tucking a blanket around Verity’s head.

She clearly wanted none of that and batted it off, chuckling at the rain pouring down. “Mama?”

“Yes, that’s what this is all in aid of,” Bodie replied. “Your Uncle Ray has plans?” He left the question mark on the end in hopes of any specific answers.

Doyle led the way along the alley behind the houses. There were rubbish bins and skips in their way. A surly cat, his fur dotted with raindrops, hissed as Bodie passed. They emerged onto the small cobblestoned square with the church on the left. Doyle pointed to the stable down at the end of the lane that connected to the main rutted road to the car park. “Anyone for a ride in a jaunting car?”

“Our man O’Shea taking the reins?” Bodie glanced around the village, sighting toward the turning to Park Lane. Not a soul on the street. Good, stay that way for the immediate future.

“I was more in mind of appropriating Robin and his little cart for Queen and country,” Doyle tossed over his shoulder. “Give Verity a nice ride out of town, and Robin can pick his way home on his own.”

“As long as you explain this to Father after it’s all over,” Bodie groused. Thunder rolled over the countryside, the old gods playing at lawn bowling, as his Gran used to say.

He was following Doyle around back of O’Shea’s cottage when he saw a drenched blond man in what had once been a stylish pin-striped suit step up to the buttercross. He gestured at someone Bodie couldn’t quite make out through the rain, but the gun in the blond’s hand shimmered as the sky brightened with dramatic streaks of lightning. “Bugger,” Bodie muttered, ducking into the pony’s shed.

Doyle had tucked Verity into the back of the jaunting car and was in the process of hooking the bridle over the placid Robin’s nose.

“We’d best be on our way sharpish,” Bodie announced.

“You see the German and the Russian?” Doyle asked, buckling reins into place.

Doyle had unexpected talents. Bodie would have never pegged him as a horseman. Oh, he’d seen Doyle astride, once, but the complicated leather and buckles attaching a pony to a cart were another thing entirely. Bodie helped push the cart into place, holding the shafts while Doyle buckled and hitched. Bodie wished he could spare a moment or two to gaze at the sodden mass of curls, the long neck and even longer back, impossibly narrow waist and… Ahem. This wasn’t at all germane to the subject at hand.

“I doubt the bloke was a tourist interested in the history of the buttercross or the thirteenth century church,” Bodie commented lightly to get his mind off other things. “Can’t go out onto the main thoroughfare, either.”

“Out the back, then.” Doyle was breathing fast when he got the last of the tack in place. He hurried over to open the back doors of the shed. As if in afterthought, he grabbed a drawing pin out of a corkboard bristling with announcements for local businesses and pinned a fiver to the board next to an advert for holiday cottages. “For hiring the car.”

“A sturdy beast like you doesn’t mind a little rain, that‘s right, innit, Robin?” Bodie gave the pony an affectionate pat and led him out into the torrential rain.

Thunder boomed and Verity cried out with fright.

“Ah, my darling, none of that now.” Doyle clambered into the back, tucking the baby under his arm. “We’re silent as lambs, we are.”

She plugged her lips with a thumb, scowling, brows low over her greenish-blue eyes.

Robin shook his mane as mother nature’s electrical show split the sky, but he began to plod south out of Castle Cranley onto rolling hills. Bodie leapt awkwardly into the driving seat. Luckily, they were going slowly enough that he didn’t look like a complete berk—at least he hoped not. He gathered up the reins and glanced over his shoulder. “Anyone on our heels?”

Doyle scanned the village and shook his head. “This is not going to win us any sort of speed trials,” he said quietly. “On the other hand, Heinrich and Vlad are legging it to the car park.” He pointed to the right.

Bodie could just make out two figures hunched over in the rain, rushing down the lane out of Castle Cranley. He wasn’t paying much attention to Robin, but the pony seemed to know the route—and how to pull a cart, which was more than Bodie did. “Reckon they’re headed to the hospital?”

“If they have a lick of sense.” Doyle bounced the drowsy baby against his shoulder. “Unfortunately they seem to have been half a step ahead of us all day, and we still haven’t got any clue what Ruth had that was so bloody important.”

“The more pertinent question,” Bodie said, peering ahead at the drenched Wiltshire landscape. “Is where the hell we are going in not much of a hurry.”

“Every step south is a step closer to Chippenham,” Doyle answered philosophically. “And Ruth.”

“Just call you the Dalai Lama of CI5,” Bodie snorted, snapping the reins on Robin’s back. They drove along in silence for ten minutes or so, and in that time, the rain slackened off to a light drizzle. Peering to the west, Bodie saw a determined sun swim out of a cloud, spreading bright rays to create a dazzling rainbow that arched over the waterlogged countryside.

“Well, if that isn’t some kind of sign, I don’t know what is,” Doyle said, sounding decidedly happier. “I looked at a map before we drove to Castle Cranley. The next hamlet over is called Meacock.”

“Mea-what?” Bodie couldn’t help himself, in the midst of such high drama, the name was too funny.

“Get your mind out of the gutter,” Doyle admonished. “Think of the child! Meacock is a perfectly--” He broke off with a muffled chuckle and took a deep breath. “With any luck, they’ll have power.”

“With any luck, they’ll have food.” His belly rumbling, Bodie sighted down the arc of the rainbow: the roof of what had to be gray stone building just beyond the slope of a hill. As long as it wasn’t an imposing but picturesque ruin, their luck was improving.

~*~

Shaking water from his mane, Robin trotted off the grasslands onto a paved road that was all potholes and ruts. Up ahead, Doyle could see a huge stone wall surrounding what was undoubtedly an historic building—possibly one that gave tours. A place like that would surely have a telephone. Robin eagerly quickened his steps—Bodie didn’t have to use the reins to guide the pony at all.

With an impatient whinny, Robin stopped the jaunting car directly in front of a huge iron gate and stomped his hoof. As if that was a prearranged signal, a figure dressed entirely in black swept out from behind a wooden door set in the side of a gothic stone façade and crossed the wet courtyard toward the locked gate.

Doyle climbed out of the cart and tucked sleeping Verity into his jacket, although how much good that would do was negligible. They were both wet to the skin. He watched the black skirts of the approaching figure with a sinking heart. Nuns always left him feeling poorly brought up and chock full of sin, the result of spotty attendance in Catholic run primary schools. He hadn’t seen a sign, but there was an ornate cross on the chapel-like structure on one end of the gray stone building. By all appearances, this was a church, quite possibly convent.

“Any port in a storm, eh?” Bodie said bravely, with a wild look at Doyle.

“Convince her you’re sincere,” Doyle urged. “And the baby needs a dry place to sleep.”

Peering through the wrought iron, the nun glanced between Robin and the bedraggled men, her eyebrows rising up to the band of starched white on her forehead. She wore a traditional habit with a tight white wimple around her head, a black veil trailing to her shoulders and a long, plain, black gown accented only by a belt around her waist looped with a rosary. For all the old fashioned garb, her face was unlined; she couldn’t be out of her twenties, by Doyle’s estimation. She had bright blue eyes and the complexion of a blonde; her light-coloured eyebrows just confirming his hypothesis.

“Robin I know,” she said. “Who might you be and where is Mr O’Shea?”

“We borrowed Robin and the cart,” Bodie said with the grin usually reserved for birds with low cut blouses in pubs.

Doyle groaned inwardly. Whilst that grin had enthralled him on more than one occasion, it was generally only marginally successful on girls hanging out in bars. It certainly did nothing for a nun wearing the full armour of the church.

“For the sake of the baby.” Doyle pulled his jacket aside. Verity peeked out with a two-toothed smile designed to melt the bleakest of hearts. “Her mother’s in danger and we’ve need of a telephone, Sister--?”

“Mary Esther,” she said briskly, smiling at Verity. “Robin, it’s back home for you.”

There was a distinct North country accent. Mary Esther took out an old key that was nearly six inches long to open the gate. It swung inward without a single creak. She pulled half an apple from a hidden pocket in her tunic to feed the pony, ruffling his dripping forelock. “You’ve come from Castle Cranley, then?”

“Exactly. There’s no power there and her mother’s been taken to hospital.” Bodie tied off the reins so that they didn’t flop onto the ground. The intelligent pony turned the cart around smartly and immediately headed back the way he’d come.

“He’s a corker, that one,” Mary Esther commented. “Comes over on his own twice a week on average, although generally without the cart.” She eyed the three of them critically. “You’d best come in and dry off, then explain yourselves. We’ve no power due to the storm but there’s a fire in the hearth and some soup ready.”

She held open the gate, ushering Bodie through.

Before entering, Doyle glanced back down the main road and in every direction he could see. No cars to be seen but then, he and Bodie didn’t actually know what Vlad and Heinrich were driving. There had been approximately six or seven vehicles in the Castle Cranley car park and from what he could recall—he hadn’t been paying much attention—all had been British and American cars. Maybe a Renault or Fiat in the bunch—but nothing that had shouted “enemy agent’s car.” It would have helped tremendously if Germans and Russians would drive German or Russian cars.

“Ba?” Verity inquired, peeping at him, her black earrings vivid in contrast to her pale skin and fawn coloured hair.

“Yes, my beauty, bad—and we haven’t a farthing’s notion why.” He sighed, mentally searching for any clue in what Cowley had told them that morning.

“You’ll remember Miss Pettifer, I’m sure. She’s been collecting some important information which could prove vital. I’ve got a meeting with the office of Fair Trading that will take the better part of the day…”

Doyle’s main response to the assignment was glee at a day in the countryside and the less than charitable thought of ‘better you than me, mate.’ The idea of sitting through boring, boring meetings on stock market trading and venture capitals was the worst form of torture he could imagine. He hadn’t given very much speculation to what Ruth Pettifer might have had in her pretty hands until far too late. Which might have been a fatal flaw for the unfortunate woman.

“Most of our sisters have taken a vow of silence,” Mary Esther explained, walking them over to the door she had come from earlier. “So use decorum and respect.”

About to fire off a sarky remark, Doyle pressed his lips tightly together. He knewhow to behave around nuns. He glared at Bodie and got a ‘who me?’ eye roll in response. This was as volatile a situation as walking into a mobster’s lair.

“To honour the sanctity of M’cock Abbey, I ask you to remove your weapons and place them in this chest.” She stopped just inside the entrance, pointing at an old fashioned clothespress.

“But--” Bodie started, going for the butt of his gun automatically.

The smaller woman lifted her chin, fixing him with a steely gaze. He held his outrage for a single beat then acquiesced. Doyle almost laughed at Bodie brought down by a nun. With a soft murmur of unhappiness, Verity shifted in his arms, pressing her cheek against his. Luckily, that put Verity opposite his holster so that he could work his own pistol out one-handed.

“Yes, ma’am,” Bodie finished, removing his gun from the holster. He held out his hand for Doyle’s and stowed both in the top drawer of the wooden chest, looking decidedly surly.

“Sisters!” Esther called as they walked a great hall lit with candles with a vast fireplace giving off welcome heat. “Please find some warm clothes for these wet travellers.” Two nuns scurried off to do her bidding, and she turned a gimlet eye on Bodie and Doyle as if able to see through any lie to the truth. “What is the nature of your business, out on a day like this with a baby girl in tow?”

“The name’s Bodie,” Bodie began, removing his sodden jacket. “Ray Doyle and Verity…”

“Pettifer,” Doyle added, realising that they didn’t actually know what her surname was. “We work with her mum. When we arrived at the house in Castle Cranley, two men had already bashed Ruth’s head in and ransacked her home.” A slightly sanitised version of the truth, with the actual reason for their visit edited out.

“How horrible,” Esther said, but she hadn’t been convinced. She might be a nun, tasked with the job of nurturing the poor and downtrodden, but she was clearly no pushover. “You said earlier that her mother, Ruth?” Doyle nodded. “Was taken to hospital. Why didn’t you accompany her?”

“Ruth’s friend had been caring for the baby.” Bodie waved a hand at Verity. She was sucking her thumb, reaching for the fire with obvious delight. “Klari described the men who attacked Ruth and we saw them on the street. Without a car at our disposal--the men had weapons and didn’t look to be the sort to negotiate peaceably-- we were forced to flee with the child.”

“Yet, you were both carrying guns as well,” Esther noted.

“Which we would not have used with a baby in the room!” Left eyebrow raised, Bodie pulled himself up to full height as if that would strengthen his case.

Esther raised an eyebrow in an almost perfect mimicry of Bodie’s.

A small nun returned carrying a bundle of clothing and blankets. Behind her, a much heavier nun had a tray of food.

“Thank you, Therese,” Esther said quietly. “Nanette, please set the table for our guests.”

Doyle’s belly rumbled loudly at the appetising aroma which made Verity giggle gleefully. “Excuse me, sisters,” he said, giving a slight bow. “It’s been a while since brekker.”

Esther didn’t smirk but Doyle could read her suspicion and reserve clearly enough.

“I’ll take the baby, shall I?” she offered, holding out her hands to Verity. “Whilst you change into warmer clothes. We often sponsor children in need and have necessities for her.”

Banking his indignation, Bodie was cool and detached in response to her wariness. “We’ve got things for the baby, in this bag. Bottles of milk, nappies…”

“Which are most certainly wet with all this rain,” Esther replied, tucking her hands inside her long sleeves.

Doyle almost shuddered. The stern, disapproving visage of a nun had always raised his hackles. He glanced at his partner. Bodie’s left eyebrow had not resumed its normal position, a sure sign that he was spoiling for a fight. Neither of them could afford to be tossed out. They needed the sanctuary—and warmth—of this convent for the time being.

It would appear impolitic, not to mention validate her suspicions, if he didn’t allow the nun to hold Verity. Doyle had to admit he really wanted to get out of the cold clammy clothes and into something drier. He’d been wet for hours now and the chill was setting into his bones, despite the blazing fire. “Ta, Sister,” he said graciously. “I’ll be back in a mo, my beauty.” Doyle kissed Verity on the crown of her head as he transferred her to Esther.

Verity squawked indignantly, bursting into tears. She beat her tiny fists against Esther and kicked, mouth so wide Doyle could see her round, bright pink tonsils.

“She’s accustomed to us—“ Bodie started, all but snarling with the rising tension.

“Poor lamb, she’s cold and hungry.” Bouncing Verity on her shoulder to sooth her, Esther immediately divested the angry baby of her outer wear and diaper, wiping her down with a towel.

She had far more natural finesse with a crying baby then Doyle did, and he’d thought himself fairly competent.

“Therese, please show these men where they can change,” Esther said over Verity’s shrieks.

“Bodie,” Doyle said under his breath. “Be nice.” Bloody hell, he didn’t know which one irritated him more; his recalcitrant partner or Verity’s infernal yowling. The child was incredibly loud.

The tiny nun bobbed her head in response without speaking, spreading her arm so that the long black sleeve flapped like the wing of a raven. She pointed to a wooden door at the far end of the room.

For a moment, Bodie didn’t move, watching Esther efficiently re-diaper Verity, slip a well worn pink striped baby grow over her head and then snap up the legs. Doyle was impressed, it would have taken him far longer to do the same thing, particularly when Verity was a constantly moving target.

“Dry clothes,” Bodie announced as if it had been his decision all along, and marched past the silent nun.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Doyle took up the rear, ears pricking at the unmistakable sound of Verity latching onto a rubber teat. What surprised him was how pleased he was that she had stopped crying.

~*~

“The gall of that woman!” Bodie snarled, fighting with his wet trousers. “All but accusing us of kidnapping Verity for some paedophilic…” He broke off, unable to describe what Esther clearly thought them capable of. The accusations he’d read in her eyes had made his skin crawl, or would have it he hadn’t already had gooseflesh from the cold and wet. Shivering, Bodie tossed his tan trousers onto the floor and pulled out a pair of overalls from the pile of clothing Therese had placed on a small cot.

“That coming from a priapistic cretin?” Doyle said lightly. He’d undressed completely and was towelling off, his skin almost alabaster in the low light from an oil lantern.

Bodie went dry mouthed and turned his eyes away from the vision. It wasn’t as if he’d never seen Raymond Doyle naked before. There had been many occasions, notably just after Doyle was shot. He’d healed well although the scars were still visible on his upper torso. He’d always been a bony lad, narrow-waisted with a broad chest covered in decent muscle. Still, Bodie thought, half alarmed and half aroused, he’d shag Doyle any day of the week. He shoved a leg into the overalls and pulled them up to hide his swelling cock. He wasn’t quite sure when his feelings had shifted from matey affection to blossoming—could he call this love? If not, then what was it? His heart abruptly hammering against his ribs, Bodie pulled a hand-knit jumper over his head and tugged it into place.

“Bodie?” Doyle asked gently.

“Yeah?”

“Just wondered where you’d gone,” Doyle replied, now similarly dressed in a jumper and overalls. He gathered their wet things into a pile on the floor and sat on the cot to dry his feet with the towel.

“Been right here all along,” Bodie said heartily, hiding his uncertainty with a toothy smile.

“You remember the last time we saw Ruth,” Doyle started, looking him in the eye. The window behind him back-lit Doyle’s damp curls, turning him into an unlikely angel complete with halo.

“Been giving it some thought,” Bodie admitted. If his heart had been pounding before, now it was almost painfully fast. He knew exactly what Doyle was on about. “Verity is yours.”

“You’re daft!” Doyle retorted, charging to his feet. “She looks exactly like you. With blue eyes.”

“They’re green. And her hair’s nearly a match for yours, in colour and curl.” Bodie poked a finger at Doyle’s chest.

“Babies always have non-descript hair and eye colour until they’re over one.” Doyle took a slow breath, biting down on his lower lip. “She can’t be both of ours, but odds on; one of us is that baby’s father, yeah?”

“The dates certainly tally up.” Bodie held up the pointing finger to start a count. “We spent time with Ruth on Bonfire night—“

“We fucked her, Bodie,” Doyle interrupted snidely. “Without a thought—per usual—about the consequences.”

“When did that ever worry you before?” Bodie snapped, stung. No, that hadn’t ever been on his mind when faced with a nude and willing bird in his bed.

“Rarely, which is exactly what I’m saying.” Doyle shook his head in disgust. “If Verity is mine or yours—what if she’s not the only bastard either of us whelped?”

“You’re a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, aren’t you?” Bodie wanted to slug something or kick the wall, none of which would do a bit of good. They had more important matters at stake, namely Ruth in the hospital and assailants after them all. Coming to blows wouldn’t help. “Ray, one month later you were…”

“Shot,” Doyle exhaled as if the single word had sucked the air out of his lungs. Much like the bullets had done.

“And I wasn’t thinking of much else for a good while.” During those first few days when Doyle lay at death’s door, it was a wonder that Bodie had been able to think clearly at all. Not to mention run down the location of the woman who’d shot Doyle. His emotions had been all over the place, terror and anger mixed in equal portions with anguish. Just recalling early December of 1980 could still put him in a cold sweat. It occurred to him belatedly that his love for Raymond Doyle had started way back then—that the threesome with Ruth and the fourth forgettable girl had been the first taste of what he now craved. And he’d very possibly fathered a child. It was a lot to comprehend.

“I—“ Doyle started but stopped himself. “We’ll have to convince Sister Mary Esther that one of us is Verity’s da or she’ll call the coppers on us.”

“And then get on the blower, call Cowley and the hospital.” He yanked open the door, the need to do something overwhelming. Or maybe it was the need to get farther away from Doyle. The atmosphere in the small room was suffocating. Then there was the all consuming desire to pull his partner in close and kiss him.

~*~

Esther eyed them as they stood in the doorway. Her stern façade had not changed one iota. “I have not decided what to do with you,” she announced without preamble. “The entire saga sounds questionable to me.”

“We’re on the up and up, Sister,” Doyle said carefully, hands held away from his body. “If we could use your telephone, call the authorities?”

“It’s in Mother Superior’s office and she’s out until later,” Esther answered, stepping aside so that they could pass. “I doubt it would work anyway, without power.”

“How long before she returns?” Bodie asked, heading for the table set with bowls of soup.

“She’s ministering to a sick parishioner, it could take hours,” Esther said stiffly.

Sitting near the fire playing with an old rag doll, Verity spied her friends and crowed with delight. “Ba baba.”

“Beauty,” Doyle said, taking a step toward her.

“Until we ascertain who this child belongs to, I would rather…” Esther began.

“Da!” Verity shouted as Doyle swept her up in his arms.

The silence after that pronouncement was deafening. Doyle’s heart rose in his throat, his eyes pricking. The idea that he could be her father filled his heart with an astonishing joy. He’d been so convinced she was Bodie’s it had never occurred that he had an equal chance. He’d not ever entertained the thought of children— with his current job, the prospect had seemed so unlikely.

“Da da ba ba.” Verity bounced happily in his arms, her eyes bright with life. “Dadadada.”

Whether or not she’d meant Daddy or just was babbling remained in question but she’d undoubtedly changed Esther’s mind. Doyle could see it in the nun’s face—all her preconceived notions were melting away. Good! One for our side.

Esther inhaled sharply, tucking her hands inside her sleeves again. She didn’t exactly smile, but she watched Verity’s antics with indulgence.

“C’mon, then.” Bodie crooked a finger, beckoning him over. “Bring your girl and eat up. This soup is delicious, Sister.”

“Thank you. We’ve a reputation for our bean soup, and always keep a pot simmering on the cooker,” Esther said, the North county accent more pronounced as she unbent. “As soon as Mother Celestine returns…”

Therese, the tiny nun with astonishingly wide black eyes scurried in, a worried expression on her face.

“Eat, Mr Doyle, Mr Bodie,” Esther said. “There’s something amiss I must attend to.” She sailed off with Therese, their black habits flowing out behind them in an elegant sweep.

“What do you think that’s about?” Doyle asked, perching Verity on his knee so that he could sit at the table. She dropped the rag doll, grabbing at the spoon and fork. He plucked the spoon out of her chubby fist so that he could eat.

He hadn’t expected her to want “people” food but she experimentally poked her finger into the soup. Finding it hot, Verity pouted and sucked on her sore finger, her bottom lip pushed out so far Doyle couldn’t help but laugh.

“Your name means truth, my girl, but I wonder if you’ve just told a whopping lie. Saved our hides,” Doyle whispered to her, taking a spoonful of the delectable soup. His stomach demanded more immediately.

“The youngest CI5 agent on the payroll,” Bodie chortled.

“Da da, baba,” Verity said quite firmly, pointing to her mouth.

“She wants to be fed,” he added, scooping up some for her.

Like a baby bird, Verity opened her mouth and slurped up the soup. She bounced in Doyle’s lap, demanding more. Between Bodie and Doyle, they managed to feed themselves and satisfy the baby.

“She must have a hollow leg,” Bodie said in astonishment.

“Growing babies need lots of food,” Doyle patted her back and she emitted a burp worthy of a beer drinker. “Although, I wasn’t aware that bean porridge was on her favourites list.”

“She’s got four chins.” Bodie tickled her until she erupted into delightful giggles.

Sister Esther hurried in from the entry hall, frowning. “Do you know a Mr Wagner and Mr Shostakovich?”

“The composers?” Doyle asked, knowing without a doubt that whoever these men were, they were not two famous musicians.

