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From This Day Forward – Chapter Five

Welcome to From This Day Forward, book ten in the Operation Quickline series. It’s Sid and Lisa’s big day – their wedding. But in the weeks leading up to the event, something strange is going on. The only thing scarier will be their honeymoon. You can read the first episode here and see all the episodes that have run here.

Sid nudged me out of bed at six the next morning to go running. I complained loudly, especially since we’d gotten to sleep relatively late the night before, never mind that we’d gotten back to the hotel early.

“Honey, I know,” he said, smiling. “But we are working, and we’ve been eating an awful lot and not getting a lot of exercise.”

“We walked all over the place yesterday.”

“I know. But if we run now, we’ll be able to relax over breakfast.”

I went along with it, never mind that I really didn’t want to. Sid was right. We were working and even if we hadn’t been, we needed to stay in shape.

The thing that surprised me, though, was that he was wearing his glasses. He truly hates how he looks in them, even though I find them very stylish with dark rims.

“Why?” I asked as we took off.

“I want to see where I’m going.” Sid shrugged, gasping a little with the exercise.

“You don’t wear your glasses when we’re running at home.”

He chuckled. “No. I run blind.”

“You mean you don’t put your contacts in before we run?”

“Not really, especially if we’re just running the usual route. I mean, sometimes I want to see stuff, and I put the lenses in, then take them out again before getting in the shower.”

“Can’t you wear them in the shower?” I gasped a little myself as Sid stepped up our pace as we hit a small park near the hotel.

“No. It hurts like hell if I get soap in my eyes and, to be honest, I have flushed one or two down the drain.”

“But you’re wearing your glasses now.”

“You keep saying you like how I look in them.”

“I do.” I tried not to choke as I said the words.

We were married. We’d really done it. That had to be why he didn’t worry as much about he looked. Sid had always been incredibly vain. I couldn’t help but wonder if being married meant that he’d let himself go.

[Not quite, although, at that moment, I thought it was just about being in London and wanting to see. But as I think about it, I was finally realizing that I didn’t have to protect my reputation as the super-lover anymore. I still wanted to look good, and always will. And I still don’t like how I look in glasses, never mind that I wear them full time now. But I didn’t need to look good, and, yeah, that I was a married man was why I no longer needed to, and it was a relief. – SEH]

Mr. Quimby showed up on the dot at nine and took us to the ski shop. We got in before the place had opened and found that everything we needed had been ordered and was ready for us to try on, including a pair of black all-over ski masks. I loved the buttery yellow ski overalls and the matching boots. Plus, there was another Shetland wool sweater, dyed to match the ski overalls. There were jackets and hats. Sid got an outfit in purple, black, and blue, which really played up his eyes.

We got out of there in plenty of time to get to Harrod’s. We went a little nuts in the stationery department – the fountain pens were amazing. Sid had gotten me hooked on writing with them, and our collection grew by several pens. The menswear department was big enough that there were suits for shorter men (Sid is barely three inches taller than me, and I’m average), and while he would have needed too many alterations to buy a suit or two, the fit was close enough for us to determine that he looks incredibly good in an Italian cut. He bought a couple unstructured blazers, though.

I didn’t really see anything I liked in the women’s wear department, except for the Dress Stuart plaid kilt that I got, and the only reason I avoided the store’s fabric department was that I knew I was headed someplace else. I found several lovely sweaters and other goodies for Mae’s kids, and even more goodies for Nick.

The other interesting thing was that we were having everything shipped home. We were traveling as ourselves. It didn’t make sense not to.

We could probably have spent all day at Harrod’s, but there were two other stops that we wanted to make, and we were painfully aware that we had to have our shopping done before tea-time. That was when Gwen Flowers and her son and daughter-in-law were going to be doing that whatever opening someplace outside of London. Actually, we needed to be done with shopping before then so that we could have a conference with Mr. Quimby regarding our target.