Her eyes widening with the realisation, Esther crossed her arms. “What is it you two are involved in?”

“Believe us, Sister, we really aren’t sure ourselves,” Bodie said, standing. “Two blokes, a tall Russian and a blond German?”

“Yes.”

“They’re the ones who bashed Verity’s mum’s skull in.” He glanced at Doyle, his hand going to where his gun ought to be. Except it was in the convent’s drawer.

“We’ll take our leave, then.” Doyle thought fast. They’d get the guns on the way out. “Do you have access to a car or truck? We have to get to Chippenham where her mum is in hospital.”

“The poor lamb has been soaked through; it’s not good for her health,” Esther said staunchly. “Tuck yourselves up in the room where you changed and I’ll have a quick word with those…sinners.”

“Sister, they could be dangerous,“ Bodie warned, not backing down. “We can’t bring violence into your place of worship.” He paused as angry voices and footsteps could be heard from the hallway.

“Nun!” a voice growled, “I do not care you don’ speak, where is za babee?”

Sister Therese didn’t answer but she gave a whimpered gasp of alarm. Formerly intent on a plate of sliced wheat bread just beyond her reach, Verity cringed at the loud voices.

Esther pointed urgently to the small room, her expression signalling no arguments. Since there wasn’t any other way with the enemy literally in the building, Doyle trotted across the room, Bodie close behind. They’d just eased the door shut when the Russian spoke again.

“Nun, ve waited but you deed not return. Where is babee girl?” he demanded.

Bodie leaned his ear against the door but Doyle could hear the voices from the main room easily. He sat down on the cot, placing Verity beside him with a pillow to keep her from falling over the edge.

“I’ve already explained that Therese has taken a vow of silence,” Esther said with the perfect measure of both pique and serenity. “As you can see, there is no baby here.”

“Baba,” Verity said abruptly, waving her hands. She began to screw up her face in preparation to wail.

“No, no,” Doyle pulled her into his arms. If she screamed, Vlad would scout them out in seconds.

Bodie had a finger to his lips, waving at Doyle to do something.

“Baba,” Verity said intensely. “Dadadadada.”

The dolly. Doyle recalled her holding it up when she’d crowed in delight at him. She’d meant dolly all along and not Da. Interesting to note, but what concerned him more was that the dolly was currently under the table and there were two empty bowls on top for Vlad and Heinrich—make that Shostakovich and Wagner-- to see.

Verity’s lower lip pushed out, tears leaking from her eyes. “Mamama?” she asked plaintively.

~*~

“What, may I ask, is the meaning of this intrusion?” a new female voice inquired.

Bodie tried to peer through the crack between the wooden door and the frame, but it wasn’t wide enough for him to see more than a sliver of Esther’s long black habit. He didn’t have enough sightline to glimpse who had just come in, but the woman sounded even more like a drill sergeant than Esther, if that was possible. Bodie was of the opinion that Mary Esther would be perfect to command British troops in war time.

Behind him, he could hear Doyle whispering soft words of comfort to Verity, but she was sobbing into his jumper, her sounds only partially muffled by the wool. Damn, they had to keep her quiet. From all he’d witnessed, the Russian and German out there were ruthless.

“We’re freund –erm, friends with a lady, Fraulien Pettifer, in Castle Cranley. She help us hire a hutte, cottage.” This was the German, his accent heavy. “Two men kidnapped her child. We are only trying to return the babe to her mother, she is…I believe the word is heart broke?”

“Why didn’t she call ‘round to the local coppers as a person would if her baby’d been taken?” the new woman asked.

Bodie eased the door open, keeping his eye to the narrow space. Now he could see everyone. Luckily, all five were on the far side of the room, nearer to the fireplace, beyond the table. Sister Therese cowered beside the hearth, between Esther and a tall, elegant looking nun with smooth dark brows above gray eyes and a no-nonsense mouth.

“We trace dangerous men here,” the Russian insisted, pulling a gun from his jacket pocket.

Therese sobbed, clutching her rosary to her lips when he growled, “I grow tired of thees! You hiding babee and we vant her now.”

“I can’t ‘elp you with a Luger pointing at me.” The tall nun didn’t flinch with a loaded weapon inches from her face. “We’ve got rules—one of which is no shooting in the cloister.”

Bodie almost chuckled; she sounded like the girls he’d grown up with; a touch streetwise and sarky, which surprised him in a nun. He wracked his brain, trying to recall the name of the mother superior Esther had mentioned. Celeste? Something like that. Cowley himself would be impressed with the woman’s cool exterior.

“Who was that?” Doyle whispered from behind.

Bodie waved him to silence, concentrating on the drama in front of him. It went entirely against his usual nature to allow three women to take on these arse-holes. His instinct was to rush out and slug the Russian in the gut, take a little of the air out of him, but that would put three—make that four, since stout Sister Nanette had to be around somewhere— sisters and a baby in jeopardy. He couldn’t do that, but the inactivity rankled.

“Shostakovich, no need for the gun. These nuns can be reasonable. They are women of Gott,” the German continued. He waited until his comrade had stowed the Luger in the pocket of his damp suit. “I expect they will cooperate, ya?”

“I’m Mother Celestine. We do all we can to aid the suffering, if that is your problem,” she said with a tart wit. “There’s free food and dry clothes here. However, I’ve been away in service to a sick pensioner, so I haven’t seen a wee one. Sister Esther, can you provide any clarity?” She glanced at her second, making eye contact for only a second, but with her poker face, it was impossible to read whatever information she’d gleaned.

The German fumed but he was clearly the one with a level head despite an uncertain command of English. “I am Wagner,” he explained patiently through gritted teeth. “I work weeth….Interpol. It imperative that we recover kinder.”

“Blim—Bless me, Interpol, way out here in M’cock,” Celestine exclaimed. “This child must be important. What’s so special about her?”

Therese stared at her mother superior, her face so pale Bodie thought she’d drop in a faint.

Doyle crept up behind him, poking Bodie in the ribs. “She’s asleep; what’s going on?”

“A stand-off,” Bodie said quietly.

“Two men did stop here,” Esther said, her arms once more tucked inside her sleeves.

Bodie wondered if she was hiding her crossed fingers inside the voluminous black serge.

“We gave them food and dry things,” the nun continued. “Was this baby you’re looking for a girl or boy?” She paused expectantly.

Bodie was impressed by her obfuscation. She hadn’t lied, yet hadn’t told the entire truth, either. He held in a chuckle, despite the furious expressions on the two men’s faces.

“What was the child’s name?” Esther continued after a moment.

This obviously flummoxed the Russian and German. “Her mother is heart broke,” Wagner insisted bluntly. “It is against our…Ethik…” He used the sound-alike German word, “to hurt nuns but if there is no other way, I—“

“I’m afraid you’ll have to deal with our constable, Mr Perry,” Celestine said with more heat. “When you wave a semi-automatic around and pronounce vague threats of harm, I wouldn’t hand over a babe to you if she were in my care. Will you leave peacefully or shall I send Sister Nanette for burley reinforcements?”

A bell clanged loudly. Shostakovich was so startled, he attempted to yank the gun from his pocket again. Wagner pressed a hand against Shostakovich’s arm to stay him. “Nien.”

“He’s a good, Christian soul, our constable Perry. Comes round nearly every day about this time,” Esther remarked, touching the cross on her belt. “He’s probably gone to the chapel, so you’re free to leave without reprisal, unless of course, you’d like to take up your cause with him?”

Wagner exchanged a glance with his partner. There was suspicion on their faces, but unless they were going to take hostages, they were stymied and knew it. Bodie couldn’t help raising two fingers in a filthy salute, even if they couldn’t see him. Doyle smiled grimly.

Celestine’s glare could have turned lesser men to stone. Wagner and Shostakovich stood their ground, but Bodie could see they recognised that they’d met their match.

Her long black sleeve flowing smoothly, Esther waved her arm to the exit. “We’ve been more than civil whereas you’ve disrupted our sanctuary. May the Lord himself bless your feet on your way out?”

“Good day,” Celestine said, frost licking every word. “I’ll put up a prayer for your soul at compline.”

Grumbling, the men stalked out, Esther keeping an eagle eye out until they’d passed beyond the hallway. She shut the inner door with both hands.

“What in the bloody hell was all that?” Celestine erupted, glowering at her second in command. “I’ve need of answers!”

~*~

Faced with the Mother Superior’s fury, Therese dashed from the room.

“We owe Sister Esther a debt of gratitude,” Doyle muttered, pushing past Bodie through the door. “But there’s something I need to know—“

“What?” Bodie asked, keeping pace with him.

“Ah, well, there’s the other shoe dropped,” Celestine remarked when she caught sight of the newcomers. “What is it you’ve mixed my sisters up in, then?” She stopped abruptly, staring at Doyle.

He’d all but recognised her voice when he was listening from the small room. Confronted with the woman he’d heard but had not seen, his memory erased the severe religious habit, substituting straight brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, with a fringe over her forehead. He could see her clearly in a blue cashmere jumper and tuck pleated skirt, clutching a maths book. “Nicki?”

Esther opened her mouth to speak and snorted with amusement.

“Lit’le Ray.” Celestine laughed, tapping her fingers against her bottom lip as if she knew she wasn’t quite managing the serene deportment of a religious woman and not caring one iota. “’Aven’t seen you in years.”

“Little Ray?” Bodie echoed.

“Nicki?” Esther repeated at the same time.

Doyle pulled his older sister’s best friend into his arms, memories of his childhood unreeling like an old film.

“I take it you two know each other then?” Bodie said with a grin.

“I’d say.” Celestine pursed her lips and ruffled Doyle’s curls.

Groaning, he pushed her away with a mild curse. “Sorry,” he shook his head ruefully. “She was me sister Kathy’s best mate.”

“I used to babysit him,” Celestine added. “And now, you.” She poked a finger at Bodie’s chest. “You’re in a spot of trouble, I take it?”

“We never meant to bring this down on your hospitality,” Bodie crossed his arms. “But it’s for—“

“Queen and country?” Celestine said with her trademark tart sarcasm. “I’ve heard from Kathy over the years, I’m aware of what Ray’s done in the past.”

“Which doesn’t excuse those two arse—erm, instigators,” Doyle swiftly substituted for the curse word he’d almost used. “Yeah, we’re with CI5.”

“Could have told me that,” Esther snapped.

“Mary Esther, that was an inspired bluff about the constable, who is indeed a good Christian, but I’ll expect the man who scared them off was Mr Prichard,” Celestine said. “Fetch him, if he’s still about.”

“Postman Prichard,” Esther said to Bodie as she went out.

“We came to Castle Cranley to visit a colleague, Ruth Pettifer, because she had collected some vital information,” Doyle continued walking over to the fire to warm himself. He was still cold to the bone, despite the excitement of the afternoon.

“Where is Verity?” Celestine looked around with shrewd intelligence.

“You know her, too?” Bodie questioned. “For a nun, you’ve got connections.”

“I know her babysitter,” Celestine said. “She brought the lass once to be blessed because she was worried that Miss Pettifer did not attend mass.”

“Good t’know the Lord’s looking out for her,” Doyle said, amused. It was no real surprise that Ruth was not a church going woman. She had always seemed a pragmatist, with a belief in what she could prove rationally or scientifically. No wonder she’d named her daughter Verity. “Because between the two of us, Bodie n’ me haven’t done the best job. She’s sleeping on your cot.”

“And why are the faux composers after her?” Celestine peeped inside the small room to check on the baby before sitting down at the table.

“You’ve got us there.” Bodie raised his hands in resignation. “The only one who can answer all the questions is unconscious at Chippenham Hospital. Which is why we need reliable transport and a telephone to our boss. We don’t know anything about how Ruth is doing.” He glanced up at the unlit lamp above the table as if willing the electricity to come back on.

“The last thing we want is for those hooligans to bother you again, Nic—I mean, Mother Superior,” Doyle said carefully. Although he recalled Nicki Lansbury as a slightly wild bobby-soxer with an excellent singing voice and a perchance for bedevilling her best friend’s younger brother, she was a person of authority here and he should respect that.

“Celestine’s good enough for the likes of your lot,” she said with a fond smile, but her brow was furrowed. “This is clearly not a random attack on our Miss Pettifer, but a specific attack designed to get something from her.”

“They ransacked her house, and I suspect the sitter’s house, too. But must not have found what they were looking for.” Doyle rubbed his chest; there was a bit of an ache. “However, now they seem very focused on Verity.”

“The question is, why?” Bodie put in. “Verity can’t talk—“

“Much,” Doyle reminded.

“Not enough to memorise a code phrase or number.” Bodie curled his lip at his partner with mock annoyance.

“Wait a mo.” Celestine gathered her skirts and walked over to the small room to examine the baby again. “Could her mother have secreted something in her clothing? Or in her nappy?”

“We’d have found it. I’ve changed her and so did Sister Esther.” Doyle shook his head, gazing at Verity sleeping. She had one thumb safely in her mouth, the other arm curled under her cheek, the very picture of innocence and purity. Her honey brown curls had dried into a soft fluff, framing her sweet pink ear and the vibrant black earring nestled in her lobe.

Celestine turned to look briefly at Doyle and then back at Verity, with a pensive expression. “Is there anything you want to confess, Raymond?”

Doyle felt his hackles rise at the same time as his cheeks flamed. She thought Verity looked like him, too. There was no way he was going to admit to a three-way with Ruth to a nun! “My conscience is clear, Nicki,” he answered pointedly.

Bodie didn’t say a word but the amusement in his eyes spoke clearly.

“Excuse, ma’am.” An elderly man with a grizzly moustache and white curls showing under the edge of a battered, and very wet, blue postman’s cap came into the room with Sister Esther. “You’ve got a bit of mail for me to take out?”

“Good afternoon, Mr Pritchard,” Celestine greeted warmly. “Not exactly mail, no, but a couple of parcels, you might say.”

Doyle almost laughed, seeing what she was about before she even said a word.

~*~

Tucked in the back of a van between a large parcel bound for New York City and a lumpy sack of mail from the post office in Meacock, Bodie had a sense of foreboding. This had been too easy an escape, and the weight of his pistol, once again snug in its shoulder holster, was reassuring. He couldn’t believe that Wagner and Shostakovich, or whatever the hell their real names were, had given up without a fight. They must be lurking somewhere nearby, ready to pounce. The sooner Mr Pritchard’s postal van trundled through Meacock, past Castle Cranley, and onto the main road to Chippenham, the better Bodie would feel. From the rumbling under his arse, it was obvious that the vehicle was picking up speed.

Chilly, Bodie tugged the collar of his cable knit jumper closer around his neck and looked across at his partner. Doyle was sitting against the opposite wall of the van with his eyes closed. He looked knackered. How long had it been since they drove into Castle Cranley? Approximately ten o’clock in the morning? It was now half past four in the afternoon, and they’d had one hell of a day. Not as bad as Ruth Pettifer’s, thank God. Neither one of them had been hurt, and Bodie was grateful for that. He allowed himself a lingering examination of Doyle, the lush sense of arousal—even love—that shot through his belly to his groin still surprising. He wanted to cherish Doyle, revel in him. Sink his fingers into those springy curls and bite down on an earlobe before kissing it better. Why the hell these sensations had chosen today to spring full blown was beyond him, but he was half terrified to examine them very closely and half wanting to proclaim his adoration to—someone. Any one.

Well, not any one. Wild horses could not have pulled the truth from him in front of the nuns.

Wide eyes stared at him over the edge of a wicker basket. Sister Esther had insisted they needed something to carry the baby in, or hide her in, now that Bodie thought about it.

“What you looking at?” he challenged. Now that he looked at her straight on, she really didn’t resemble Doyle that strongly. Was his imagination running wild with supposition or were babies simply so malleable that a person could see pieces of all their potential relatives moulding their features? His gran had always said he looked like her mother, but since there wasn’t a picture of the woman, how would anyone know?

“Baba,” Verity said, pulling herself to sitting in the basket. “Da ba.”

“Don’t know what you’re on about, my girl.” Bodie smiled at her.

“She wants the dolly,” Doyle answered, opening his eyes. “It’s in with the sandwiches the little sister packed in the baby bag.”

“Therese,” Bodie recalled, pulling the pink and blue striped bag closer. “You speak baby now?” he asked, handing Verity the doll. She crowed with delight and snuggled into the basket with her prize.

“Took me a bit, but I realised she hadn’t meant Daddy earlier.” Doyle watched Verity for a few moments.

Bodie followed Doyle’s gaze. The light in the van was dim with only a small amount of illumination coming through the plastic panel near the top of the wall separating them from the driver’s cab. The panel was set in a sliding door the postman could open to retrieve the mail while still in the driver’s seat. The late afternoon sunlight hit Verity, casting her face in a rosy glow and brightening one of her onyx earrings. The other seemed dull in comparison, even when Verity turned her head to frown at Doyle’s scrutiny.

“Ba ga!” she said indignantly, poking her thumb into her mouth.

“Are her earrings different?” Doyle asked, placing a firm hand on the basket as the van went left around a corner, sending a few pieces of mail sliding to the metal flooring.

“Come here, love.” Bodie went to his knees, reaching out to cradle Verity’s small head. Up close, when he really examined the earrings, they were slightly different colours. Both black, but while one had the deep, warm hue of a real gem stone, the other was matte black and a slightly different shape. “Sister Celestine was on to something when she said that there must be something hidden on our Verity.”

Doyle peered closely and Bodie got a whiff of pure Raymond: sweat, gun oil and a faint hint of garlic from the soup they’d eaten. His heart raced, even as he told himself to behave.

“Na!” Verity cried out, trying to squirm away from Bodie’s grip. Clearly frightened, she snuffled once and burst into tears when she couldn’t get free.

“Just a mo, my darling, everything will be all right,” Doyle murmured. Despite Verity wildly shaking her head, he prised something tiny from the left earring.

“What the hell is that?” Bodie murmured. As he said the words, he knew. A microdot—a miniature disc which undoubtedly contained some highly classified information. This was what Ruth Pettifer wanted to pass on to them.

“Shush, shush.” Doyle gathered Verity into his arms, bouncing her slightly, all the while keeping his left index finger extended so that he didn’t lose the tiny black dot. “Give us her bottle, yeah? And take the plum duff while you’re at it.”

“Your mum recruited you from the cradle.” Bodie retrieved the full bottle Sister Therese had packed and passed it over.

Verity grabbed it immediately, without any help from Doyle. She sucked vigorously, glaring at the both of them.

“What do you think is on this?” Bodie asked, touching his finger to Doyle’s. The microdot stuck, as it had to Verity’s earring.

“Won’t be able to find out until we get back to headquarters,” Doyle answered, with a bit of gloom in his voice. “If we manage that— I asked Celestine to put a call into Cowley if the power went back on but I suspect we’ll be in Chippenham before that happens.“

“The old man was playing one of his mind games on us,” Bodie said, watching his partner. Doyle was losing faith in their innate ability to get the job done by the skin of their teeth. “Eyes only and need to know.”

“And we didn’t need to know.” Doyle sneered. “Manipulating old bastard.”

“He’d have you filing reports for a year if he heard you now.” Bodie gently kicked Doyle’s outstretched leg. “We need to hide the plum amongst the other sultanas, so to speak. Could be the safest place for that is right back where we found it.”

“Since we only saw it by chance, stands to reason that the decomposing composers wouldn’t find it easily.” Doyle settled Verity into his lap. She grumbled around her teat and bared her two tiny teeth. “She’s certainly got the temperament of an operative,” he commented dryly.

Bodie tapped the black microdot stuck neatly in place; once again almost indistinguishable from the gemstone. Verity turned into Doyle, cuddling against him, the dolly still under one arm and the bottle nearly empty.

“Half the mystery solved,” Bodie said lightly, amused that Doyle’s mood had lightened enough to use a Monty Python reference.

“Question remains, what’s on it? I’d prefer knowing what the hell I was transporting. State secrets or the code to key into a nuclear device?” Doyle shifted with a grimace when Verity lazily placed a foot where it would do the most damage on a man. “Back in your basket, my girl.” He lifted her up, placing the sleepy baby into the wicker carrier.

With Doyle up on his knees, hips jutted toward the basket, Bodie couldn’t mistake the bulge in his partner’s groin, although the overalls were roomier than Doyle’s usual painted on jeans. Bodie blinked to distract himself, frantically thinking of anything else but male anatomy.

Birds—girls, that is. Frilly things, garters, earrings. The normal things males thought about.

“I never realised little girls got their ears done so bloody early,” he commented, pleased to find a more neutral subject. “Doesn’t that hurt?”

“Not as much as you’d expect,” Doyle said and then his eyes widened as if he’d said too much. He pulled the baby bag over, taking overly long to select one of the two sandwiches.

“How’d you know? You’ve had something pierced?” The rumble of the van was strangely soothing, but Bodie was too interested to let that lull him into complacency.

Bored by the adults, Verity played idly with her dolly and sucked the last of the milk from her bottle.

Doyle shrugged, without looking directly at Bodie, carefully unwrapping kitchen foil from his sandwich. “Yeah, I suppose you could say that.”

There’d been more than a hint of forced nonchalance to his answer. Intrigued, Bodie turned to stare at Doyle’s studied innocence. “And?”

“And what?”

“Come on, there must be more than that.” The silence stretched so long Bodie knew something was up. “Raymond.”

“It was a long time ago.” Doyle self-consciously adjusted his goulies before taking a bite from the chicken sarnie as if that would distract his memories. “When I was young and stupid.”

Bodie couldn’t take his eyes off the space between Doyle’s thighs, amazed and only slightly appalled by the image that presented itself. “You didn’t?” His heart thudded against his breastbone, an echoing pulse in his own groin. “Is it still there?”

“No!” Doyle wrinkled his nose. “More trouble than it was worth, let me tell you.”

Bodie wanted, more like needed, to know much more about—what had he heard those cock piercings called? A Prince Albert?

Except the post van came to an abrupt halt, the parcel to New York falling over onto its side.

~*~

“What’s happening?” Doyle dropped his sandwich into the foil to peer out the small window in the front panel. Frankly, he was more than glad to distract Bodie from the topic of things he regretted from his past. “We’re in Chippenham, or near enough. I can see the sign to the city centre up ahead.”

“Then why’d he stop?” Bodie turned fast when the rear door opened, going for his gun. His hand stopped halfway there when it was only the postman.

“End of the line, I’m afraid.” Pritchard looked apologetic yet firm in his resolve. His moustache quivered slightly as he spoke. “I’m already outside of my region. I can’t go about Chippenham without someone taking notice, and the postmen in this area are quite territorial.”

“How are we supposed to get to the hospital then?” Bodie challenged. “We have a valuable witness to protect.” He waved a hand at Verity’s basket.

Doyle groaned inwardly, but not willing to fight the point. It wouldn’t aid their case if Pritchard’s lorry was suspiciously out of place. However, it would have helped if they knew what sort of car Wagner and Shostakovich were driving so they could keep a look out. At least the rain had stopped, although the road gutters were ankle deep in water.

Pritchard straightened his shoulders and pointed to the bus stop a few feet away. “Hospital’s on Rowden Hill, not far t’all.”

“We have to ride the bloody bus?” Bodie growled.

“Bodie,” Doyle said quietly with a soothing hand on his forearm. Bodie took a sharp breath and backed down. “Mr Pritchard, thank you for the lift. Did you see any cars following behind, maybe that you hadn’t seen around Castle Cranley or M’cock previously?”

“Can’t say that I did.” He chewed on the end of his moustache. “There be all sort of tourists along the A420, not just the local folk.”

“Bus is coming,” Bodie pointed out with a grimace. “What’s the fare these days? I hate to carry coins, tear the lining of me jacket pocket.”

Bodie wasn’t even wearing a jacket. Doyle frowned, looking at Mr Prichard, thoughts chasing through his brain that didn’t completely add up. He hated not having all the answers. “I wasn’t paying attention, but you can drive directly through Castle Coombe, can’t you?” he continued, hoisting the basket where Verity lay sleeping. Bodie got the baby bag. “Because you’re a resident.”

“’Course I can.” Pritchard smiled at the baby. “I’ll take my leave, then. Take care of the little one and give Miss Ruthie my love.”

Doyle nodded, stepping away from the red post van to let him drive away. There was a bit of a snarl as the double decker bus blocked traffic to pull around Pritchard’s vehicle. The drivers of a BMW and a Ford caught short behind the bus laid on their horns, loud enough to wake the dead, but apparently not a ten month old baby.

Searching for the coins to pay their fare, Bodie muttered to himself with annoyance. The convergence of automobiles belched enough fumes to line Doyle’s lungs with petrol which only tightened his already dicky chest. He coughed discretely, careful to turn away so that Bodie wouldn’t notice.

He’d been keenly aware of Bodie’s scrutiny ever since they set out from London. Bodie was watching him, with a kind of longing and yet something indefinable that he was able to keep mostly hidden. Doyle shifted the heavy basket to his left to angle into the bus, watching Bodie, too. Watching the way his body moved, the way he never let down his guard, alert for any sign of danger. He glanced back at Doyle, clearly wanting him to go down the middle aisle first.

There was only a scattering of passengers on the lower deck, but enough that it would have made any chance at conversation difficult. They’d be able to talk more freely upstairs.

“On top?” Doyle inclined his head at the winding steps to the upper level, and grabbed at a metal pole to catch his balance as the bus lurched into motion. The basket banged against his thigh, but Verity only sighed in her sleep.

“Steady on.” Bodie laid a warm hand on the small of Doyle’s back, giving him a push up the stairs. “Mind how you go.”

Not sure why that innocuous phrase sent a surge of love through him, Doyle smiled. He was content to let that one go without unnecessary examination. He loved Bodie, there was no doubt. Falling in love with Bodie, if that was what this—swarm of emotion-- turned out to be, was a secret vice that had to remain concealed. It was too dangerous to let the truth out, and he was afraid Bodie would never reciprocate.

Yet those watching blue eyes kept probing him, as if searching for something specific.

“We’ve got our choice.” Bodie waved a hand at the empty rows and settled into a seat next to the window with the baby bag on his lap.

About to put the basket with the sleeping baby on the bench seat opposite, Doyle spied a folded copy of the London Times. The headline of a short article glared up at him. Fair Trading ruling on Int’l Money Laundering Where the hell had he read that recently? Cowley had called him in before he’d had a morning cuppa, much less read the newspaper. And he didn’t take the Times.

“Sit down,” Bodie said irritably. “Or you’ll fall on your arse when the bus hits that roundabout coming up.”

“Shut your gob,” Doyle retorted sweetly. Checking to make sure that Verity was still sleeping, curled around her dolly, he placed the basket on the seat in front and sat down beside it. Where he’d read the article revealed itself when he flipped the Times over and saw the half done crossword on the other side. “This one’s got it wrong,” he said, holding the game up for Bodie to see.

“You’ve written Doyle with the L before the Y. Haven’t learned to spell your own name,” Bodie tsked. “I’ll just fix that, shall I?”

“I didn’t write that, you great twat.” Doyle smacked Bodie’s outstretched hand with the paper. “Read the article on the back.” With sudden clarity, disparate bits of information were slotting into place. He didn’t know for sure, but he had a sneaky suspicion that Cowley’s meeting and the hasty need to send out two senior operatives on what had seemed like an easy retrieval now gone hopelessly wrong were irreparably linked together.

Bodie’s eyes widened as he quickly skimmed the short article. Even though Doyle hadn’t read the content, he could make a rough idea of what it entailed. An illegal scheme involving Germans, Russians and money washed clean in the British Commonwealth to remove the taint of some illegal foreign investment.

“Cowley was on his way to the Office of Fair Trading,” Bodie said, screwing his face as if trying to recall the old man’s exact wording.

“He’s been there twice this week,” Doyle agreed, everything they’d learned throughout the day beginning to slot into place like a jigsaw puzzle. Or even a crossword. But he still didn’t have all the necessary clues to solve the riddle. “We’ve been duped from the get-go.”

“Cowley may not have expected an attack on Ruth, but somehow, she must have been working undercover for him all this time,” Bodie said sourly, tapping the newspaper. “According to this, Ewan Campbell is levelling fines on Vacances de Europe,” he gave the last three words a distinctly French accent, “a holiday tour company, twenty thousand pounds sterling for suspicious book-keeping, under the table dealings with Russian drugs syndicates and a host of other less than legal operations.”

“Just as we were leaving Cowley’s office this morning, I heard Betty tell the old man over the intercom that a Mr Campbell would be waiting for him at half past ten,” Doyle recalled with a start. “Didn’t Robin’s driver, O’Shea, say that Ruth was hiring out holiday cottages?”

“Whatever firm owns the cottages probably contracts out to Vacances de Europe,” Bodie surmised, rubbing the back of his head thoughtfully. “And our Ruthie’s got the goods on them.”

“Our Verity,” Doyle corrected, his belly tightening at the realisation of danger for the baby if she had fallen into Wagner and Shostakovich’s hands. “Cowley and Campbell need the information on that microdot to make the charges stick.”

“Oi.” Bodie pointed out the front window of the bus. “Looks like the hospital two streets farther on.” He rolled the newspaper up and slotted it into his jacket pocket. “Why’d you ask Pritchard if he could drive through M’cock and Castle Cranley?”

“Because our opposites can’t,” Doyle answered, granting himself a moment of self indulgence to watch Bodie. His heart ached to tell Bodie, to give into passion and just let loose. Very risky in a business where they had to be careful all the time. But Bodie looked—luscious, sitting there with one knee up on the edge of the seat, his overalls moulded around the bulge in his groin. His hair had dried all short curls after the rain and Doyle longed to run his fingers through the dark strands. He shook his head to dispel the images, gathering up Verity’s basket. “Which means, with a bit of luck—“

“They would have had to drive out of M’cock and around Castle Cranley, putting us in the lead.” Bodie smiled nastily.

“Unfortunately, we still don’t know what sort of car to look out for,” Doyle groused, getting up. He coughed—only a small thing, but it irritated his scratchy throat and deepened the ache in his chest. Of all the rotten, untimely luck.

The jostling of going down the stairs wakened Verity. Grumbling angrily, she poked her head over the edge of the basket with a squawk.

~*~

Chippenham Hospital was a modern, multi-level building bustling with activity, all of which only worsened Bodie’s mood. He hated hospitals and was mounting a case of raging anger toward Cowley regarding not giving them enough information on the case. The crush of people made it all the more difficult to keep Verity—and Doyle-- safe.

Doyle was coming down with something, he had no doubt. Bodie wasn’t quite old-fashioned enough to believe that just being out in the rain brought on a cold; otherwise, he’d have spent half his life as a mercenary, SAS officer and now CI5 operative sneezing and snuffling. However, there was something to be said for staying warm and dry, especially when a certain someone had been shot in the chest a year and a half ago. All the emotions Bodie thought he’d smothered in the days after Doyle’s recovery were erupting with force and he couldn’t bury them again. He’d sat at Doyle’s bedside, sure that his love would die. When he hadn’t, Bodie told himself it was better for both of them if he sublimated his desires. He couldn’t predict how mercurial Doyle would have reacted to the revelation, not to mention what it might have meant for his career. Doyle was straight; that’s all there was to it.

He’d seen how Doyle had wanted Ruth on Bonfire night; how he’d caressed her silky blonde hair and run his palm down the curves of her body. That his hand had landed on Bodie’s very interested cock had been accidental, caused by proximity and nothing more. Fuelled by equal parts alcohol and lust, the three of them had coupled in a lovely, lusty tumble of body parts. The memory of Doyle’s slaked body curled against Bodie, with Ruth claiming Bodie’s other side, had been the only thing that kept him hoping during Doyle’s hospitalisation. He still used the fantasy on occasion, but he knew it was a pipe dream.

“Bodie?” Doyle poked his arm, hard.

Realising he’d been derelict in his duty, Bodie gritted his teeth, visually sweeping the area anxiously. No suspicious cars, no hulking blokes with huge guns.

From her basket, Verity held up dolly with a dimpled grin. “Da da.”

“Da da, to you, too, my darling.” Bodie ran his hand over her short curls, glancing up at Doyle’s face. He read concern his partner’s greenish eyes and something else that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “We going in, are we?”

Wrinkling his brow, Doyle transferred the heavy basket from one hand to the other and preceded him through the front doors of the hospital. The reception was wide, with several different desks, depending on whether one was a patient or visitor. There were rows of plastic chairs on the left and lifts at the far end. On the right was a bank of telephones. Exactly what they needed.

“I’ll call Cowley while you ask about Ruth,” Bodie pointed to the inquiry desk. “I want this whole affair back in their laps where it belongs.”

“Good luck with that one,” Doyle retorted. “The old man will have us on background checks indefinitely, sure as bob’s your uncle.”

“Came out of your gob, not mine.” Bodie laughed, waggling a finger at Doyle. He watched his partner cross the worn lino to a desk with a queue five people long.

Bodie dialled the telephone, dropping in the requisite amount of coins after the pips. At this rate, he’d be a pauper, without a sous in his pocket between the theft from British Telecom and the bus fares.

“Mr Cowley’s office,” Betty answered promptly. “Who is calling?”

Good ol’ Betty, never one to beat around the bush. “3.7,” Bodie identified, keeping his eye on Doyle. There were still three in the queue and the woman behind the desk looked about ready to pull her hair out, so he reckoned had time to talk to Uncle George before Doyle was finished with his half of the job. He saw Doyle fish a fidgeting Verity out of her basket and plant her on his hip.

“Putting you through, Bodie.”

There was a brief electronic squeal. “3.7, where the devil are you, man?” Cowley demanded, the Scots brogue more pronounced than usual. “I expected your return hours ago, or at the very least, a check-in.”

“Bit of a pickle, sir,” Bodie said, going on to tell him what they’d encountered since arriving in Castle Cranley that morning.

“You’re at Chippenham Hospital now?” Cowley asked. “And Pettifer is safe?”

“Haven’t spoken to her or her doctor, sir,” Bodie answered, glancing over at his partner again. Doyle was at the front of the queue, speaking to the receptionist. He turned, giving Bodie a thumbs up. Verity was laughing. “But it looks like we’ll be going up to her room any minute.”

“Och, what a rum go,” Cowley grouched. “I’ll be there in the hour. You keep our Miss Pettifer under guard until reinforcements arrive.”

“3.7 out, sir,” Bodie replied, shouldering the baby bag. He started across the lobby, skirting around a harried mum with a gaggle of ankle-biters, all clutching lollies and wailing about getting jabs. The din was astounding. They could have drowned out an air raid siren. Past a bevvy of nursing students listening to an instructor and a couple with a large bouquet of balloons, Bodie could see Verity with her chin on Doyle’s shoulder. She was watching the parade of humanity in the hospital with rapt interest.

“What floor?” he asked Doyle as they rendezvoused on the way to the lift. The man and woman with the balloons were waiting there, as well.

“Ba!” Verity said with alarm, shaking her head.

“Room 315, third floor. Luckily, Brazelton put our names on the visitors list or I get the impression she wouldn’t let us go up with her majesty here,” Doyle said, patting Verity’s bum. She whimpered, waving her left fist. “What are you on about, my darling?” He asked.

“Ba ba,” Verity all but shouted, her face twisted in an expression half way between anger and fear. “Na nah.”

“That’s no,” Bodie translated. He took a step to the left, to orient himself in her direction. And saw exactly what she’d been looking at. “Bloody hell if the girl hasn’t spotted our tails.”

Wagner and Shostakovich were standing on the far side of reception, talking intently with one another. It was obvious that both were studying every single person passing through the main doors.

Verity’s lower lip quivered as she looked from Bodie to Doyle. “Mamamama?”

“You’re brilliant! Good eyes,” Doyle whispered, kissing her forehead and mashing the lift call button at the same time. “We’ll see your mum in no time at all.”

“They haven’t spotted us, but they will shortly if this damned…” Bodie started as the lift doors opened. A nurse pushing an older man in a wheelchair bustled out with several other people trailing behind.

“Take her.” Doyle thrust Verity into Bodie’s arms. “I’ll alert security.”

“Doyle!” Bodie gripped her around the middle, staggering from the sudden weight plus the baby bag.

Verity wailed fearfully and the couple with the balloons pushed onto the lift, obscuring Bodie’s view. By the time he had control of the frightened baby and had got around the squash of the other two people, the lift was already ascending. “Bloody hell,” he said to Verity, his heart suddenly galloping like a runaway horse. “What did Uncle Raymond do?”

Verity shoved a thumb in her mouth, sucking furiously, tears shimmering in her eyes. Bodie could read accusation and condemnation on her face, exactly what he felt. How had he let Doyle go alone?

There was no use pounding on the numbered buttons to reverse the lift. The car would simply stop on the nearest floor, not go back down again. Plus, he’d still have Verity in arms. Guilt and fear gnawing at his guts, he resolved to get to the third floor, dump the baby with a nurse and charge down the stairs to back Doyle up.

What if he was too late?

~*~

He didn’t have a single qualm about sending—what was the correct term? His family? His loved ones, to safety. Doyle’s need to protect Bodie, and Verity, was paramount. He would lay down his life for theirs.

Of course, if he could capture Wagner and Shostakovich without bloodshed, so much the better.

Leaving the empty baby basket by the lift, Doyle ducked behind a large potted Ficus to analyse the situation. The German and Russian were still near the main entrance, watching the people streaming through the door. On the far side of reception was a security office. Two men in blue uniforms with a patch on the shoulder were conferring over a clipboard. If Doyle could get over to them, he’d warn them about the potential threat. The problem was walking the length of the huge building without being seen.

Not to mention endangering the large concentration of people milling about. There was the additional problem that a private security firm had no jurisdiction to intervene when they hadn’t seen a crime or any wrong doing. Doyle would have to approach the enemy on his own.

Direct and in their face was the best strategy, using the element of surprise in his favour. He shrugged his shoulders once to adjust the fit of his shoulder holster but didn’t pull his pistol from its sheath. He was willing to be civilised as long as they were.

He did have his CI5 ID in hand when he walked past a brand new family cooing over a tiny infant. Grandmother was posing the proud mum and dad with their baby in front of the hospital’s sign. Doyle got a good look at the newborn. He’d never seen a baby that young and was appalled at the screwed up red face, smashed in nose and hairless scalp. God help them. Did all new babies look like that?

Had Verity? He suddenly wished he had seen her.

Had held her.

That line of thought was for another time entirely. He needed to concentrate. Sure enough, when he looked over at the main entrance where his prey had recently been, they were no longer evident. He stood, turning his head to locate the two men and finally saw them going toward the same information desk he’d been to earlier. Somehow, they had passed fairly near one another without noticing.

Was it possible they didn’t know what he looked like? He had to assume they had glimpsed Bodie beside the ambulance back in Castle Cranley. However, it was just as likely, given all the locals who’d watched Colum load Ruth into the vehicle, that Wagner and Shostakovich wouldn’t recognise Bodie, either.

Scooping up the abandoned basket, Doyle pushed the blanket Esther had tucked around Verity until it was mounded as if a baby lay sleeping underneath. He inhaled, clearing his mind of everything else and started over to the two men at the end of the queue.

Guten Aben, he said politely, which pretty much exhausted his German. “I believe you know a friend of mine.”

Wagner turned sharply, caught by surprise. His eyes flicked to the basket and back to Doyle, taking in the CI5 badge Doyle held up.

“Don’t do anything rash,” Doyle said softly to Shostakovich as the man stepped to the left. “There are security guards only a few feet away. We need to talk privately, ja wohl?”

“You are…what is the saying in John Wayne movies?” the Russian sneered, “bluffing?” He growled under his breath.

The German glanced with irritation at his partner and then at the lengthening queue behind them. People were beginning to take notice.

Moving away from their impromptu audience, Doyle deliberately held the baby basket behind him as if sheltering Verity from Wagner and Shostakovich’s view. “I have some information that may be of interest to you,” Doyle stated flatly, hoping they didn’t press the issue. He could only surmise what was on the microdot.

“We will bring the kinder to her mother,” Wagner decreed, keeping his voice equally low. “She removed something that we haf need of.”

“We can all speak with her,” Doyle said genially, inclining his head at the lifts. “So you can explain who exactly you work for? What are your real names? So sordid to have to refer to you with pseudonyms.” He kept both of them in view, despite the fact that they were widening the distance between them, a ploy he knew well.

“Ve vork for a consortium of Eastern European investors.” Shostakovich deliberately placed one hand in his jacket pocket. He stepped to the right, shifting so that he stared straight at Doyle with cold dark eyes.

Doyle could make out the shape of a gun through the fabric. He didn’t like the way they were manoeuvring him, the German directly to his left. He couldn’t look at both of them at the same time and had to keep twitching his eyes back and forth. These guys were pros, despite their abysmal performance at the convent. He was now facing away from the security guard station. As much as he hadn’t expected any help from that quarter, he’d wanted to keep them apprised. That was all bolloxed up now.

“And I take it your lot own a controlling interest in Vacances de Europe,” he said. “Which puts Miss Pettifer in your employ.”

Da!” The German glanced past Doyle to his partner and then back at Doyle. “Why we come to Castle Cranley. To discuss business, but..." He gave a shrug that was more Gallic than German as if what happened to Ruth was inevitable. “I will take the baby to her mutter, you do not haf to trouble yourself.”

“Not a problem on my end,” Doyle countered, pretending to rock the basket behind his back. He’d hooked the handle over his left elbow in case he had to go for his gun quickly. Shuffling slightly right, Doyle tried to prevent either of them from seeing what was under the blanket.

He hoped the duo would not be brazen enough to start anything in a public building, but Doyle wasn’t putting his chances on winning in a full-on clash. He wasn’t about to use his weapon here so he needed to keep his wits about him and bide his time until a certain partner returned. With the two men so far apart, Doyle had to take a chance on which to confront head on. Back in the convent, the Russian had been the more volatile. Stood to reason he’d be easier to prod into violence which would catch the attention of the security guards.

At least, that was Doyle’s plan. He turned slightly away from Wagner, adrenalin flooding his body. The fight or flight impulse left him edgy; the whole room seemed suddenly brighter, more intense and he could see hospital visitors whispering beyond the periphery of the triangle made by he, Wagner and Shostakovich. The sour faced woman at the reception desk picked up a telephone. Doyle watched her mouth moving and he realised he’d lost focus on his prey.

“We finish this interrogation,” the Russian said, shoving Doyle roughly off his feet.

The German darted from behind, wrenching Doyle’s arm back to slide the basket from the crook of his elbow. Doyle felt a distinct pop when his upper arm came out of the socket. As pain exploded from his shoulder to clamp down on his chest, time seemed to slow, each movement a separate frame of film.

The baby basket swung in a wide circle as Wagner belatedly realised there was no child inside. He bellowed and the people nearby pulled away in fear.

Bodie erupted through the crowd on the far side of reception, scattering medical staff and visitors, with the security guards in his wake.

Startled, Doyle shouted, “Bodie!” unable to break his fall. His left arm was useless, hanging limply. Crashing to the lino, his breath went out in a whoosh. He hadn’t expected Bodie from that direction, he’d been trying to watch the lifts.

The Russian aimed a kick as Doyle rolled out of the way, going for his holstered gun. Even crossing his right arm over his chest hurt like hellfire but he hooked the pistol with the tips of his fingers by the time two security guards arrived. He wouldn’t have been able to aim anyway, his lungs were still locked in a battle with his diaphragm over whether to inhale or exhale.

His vision starting to darken, he saw Bodie slam into the Russian.

~*~

Bodie paced outside the curtained exam room in A&E. Of all the bloody, idiotic things Doyle had ever done in his eventful life, this had to be the one that steamed Bodie the most. Seeing Doyle drop, his face as pale as carved ivory, had almost stopped Bodie’s heart. If he hadn’t been able to aim his rage at the fucking great Russian, he’d have scooped Doyle up in his arms and run for a doctor.

As it was, a visitor collapsing in hospital automatically brought reams of medical personnel. Doctors, nurses, assorted other unidentified staff had come streaming in equipped with trolley, stethoscopes and oxygen. Obstreperous to a fault, Doyle initially refused all aid until it was obvious that his left arm wasn’t moving on command.

Which had left Bodie to explain the circumstances first to the security guards and then to a constable from the Chippenham police department. They’d carted the protesting Russian and German off to the nick. Bodie had no doubt that once Cowley was on the scene, he’d demand that the men be released into his custody quick as a flash. At least Verity was safe upstairs with Dr Brazelton. Bodie hadn’t waited to hear Ruthie’s status before bolting from the third floor.

Striding past the curtain a fifth time, Bodie was about to throttle a member of the staff when the pink cheeked emergency doctor stepped out.

“Dislocated,” he said succinctly.

“His shoulder?” Bodie specified. That wasn’t too bad then. Painful, but completely survivable. He’d had similar years ago in Rhodesia.

“He wants you to come in.” The doctor eyed Bodie critically for a long moment.

The bloke might look like a boy barely past his O levels but he seemed intelligent and alert.

“Says you’ve dealt with this sort of thing before. You a doctor?”

“No, but I once reset me own shoulder.” Bodie shrugged the left as if to explain; the agonizing pain when he’d pulled and then clicked the bones back into alignment not easy to forget.

“We’re overwhelmed this evening and my nurse is in with another patient. If you could give a hand with Mr Doyle, he’ll be out in just a tick.” He held open the curtain with a confident grin. “Name’s Sherriff.”

“You’re in the wrong business,” Bodie observed wryly.

“Never liked westerns,” Dr Sherriff said. “Prefer spies.”

So do I, Bodie thought.

Doyle lay on a wheeled bed, his face still far from a normal healthy colour, with his left arm angled awkwardly across his chest. “Oi. Took you long enough.”

“Had to change Verity’s nappy before coming to your rescue,” Bodie responded. A stroppy Doyle didn’t bother him--this was standard operating procedure after one of them was injured. Helped defer the pain and shakes from the aftermath of adrenalin. Even so, the knot in his belly had loosened at seeing Doyle grouchy and alive.

Sherriff glanced between them with a satisfied nod and snapped on a pair of rubber gloves.