Our next stop was Liberty of London, and I will confess that I went a little crazy in the fabric and yarn departments. [A little? – SEH] I bought yards of gorgeous cotton lawns and amazing woolens, not to mention skein after skein of wool yarn, including a heather green Scottish wool so beautiful I knew I wanted to make the sweater right then and there. So, I bought needles, stitch holders, markers, yarn snips, and a retractable tape measure. I got some of my own back when Sid landed in the housewares department at Fortnum and Mason. [Fair enough. – SEH] Sid went after some lovely Wedgwood plates featuring various classical composers, a full set of Spode china, not to mention two different sizes of Waterford crystal wine glasses.

We had an early tea at Fortnum and Mason, which was phenomenal. The clotted cream, alone, almost made me cry, not to mention the jams and marmalades. We also bought a whole bunch of loose-leaf tea.

“What about your caffeine headaches?” I asked Sid as he poured what had to have been his fourth cup that day, although it was only the second cup at our tea-time meal.

He shrugged. “I have no idea. It may be the tea or the fact that I’m not drinking as much as I used to. I could go through about eight cups of coffee in one day, once upon a time.”

“Conchetta told me that you’d drink two pots of coffee a day.”

His shrug was a little guilty. “Okay. Maybe I did. But even here, I’m not doing that much. Truth be told, I’m going with the gift horse on this one.”

Our next step was to get as many pound coins as we could and call Nick. The boy’s problems with his teacher, Mrs. Fleming, were ongoing. Apparently, she didn’t understand seventh grade math as well as Nick did and had asked him to explain it to his classmates. Stella seemed sure that the teacher was lacking. Sid and I wanted to believe that she was helping Nick to be more confident in his own abilities. Either way, there wasn’t much we could do about it right then. We consoled Nick, reminded him that we’d be home as soon as we could and that we’d be home before Easter, then hung up as the operator demanded still more coins.

Mr. Quimby was as good as his word about the curtains on the Rolls limo. Before he could pull them, though, we went over the plans on the Flowers’ building and their apartment, excuse me, flat. Sid and I changed into our break-in clothes and made sure we had our various tools, gloves, sweatshirts, and masks as Mr. Quimby drove us over to the building.

We went up to the apartment on the service elevator, then put on our masks and gloves. I was surprised that there was almost no video surveillance, and what there was focused on the front of the building. As Sid had said earlier, I was going with that gift horse. The elevator left us in a tiny lobby with two doors. We knew which one we wanted, and the key worked.

Sid slid into the flat before I did. Usually, I go first because I’m the better shot. But we didn’t have guns this time. We landed in a kitchen decorated in white and gray. It was utterly empty. I mean no dishes, no pots, or pans. Nothing. Not even any food, and you would have thought there would have been some leftovers in the refrigerator. We still went through every cupboard, looking for false panels. Nothing.

The fridge and freezer were completely empty, too.

“How do they eat?” I whispered to Sid.

He shrugged. We went through the trash bin under the sink, but there were only a few takeout containers in there, and no false panels or backs under the sink.

The rest of the flat was the same. It was nicely decorated in a very Fifties Modern style. But nothing, and I do mean nothing, showed up as suspicious. We pulled up carpet. We checked every closet and cupboard for hidden panels. We went through every bit of paper there, searched under cushions, felt under every piece of furniture. Nothing.

That was weird. Truth be told, most people hide something. Maybe it’s a porn addiction, usually it’s something pretty mild. But someplace this clean was suspicious. The only problem was that it didn’t tell us what to be suspicious of.

We had been there almost an hour, which is a long time when you’re searching a place, when we looked at each other and shrugged. Using the one transmitter we had, we signaled our ride, then took the service elevator to the street, and while riding down, took off our masks, gloves, and sweatshirts. If Mr. Quimby had been driving anything but a Rolls Royce limo, it wouldn’t have looked odd at all. We had our regular clothes in the back seat with us.

Sid looked at me and grinned. “Are you up for another adventure?”

“Besides the break-in?”

Sid’s chuckle left no doubt about that part.

“Um. Why not?” I said, still wondering what I had let myself in for.

Sid slid the curtain open between Mr. Quimby and the back of the Rolls. “Mr. Quimby, would you mind finding us a nice, quiet place to park, then taking a good twenty-minute walk?”

“Very good, sir.”

Sid shut the glass partition between the driver and the back closed, then made sure the curtains all around the back of the limo were fully drawn.

“What are you thinking?” I asked, both hopeful and worried.