“Didn’t do a bleedin’ thing to rescue me,” Doyle whinged, gingerly tapping his misshapen shoulder. “You’ve done this, yeah?”

“Always did want to yank your…” Bodie cleared his throat. He had the oddest urge to pull Doyle into his arms and hold him tight. He hadn’t been this emotional when he’d found Doyle bleeding out on the floor from a bullet to the chest. “Shoulder back into alignment. You’ve been a bubble off plumb since I’ve known you.”

Doyle gave him the stink eye and Bodie had to stifle a laugh. Yeah, he wasn’t hurt bad.

“Can you help him take his clothes off?” Sheriff asked Bodie. “I’m going to give you a jab into the joint.” He held up a syringe to show Doyle. “Lidocaine; it’ll numb the area for about five or six hours. Once we’ve got the humerus back into the socket, you’ll need a sling for a fortnight.”

“Brilliant.” Doyle rolled his eyes. “I can get undressed on my own.”

“Like to see you try,” Bodie challenged. He’d have loved to have a naked Ray in his bed. Here in the exam room, when Doyle was clearly hurting, not so much. “Jumper, holster and overalls.”

“I’ll check if the woman the other cubicle is actually in labour,” Sheriff said, slipping out of the curtain.

The heavy Irish cable knit jumper came first. Bodie eased it off Doyle’s right arm and then carefully manoeuvred it down the injured left one. His finger barely brushed Doyle’s nipple but the effect was electric. Bodie stopped, nerves nearly frayed. Underneath the overalls, he could feel Doyle’s left nipple peak immediately.

“Hey,” Doyle gasped raggedly, his pupils dilating.

That innocent contact was all it took to arouse Doyle! Bodie was close enough to see Doyle’s Adam’s apple rise and fall when he swallowed. The sight tightened Bodie’s groin. Damn! How were they going to be able to do anything when every single movement was suddenly laden with sexual innuendo? Feeling liberated, Bodie spread his whole hand over Doyle’s breast bone, one finger rubbing against the other nipple.

“Bodie,” Doyle said on an exhale, his heart rate under Bodie’s palm trip hammer fast. “Not here…” He tugged at the buckle for his shoulder holster, grimacing. “How’d you take down the two bullyboys?”

Bodie shook a finger at him. “Let’s get this off you first.” He slid the strap out of the buckle, and flipped the entire assemblage off in one go. Doyle clenched his jaw, holding onto his left wrist, the fingers of his right hand white with the strain.

Bodie had to lean closer to unsnap the overalls. “Don’t move,” he said softly, their mouths nearly touching. One more inch and they could easily have kissed.

Doyle’s skin was hot against Bodie’s hand, his warm breath caressing Bodie’s cheek, and Bodie longed—no, he needed to press his lips against Doyle’s. He yanked on the overalls distractedly.

Doyle moaned, but it wasn’t with passion. Bodie reeled back with chagrin.

“Bugger!” Doyle growled. “Go easy. This ain’t a striptease.”

“Could have fooled me,” Bodie said as lightly as possible, gently slipping the blue sleeves down until Doyle was naked to the waist. He had to change the subject fast to decrease the testosterone in the room. Not to mention adrenalin and every other fucking hormone in his body. “Hospital security called in the troops,” he said, taking a step back. “Chippenham police stormed in like the Americans on the beach at Normandy, full of piss and vinegar. Witnesses all said Wagner and Shostakovich were the attackers.”

“Cowley’ll want them in our custody,” Doyle said.

“Excellent! All ready,” Sheriff announced, appearing suddenly. He snapped on a new pair of gloves and picked up the syringe he’d filled earlier.

Doyle curled his lip and then seemed to freeze for half a second when the doctor inserted the needle. He held his breath as Sheriff withdrew the needle slightly and angled it differently.

“Getting the drug deep inside,” Sheriff said, raising the syringe and then depressing the plunger a third time. “Distributes it better than one jab.”

“You say that now.” Doyle exhaled slowly when the injection was finished.

“Cry baby,” Bodie chided, leaning against a metal supply cart. The distance from a semi-naked Doyle helped, although the view of the old bullet scars on Doyle’s chest brought back all sorts of morbid memories. “I slammed me own shoulder against a rock to put it back in.”

“Pull me other one,” Doyle snorted. “Where’s Verity, then?”

“Brazelton was at the nurse’s desk when I got up there. Dumped her majesty into his arms and chased back down the stairs.”

“Expected you from the lifts,” Doyle said. He seemed to relax incrementally as the anaesthetic took effect. “What about Ruth?”

“I didn’t ask. Had to save your sorry hide,” Bodie answered. He cared about Ruth, it was true, all the more because she was quite probably the mother of his daughter. Or Doyle’s, didn’t make much difference, when it was all said and done. But he didn’t—love--her the way he did Doyle.

Love. Bodie wanted to shout it to Doyle and conversely, whisper it privately in his ear.

He did neither.

“Mr…?” Sheriff asked politely.

“He’s called Bodie, when we care to address him by name,” Doyle said, with a depreciating smile.

“Ta, sunshine.” Bodie raised two fingers in a salute.

“Now I know exactly how me mum must have felt when I’d get in a kerfuffle with me twin,” Sheriff said dryly. “Mr Bodie, if you could hold him firmly against the bed, this has a tendency to hurt.”

So Bodie got his wish, to put his arms around Doyle. He leaned in, left hand around Doyle’s good shoulder and the right braced on his bare chest. Bodie could feel his partner’s heart beating rapidly under the palm of his hand.

Doyle looked directly into Bodie’s eyes, away the doctor. Something powerful and true shot through Bodie from the connection with Doyle. Without any logical reason why, Bodie saw into Doyle’s soul. They felt the same way.

As Sheriff grasped Doyle’s arm, yanked straight back and then abruptly twisted, Bodie mouthed the words ‘I love you’ to his partner.

Doyle stiffened with a ragged gasp, his eyes never leaving Bodie’s face. “I know.”

“Better, isn’t it?” Sheriff asked, stepping back. “Went back in like a treat.”

“Doesn’t hurt,” Doyle answered, still more focused on Bodie than his injury. There was a flush of pink across his cheeks.

Bodie laughed, light hearted as a schoolboy, giving Doyle’s right arm a squeeze. “That won’t last. You’ll need a dram or two of Cowley’s best to get through the night, me old son.”

Sheriff chuckled, stripping off his gloves. “When Mrs Fink is finished with the patient in bed one, she’ll be in with a sling and a prescription for something to dull the pain. Ice it every hour to reduce the swelling, as well.”

“Never put ice in whisky in my life,” Doyle retorted, probing his repaired shoulder with his right hand.

“I’ll get the paperwork completed straightaway and be out of your hair,” Sheriff promised, flipping back the curtain to leave.

Silence descended, Bodie suddenly came all over nervous at the prospect of bringing up the subject at hand. Doyle’d known all along, had he? Bodie took two steps away from the bed to the supply cart, feeling like he needed the distance. Doyle was too bloody… distracting, with his glower and insolent slouch.

“How’d you…?” they said in unison .

Doyle grinned, full on, like sunlight after a squall. It sweetened the odd angles of his face, turning him into a roguish swain. “You started this,” he put in cheekily.

“Me?” Bodie retorted. “You go round in jeans painted on your bum… holster framing those pecs and how’m I s’pposed to…”

“Your scouse is showing,” Doyle taunted, but there was naked longing in his face. “I’ve never known what to think about you, Bodie. Got under my skin from the first. I thought I’d—“ He broke off abruptly when a battleship in the shape of a nurse wearing a blue uniform came sailing into the cubicle.

“Doctor has a prescription for some medication for you, and this sling,” she declared, holding up a complicated series of white bands and mesh cloth.

Sounds of running feet and the undulation of an ambulance siren came from outside the curtain, and then a shout. “Mrs Fink, we need your assistance stat!”

“I can handle this one,” Bodie assured her. “We’ve both had them before.”

“Sign the papers there,” Mrs Fink indicated a line under the discharge instructions, “and take the pink copy. Leave the white one.” She was gone in the blink of an eye.

“Give it here, then.” Doyle held out his good hand for the sling with a resigned expression.

“Need your clothes back on first,” Bodie pointed out. He’d experience with this now. He helped Doyle back into the overall, accidentally jerking the left sleeve too firmly into place.

Doyle yelped, which he hadn’t even done when Sheriff was realigning the joint. “You nearly undid all the doctor’s good work!” he ground out, clutching his left arm against his chest to ride out the pain. “Hauling my arm around. Give me that fucking thing!”

“You want to do it yourself, go ahead.” Bodie knew much of this complaining was Doyle’s way of dealing with the aftereffects of the injury. He hated being fussed over and hated the loss of pride. Bodie tossed the sling into Doyle’s lap.

There was considerable swearing and sweating while Doyle fumbled one handed with the straps and Velcro. He finally conceded very begrudgingly to Bodie’s help.

Looping the final piece into place so that Doyle’s arm was held snugly in the sling, Bodie smirked. “Is it always going to be like this with you?” he asked, the urge to kiss his partner still very strong. “One part romance to two parts aggro?”

“Wouldn’t know. Haven’t seen evidence of romance yet,” Doyle retorted, brushing Bodie’s lower lip with the pad of his thumb.

~*~

Doyle was weary to the bone, his chest aching and throat scratchy. And that was on top of the damned dislocated shoulder. Yet, he felt giddy, lighter than air, Chippenham an amazingly wonderful place to be simply because Bodie was right beside him. Or, more specifically, directly in front of him; bending slightly to push the long handle of the door out of A&E with enough force that the seat of his trousers stretched tightly across his arse.

The sight gave Doyle heart palpitations, but he didn’t mind in the slightest. He swung his right hand forward, to casually brush across that luscious derriere, and heard a sound he really didn’t want to acknowledge.

“3.7, 4.5!” Cowley announced as they emerged into reception. “I’ve been looking for the both of you.”

Murphy hovered behind him as if he really hadn’t wanted to come along to this particular party. “We’ve only just arrived,” he said by way of greeting. “Where’d you get those clothes, the rubbish bin at Oxfam’s?”

Bodie stopped so abruptly that Doyle ran smack into him, which didn’t give Doyle the vicarious thrill he’d hoped for. Despite the lidocaine, pain radiated through his sore muscles. “Nuns,” Doyle said through his teeth.

“Sir,” Bodie straightened, his military training coming to the fore. “Doyle was in–“

“I see,” Cowley said critically, eyeing Doyle’s sling. “One of you always seem to land in doctor’s care.”

Doyle’s cheeks flushed hot and he would have blurted out an angry retort, but Bodie put a placating hand on his waist. An intimate gesture, but one Doyle realised they’d done for each other any number of times. No-one, particularly Cowley, would think anything out of the ordinary.

“The men who assaulted Miss Pettifer are in custody, with the Chippenham police,” Doyle explained, holding himself as stiffly as possible to keep the pain at bay. “We haven’t learned their names as of yet.” He glanced at Bodie to make sure what he said was up to date.

Bodie’s eyes smiled into his without his expression changing in any way, except for a slight tilt of that damned arched eyebrow.

“But I did ascertain that they work for foreign corporations heavily invested in a scheme to launder money by hiring out holiday cottages…”

“You’ve got the basic facts.” Cowley nodded, clearly impressed. “Good work! Now, where is the information Pettifer was supposed to hand over?”

“Undoubtedly having her supper,” Bodie put in.

“Och, what are you on about?” Cowley said gruffly.

“Come meet the newest member of the squad.” Doyle mashed the button for the lift, laughing.

“6.2, go on over to the Chippenham PD and remand those two into C15 custody,” Cowley ordered as the lift descended. “And by God, find out their actual names.”

“Yes, sir—I’ll take the car and you can drive back with Bodie and Doyle then?” Murphy asked, hope of escape easy to read on his face.

“Well, no.” Bodie grimaced. “Unless we get a lift back to Castle Cranley, and I think it’s better for Doyle to stay put for the evening.”

Doyle stared at Bodie, lust and fury rolling around in a confusing ball. How dare he make plans without giving Doyle any say? “That’s--”

“A sound idea,” Cowley said, putting one hand on the lift doors to hold them open. “Now that you’re actually here and can keep an eye on Miss Pettifer.” He nodded as if everything was decided.

“I was more thinking that Doyle needed a quiet night in a—“ Bodie began, stepping into the lift.

Bodie trailed off when Doyle glared at him. He could easily see what Bodie wanted. Like there was a neon sign across his forehead flashing SEX.

As enticing, even arousing as that idea might be, it was far too soon. Doyle hadn’t been with a man since…as if in sympathy, his misaligned cheekbone ached suddenly. Probably due to hitting the floor earlier, but the memory of thugs attacking him outside a bar in 1968, and the beating that resulted loomed large. For so long after, he’d convinced himself that life was over. The anonymous bloke he’d been with had run off during the fight and Doyle’d never seen him again. While he was in hospital to have his broken cheekbone repaired, he’d taken the Prince Albert out of his cock. The piercing had only been there for a few weeks, the hole had closed quickly. He could still feel the slight difference in the end of his penis, if he pinched his fingers to the crown, but otherwise, he hadn’t thought about that until Bodie asked him about piercings earlier.

Doyle, Bodie and Cowley rode up to the third floor in silence. Bodie glanced over once, but Doyle didn’t catch his eye, pretending to scratch his itchy nose instead. He had far too much to think about. In A&E, the thrill of knowing Bodie felt the same way had been such a wonderful gift that he hadn’t thought past the initial joy. They’d have to talk, and soon.

Once Ruth recovered and Verity was back in her mum’s arms.

~*~

Bodie didn’t know what to think. Doyle had clearly been aroused earlier, so what was the problem now? The miserable sod; his mood was as changeable as the London weather. One moment happy, the next surly. Still, he couldn’t help loving his partner. It was as natural as breathing.

“I’d like to speak to Miss Pettifer’s doctor immediately,” Cowley proclaimed, glancing around the third floor as if the man were waiting for him impatiently.

As an orderly pushed a cart stacked with used dinner trays, Bodie’s belly rumbled. It had been at least two hours since the sarnies in the van. Too bad the nuns hadn’t sent along a container of that excellent soup. He’d thanked them a second time during a call to report that they’d all arrived in Chippenham without incident. Which was the truth—Doyle’s injuries came afterwards. He’d thought it best not to mention the battle in reception. Celestine had promised to pray for them in any event.

Funny how that provided a certain kind of peace inside.

Colum Brazelton was bouncing Verity on his knee, sitting on a stool at the nurse’s station. “Well met, good fellows!” he called heartily.

Verity chortled as if he were Morecambe or Wise. She tossed something Bodie couldn’t see onto the floor.

“How very middle ages of you,” Doyle responded.

“Renaissance, more like. Practicing for the local Faire.” Colum grinned, handing Verity a similar toy. She dashed that one to the floor, too.

“You’ve going to have to clear this up before you leave, Colum,” a nurse who could have been Joan Collins’ stunt double said with mock severity. “Can’t have Dr Malcolm seeing the ward like this.”

“What are those?” Bodie asked as Verity snatched another plastic container off the counter and hurled it to the floor.

“And who is this?” Cowley asked, far more sternly than the nurse had.

“Excuse us, sir,” Bodie gestured at the duo behind the desk. “This is Colum Brazelton. He and his dad brought Ruth to hospital in their ambulance.”

“Da!” Verity greeted them with a cry of delight. She fluttered her fingers at Bodie and Doyle. “Da da!”

“And this is Verity,” Doyle continued, stooping to take the baby from Colum. She cooed when he lifted her with his right arm. “Ruth’s daughter.” Only a slight wince betrayed that her twenty pound weight must have twinged his damaged shoulder.

“Ah.” Cowley’s expression didn’t change but his blue eyes warmed. He ducked his head to look straight at the baby. “Hello, Verity. Verra nice to see you again.”

Always a good judge of character, Verity smiled broadly, dimples deepening, and tried to grab Cowley’s nose.

“You knew about her?” Bodie demanded.

“I did indeed. Miss Pettifer confided in me that she was with child when she took her extended leave.” Cowley chucked Verity under the chin. “Very little that happens on my patch gets past me, 3.7,” he added. “Except for the fact that you say there’s new member of the squad?”

“I’ll go get me da,” Colum offered. “He was in with our Ruthie the last time I looked.”

Nurses walked back and forth in their duties. They had clearly already seen the baby at the nurse’s desk, although a few glanced warily at the three men.

“Verity is a card carrying member,” Doyle said. “Bodie, can you do the honours?”

Pleased that they had something Cowley didn’t know, Bodie transferred Verity to his lap. “Your touch is finer…” Suddenly aware of how erotic that sounded, he altered it abruptly. “More precise. You did it last time. “

Doyle looked into his eyes for a milli-second; long enough to warm Bodie’s heart.

Kissing Verity’s cheek, Doyle perched on the stool Colum had vacated. “Hold still, my girl.”

While Bodie steadied her chin with one hand, Doyle prised the black dot off her earring with two deft fingers. Having done this once today, Verity stayed quite still although she muttered dirty baby language until Doyle finished.

He held out the microdot on the end of his finger. He didn’t complain about pain, but the skin around his eyes was stretched tight. Bodie frowned and mentally added a chore to their ever growing list. They’d never filled the prescription for pain killers.

“Ruth secreted information, assumedly about illegal money laundering, on this dot,” Doyle explained, winking at the baby.

“Ba!” She stared and attempted to wink back but only succeeded in blinking both eyes.

“Clever lass, I’ve always said.” Cowley nodded, pulling out his glasses to set them on his nose. He examined the dot carefully. Filching a sheet of paper from the nurse’s desk, Cowley folded it into a little packet and tucked the microdot inside. The makeshift envelope went into his inner lining coat pocket. “The two of you sussed out the scheme on your own without knowing details beforehand?”

Not sure whether that was a compliment or not, Bodie snorted as Doyle surged to his feet in fury. “Don’t let ‘im get up your nose,” he muttered, balancing Verity on his hip.

“Put two and two together, didn’t we?” Doyle said with a dash of surliness, bracing his injured arm against his chest. “Your meetings with Ewan Campbell all last week, as well as the article in the Times. Although, Ruth must have given you specifics since you sent us to fetch the results.”

“Nah, ba-baa,” Verity said as if adding her opinion.

“Or we wouldn’t have been sent on a chase through the sodden countryside.” Bodie patted Verity on the back when she kicked him in the ribs. “You and this Campbell needed whatever Ruth ferretted out to bring sanctions against Vacances de Europe, and the rest of them.”

“Aye.” Cowley pursed his lips, taking his spectacles off to tap the earpiece against his lip. “Miss Pettifer had originally taken the job at the tourist office to help pay for expenses after her mother’s death and the bairn’s arrival, but she’d been at CI5 long enough to recognise when a firm isn’t on the up and up.”

Leaning over to tickle Verity’s round tummy, he continued, “Your mum overheard suspicious conversations and rummaged around to find the sources.” He folded his glasses and tucked them into the pocket with the microdot. “She rang me and I put her back into play; she’s been observing the owner, a Brit called Joseph Bottom, for us these past two months.”

“Should have Murphy pick him up along with the others,” Bodie said.

“Miss Pettifer contacted me shortly after the two of you left to say that Bottom had disappeared the night before and she’d only just learned he was gone. Unfortunately, you were out of r/t range by that time,” Cowley continued. “I informed Ewan Campbell and a warrant has been issued for Bottom’s arrest.”

“Bodie! Doyle!” The red moustachioed Dr Brazelton strode up the corridor. “Chuffed to see you both safe. What happened in reception? You were hurt?” He stared at Doyle’s sling.

“An encounter with a couple of yobbos intent on hiring a holiday cottage,” Bodie said blandly. Although the good doctor seemed to be close friends with Ruth, there was no need to embroil the man in an international conspiracy.

“Doesn’t interfere with my shooting arm,” Doyle quipped, aiming a finger at Bodie.

Verity had found the outline of Bodie’s holster and was trying to sneak her fingers inside his jacket to touch the enticing object. “Not there, lovely lady,” he warned. “That’s a no-no.”

She pouted.

“How is our Miss Pettifer doing, man?” Cowley demanded, his concern obvious. “Can she speak?”

“Ruthie was unconscious all the way to hospital.” Brazelton beckoned them down toward room 315.

Bodie exchanged a worried glance with Doyle. Head injuries could leave lasting damage. What would happen to Verity—not to mention the charges against Vacances de Europe and its owners if Ruth were permanently incapacitated?

Verity popped a thumb into her mouth, waving at her mother’s room, her bare feet kicking against Bodie’s stomach. Not much better than his ribs, really. “Mamamama.”

“Once we were in A&E, she wavered in and out for an hour or so. She’s now awake, but woozy and in pain.” He paused, one hand on the doorknob. “Please do not unduly stress her. She was so relieved and happy to see Verity, but her recovery depends on rest and time.”

“Miss Pettifer’s health is of utmost importance,” Cowley assured.

“As a local professional in Castle Cranley, Dr Brazelton may have some insight on Joseph Bottom,” Doyle suggested slyly, stepping past the doctor to push open the door.

“Excellent!” Cowley turned his laser beam blue eyes on the physician. “What do you know of him?”

Colum came out of Ruth’s room as Doyle stepped in, almost colliding with him. “She’s wondering where you are,” Colum said pleasantly.

Bodie took the opportunity when both were distracted to plop Verity into her Uncle Colum’s arms. “We’ll give her our good wishes for a speedy recovery. Should have brought grapes.”

“Ruth would be the first one to spit the pips at you,” Doyle said over his shoulder.

As he passed through the doorway, Bodie could hear Cowley questioning Brazelton on Bottom’s business ethics. Crafty Doyle, Cowley would be out of their hair for ten minutes, if not more.

Ruth lay facing away, her long fair hair spread across the pillow. Only a smallish gauze dressing marked the wound on the side of her head, although Bodie noticed that there was still a smear of dried blood curled around her ear. Her left eye was beginning to blacken in the aftermath of the head wound, as often happened. The usual accoutrement of a hospital stay were clustered around her bed: IV hanging from a pole, the plastic tubing snaking into her right arm and a discarded oxygen mask dangling from green elastic cord on the wall just above Ruth’s head.

It reminded Bodie far too much of visiting Doyle when he was in a coma. The fact that so much he’d learned today harked back to the early part of November 1980 was truly eerie. He had to look over at Doyle, to see him standing there hale and only slightly less than hearty, to assure himself that he hadn’t stepped into one of those weird science fiction series where everything was the same but all slightly wrong.

They were alone—more or less—and the need to hold Doyle, to affirm how much he loved Doyle, had never been stronger.

“She looks like Sleeping Beauty, to be awakened with a kiss,” Doyle said very softly.

“I don’t want to kiss her,” Bodie countered, touching his partner’s good arm. “I want to kiss you.”

Doyle smiled, turning toward the curve of Bodie’s arm. “Shouldn’t. Think I’m coming down with the grippe.” He cleared his throat with a half-cough.

“The both of you,” Ruth rasped, with her eyes still closed. “Shut it.”

“You’ve awake!” Bodie exclaimed, well aware how inane that sounded.

“If you want to call it that,” she said acerbically. “All in all, I’d rather be on the shooting range, perfecting my aim with a Walther PPK. At least the banging in my head would have a source.”

“I know the feeling.” Doyle fetched the only chair in the room to sit down.

Bodie could tell he must be hurting. Ordinarily, Doyle leaned on the closest piece of furniture. “Yet you manage to find a nest of intrigue in the middle of a sleepy hamlet,” Bodie teased. “I just may have to call you Miss Marple from now on.”

“No-one got murdered,” Ruth shot back coolly. “Or poisoned. Concussions don’t count.”

“Skull fracture,” Doyle corrected her. “Dame Agatha would never have included the fatherless babe in any of her stories.”

Trust Doyle to yank the best left unsaid into the limelight.

“There is that.” Ruth scooted carefully up and pressed the button on the side rail of the bed to raise the head slightly. She sucked in a breath and closed her eyes, waiting out a dizzy spell.

Bodie poured a paper cup of water from the pitcher on the bedside locker and handed it over. He’d been concussed and sick enough times to know the signs.

Ruth sipped the water without opening her eyes. “I didn’t mean to keep her a secret. Not entirely.”

“Not with a name that means truth,” Doyle said, glancing up at Bodie with such sweetness.

“I had her to myself. She was mine and I rather liked it that way,” Ruth answered after a pause, looking down at the cup. “Isn’t she fantastic? Breathtakingly lovely.”

“The most beautiful woman in the world.” Doyle touched Ruth’s bruised face. “Takes after her mum.”

“Thank you for rescuing her…us,” Ruth amended, “this morning. I didn’t calculate the odds very well, did I?”

“She was safe with Klari, and your friends knew what to do.” Doyle smiled slightly. “Seems to me you’ve been an excellent mum. Miserable sods that we are exposed her to the wet, took her for a ride in a jaunting car, in lashing rain—“

“Don’t forget smuggling her here in a postal van, not to mention eating soup lovingly prepared by nuns,” Bodie continued the story. “Our Verity, or as we like to call her, Danger Mouse.”

“Don’t you make me laugh,” Ruth warned, pressing two fingers against her forehead as if trying to shove the pain away. “I’m not sure I want to know what went on but there’ll be no watching of cartoon rodents on telly.”

“Did you ever try to find out which one of us was her father?” Bodie asked more seriously. It had ceased to matter to him, but from a practical point of view, it might someday be relevant for inheritance reasons. Not that he or Doyle had tu’ppence to leave to Verity.

She didn’t ask how they’d figured it out. “No, and I realised I didn’t want to know. She was made from love.” Ruth tiredly shoved back a hank of pale blonde hair, humming a familiar tune. “Like the Stevie Wonder song. I wasn’t in love with either of you, not the way the two of you loved each other.”

His heart in his throat, Bodie stared at her. How had she known when he hadn’t acknowledged it himself at the time? Doyle’s face reflected Bodie’s shock. Who else might have noticed their close relationship nearly two years ago?

“There was love between us all that night, a purity that made her,” Ruth said, reaching out to grasp their hands. “And I didn’t care to pin a paternity suit on either of you—but also I didn’t know how to break the news, so coward that I am, I waffled. Until you discovered on your own,” she added ruefully.

“Solo mum raising a babe on her own. Yeah, sounds cowardly, doesn’t it?” Bodie rolled his eyes in mock derision. “Verity’s clearly got me looks.”

“Oi!” Doyle objected. “She has my brains, it’s obvious.”

“Actually, Verity strongly resembles my father.” Ruth regarded them with her patented icy superiority. “The blue-green eyes and brown hair, so I doubt either of you can stake a claim.”

“Never knew you had such a kinky bent, Miss Pettifer, “Bodie said straight faced. “Your own father.”

“That’s enough out of you.” Ruth shook her finger at him.

The door opened, emitting Cowley, both Brazeltons, and of course, Verity. They clustered just inside: the room was really too small for five men standing around. Bodie and Doyle had to step back against the far wall to make space so they could come closer to the bed.

“Mamamama!” the baby cried, leaning so far out of Colum’s arms that he had to plop her onto the bed to avoid depositing her onto the floor. “Ba da,” Verity babbled, climbing onto Ruth’s lap.

“Nice to see your eyes open,” Colum said with a smile that spoke volumes.

Bodie glanced between the two of them. Ruth’s eyes were brimming but she graced Colum with a watery smile before she broke into sobs, clutching her daughter. Verity delicately slipped a chubby hand under her mother’s hospital gown, clearly reaching for a breast.

“Sweetling.” Ruth chuckled through her tears. “Not in front of…” She pushed Verity’s hand down, wiping the wetness off her face with her left hand. “Mr Cowley, I’m that sorry, really-“

“My dear lass.” Cowley cupped her battered face gently. “We’re just grateful you are alive to tell the tale. And it gives me another opportunity to get to know your lovely daughter.”

“How is your head, Ruthie?” Brazelton asked, in his professional capacity. “You need your rest. I’ll shoo these hooligans out on your word.”

Doyle chuckled, elbowing Bodie. “You going to let him call you that?”

“His eye sight is feeble, poor old man,” Colum grinned at his father. “On the other hand, Ruthie is mad as a hatter.”

“This is better medicine than anything I’ve gotten in hospital,” Ruth assured, smiling at her family and colleagues. “I expect you’ll want a full account of what occurred, sir?” she asked Cowley.

“Only if you’re up to the task, Miss Pettifer,” he said formally.

“This morning-- I’d been over to the tourist office and found that Bottom had scarpered,” Ruth began, her voice rough. She was obviously exhausted and in pain, but defiant. “I was about to leave when two men arrived. I didn’t recognise them.”

“The German and the Russian?” Bodie clarified.

“I’m certain the German is called Hans Bachmann,” she said. “I’d heard his voice on the phone, calling Bottom.” Ruth stroked Verity’s cheek, tugging at an earlobe and tracing her finger around the tiny earring there.

Despite her mother’s earlier protestations, Verity had liberated a breast and latched on eagerly. Ruth caught her breath and then exhaled as if the connection righted something inside.

Bodie had only seen a few women breastfeeding, and all of them had been when he was in Africa in his late teens. This seemed so very intimate, especially in the presence of the two men who were most probably Verity’s fathers.

“Carry on,” Cowley said, as if there wasn’t a partially bare breast in view. “Bachmann? He worked for Vacances de Europe?”

Ruth’s pale cheeks pinked up but she kept a straight face regardless of Verity’s loud suckling. “Yes. He’d ring regularly—I pinched the phone records--and tell Bottom to let one person or another hire a cottage. Often, they were German or Slavic names. Bottom would charge these people far more than a British holiday maker which is what caught my attention.”

“Excellent deducting, Miss Pettifer,” Cowley praised.

“I still can’t get my brain ‘round Joey Bottom working for those criminals!” Brazelton fumed.

“From what I can glean in the Times article I read,” Doyle said, “the British government has been suspicious of a scheme where foreign investors launder illegal monies by purchasing cottages in small towns for hire by the week.”

“Aye.” Cowley nodded. “The rental fees kept the money flowing back to the original investors, as well as giving foreign nationals a base of operations should they need to come to the UK. We’ve already nabbed a man who’d been staying in Castle Cranley. He brought over guns from the Soviet Union, we suspect to assassinate a Member of Parliament.”

Ruth winced, the pain from her skull fracture more apparent. Clamping her lips together, she pressed a hand to her forehead, still cuddling Verity.

“You look done in.” Doyle rubbed her shoulder. “We’ll take our leave, let you rest.”

“Someone will have to look after the baby,” Brazelton reminded, grasping Ruth’s wrist lightly to take her pulse.

Ruth smiled crookedly when Verity pulled off the nipple, milk dribbling from her pink lips. “You’ve found the microdot, I see.” She put a finger on Verity’s left onyx earring. “Verity’s no longer a courier. Can’t she stay with me?”

“On my orders, no.” Brazelton scooped up the sleepy baby. “As well as the hospital rules. We’ve bent them a bit because a mum needs to see her wee one, but she’s not supposed to be here at’all. Infants are known bacteria fomites.”

“Bodie and Doyle will guard your room until the morning—“ Cowley began.

“Who’ll watch her highness?” Bodie protested, wiping a smear of milk off Verity’s chin. “Doyle’s got a gamy wing.”

“I could take you on with one hand tied behind me—“ Doyle started, scowling at Bodie.

Bodie had to work not to laugh: he’d meant to get up Doyle’s nose, it was part of the fun. Everything was more fun with Doyle around, even more so because now he knew Doyle’s heart. When they were ever going to have free time to indulge in his fantasies, to kiss for that matter, was anyone’s guess.

“In all respect, sir,” Colum spoke up, his face slightly flushed when they all turned to look at him. “I’m in the fire brigade as a medic, as well as just out of the Royal Army. If you’re needing a bodyguard for Ruthie…”

Cowley was no fool. He assessed the situation in a glance, flicking between Colum’s hopeful eagerness and Ruth’s sudden studied composure. “3.7 and 4.5 have been on duty for over twelve hours,” he stated as if considering a change in rota.

Doyle elbowed Bodie exactly where Verity had kicked him earlier. It hurt. He didn’t care in the least if Colum got them some alone time.

“Your offer is quite commendable, Mr Brazelton,” Cowley concluded. “Miss Pettifer, I’ll expect a full debriefing when you are fitter. Until tomorrow, Mr Brazelton will keep a keen eye on your whilst Bodie and Doyle mind the baby.”

Bodie gawped at his superior.

~*~

“We’re to watch Verity?” Doyle repeated. From the stunned expression on Bodie’s face, his reaction matched Doyle’s. What about some quiet time, alone time, to sort out their new found romantic attachment? At the very least, Bodie could have bought him a nice lager or something stronger, like narcotics, for the pain in his shoulder and he could sleep the night. The tight burn in his chest and throat were intensifying. He dreaded the idea of coughing with an injured shoulder. “We’ve been looking after her—all day!”

“I can’t thank you two enough,” Ruth said sleepily, reaching out to hold Colum’s hand.

The door pushed open, cramming all five men and a baby even closer to Ruth’s bed. “Visiting time’s long since past,” an Indian accented nurse informed them with authority. “Because of the… sensitive nature of your investigation, the matron allowed more visitors per room,” she paused to frown at the sleeping baby, “as well as overlooked rules about children in hospital, but now you must give the patient time to sleep.”

“Mr Brazelton is—“ Cowley smiled slightly, “her designated bodyguard and will remain.”

“Nice to see you again, Mrs Singh.” Colum waved from where he was perched on the bed. “I can note down Miss Pettifer’s vital signs for you hourly and report in all night.”

“The rest of this lot are leaving,” Ruth added.

“Ta, Colum.” Mrs Singh smiled. “Good night to the rest of you.”

The men filed out of the hospital room with muttered goodbyes, and Doyle was at the end of the parade.

“You and Colum, eh?” He winked at them. At least they had the opportunity for some whispered sweet talk between visits from the medical staff. “Never would have guessed.”

“And you a trained investigator,” Ruth smirked.

By the time Doyle joined his colleagues in reception, Bodie was cuddling the sleeping baby and receiving last minute orders from old George. Dr Brazelton was nowhere to be seen.

“We’ll be ready to escort the ambulance back to London at nine in the morning, sir,” Bodie said. “Except the Capri—“ He greeted Doyle with a glance, and his arched brow softened despite the stiff upper lip appearance.

“Already sorted,” Cowley said brusquely, with an undertone of scolding. “Murphy’s had a local operative away over to the Castle Cranley car park to pick up your motor. Next time, take more care.” He checked his watch. “I’m expecting 6.2 any minute—“

His patience, or lack thereof, as Doyle easily recognised Cowley’s pique, was immediately rewarded when Murphy arrived bearing paperwork.

“Isn’t he Johnny on the spot?” Doyle snarked because he felt peevish and out of sorts. The sling was digging into the back of his neck like a noose. “Where’s the car?”

“Me mate’s brought it round to the car park out back, no thanks required,” Murphy replied just as testy, proving that he’d had a long day, too. Murphy was generally unflappable. He tossed a ring with a familiar key into Bodie’s outstretched hand.

“You have the suspects in custody?” Cowley demanded, marching so quickly to the entrance that Murphy had to jog to catch up.

“On it, sir,” Murphy said as they walked into the night.

“Just us, then, eh?” Bodie shifted Verity more comfortably in his arms, the baby bag slung over his shoulder.

Doyle hadn’t seen the pink and blue striped bag in hours, yet here it was back again, like a bad penny. He wondered briefly what had happened to the basket. Glancing around reception, he spied it sitting on the abandoned inquiry desk. “What did the old man command us to do?” he asked, collecting the basket.

“He and Murph will be bringing Bachmann and Vladimir Denisov—“

“Shostakovich and Wagner were such obvious aliases.” Doyle’s mood was lifting with every second he spent alone—well, relatively alone—with Bodie.

“You’d be a whiz at crosswords with a brain like that.” Bodie smiled, all teeth as if he wanted to nip and taste Doyle’s flesh.

Doyle wanted him to, more than anything. He cleared his scratchy throat; wouldn’t do to expose Bodie to more cold virus than he already had. Kissing was out of the question for the near future. He had to stand firm.

“They’ll hold them over for questioning at headquarters until tomorrow morning,” Bodie continued.

Except Bodie’s lips were so very kissable. Doyle watched that delectable bottom lip move up and down as Bodie spoke. On the ‘m’ of morning, Bodie’s lip curled inward to meet the top lip and—

“Hey?” Bodie said louder than necessary.

Doyle sucked in air, coming to his senses. He almost dropped the basket. “What?”

“You’re fading on me. There’s a hotel across the street where we’re to stay. Put you right to bed, I will.”

That sounded good, too.

“With you?” Doyle asked, using his good hand to rub his increasingly stuffed up nose. He followed Bodie out the hospital doors. The Capri was one of a handful of cars left in the car park.

“With Verity in the room?” Bodie scoffed. “Mind you, she’ll have to sleep in a drawer.”

“I’m fairly certain we can get a cot for her from the manager. Or there’s her favourite basket to fall back on.” Doyle frowned at the car. There was no way he could drive with one arm and Bodie was carrying the baby. “Walk across the street?” he proposed.

“Good idea, Ollie,” Bodie said in a passable Stan Laurel imitation.

The hotel was the sort frequented by desperate people needing a place to stay with a family member in the hospital or folks sleeping the night. The décor was minimal and the hopelessness palpable. Doyle stood in the middle of the pea green threadbare carpet trying to decide if he could tolerate lying down on one of the disreputable beds. Who knows what sort of body fluids had been spilled on the gray-green stripe? Blood would have shown up well against the pattern, so he was safe there.

“The height of elegance,” Bodie murmured with a snort.

“We are on CI5’s quid.” Doyle coughed into his fist. As he’d suspected, the effect was not at all pleasant on an already painful shoulder.

“Give us that basket.” Bodie snagged it out of his hand and placed a sleeping Verity inside, covering her with the blanket. “You next.”

Bodie put his hand on Doyle’s arm to tug him toward the bed: that was all it took. Doyle surrendered completely, finding himself tucked into the crook of Bodie’s elbow, without remembering the seconds in between standing apart and being half of a whole. He inhaled, drowning in Bodie’s rich aroma, felt Bodie’s heart pounding in time to his own and –

Coughed.

“Bloody hell!” Doyle exploded, pulling away so violently that his shoulder erupted in agony. “This is not the time!”

“Shush, you’ll wake the baby, sunshine,” Bodie said, irritatingly cheerful.

Verity had already proven herself able to sleep through the most adverse conditions. She was curled like a shrimp, the blanket scrunched around her, sucking on her thumb.

“We can always kiss tomorrow,” Bodie continued, lifting one shoulder as if he’d leave the decision up to Doyle.

“I mean the coughing, git.” Doyle breathed raggedly, another cough nagging his chest, straining to get out. He hacked twice in quick succession, and flopped back against the bed pillows, spent. “I’d rather kiss you now.”

“That can be arranged.” Bodie sat on the edge of the saggy mattress, running a barely there hand up Doyle’s abdomen to his chest.

“You’ll catch whatever I have,” Doyle answered morosely. Perversely, Bodie’s hand felt just right rubbing gentle circles on his breast bone. Didn’t even matter that his shoulder felt like it had swollen to three times its normal size.

“Raymond, a sneeze blows—“ Bodie waved his hand in the air as if riffling through the invisible matter. “Cold germs at 100 miles per hour. Jax and Anson back in London, and everyone in between, were exposed to your nasty snot.” He leaned down, coming nose to nose. “Doesn’t matter a ha’ppence to me.”

“Romantic,” Doyle murmured, capturing Bodie’s mouth. He didn’t think of what could be, or what had been, only what they were right that moment.

The kiss wasn’t perfect; Doyle’s raspy breathing ended it far too soon, but it was their first and therefore, all the more precious. Bodie waited possibly a second to let Doyle suck in air before diving in for another try.

Doyle’d always known his partner was a good kisser. He’d had ample evidence to support the premise from birds they had shared to the random twirl in a pub who’d kissed Bodie for a pint and proclaimed him the best kisser she’d ever had.

Bodie’s lips were pliant but not too soft, the chafe of his whiskers a delightful contrast. His tongue pushed insistently into Doyle’s mouth, warm and wet and incredibly sensual. Doyle wasn’t about to submit so easily though: he curled his tongue, joining in a dance with Bodie’s. Opening his eyes, Doyle stared directly into Bodie’s blue depths, drowning in lust.

Then he sneezed. He had enough of a tickle in his sinuses to pull back and turn away before he let loose, but that put an end to any erotic play. Doyle moaned in the aftermath, cradling his throbbing arm.

“You need painkillers and a good kip.” Bodie laid the palm of his hand on Doyle’s forehead. “No fever. And here I thought I raised temperatures on those I’ve kissed. I’m crushed.”

“Idiot,” Doyle ground out. “Where are you going to get anything at this time of night?”

“Tesco’s. Saw one when we were on the bus.” Bodie stood with a nod. “The chemist is undoubtedly closed by now but I recall some paracetamol in the glove box of the car. I can get a bottle of Guinness at the nearest pub. Guinness for health, you know.” He mimed drinking a large glass and started for the door. “Besides, I’m in need of something in my stomach—been ages since I ate.”

“You’re a stomach on legs,” Doyle said wearily. “Get baby formula and nappies as well. Princess Ve will be peckish sooner than later.” He watched Bodie walk away with regret. “Oi.”

“Yeah?” Bodie stopped with the door open, framed against the dark passageway.

Doyle was caught between rampant sentimentalism and his usual cynical pragmatism. He pushed away thoughts of his late teens when the very worst had crushed his spirit. “I think---“ He huffed a breath, fighting the need to cough, as Bodie’s face lit from within. “No, I know I love you.”

“Be calling you Percy Booth Shelly next with such poetry,” Bodie said with a smirk. “You’ve been what got me through the day longer than I can remember.” He left before either of them could get any sappier.

~*~

Despite the rough circumstances, chaotic day and no chance of a reprieve any time soon, Bodie had a spring in his step. The kiss… they’d only kissed twice but there was the promise of so much more. He could not wait. The possibility of catching whatever Doyle had didn’t worry him a jot. The knowledge that he and Doyle were united sent him over the moon.

He trotted across Rowden Road, retrieved the Capri from the car park and drove a mile in the opposite direction to the grocery. Was this how it would be, having a family to care for? Responsibilities, putting their needs first? The idea that Doyle and—Verity—were depending on him, waiting for him was both scary and wonderful.

His ability to take stock of his surroundings during an obbo paid off. Tesco’s was still open, although a sign said they closed at ten pm. There was just time to run in and grab what was needed.

The single cashier sat at her till looking slightly bored and sleepy. “We’re lockin’ the doors in five minutes, mate!” she called out over the thrumming beat of a Gary Glitter song on the radio. A thick necked boy in a blue uniform lounged next to her till, clicking his fingers to the music.

“Won’t be a mo, petal,” Bodie responded.

He collected the baby items immediately, although the price of a pack of nappies was enough to make him cringe. Feeling indulgent towards her majesty, he added a small black and white stuffed panda to his basket.

He didn’t even have to search for the biscuit and sweets aisle, simply located a package of Swiss Rolls without trying. Bodie grabbed a cheese and pickles sandwich that looked only slightly squashed from the ready-made section. He spied a bottle of Ribena that must have been left between the sandwiches by some absent-minded customer. Doyle loved Ribena. And it was healthy—at least Bodie thought it was, he’d never drunk the sticky stuff. He knew it mixed with fizzy water, so he shoved the blackcurrant juice and two bottles of Perrier into his basket. It was getting heavy.

Ray would need something to eat, too—was it feed a cold and starve a fever, or the other way round? He could never remember. Two bananas and a peach went in with the rest. Bodie grinned rubbing the soft, fragrant peach, remembering the obbo when he was undercover and Doyle sold him the fruit. Lush, ripe, full of…he suddenly wanted his hands full of Doyle; to cup Ray’s arse in both hands and hold on.

“Oi!” The teenaged cashier waved at him. “Closing up, make your purchases now or lose ‘em.”

Bodie shook himself. Caught mooning about his lover in the produce section. Was he—the thought was enough to stop Bodie in his tracks as he loaded his purchases onto the conveyer belt—becoming domesticated? The SAS officer who’d travelled through Africa as a mercenary in his teens, now a family man? What would happen next? Was he going to start carrying around photos of Verity to show to colleagues?

“Fifteen pound, sixty-five p,” the cashier demanded, snapping her gum between her back teeth.

“You know a good pub near here?” Bodie asked, to break the direction of his thoughts. He handed over a bank card. After the bus ride, there wasn’t more than a few pound notes and a couple bob in his pocket. He looked down to see her name tag. It was clipped to her pink Tesco’s uniform with a Ramone’s t-shirt underneath. “Trish?”

“Oh, yeah!” Trish brightened, ringing up the payment. “Just round the corner. White Horse. Me and me boyfriend are going, right, Andy?” She pointed to the security guard leaning against the only exit.

Andy was a tall, hulking lad with a wide forehead and very little hair. The buttons of his uniform shirt strained over a thick chest. Bodie was glad to note that he didn’t seem to be armed. Local security then, for the late nights when his girlfriend was in the shop more or less alone. Not like the guards at most big buildings in London carrying semi-automatic weapons. Andy didn’t really look like he’d know how to point a rifle, much less fire one.

“Needed a pint ‘alf an hour ago,” Andy announced cheerfully.

“Looking for Guinness,” Bodie said, gathering up his sacks of groceries.

“White Horse’s got that.” Trish locked up the register with a key and then used a larger one on the front door, ushering Bodie and Andy out.

Stowing the carriers in the back of the Capri, Bodie’s fertile brain kept churning up new and frightening images; Doyle in the kitchen cooking up appallingly healthy fare without a single chip or fried sausage on the plate. Verity sitting in a highchair, banging a spoon on her tray, the cost of raising a child mounting with every inch she grew. Schooling, outings, dental work—Bodie’s belly clenched in a way that never happened when he was in a shoot-out. When would it end?

“You all right?” Andy clapped a big paw on Bodie’s shoulder, nearly shoving him over. “Look like a black cat’s walked over your grave.”

“Simply in need of a pint,” Bodie declared.

Trish snapped her gum loudly and linked arms with Andy. She was clearly the leader of the duo.

Rain had started up again while Bodie was in the shop, so the bits of him that had finally dried off were rewetted in the short walk to the pub.

The White Horse was a place for locals, not the tourist trade. No half timbers or old fashioned hunting prints on the walls. There was a standard bar with a beefy, red-faced barman pulling the drinks, a dozen tables filled with working class folk, and a dart board on the back wall. Bodie liked it immediately. He paid for a bottle of Guinness to go but sat watching the televised sports news about England’s chances of advancing to the semi-finals of the World Cup, nursing a glass of the dark, rich Irish brew.

Bodie bought himself a packet crisps, cheering lustily with the drinking crowd when a clip filmed earlier in the day showed England winning a goal against the French team. This was the sort of life for a man: friendly mates who didn’t weigh a bloke down, the ability to come and go easily without worrying about those waiting for him. No expectations. He downed his Guinness, licking the foam on his lips.

Lips. Those two kisses had been bliss. Doyle’s lips were unlike any woman’s Bodie had ever snogged. It wasn’t simply because he didn’t wear lipstick, and it wasn’t at all about the rasp of beard. It was that he’d kissed Doyle’s lips-- the mouth he’d watched for the last four years. The person he’d lusted after for four years.

As much as permanence, commitment, scared him, he’d been claimed the first day he met Raymond Doyle. He’d tried valiantly to avoid the attraction, the connection, but it had been there all along. Hell, they’d coupled that November night in 1980, he’d just never wanted to acknowledge the fact because it made his bond with Doyle that much more powerful. He’d liked being mates, best friends, because that didn’t tie him down.

It was useless to deny what had already happened. Not to mention that he—possibly, probably—had a daughter. Whether she was from his or Doyle’s seed, she was still their daughter, because they were together.

“Up next,” the BBC news presenter said from the television, “the on-going investigation into money laundering by foreign businesses using a scheme to hire cottages in British tourist destinations.”

Brought back to the present with a jolt, Bodie stared up at the screen to a photo of a man with silver white hair wearing an elegant two thousand pound bespoke black suit and a Queen’s college tie. A banner underneath identified him as Sir Ewan Campbell. Ah, Cowley’s crony.

Bodie left without a wave. Andy and Trish were deep in a game of draughts, laughing to each other. Suddenly, Bodie wanted to be with the man who made him laugh and cross his eyes in equal measure.

That late at night, there were few people on the road. Bodie made it back to the hotel in moments, munching on the cheese and pickle sarnie while he parked. Lugging the groceries into the hotel room, he paused as Doyle emerged from the tiny bathroom wearing nothing but a towel around his narrow waist.

“Didn’t expect a welcome like that,” Bodie said archly to cover his quickening pulse and breathing. Doyle was like a teenager’s dream.

“Must have been lengthy queues at the shop.” Doyle turned his back, attempting to towel himself off one handed with his left arm held close to his chest.

Bodie grimaced at the obvious bruising and swelling around Doyle’s back and upper arm. It deflated his blossoming arousal. Yanking off his damp jumper and shaking the rain out of his hair, he crossed the small room. “Shouldn’t be doing that on your own,” Bodie said, coming up behind his partner. He grabbed another towel off the rail to gently rub the water droplets off Doyle’s back. “I…” he wasn’t sure what to say to explain his absence.

Verity mumbled in her sleep and erupted into ear splitting howls.

~*~

“She could drive nails through wood with that scream!” Bodie groaned, dropping the towel to scoop up the baby.

Doyle sucked in air, torn between sudden rampant desire and the niggling fears that had been raising their ugly heads while Bodie was gone. This was a different era, he was a different man than when he’d been attacked. Bodie was special, and Doyle already knew Bodie inside out and sideways.

The one thing he could not do without a great deal of pain was lean down and grab the towel on the floor. That left a skimpy one to cover himself until he got dressed again. Truth be told, he wasn’t all that keen on putting on the borrowed jumper and overalls, not to mention the damp pants that had never dried all day. The sling he’d love to drop into the nearest garbage bin, except that his sodding arm ached like a raw tooth.

“What’s the problem, then?” Bodie bounced Verity on his hip. “Nappy’s wet, yeah?” He glanced at Doyle and frowned. “Uncle Ray is out of commission, so this one’s on me, love. First time for everything.”

Verity screwed up her face with a howl and hiccupped abruptly, her eyes bright with tears. She pouted, lip pushed out as far as it would go, swearing in baby language under her breath.

“You can field strip a rifle with your eyes shut,” Doyle observed with half a grin. Bodie looked quite apprehensive about the job, as if he was about to dismantle an explosive. “She has more moving parts, but pretend the enemy’s on your tail and you’ve got to finish before you see the whites of their eyes.” He sat down on the edge of the bed, gritting his teeth with the lingering pain undressing and showering had caused. Cleanliness did have its drawbacks. Draping the towel over his lap, Doyle poked at the Tesco carriers to see what Bodie had bought.

Bodie wrinkled his nose at the smell emanating from Verity’s bum. “Then I’ll need a second in command,” he said, laying her down on the desk opposite the bed. “Nappies, Corporal.”

“I should have a higher rank.” Doyle dug out the pack of nappies one handed, but there was no way he could open the tin of powdered formula nor put it into a bottle. Bodie was on his own with all the baby care. “Wounded in battle, I was. Deserve a medal at the very least.”

“While I’m shovelling shit?” Bodie breathed through his mouth.

“Da ba,” Verity said insistently, grasping her chubby thighs while Bodie fumbled with the sticky tapes holding the nappy in place. “Mamamamama.”

Wrestling wiggling feet aside, Bodie got the logistics down and tossed the dirty nappy in the bin. Flush with his own victory, he even managed to divest Verity of the pink striped baby grow Sister Esther had put her in and tugged a tiny blue flowered nightgown over her curls. When her head popped through the opening, Verity flashed him a brilliant smile, pointing at her mouth.

“Well done,” Doyle said. “You’ll be tying her hair in pigtails soon enough.”

“She’s got the looks of a fine batsman. I can see her all in whites, scoring a century.” Bodie set her down by her basket and reached toward the baby bag for the bottle.

“Were you raised by wolves?” Doyle chided. “Wash your hands.” He rolled the peach in his palm, inhaling the luscious aroma. Ambrosia. “This for me?”

Bodie grinned, rinsing off his hands and using the towel he’d dropped on the floor to dry them with. “No more buying like Noah,” he said over his shoulder. “One peach for one partner.” He up-ended the carrier, dumping out the bananas, box of Swiss rolls and formula.

Verity cooed with obvious interest, going to all fours to reach for the groceries.

“She is hungry,” Doyle commented, tasting the peach. It was perfect: lush, juicy, and delicious. “The bottles and teat are in the bag.”

Bodie grunted, opening the tin of powdered baby milk. He measured a scoop into a bottle and held it under the tap to mix it with water. “Hold your horses, Princess Ve.”

Formula was not her goal. Verity chortled to herself, crawling close to the bed. She fisted handfuls of the gray green stripe cover, bunched both thighs and pulled herself to a triumphant, if unsteady, stand.

“Blimey!” Doyle exclaimed. Had she been able to do that this morning? Did Ruth know or were they witnessing a new ability?

Verity glanced once at the panda peeping out from the second bag but was not deterred from her goal: the box of Swiss rolls. She pointed excitedly, bouncing on her toes, holding tightly to the bed. “Aa, bababa.”

“She can stand!” Bodie grinned, screwing the teat onto the baby bottle. “That deserves a reward.”

“Do not give her Swiss rolls.” Doyle sneezed, sniping at his nose. “Babies need good food to grow on. There’s nothing nutritious—“

“Since she recognises the box.” Bodie carefully opened one end and extracted a wrapped chocolate cake. “I’d say her mum was the guilty party.” He ripped into the plastic and took a bite.

Verity wailed in outrage, reaching up for the treat. “Mamamama!” she shrieked.

“See?” Bodie broke off a tiny piece and popped it into her mouth like feeding a baby bird. “Tesco always makes the best ones.”

Verity crowed delightedly, plopping down on her padded derriere to really enjoy the morsel. She demanded more immediately, flexing her fat little fingers expectantly.

Much to Doyle’s chagrin, Verity and Bodie finished off two of the small rolls. “She’s clearly your daughter,” he sighed.

“With milk to wash it down with.” Bodie nodded, cuddling Verity into his lap. She latched onto the bottle, grabbing it with both hands as if worried Bodie would take it away mid-meal. He looked down at her with incredible fondness.

Doyle liked watching them, the quiet domesticity. How their lives had been turned around in barely twelve hours, and by a little slip of a girl.

Was this how it could be like if they were other people? Sitting together in the evening, a family of three, safe as houses? He didn’t expect it to last. Ruth would recover, Verity would go back to her mum and they’d arrange some sort of visitation schedule so that he and Bodie could see Verity’s regularly. Holidays and the occasional Bank Holiday Monday. With their erratic schedules, they surely wouldn’t be by to take her to the zoo every fortnight.

What about he and Bodie? Could they make this complex situation work to their advantage? Partners at CI5 and in the bedroom? He shivered. It wasn’t only the spectre of doom he could envision; he was cold sitting without any clothes on.

Before the bottle was empty, Verity’s eyes closed, her body relaxing in sleep. Bodie carefully tucked her into the basket and pulled the blanket around her. Last, he placed the new panda next to her fingers.

“Now you,” Bodie said, eyeing Doyle.

“Me?” Doyle asked, momentarily flustered.

“Starkers in front of God and Queen, when you already have a cold. Into bed with you.” Bodie bustled around the small room, gathering supplies. He positioned the tissue provided by the hotel, two fairly clean glasses, Paracetamol, Ribena, fizzy water and Guinness on the small dresser beside the bed.

“I can’t quite face putting those clothes on again,” Doyle sighed, sliding into bed naked. “Not sure Ribena and beer go together.” He laughed, reaching for the Guinness. The action of turning and extending his arm sent radiating pains all across his chest and left arm. Bugger.

“Thinking about your health, sunshine,” Bodie said slowly but his eyes were on the bits Doyle couldn’t quite hide before he pulled the covers over his groin. “And I don’t mind the show at all.”

Doyle swallowed Guinness directly out of the bottle and passed it over to his partner. They’d shared spit any number of times on stake-outs and long obbos. Which meant he was passing along his cold virus, but then—they’d already kissed, so what did it matter. He examined Bodie carefully, feeling suddenly like an outsider seeing the man for the first time. The striking figure, well muscled and upright, with the carriage of someone who’d fought for what he had, both on the battlefield and in life. The dark hair with a hint of curl, perfectly accenting the pale skin and beautiful blue eyes. Altogether an alluring package. He knew Bodie liked what he saw of Raymond Doyle; had read the admiration and the appreciation of his figure in Bodie’s eyes before he’d even recognised the arousal for what it was.

So what held them back? What had been holding them apart from each other for so long? He knew his own reasons. Understood the pejorative distain society had on gay men. But he sensed Bodie had different concerns.

Bodie tossed back two swigs of beer fast, like he needed the Dutch courage. And, unless Doyle missed his guess, Bodie had already had at least one glass that evening. He handed the bottle back, gesturing at the bottle of paracetamol.

“You were gone so long earlier.” Doyle downed four tablets with a drink of beer. “This all scares you,” he said softly, his sore throat giving his voice a raspy edge.

“What?” Bodie stared at him, caught in the motion of unwrapping another Swiss roll. “Don’t know what you’re on about.”

“The homely life, family.” Doyle waggled his fingers at the detritus of the shopping, Verity’s mess and his clothes hung over the rail in the bathroom. “Settling down. It’s not—“ He coughed and had to wait out the flare of pain that caught his chest in a vice. “Not two blokes at all. You’ve never had this.”

Bodie chewed thoughtfully on the cake, licking the cream filling off his bottom lip. “And you have experience with blokes?” he asked without looking up or acknowledging the other subject.

“Yeah, some,” Doyle confessed hesitantly, hugging his aching shoulder and arm close to his chest. He should have put the sling on, but he hated the way it pinched the back of his neck. The Guinness was beginning to work its magic; he was feeling looser and sleepier, even before the pain killers had time to take effect.

Bodie looked directly at him, eyes wider than usual. “When?”

“Summer of ’68—I was a kid, full of meself, ready to take on all comers.” Doyle shook his head ruefully, the tendency to take himself too seriously was something he still battled with. “All ponced out in leather, went to the bars I’d been warned to keep out of—“

“Got pierced?” Bodie asked, eyebrow arched more than usual.

“In retrospect,” Doyle reached for the Ribena but Bodie beat him to it, “it wasn’t a well thought decision, and I paid the price, in the end.” He tapped his damaged cheek, waiting until Bodie had mixed the dark, rich liquid with Perrier. “Well wishers beat me to within an inch of my life, but the bloke I’d been with got away.”

“Damn,” Bodie said softly. “Was he your…”

“Not really.” Doyle started to shrug but remembered a fraction of a second before the ache was too acute to breathe. He clenched his jaw, Bodie already saw enough of his pain. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted. Surely wasn’t a hippie, couldn’t fathom joining the Army… except for the vague idea of sleeping with a squadron full of men.” He smiled faintly at Bodie.

“Don’t know what you missed, sailor,” Bodie said in a mincing voice, holding up a limp wrist.

“Dabbled in art school, slept with women, slept with men.” Doyle paused to drink the sweet fizzy concoction. It felt heavenly on his raw throat. “Got pissed and went to the piercing parlour.” It had been so long ago, but the sharp point of the needle going through his cock wasn’t something he could ever forget. “After I’d been beaten, took it out in hospital. Turned me back on that part of my life and tried not to think about it ever again.” He stared up at his partner. Bodie was suddenly closer than he had been seconds before. “When I met you, not letting myself want you was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”

Bodie stroked Doyle’s cheek with the back of his knuckles, gentle and yet masculine, as if wiping all the old scars away. Doyle had to will himself not to move, tears too close to the surface for reasons he couldn’t totally understand. He turned his head, brushing his hair on the inside of Bodie’s wrist as Bodie ran his thumb down to Doyle’s lips, dabbing away a drop of Ribena. Doyle opened his mouth, using his tongue to draw in Bodie’s thumb. He didn’t over think, didn’t anticipate. They lived in the moment so much of the time when there was violence and danger. He wanted to preserve this forever.

“Between the two of us, we’ve enough baggage to require a railway porter,” Bodie said softly. He removed his thumb and kissed Doyle; the actions of a lover seeking shelter, love and passion.

Bodie was careful, which Doyle appreciated. He didn’t pull on body parts or jostle Doyle’s shoulder. Breathless and lightheaded when they separated, Doyle barely felt a single ache. “For a man with no experience, you know how to kiss.”

“That’s the same, bird or rooster,” Bodie said flippantly.

“Cock-a-doodle-doo.” Doyle chuckled and was rewarded with a new stab of pain. He tried hiding it but Bodie was close enough to feel his every wince and twinge.

“Where’d you leave that sling?” Bodie clicked his tongue like a disapproving granny and climbed off the bed to investigate the clothes Doyle had dropped in the bathroom. “We’re going to have to postpone any physical activity until Macklin’s given you the all-clear on the shoulder.”

“God, no!” Doyle moaned. “He’ll have us both so exhausted there’ll be no wanking for weeks.”

“That what you want to do?” Bodie had located the canvas and Velcro straps underneath Doyle’s overalls. The expression on his face was a unique blend of hopefulness and risqué innuendo. “Wank, snog…”

“Make love,” Doyle said tenderly, caught in the blue depths of Bodie’s eyes. “With you.” He was more than disappointed not to be able to do it right then and there, also slightly relieved not to be coupling with Bodie while Verity was in the room. How did parents in small houses find any privacy?

The baby exhaled noisily in her sleep and turned over, pulling the panda in close. The once favourite dolly lay abandoned at her feet. Light from the bedside lamp limned the round contours of her cheeks and glinted in her onyx earrings. Doyle wondered how he’d fallen in love with Verity so quickly and completely. The look on Bodie’s face when he tiptoed past the basket proved that he was smitten, too.

“You’re right, y’know,” Bodie said, cupping Doyle’s elbow to slide it cautiously into the sling. “I never had this. Gran and me, we were inseparable after me mum died, but the house was quiet, and I needed noise, action,” he shrugged, with a shake of his head at his own youthful indiscretions. “Violence, I guess. There was no man around the place to take me in hand. No brothers or sisters. When I lost Gran, I left to lose myself. Plain and simple.”

“You needed an anchor.” Doyle hitched his breath when Bodie guided the straps up and around, shifting his painful shoulder in the process. He’d tried to get away from his sisters, his simple roots, but somehow, they were always there tying him to family and friends, even when he found them in the most unlikeliest of places like a convent. “I forgot to ring Celestine.”

“I did whilst you were in with the Sheriff doctor,” Bodie said, buckling the last of the straps into place. “Just a quick message to tell her we’d made it—“ he sat back to examine his handiwork, “to the hospital more or less intact.”

~*~

A sharp rapping on the door roused Bodie from a fantastic dream: he and Doyle, on a beach somewhere in the south of France, because everyone, including them, were totally nude and—

The knocking became more insistent.

“Someone’s at the door,” Doyle said drowsily.

Bodie groaned, tossing back the covers and scrambling to shove his legs into his overalls. He’d stripped to lie down with Doyle the night before. Even if they couldn’t have sex, there was no reason they couldn’t generate a little skin friction. Alas, both had gone straight off to the land of Nod, only to be waked by Verity demanding brekker at an ungodly hour. The clock had read 5:35, and since Bodie was the only one with two working arms, he’d had to repeat the routine of nappies and bottle feeding. Doyle had sneezed and coughed the entire time, terribly unhelpful.

He didn’t have time to see the clock now, what with trying to do up enough snaps to look decent.

“Hello?” a voice called from outside.

“Bababa da!” Verity crowed, crawling head first out of her basket, blanket trailing behind like a cape.

She was fast. Bodie nearly tripped on the blanket trying to keep out of her way, and they arrived the door together. Using both hands on the wooden frame, Verity hauled herself onto two legs, wobbling slightly as Bodie reached around her to open the door.

“A blessed good morning to you!” Celestine said cheerfully, her black habit fluttering slightly in the breeze.

The sun was overly bright, searing Bodie’s eyeballs, but his nose still worked and the tantalising scent of sausages and strong coffee did more to wake him than the nun’s greeting.

“We’ve brought breakfast from the hospital caff,” Esther said, sounding almost friendly.

“Ba!” Verity crowed, unable to stand up and wave at the same time. She sat down, both arms going wildly.

“Sister!” Bodie said loud enough for Doyle to hear. “Never expected to see you here.” He could just imagine the working girls looking out their hotel windows to see two black habited nuns walking by. Might just cause them to change their ways. “Uh—Doyle’s indisposed in more ways than one.” He glanced back at his partner. Doyle looked stricken with fear sitting naked in bed.

“We weren’t planning to stay long,” Esther said tartly. “But we’ve come for the young lady—“ She hoisted a grinning Verity onto her hip. “Have they been keeping you well?”

“It’s half past eight, Raymond.” Celestine stuck her head in the door, clearly amused by his embarrassment.

“Nicki! Wait’ll I tell Kath—“ Doyle groaned with a cough, pulling the covers up to his chest.

“I’ve seen you in less, remember.” Celestine grinned. “Nothing more than what the Lord provided us all.”

Bodie cringed: it was quite obvious only one of the beds had been used during the night, but neither nun said anything.

“We’ve already been to see Ruth Pettifer this morning, along with our usual rounds to the indigent patients,” Celestine said briskly, setting down a large satchel and a sack. “You’re expected to escort the ambulance to London in less than thirty minutes?”

“Bloody—“ Bodie started, switching to blimey half way through. The flush that warmed his face was actually welcome with the cold air coming in through the open door.

Celestine smirked at him with a wink. “I understand the sentiment, whichever way it’s said, Bodie. You’d better eat your breakfast and get dressed properly, no time to waste.” She pointed to the sack. “The coffee cups are on in a cardboard holder, sausage rolls on the side.”

“Therese washed your clothes, as well,” Esther put in with her usual arch delivery.

“I’ve never been so glad to see me old polo neck,” Bodie replied, digging into the satchel. All the clothes they’d worn the day before and discarded wet at the convent were clean and pressed. Far nicer than his local laundromat did them, too. “I may have to use your services regularly.”

“Hand me a shirt,” Doyle called out in his scratchy voice.

“We spoke with Colum and Ruth,” Celestine continued. “She’s agreed that we’ll help Klari Deukmejian watch our Verity for the next few days until she can get back on her feet.”

Verity was babbling with great intensity to Esther as if describing every last detail of their journey.

“That’s a relief,” Doyle said, clearing his throat. “I’ve a gammy wing and Bodie here’s all thumbs with the nappy changing.”

“Oi!” Bodie screwed up his face at his partner, just about to take his first sip of coffee. “I’ve gained many skills in a short time. Thank you, Sisters. I’d call you angels of mercy, but that’s your job, innit?”

“It is in our job description.” Celestine surveyed the swath of destruction two men and a baby had made in the room, tapping a finger on her bottom lip. “If you’ll give me a moment to gather up Verity’s things, we’ll take her away with us.”

“Da?” Verity said quizzically as if she’d just realised that she would be leaving her two fathers. Her bottom lip began to quiver, tears welling in her big blue-green eyes. She reached out to Bodie.

“Come here, your majesty.” He lifted her from Esther, taking a step back so the nuns could walk in.

Verity snuffled, momentarily appeased. She glanced over his shoulder at Doyle. “Da?”

Bodie’s chest tightened with joy. There was no longer any doubt what Da meant. It seemed to have multiple definitions, but Daddy was clearly one of them.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he poked into the bag Celestine had brought until he located the sausage rolls. “One for you, one for me and one for Uncle Ray, yeah?” he asked, breaking off a piece of the succulent meat.

Verity grabbed it, ferociously jamming it into her mouth.

“Babies shouldn’t eat—“ Esther started, stuffing the panda, dolly and Verity’s old outfit into the baby bag.

“There’s no stopping her, Sister,” Doyle sighed dramatically, wiping his nose with a tissue. “Verity eats any number of things she ought not.”

“We’ll have more appropriate fare for her later,” Celestine reminded. “Do come by again, Ray, Bodie. Been a very long time since I had to—“ She glanced at Esther with a mischievous glint in her eye. “Improvise at a moment’s notice.”

“Quite a shame,” Doyle observed, “as I recall you being a real pro at obfuscation in your school days.”

“Your sister called it my speciality.” Celestine chuckled, dumping nappies, tissues, food wrappers and the empty beer bottle into the rubbish bin. “Simply gives me more to confess—“

“Keeps the convent lively,” Esther commented with a shake of her head. She put out her hands to the baby. “We’re reading to the tots at the library this afternoon, Verity. You’ll have a roomful of playmates.”

“Klari will come around after her housekeeping job to tuck Verity into her own cot at Miss Pettifer’s house each night,” Celestine added.

“Aaa?” Verity inquired, sucking her thumb. She saw the dolly sticking out of the bag over Esther’s shoulder and waggled her fingers with excitement.

“Don’t know why, Princess Ve, but I’ll miss you,” Bodie said, giving her a kiss. As usual, she kicked him in the kidneys. That bruise would remind him of her for a week at the very least. “You’ll be in line for George’s job before you’ve finished primary school.”

Verity chortled, eyes bright with joy.

“One from me, as well,” Doyle prompted, turning awkwardly because of his sling.

Bodie leaned over so that his partner could kiss Verity. She puckered up her lips with a giggle, licking Doyle’s cheek instead of a proper kiss. Doyle looked incredibly soppy, as if he were losing his best friend.

“Cheers, my lovely,” Doyle said softly.

Bodie handed the baby to Esther, quite aware of Celestine’s scrutiny. Despite the fact that he’d always assumed nuns to be cloistered and oblivious to sex, she was not a naïve woman by any means. She had undoubtedly sussed out that he and Doyle were sleeping together—if, regrettably nothing else—and that the baby, born out of wedlock—was one of theirs.

“God bless you both,” Celestine said serenely, an amused tilt to her lips. “Next time you visit, we’ll give you a tour of the church: eight hundred years of history. Cultural—you missed all that what with bringing along German and Russian hit men.”

“Oi, but you loved it,” Doyle wheedled, and then sneezed violently.

“Our cue to leave.” Esther waved.

“Dada ba!” Verity called out as Celestine closed the door.

Bodie stood still, caught with the brief fear that he’d never see Verity again.

“We know where her mum lives, you daft cow,” Doyle chided. Whether his voice was husky from emotion or the sore throat was up to interpretation.

Bodie laughed in spite of himself. “I was contemplating the visit to the monastery, all those chaste saints.”

“It’s a convent. You couldn’t be chaste if you were lying in hospital.” Doyle tossed back the cover. “Give us a shirt and be quick about it. We’ve got about ten minutes before Colum and Ruth are expecting us.”

~*~

There was a familiar ambulance in the car park when Bodie and Doyle arrived. A pretty nurse, resplendent in her dark blue uniform, was pushing Ruth in a wheelchair out the rear door of the hospital. Colum leaned against the ambulance, arms crossed over his chest, waiting.

“Good morning,” Ruth said with forced cheerfulness, sketching a wave at the three men. Even the small movement looked like it took effort, not quite hiding the fact that she was using the wave to shield her eyes.

“Got some sleep, did you?” Colum asked genially, glancing at Doyle and Bodie.

“More than you, I’ll wager,” Doyle said, grateful that he hadn’t spent the night on guard duty. Verity’s early morning alarm had pulled him out of an enticing but slightly disturbing fantasy where he and Bodie were on an obbo wearing nothing but their holsters and guns.

“Wear your sunglasses, even with these clouds, the glare will make your head hurt worse,” the nurse reminded, parking her by the kerb.

“Thank you, Eileen,” Ruth said, sliding a pair of dark glasses up her nose.

Doyle noted that Sister Celestine must have donated some clothing to Ruth as well. She was wearing a pink bed jacket and matching nightgown instead of the ghastly hospital gown.

Eileen peered up at the sky. “Bound to rain anyway. Have a safe drive.” She handed the bag of belongings to Colum and went back inside.

“Not sure which one of us looks worse for wear, Doyle, you or me?” Ruth gingerly rubbed her forehead. She was pale gray, obviously hurting but clearly determined to keep up her end.

“You’d look a good deal better than Ray on your deathbed, Ruth,” Bodie said with a lecherous grin.

“Wanker,” Doyle said, pursing his lips to keep from laughing. His head was congested, ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton and he still hadn’t got any narcotics to relieve the awful ache from his left shoulder. The less he thought about that, the better. At least Bodie would be driving the Capri. “How are you doing this morning, Ruth? Skull fractures are bloody awful.”

“Her vitals are normal but she’ll never admit to the nausea, blurred vision and headache,” Colum explained with a stern glance at Ruth. “She’s all stiff upper lip and keep calm. Winston Churchill would approve.”

“Shut it,” Ruth said, moving her head as little as possible. “I’d like a word with my colleagues, for a moment, Colum? Then we’ll get this show on the road.”

“Just the hired help, am I?” Colum nodded, going around the van to stow the bags in the front.

Ruth crooked a finger to bring Doyle and Bodie closer. “I was beginning to think that with Bachmann and--?”

“Denisov,” Bodie supplied.

“In custody, and Mr Cowley in possession of the microfilm, we were out of danger, but—“ she frowned, touching the gauze on her forehead as if she couldn’t keep her fingers away, “one of the things that the sisters came to tell me was that Joe Bottom had been found shot dead in Yatton Keynell. Mr Prichard told them late last night.”

“Which means they have comrades out there, possibly in wait,” Doyle finished with a sinking heart. So much for a quiet drive back to London. “I’ve one question, just to satisfy my own curiosity.”

“And that is?” Ruth replied, sounding her old tart self.

“How’d you have the technology to put the files and phone records on microfilm? Keep that around the old family manse, do you?” He coughed into his fist, his throat thick and sore.

“Easy-peezy.” Ruth pinched her fingers together as if making something impossibly tiny. “Once I’d pegged Bottom as working an illegal scheme, I stayed late, came in early doors, to search his offices. He had the equipment hidden, had been sending information back to the Vacances de Europe investors via microfilm.”

“That would set alarm bells ringing right there,” Bodie agreed soberly.

“It was quite fun, in a perverse way,” Ruth waggled a hand to indicate the ambiguity. “Felt like I was back in the old life, doing my part for—“

“Queen and country,” Bodie and Doyle intoned with her, all three laughing.

“Oooh, don’t make me do that.” Ruth bit her bottom lip, blanching. She sighed, obviously exhausted. “No stamina any more.”

“Colum,” Doyle called, supporting his left elbow in his right hand. The sling was murder on his neck. “Lady Pettifer is ready for her carriage.”

Bodie and Colum transferred her from the wheelchair into the stretcher in the back of the ambulance. “Which route do you prefer?” Colum asked. “M4 all the way or back roads?”

“Let’s check the map,” Bodie said. “Don’t want to advertise our trip like some parade in the circus.”

“The faster, the better,” Doyle suggested. “She’s looking rough.”

“I am not,” Ruth protested from inside the ambulance.

“King of the Mach one racer, that’s me,” Colum said with an easy smile.

“Keep it at a sedate pace if you will,” Ruth shot back.

Doyle eased down to sit on the bumper of the van, leaning against the open door to watch Bodie and Colum go over the map. He should be in on the planning, but he felt more than a little rough himself. Not that he’d ever admit that, particularly not to Bodie. He was quite sure Bodie was well aware, anyway. Bodie could read him with a single glance.

“How was Verity last night?” Ruth asked wistfully. “Did she wake you at half past five?”

“She did.” Doyle grinned. If he’d ached to hold her when he couldn’t because of his gammy arm, what must Ruth feel like? “Your first night apart? Verity was a fine roommate. She loves her sweeties, doesn’t she? Ate Swiss rolls with Bodie.”

“She has a sweet tooth, got that from my father, as well,” Ruth acknowledged. There might have been a hint of tears in her voice, but she cleared her throat.

“Then we’ll never know who’s her dad, if your father has all of Bodie’s traits.” Doyle sneezed three times in succession. Bloody hell, that hurt his shoulder. The sling bit into his neck something terrible and despite the painful contortions he’d needed to buckle the shoulder holster in place, he’d refused to let Bodie talk him out of having his pistol close at hand.

Bodie had called him a miserable, stubborn little git.

“I missed her more than I can say,” Ruth said. “I’m so sorry I kept her from you. It was wrong. Mr. Cowley told me that a father would want to know.”

His heart rate accelerating into triple digits in under ten seconds, Doyle gasped, horrified. “Cowley knows it’s one of us?”

“Of course not.” Ruth smoothed the wrinkles on her blanket, looking thoughtful. “I’d never reveal something that… confidential. But he looked that sad, as if he knew the sacrifice of—I’m not sure, losing out on a child’s life, possibly his own child.”

There was a compelling and illuminating notion. Cowley might have had a son or daughter? Knowing Verity had altered so much of Doyle’s concept of himself and his life in only twenty-four hours—he suddenly wanted others to have the same world shift. It wasn’t simply the understanding that some part of him; whatever bit of Doyle-ness Verity might have received in the conception—if in fact, she was his—that would continue on even after his death. There was the whole issue of fatherhood, something he’d rarely if ever thought about. He’d assumed that his current life did not lend itself to family and children. All the more so if he and Bodie stayed together, which he very much wanted to happen. Bodie was his anchor, half of his soul.

Verity also gave him a new perspective on life in general: seeing things through her eyes. The delight she’d had when stuffing chocolate cake into her mouth, her rapid fire learning—he’d seen her pull herself to stand! It was truly amazing.

Doyle knew so little about Cowley’s life between the injury in the Spanish civil war that had caused his limp, his years of service when he knew Annie Irvine, leading to developing CI5. Could there have been a dalliance that resulted in a baby? Until two days ago, Doyle would have argued against such a thing, now he was not so sure.

He realised Ruth was speaking even though he hadn’t been paying any attention.

“Then, when I rang him up to tell him I’d got the information on microfilm, and he told me you two would come fetch it,” Ruth continued quietly. “I knew it was time introduce you to Verity.”

“Quite dramatically, I might add, Mrs Peel,” Doyle teased. “In the family business.”

“Some girls bypass the trainers and school uniform and go for mummy’s high heels and decoder ring straightaway.” Ruth chuckled but it was clear she was fading.

“One more question,” he said, standing. “When’s her birthday? Thought I’d buy Verity her own decoder ring when she’s a year old.”

“Eighth of August, 1981,” she supplied. “I always thought it was such an auspicious date, 8-8-81.”

“Might have to use that number on the Irish sweepstakes. Have a kip on the way,” Doyle said, waving his right hand. “I plan to. Otherwise, Bodie’ll talk my ear off.”

“Oi!” Bodie yelled, walking toward the Capri. “Give Brazelton your r/t.”

Scowling at his partner for ordering him about, Doyle privately admitted it was a good idea to be able to contact the ambulance. He manoeuvred it out of his pocket one handed and threw it to Colum.

“Time to go,” Bodie announced. “We’ve nearly two hours before London traffic slows us down further and I’d like to avoid sloshing through rain this time around.”

~*~

Bodie was unsurprised when Doyle dozed off less than ten minutes after they set out. The combination of a cold and the bad shoulder would have downed lesser men but Doyle had always been one to shrug off his own hurts when he had to focus on the job. Bodie had no doubt that if—and more likely when—they encountered resistance from Vacances de Europe’s rank and file, Doyle would be—figuratively—on his toes in seconds flat.

Listening to Doyle’s congested snore, Bodie peered through the windscreen at the rear end of the ambulance two car lengths in front. Thunder rumbled in the distance and lightning illuminated the ambulance in stark brightness. Colum was a decent, and more importantly, level headed chap who clearly wasn’t scared off by the threat of danger. His driving skills seemed quite up to par, as well. They’d both agreed to stay on B roads for the most part, to avoid traffic and make it easier to spot a tail.

The rain started when they were four miles outside of Bath city limits. Bodie cursed under his breath as the waterworks went from spitting to cloudburst. He could barely make out the ambulance. However, the blue saloon that had pulled onto the road five minutes earlier was creeping on the Capri’s boot with every mile.

The r/t in Doyle’s lap squawked. Bodie made a grab for it, hoping the noise wouldn’t wake his partner, but the tyres slipped on the wet surface. As Bodie overcorrected the steering wheel with his right hand, his left hand went between Doyle’s thighs, knocking the r/t to the floorboards.

“Hey!” Doyle croaked, jerking awake. “Randy git, none of that…”

He grabbed the dashboard as Bodie slalomed to the left and accelerated hard. “What?”

“Blue Ford, not far behind.” Bodie said through clenched teeth without looking at his partner. Driving recklessly in this weather was suicidal. “Get on the blower and tell Brazelton to demonstrate those Mach One abilities. We need to get to the city centre of Bath—our tail will be less likely to ram the us when there are coppers about.”

Leaning down awkwardly, Doyle grabbed at the r/t on the floorboards. “Bloody hell! It’s sliding all over the place.”

Bodie could hear the pain in Doyle’s voice, but he didn’t have time to worry about his partner. Time was of the essence. Peering through the windscreen, he barely made out the sign for Bath on the side of the road. Didn’t matter how many miles at this point. They’d be lucky to make it that far without incident. Much clearer was the advancing blue Ford in his rear-view mirror.

“If you didn’t drive so damn badly, I could catch the fucking thing,” Doyle snarled, finally latching hold with his right hand. His breath caught, tight and desperate, but he finally pushed the talk button. “Colum.”

“Once you warn him, get your gun,” Bodie said quickly, gripping the steering wheel. Even so, he wasn’t expecting the Ford to ram the back bumper hard enough to shove the Capri to the left. The tyres splashed through water, nearly going onto the verge, but Bodie righted them with a severe turn of the steering.

“Bloody nerve,” Doyle ground out, bracing himself with his feet since he had the r/t in his good hand. He sneezed, swiping his nose with the back of his wrist.

“Say again?” Column replied.

“Not you. Blue Ford, can’t make out the number plate, hit us from behind. Fly as fast as that ambulance can go into Bath. We’ll provide cover, just get our Ruthie to safety.”

“Roger that,” Colum answered, his military training showing through. “I’ve contacted some friends. Keep an eye peeled for them. Out.”

“He’s good,” Bodie remarked tightly as the ambulance sped away.

Behind, the blue Ford swerved to the right to get around the Capri. Bodie jerked the little car in front of the bigger vehicle fast enough that they both hydroplaned out of control. The Capri rotated wildly, tyres squealing as Bodie hit the brakes. He was afraid of only two things, hitting an oncoming car in the other lane and Doyle breaking his neck.

Neither happened.

“You need a refresher course in defensive driving!” Doyle shouted, taking his left arm from the sling so he could angle his pistol out of the passenger window with his right hand. Cold rain rushed in, dousing them both. “Never riding with you again, am I? Get us both killed. I could do better with the one arm!”

“Like to see you try!” Bodie shouted, turning sharply to block the blue Ford’s progress yet again.

The Ford hit them the back. The shock wave of metal colliding with metal went up Bodie’s spine, igniting an immediate ache in his head. He heard Doyle grunt in agony but didn’t glance his way.

Wrestling with the wheel, Bodie got the tyres straightened out as two approaching vehicles passed on the right, causing the Ford to drop back. Great waves of water sloshed the windscreen and he couldn’t see in front or behind. He had to depend on Doyle’s accuracy with a firearm to keep the baddies at bay. “The wiper blades are doing damn-all. Can you make out those mugs? How many are there?”

“Two? Plus or minus one.” He inhaled on a wheeze, turned around in his seat with half his right arm out the car window. “Likely Rimsky-Korsakov and friend or some other dead Prussian composers, I’d imagine,” Doyle remarked sarcastically.

He took a shot as Bodie put on speed. In the far distance, to Bodie’s surprise, he could hear the familiar ululation of a police siren.

Pulling the trigger a second time, Doyle sneezed. “My aim’s off every time I sneeze!”

“It’s impossible to sneeze with your eyes open, innit?” Bodie commented, staring intently at the road. Because of the heavy rain, visibility was terrible and he wasn’t even sure he’d see another car coming towards him until it was too late. He slowed incrementally; the last thing he wanted was a smash up on the front end, as well. He had to concentrate on steering, letting Doyle deal with their pursuers.

Thunder boomed so loudly it drowned out the approaching sirens. When lightning flashed across the gray clouded sky, Bodie saw the phalanx of panda cars coming toward them like a rescue scene in a film. “Colum’s friends have arrived.”

“About bloody time.” Doyle fired another round and sagged against his seat as his bullet hit the Ford’s tyre, sending the car into a hedgerow.

~*~

“You coming or palely loitering until your mood improves?” Bodie asked, getting out of the car. He stretched, working out the kinks after the long drive.

Doyle wanted to admire the display but the imposing edifice of CI5 London headquarters ruined any chance of nuzzling with Bodie in the near future. “Not likely to in the next hour,” he said sourly, glaring through the rain flecked. windscreen.

He hadn’t stopped sneezing and coughing since they left Bath, using the entire packet of tissues Bodie had pinched from the hotel. He hated having a cold. Made him feel like a child needing to be tucked up in bed—and the memories of Bodie doing just that gave him the jolt of energy necessary to climb from the Capri. Until they finished this sodding obbo, he and Bodie wouldn’t be able to do that sort of activity. He definitely wanted to be close to Bodie more than once.

To kiss Bodie again.

“It’s wet here on the pavement,” Bodie remarked. “There’ll be tea and biscuits inside.”

Doyle thumped the dashboard, his simmering anger overtaking the romantic contemplation. Damn Cowley. “The old goat knew we’d be waylaid on the road—he should have…”

“The only one wounded in the chase was our fair motor,” Bodie said, patting the Capri. “The mechanic can pound that dent out of the rear bumper in no time. On the plus side, we’ve more of the gang to interrogate once the Bath coppers release Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee to CI5. Seems the white hats won in the end.”

“You would take his side.” Doyle shifted his arm in the sling with a grimace. The holster underneath was chaffing his sore shoulder, intensifying his fury. “Cowley’s fair haired boy. Did you ken—“ he intentionally gave the Scottish term a burr helped along by his sandpaper throat, “he knew about Verity from the start?”

Bodie stopped abruptly at the front of the building, forehead furrowed so much his canted eyebrow seemed to dive right at his nose. “Not that we were--?”

“Wouldn’t put it past him,” Doyle snarled, ducking his head in the spitting rain to dash across the pavement. “He told Ruth that a father should know about his own child.”

“Interesting.” Bodie swung the door open to let Doyle past.

Security in the lobby glanced up at them and waved them on to the lifts without a word. Doyle punched the button for the second level.

“You reckon he thinks he has a child out there?” Bodie asked when they were alone in the lift.

“My thoughts exactly.”

“Always could read your tiny little mind, Raymond,” Bodie said loftily, ruffling Doyle’s damp curls. He brushed a kiss against Doyle’s shoulder.

“What was that for?” Doyle asked, coughing into his fist.

“Avoiding the plague, old son,” Bodie tossed back, going into the hall when the lift doors parted.

Doyle watched his departing bum, love for his partner partially cancelling the foul temper he was in. He continued to harbour resentment. Cowley was an annoying old reprobate, holding back vital information when his agents could easily have gone in better informed. This happened time and time again until he’d begun to suspect that the Cow did it intentionally. Probably relished keeping the A squad on their toes by doling out only enough intel to start the search for the criminals. Forced Bodie and Doyle to think on their feet.

He’d had it.

Speeding up, Doyle pushed past Bodie and burst into the controller’s office with a full head of steam.

“Took the two of you long enough!” Cowley beat him to the punch, examining them critically with a hard glint in his blue eyes. He stabbed the earpiece of his spectacles at Bodie and Doyle. “That young Brazelton arrived nearly an hour ago. I should recruit him.”

“We rounded up two more of the gang, but much you care!” Doyle fumed. A rough, wheezing cough interrupted his rant, setting off a spate of sneezes. He had to sit down in the chair next to Cowley’s desk or fall over. This was the worst yet. With his eyes and nose streaming, his throat raw and on fire, not to mention his throbbing shoulder, he felt like an invalid.

“How’s Ruth?” Bodie asked, glancing at Doyle.

“Go on,” Cowley said irritably, locating a box of tissues from a drawer in his desk. “Give this to him before he drowns.”

Bodie plucked out two tissues and shoved them into Doyle’s good hand, placing the cardboard box within reach. “He’s got a cold,” he explained placidly.

“So I see.” Cowley pursed his lips.

Probably considers contracting a virus a personality flaw, Doyle thought uncharitably, blowing his nose loudly.

“Our Miss Pettifer is tucked up in The London, and a specialist is examining the x-rays taken at Chippenham hospital,” Cowley said finally. “I expect to hear from him within the hour.”

“Why didn’t you give us a farthing’s worth warning what we were walking into?” Doyle demanded when he could get a breath without paroxysms of sneezing. “The article was in the bloody Times, for God’s sake, for all to read. Bottom and his damned employers were tipped off from the get-go!”

Bodie lifted an eyebrow with a slight nod. “Seems as though the article was a mite premature.”

Cowley harrumphed at the mild criticism. “Sir Ewan Campbell’s department. Interpol had been efficiently moving in on offices in The Hague and Berlin, so Campbell expected arrests to be made forthwith.” He put his glasses on, shuffled through a pile of reports on his desk and pulled one out. “Speaking of which, Bodie, the helicopter is waiting on the airfield. You and—“ He stopped, forefinger still pointing at Doyle, before using the stiffened finger to mash the intercom button. “Betty, get Anson. He’s going up north with 3.7.”

“Anson?” Bodie whinged. “He’ll be blowing smoke up my nose the whole way. I’ll be coughing up a lung just like Goldilocks here.”

“Give it a rest.” Doyle honked into another tissue. Getting shot was less unpleasant than this. “Where up north?”

“Bamburgh,” Cowley said succinctly. “A situation similar to Castle Cranley. Small village, out of the way, with many picturesque cottages for hire. Rumour has it that Joseph Bottom went to ground there.”

“I suppose I’ll have to fly the whirlybird, too, yeah?” Bodie grumbled. “Without elevenses to tide me over? No cheese and pickle or even a cup of tea?”

“If you’d arrived in a timely manner, there would have been time for those sorts of benefits.” Cowley stood.

“Those arse-holes tried to run us off the road!” Doyle protested, nose dripping. He grabbed another handful of tissues with an offended sniff.

“Would have, too, if not for one armed Jack here shooting out their tyre, and Brazelton’s mates of the Bath Police. Colum’d called the fire brigade, where he is a medic, and they passed the call along to a few coppers.” Bodie held out the rubbish bin so that Doyle could toss his used tissues in.

“Shows what teamwork can do,” Cowley commented, turning to his drinks trolley. “Did you get the names of our conspirators?”

“Germans, sir,” Bodie answered. “Falkenberg and Stauss, both carrying Walther PKs as well as Makarovs. Didn’t speak much of ze English and my German’s kaput after ordering a Kronenbourg.”

Doyle almost laughed but his breathing was too precarious, poised between sneeze and cough. Bodie was nearly hanging his tongue out watching Cowley pour three small portions of whisky.

“Ah, British and Russian side arms.” Cowley cocked his head, obviously considering the implications. “Interesting, exactly like the man we detained in Castle Cranley.” He sampled his whisky as if checking the quality before handing over the other two glasses. “A wee dram won’t do Doyle amiss and will give you a boost for the trip, Bodie.”

“Ta.” Bodie nodded, taking a good swallow. “This is more like it!”

Doyle sipped his. The whisky going down was like throwing a lighted match into his throat. But once the drink hit his stomach, a soothing warmth extinguished the burn.

“Murphy and I interrogated the two you encountered yesterday,” Cowley said, adding more whisky to his glass. “Bachmann is a quiet one, but Denisov has been singing like a canary all night long—we’ve got the goods on Vacances de Europe, which is a subsidiary of International Adventures Limited. The owners will be running for cover like rats on a schooner.”

The door opened abruptly, Anson’s aromatic tobacco preceding him by several paces. Doyle started sneezing and couldn’t stop, entirely missing the conversation between Cowley and the other two men.

Bodie walked past Doyle’s chair, running a nonchalant hand along Doyle’s neck before he left.

Well aware that was all he could do in public, Doyle was disappointed nonetheless. Wanting Bodie by his side, he stared into his whisky, trying to summon the energy to type a report. Or worse luck, sit in on the questioning of the two new suspects, once they were transported from Bath.

“I’ll get to writing my—“ Doyle started but Cowley cut him off.

“None of that, laddie. I’ll not have you sneezing all over my ‘eyes only’ files.” Cowley waved Doyle to the door. “Off to Doctor Fraser with you. He’ll determine whether you’ve got something more serious than a common cold—then medical leave before the rest of A squad is mopping their noses as well.”

“Yes, sir!” Doyle said with surprise. He’d been sent out on obbos with black eyes and two cracked ribs—a swollen shoulder and drippy nose didn’t seem to compare but who was he to argue with his superior.

He hopped to his feet, escaping before Cowley could change his mind.

~*~

Sick leave was as boring as Doyle remembered from his extended recovery in 1980. The first three days he was laid low with the cold, his head over a steaming bowl to clear his sinuses, and slurping broth straight from a saucepan. Since he was mostly in bed or on the settee, the injured shoulder didn’t really deter him, and a handful of paracetamol was ample for the pain. By the time he’d stopped sneezing, the swelling and ache in his shoulder had improved vastly. Absolutely no bloody way he was wearing the sling for two weeks.

He examined the lounge critically, not having done a thing to tidy up in four days. There were waded tissues over every square inch of the room, discarded bottles of Ribena on the carpet and half drunk cups of tea littering the coffee table. He’d spread copies of The Times and The Guardian on the settee to follow the investigation into International Adventures Limited.

The drone of the telly caught his attention with yet another segment on the dynamic, fashionable Sir Ewan Campbell addressing Parliament. Certainly a heady time for the man, and he seemed to be milking every moment of his new found fame. Not often that the minister of the Office of Fair Trading was featured in every paper and news programme like some film star.

Doyle shook of his head at the strangeness of life, scooping up rubbish into a bag to take to the skip in the alley. He sorted the cushions on the settee into a semblance of order and gathered up the post. Two bills onto his desk and several grocery circulars into the tip. He propped the last envelope, thick creamy stock addressed in lovely handwriting, on his bedside table.

There’d been the odd message from Bodie since he left for Bamburgh, but Cowley had kept Bodie and Anson up north, sorting out the stragglers hiding from CI5. Every time the controller interrogated the four men they’d already detained, there was another bit of information that had to be run down.

Bodie had rung that morning to say he was finally on his way back.

Doyle felt like a school boy anticipating his first date. Should he dress up? Make Bodie’s favourite meal? That was easy enough; run to the chippy down the road, but not until Bodie was actually in the lounge with a beer in hand.

That left a shower—also probably more enjoyable once Bodie was at home—and setting the room to rights. He was dumping the last of the used tea cups into a sink of soapy water when he heard footsteps in the hall outside the flat.

Butterflies chased through his stomach but he stood his ground, raking a hand through his shaggy curls as Bodie walked through the door.

He looked knackered but jubilant. “Afternoon, sunshine. What’s the status on your cold?”

Inordinately happy, Doyle snapped to attention like a soldier on inspection. He held up the empty box of tissues. “Shoulder on the mend, you’ll be happy to know, and haven’t sneezed all day.”

“That is reason to celebrate,” Bodie said gleefully, but he didn’t come near.

Something was holding him back. But what?

They’d both anticipated this moment for so long, now that it was here, Doyle wasn’t sure how to begin. Bodie as well, from the look of him. His eyes were bright with promise, his muscles tense and strained—Doyle had seen that body language when Bodie was waiting for Cowley to bring the hammer down, or alternately on those occasions after he and Bodie had some blow out. One of them had to make the first move.

Doyle glanced down at himself—he’d been wearing the same track suit since the day before. God knows how he appeared, nose all red like a squashed radish.

Bodie wasn’t much better. He was dressed in an old blue jumper and gray slacks, both liberally splashed with mud, the emergency outfit he kept in a holdall at CI5 for last minute obbos. Which meant he’d been alternating between these clothes and the polo neck and trousers Sister Therese had washed for nearly a week. Hygiene was probably not why he hadn’t rushed in with a snog and a grope, but it was a place to start.

“Middle of the day,” Doyle said without preamble. “No-one else in the building, including old Mrs Lacey. Takes her promenade through Kensington Park at half past twelve, she does. Fancies she’ll run into Princess Diana one of these days.” He shucked his jersey quickly, dropping it to the floor. The left shoulder didn’t give him a moment’s pain.

“Saw her leaving, didn’t I?” Bodie asked, swallowing as if his mouth had gone dry. He never took his eyes off Doyle’s face except for one glance down at his bare chest. “What is all this about?”

“Hot water,” Doyle said. He leaned against the kitchen counter to lower his tracksuit bottoms. He wasn’t wearing anything underneath. Couldn’t remember when he’d last done a load of laundry.

Bodie caught his breath and lurched forward one step when Doyle’s willie bounced into view. Pleased with the reaction, but frustrated at Bodie’s reluctance, Doyle stood on one foot to tug the trousers off.

“Hot water?” Bodie repeated as if his brain hadn’t caught up with his mouth, or vice versa.

“Shower, berk. Lots of hot water without competition from the neighbours,” Doyle said with a grin, dropping his track suit bottoms beside the jersey. “Your turn.” He gestured at Bodie’s grimy shirt.

“Lookin’ at you,” Bodie confessed in a rush, licking his lips. He skinned out of the blue jumper immediately. “Won’t ever get my fill—“ He finally came close, putting out a hand towards Doyle’s chest.

Even before Bodie touched him, Doyle broke out in gooseflesh, a thrill running down his spine. It wasn’t that he was naked in front of the man he hoped to make love to— it was simply having Bodie here, with him, now. The desire to be skin to skin with Bodie was all consuming, like an itch that had to be scratched.

Stroking the largest of the bullet scars on Doyle’s chest, Bodie looked straight into his eyes. “I still see you that day, bleeding out on the carpet—“ His voice caught, “every moment since is a miracle.”

Doyle inhaled, not sure there was enough air in his lungs. “That was years ago.”

“Doesn’t seem like it to me,” he whispered, his fingers splayed across Doyle’s chest. “You could have died and I never told you how…” something frightening and wistful crossed his face but it was gone in an instant, “fantastic it was that night with Ruth and whatshername.”

“Can’t remember, old man?” Doyle had to inject some levity into the conversation or they’d be blubbering all over each other like a pair of teenage girls.

Bodie’s lips twitched into a quirky smile. He ran his fingers along Doyle’s collarbone, whispering something too low for Doyle to hear. Could have been “I love you, Ray,” but Doyle wouldn’t put odds on.

“Dumb crud.” He cupped Bodie’s chin with both hands, preparing to draw him into a kiss.

“I’d sit by you in hospital, that night playing over and over in me brain, only weeks past. All of us, in a tangle, Ruth, me --“

“Whatshername.”

“And you.” Bodie’s lips met Doyle’s, both of them taking the initiative at the same moment. “I know Ruth was between us, but I only see you, your fingers wrapped around…”

“Like this?” Doyle breathed, taking Bodie’s zip down one-handed. He’d lost his pants at some point in the last few days. Doyle curved his hand around the tempting rod sticking out from Bodie’s flies, the cock warm and as hard as a copper’s truncheon.

“Yeah.” Bodie exhaled as if discarding all the fears and worries he’d ever had. “Wanted you ever since.”

“You don’t recall Ruth there?” Doyle asked, feeling randy and mischievous. “The evidence born last August proves one of us was with ‘er.” He took a step in the direction of the bedroom, leading Bodie by his family jewels.

“Both of us,” Bodie agreed, his grin hot as a gas flame. He didn’t protest Doyle’s hold and kept up beside him just fine, walking bow-legged. “Not disputing that she was, simply overlooking her—straight into your cat eyes.”

Doyle winked at him, his own arousal making it difficult to walk. When they got to the bed, Doyle manoeuvred Bodie with his back to the mattress, ready to dump him on his arse. Much easier to ravage him that way. The shower—all that glorious hot water—could wait until after.

Bodie hooked one leg behind Doyle’s ankle, twisting. With a single quick thrust, he flipped them around, Doyle landing on his back on the wrinkled sheets.

Surprised, Doyle lost his grip on Bodie. “Hey!” He tried to bounce back to his feet, his cock so stiff it ached, throbbing in time with his pulse.

Bodie grinned fiendishly, pinning him to the bed. “Let down your guard, did you?” Going to his knees on either side of Doyle’s legs, Bodie crouched like a predatory animal with his prey.

In hand to hand combat, Macklin supervising their every move, they were fairly evenly matched. With Bodie’s heavier muscle on top, Doyle couldn’t get up from under him. He panted, pushing at Bodie’s shoulders. Bodie sat on Doyle’s upper legs, pinning him effectively.

His heart pounding in his ears, Doyle capitulated without a fight. Spread out on the mattress, he stared up into those gorgeous blue eyes. No bird he’d ever dated had been as stunning as Bodie. “What’re you planning?”

“Trying to decide whether it’s top or bottom today.” Bodie took Doyle’s right nipple in his teeth, biting down.

“Blimey!” Doyle arched up to meet his tormenter, ready to agree to anything as long as Bodie did that again.

“Because I’m curious.” Using his tongue, Bodie traced a path from Doyle’s sternum to his hipbone. “Heard so much about the late, lamented piercing—“ He nuzzled Doyle’s groin with nose and mouth, gently mouthing his balls.

“Damn, Bodie, you’re a tease,” Doyle gasped, grasping Bodie’s thighs. Whether to stop him or keep him in place, he wasn’t entirely sure. He hitched a breath, his entire being vibrating with need.

“Got you like a fish on the line, begging for release, yeah?” Bodie chuckled, gently licking the base of Doyle’s cock, nipping the skin stretched taut over his lower abdomen. “Not an ounce of fat, have you?” He sat back on his knees, taking Doyle’s penis in both hands. “This thing’s bigger around than your waist.”

Delighted by the compliment, Doyle admired Bodie’s impressive length and breadth. A good deal more than a single mouthful, that would be. It had been over a decade since he’d taken a bloke up his arse, and neither of the men who’d penetrated Doyle’s teenage anus had been as thick as Bodie. He thrummed in nervous arousal, wanting that cock tucked somewhere inside his body. Wouldn’t do to appear too eager, though.

“You’ve seen me starkers before,” he said pretending modesty.

“Not like this, Ray,” Bodie whispered, caressing Doyle’s cock.

Doyle heard the love, the devotion in Bodie’s voice, even if there was no way either of them would express their emotional connection out loud. They were hard men, not pansies. They used action, teasing profanity and rough affection to show their love. The way it had been since they met, he realised now—and the way it would always be.

“This is for me—“ Bodie leaned down to take Doyle in his mouth. “All for me?” he whispered against the heated flesh. Bodie snaked his tongue along the ridge on the underside.

Doyle clutched the tangled blankets in a death grip. He was no thirteen year old, ejaculating after his first wet dream. He could hold on, even though Bodie made him crazy, arousal vibrating through his core. He couldn’t breathe when Bodie sucked, compressing his cock between tongue and hard palate. How the bloody hell did he do that, and in such a short time? There was no way Doyle could wait much longer. He had to shoot his load down Bodie’s throat.

Bodie sat up abruptly, lips wet from sucking. “Found the pierce hole!” he announced.

“Bodie!” Doyle shouted desperately, shocky with the sudden shift in sensation. One moment he’d been perched on the edge of orgasm and the next, his cock was wrenched from Bodie’s warm, wonderful mouth. “What the fucking, bloody hell?”

“You said it would have closed,” Bodie said, fingering the end of Doyle’s slippery penis.

That was more like it. His brain too fuzzy to make out what Bodie was going on about, Doyle hitched a breath. Bodie milked the end of his cock, slipping the tip of his finger into the tiny opening in the crown.

Yeah, do it again, love… Doyle thrust his hips, pushing himself more firmly into Bodie’s palm, seeking the elusive release he’d been so cruelly denied. Every part of him peaked, waiting, waiting—and then Bodie pushed a thumb against Doyle’s stiff cock, tumbling Doyle over like a wave crashing against the shore. He was nothingness and everything, all because of that single link to Bodie.

Bliss.

“What’re you nattering on about?” Doyle asked lazily, curling against Bodie.

~*~

Bodie snaked one arm around Doyle, pulling him closer. He’d be lying if he said he’d never given another man a handjob—even before that memorable night with Ruth and Doyle. There’d been times in Africa, even in the SAS, when boredom and a lonely desire for a warm hand was enough to seek out another man. No sucking, only fingers.

Nothing had prepared him for the intimacy, the incredible bond he now shared with Doyle. He’d never imagined that he could feel more intensely for his partner, but his love had magnified in mere minutes. Bodie cradled Doyle’s softening cock, the extra tiny hole special because he’d be the only other person who would ever know exactly where it was.

“The late lamented Prince Albert,” Bodie said against Doyle’s ear, biting down slightly on his lobe. Had wanted to do that since the ride in Prichard’s van. “Should get a more conventional pierce, just here.”

“Berk.” Doyle grinned, stroking Bodie’s chest.

Felt nice—more than nice. Bodie wanted him to keep that up indefinitely. Delightful tingles tickled under his skin, like the massage chairs at the airport. His already hard cock swelled further.

“What would the Cow think if I came in with an earring?” Doyle asked, pressing a line of kisses along Bodie’s collarbone, suckling on the knobby jut of the bone at the base of his neck.

“Point out how useful an earring would be,” Bodie said, trying to stay sensible when his brain was being reduced to porridge. “Great for transporting microfilm. Increasingly fashionable…” He had to stop when Doyle rubbed the palm of his hand in ever widening circles down his breastbone to his abdomen. “Perfect for undercovers in certain clubs—Ahhh!” Doyle’d traced a single finger around Bodie’s bellybutton and down to his sac. His skin was prickling, hairs rising, longing for more stimulation.

“Why’re you still in your trousers?” Doyle asked, conversationally, pushing against the offending garment.

He’d forgotten he had them on. Raising his hips, Bodie tugged his trousers off and onto the floor. His cock pushed against his belly, so hard that it ached.

“This needs looking after,” Doyle commented, running the same finger up Bodie’s length. “Ready, steady, cocked…”

“Puns are not called for in this situation,” Bodie announced loftily, even though he’d give nearly anything to shove himself whole into Doyle’s mouth.

“I’ve got someplace you can put that,” Doyle invited, scooting up on the bed. He lay back, stuffing pillows under his knees.

Surely not? Was Ray giving him leave to--? Bodie loved sinking into a bird’s slippery, welcoming body but-- Would it be the same with a bloke? With Doyle? “Ray, I don’t—“ He stopped, feeling cack-handed and slow. Doyle had experience here, he didn’t.

“Isn’t difficult, my lad,” Doyle said fondly, beckoning with that damned talented finger.

Bodie’d expected to hear derision or at the very least, teasing, but Doyle was smiling. What was that old saying? Spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. He was just the opposite. His cock was straining, but despite his longing for Doyle, Bodie wasn’t sure he had the fortitude—the drive to penetrate another man.

Widening his thighs enticingly, Doyle grabbed Bodie’s hand. “It’s not as slick, you’d need lubrication.”

Right. He recalled reading that. His cock pulsed against his belly, demanding to delve into that most interesting opening, even as Bodie’s brain tried to come up with reasons why good boys didn’t do that.

He’d never been a good boy.

And Doyle wanted to be impaled.

“Vaseline?” Bodie asked, inspired. His cock leapt with excitement now that the rest of his body was in accord.

“Got it in one.” Doyle pointed to the drawer in the bedside table.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” Bodie asked, at the same time, knowing he was stalling. To prepare himself or Doyle?

“I won’t lie.” Doyle shrugged. “It’s been more’n a decade since I had one up me arse, and you’re—“ He chuckled wickedly, that sly wit and dirty laugh turning Bodie on more than his naked body. “Larger than those I’ve had.”

Quite gratifying to know but Doyle was narrow as a post. Was being well endowed a deterrent in this situation? Bodie stared at his partner, cataloguing his health. He hadn’t sneezed or coughed, and while there were multi-coloured bruises on Doyle’s left shoulder, they hadn’t caused any problems thus far.

“But it’s not…” As if caught in a spell, Doyle gazed at Bodie from between his knees.

He held out both hands to grasp Bodie’s, hesitating long enough that Bodie started to reconsider.

“No words to describe it,” Doyle said passionately. “Stretching to the widest, like being challenged, an amazing pain that isn’t really pain…” He huffed in exasperation. “Get to it, I know you want to!” Doyle pointed at Bodie’s hard-on. “And I’m more’n ready here, sunshine!”

Bodie didn’t need any more convincing. He found the Vaseline and dipped in two fingers, using the slippery gel to explore Doyle’s fascinating opening. He rimmed the wrinkled entrance, laughing when it seemed to wink at him. Doyle’s muscles clenched around his finger when Bodie pushed tentatively inside. He scrutinized his partner’s face—Doyle didn’t look in pain. His mouth was opened slightly, eyes already glassy with need.

Giving himself free rein, Bodie leaned down to kiss Doyle’s perineum, lapping at the anus. Doyle moaned in ecstasy.

Desire thrummed at Bodie’s core. This was his moment of truth, when he gave himself freely to his lover. Nothing better.

Positioning himself, Bodie hissed as his over sensitive penis brushed Doyle’s. Instant conflagration. Flames erupted, burning away the tickling vibrations of earlier, sending him straight to his target.

Bodie breached the anus fast, shoving through the inner tighter ring--
Doyle groaned loudly, gasping, his mouth contorted in a grimace.

Bodie froze. “Ray? Am I—“ He couldn’t say ‘hurting you’. Didn’t want to, shame almost derailing him. At the same time, he wanted to thrust violently, find that sweet spot and ride forever. His thighs trembled, poised over Doyle’s body.

“Don’t stop!” Doyle hissed through clenched teeth, clamping both hands around Bodie’s hips. “Slower, let me…”

They exhaled noisily in unison as Bodie inched farther in. Felt like he was being taken home. So right, incredibly tight but what he’d missed with every woman he’d ever been with since he was fifteen years old.

“There!” Doyle yelled. “God, there!” He panted, almost laughing, hanging onto Bodie with clenched fists.

Inhibitions eclipsed, Bodie rammed, going as deep as he could. Doyle hooked his ankles over Bodie’s shoulder, the limber sod, and that shifted the earth on its axis. Bodie cried out, Doyle’s internal muscles spasming around his cock with rhythmic perfection. The top of his head nearly came off as he climaxed forcefully.

All was right as long as he and Doyle were together like this.

“Pierced me,” Doyle murmured, his smile rapturous. “It’s permanent this time.”

~*~

The shower after was a leisurely affair. With the water pounding on his head, Doyle soaped Bodie up, exploring the bumps and scrapes he’d acquired while up north. Then Bodie did the same for him, clucking over the annoying knot Doyle had from sleeping on his right side all week in deference to the sore left shoulder.

“That’s nice,” Doyle sighed when Bodie dug a knuckle into the exact spot. He tilted his head, feeling the pop of released tension. “I’ll wash your tackle twice if you keep that up.”

“Anson never washed me up.” Bodie grinned, prodding below Doyle’s scapula with both thumbs and taking the opportunity to nuzzle Doyle’s neck at the same time.

“I should hope not!” Doyle protested, pulling away. “We’re not discussing what or how you and Anson spent your off hours.”

“Even if there was creative use of a cigar?” Bodie crossed his eyes, turning off the tap. “Weren’t any off hours, anyway. Cowley is a slave driver.”

Doyle snorted, snagging towels from the rail for both of them. “You knew that going in.”

“Yeah, did.” Bodie dried off his legs, draping the towel around his shoulders. Grabbing another one, he wrapped it around Doyle’s head, rubbing vigorously. “How do you manage with all this hair? Has a mind of its own, it does.”

“Exactly, which is why I’ve stopped fighting.” He turned, kept in place by the towel Bodie held. “No use to fight when capitulating is inevitable.”

“That what you think this is?” Bodie flared, stepping back which almost took him out of the bathroom. “We’ve just given in because it’s easier than—“

“No.” Doyle stopped his mouth with a kiss, amused by Bodie’s sudden fury. That was usually his department. They were taking and giving to one another. “Is that what you think this is?”

Bodie’s lips curved against Doyle’s and he grabbed a second kiss. “It’s a reward for slogging through the Marrikkas, Anns—“

“Whatshernames,” they said together, laughing.

“To get to you,” Bodie concluded. “We belong together.”

“Always have.” Doyle whispered, his heart full to overflowing. Bodie was his family, his whole world. They shared another kiss.

Growing cold, Doyle picked up the towel to tuck around his waist. If he knew Bodie, it was time for fish and chips, a pint and some footie. “Which reminds me, something came in the post today.”

“I saw an envelope beside the bed.” Bodie went over to sit down, only minimally covered by the towel around his shoulders.

Doyle grinned fondly, watching Bodie’s round arse bunch and smooth as he walked. Lovely sight, and one he would enjoy for decades to come. He perched on the foot of the bed. So much for tidying up. The covers had been strewn every which way and the mattress peeked through where one of them had ripped a large hole in the bottom sheet.

Bodie picked up the letter, reading, “To Mssrs William A. P. Bodie and R. Doyle. Someone getting married? Looks like one of those fancy invites where we’d have to wear morning coats and top hats.”

“Didn’t open it up, since it was addressed to both of us,” Doyle answered, coming closer so he could see. His bare thigh pressed against Bodie’s and Doyle lost any interest in food, or smoothing out the sheets—possibly until tomorrow at the earliest.

Bodie pulled out a card with a photograph stuck on the front: Verity, her blue-green eyes alive with promise of the future, those two little teeth peeking between pink lips.

“To my two dads,” Doyle read, his throat tightening.

“You are requested at my first birthday party on Sunday, 8 August, in Castle Cranley. Balloons required,” Bodie continued.

“Cake a must.” Doyle chuckled.

“Undoubtedly Swiss roll,” Bodie said with a soppy grin.

“No presents except your firm promise to show up on the same date every year for the rest of my life,” Doyle finished, flustered and proud. “Ruth had far too much time on her hands while convalescing. Guess we have a daughter.”

“We are a family,” Bodie corrected, rolling Doyle abruptly back against the pillows. “You and me, showing up together for the rest of our lives? Think Cowley had that planned when he paired us years ago?”

“We’ll never know with all his triple think.” Doyle laughed, grabbing hold of the towel to keep Bodie in place. “But I’m willing to strategise more, see what answers we can come up with?”

“That what you call this these days?” Bodie dove in for a kiss.

 

FIN