Sid grinned. “We’ve got to change clothes. Why not have some fun in the meantime?”

That was kind of the problem. I couldn’t resist. Okay, we ended up meeting Marian and Andrew considerably later than we should have. But once we got to the pub, it was obvious what had kept us. Gwen, Mark, and Beatrice Flowers were sitting at the table, too, and I saw Mark sniffing as I ran to the restroom to clean up a little.

One other good thing was that I had kept a bag from Liberty with me, the one that had the yarn and tools for the sweater I really wanted to make. As Marian and Andrew ordered another bottle of Bordeaux, I got out my notebook and started doing a little math.

“What are you doing?” Marian finally asked as I measured the front half of the Shetland sweater I was wearing.

“Setting up a cable pattern.” I looked up at her and flushed. “It’s just this wool I got at Liberty. It’s so gorgeous. I want the sweater.”

I held up a ball from the sack in my purse and let Marian, Gwen, and Beatrice squeeze it. Beatrice was less than enthused. Marian almost got it.

“That is rather nice,” she said, although I strongly suspected she was just trying to be kind to me.

I shrugged. “It’s something I love.”

I looked at the label on the skein, then cast on twenty stitches on one side of the circular needle and slid a row counter onto the other side.

Sid sat back and watched while I knitted, and the others went on about how boring their afternoon had been. I had my gauge swatch knitted in no time, which meant I could finish my math. I do knit and sew my own clothes. But that is as domesticated as I get. The knitting and sewing happened because I kept getting pneumonia every year until I was seven or so, and Mama needed something to keep me quiet and occupied while I was recuperating.

The conversation had wandered off someplace else by the time I had cast on enough stitches for both the front and the back of the sweater. I was using a circular needle, even though I was knitting the sweater in rows. It’s a way of making sure everything lines up and possibly a more complicated way of doing things, but it’s the sort of thing I don’t even think about anymore. Sid kept up with the banter because he’s good at that sort of thing.

Eventually, the Flowers family left, and we went on to an Indian restaurant that Marian and Andrew said was very popular. It certainly was busy, and Sid and I noticed with satisfaction that the customers were just as likely to be from Asia as Europe.

“Do be careful,” Marian said as we perused the menu. “The food can get rather spicy here.”

“Sounds great.” Sid grinned at me.

The waitress, apparently, had dealt with far too many people of European extraction swearing they could handle spicy only to find they couldn’t. She brought us a little sample and seemed shocked (and pleased) when both Sid and I thought it was somewhat mild. The platters that came out after that were amazing. Not surprisingly, the waitress knew Marian and Andrew, and there were platters seasoned more to their tastes.

“So, what did you find today?” Marian asked once we’d all filled our respective plates.

“Nothing,” said Sid.

“Odd.” Andrew’s eyebrows rose. “Quimby said you spent almost a full hour there.”

“We were really looking,” I said. “But it was almost as if no one lived there. We found the usual personal items and clothes, but that’s it. No false panels, no papers of any kind, not even anything hiding in plain sight.”

“It was almost too clean, which kind of bothers me.” Sid scooped up some sauce onto a piece of naan.

“That is oddly telling,” said Marian. “We had the same problem with Lady Beatrice a few years back. We even had someone on your side investigate her when she went over your way.”

Sid choked. “When?”

Andrew looked over at Marian. “It was spring, nineteen eighty-two, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” said Sid. “If you sent the request through Henry, then I did the investigation.”

“Oh, my god!” I suddenly laughed. “The long story from last night, right?”

“I don’t understand,” said Marian.

Sid sighed. “My profligate past. Lady Beatrice remembered me last night. She’d spent just under two weeks staying at my place in the spring of eighty-two. Henry had asked me to check her out, so I did.”

“And did you find anything?” Andrew asked.

Sid shook his head. “I went through everything she had. I found nothing. If she was communicating with anyone, she did it when she was in the bathroom, and I have no idea how because I was watching for radio signals and there was no phone in the bathroom.”

“What about when you were asleep?” I asked. “You do sleep pretty deeply.”

Sid shook his head. “I had a silent alarm to register when someone used the phone or sent a wireless transmission. Nothing registered. And the house security didn’t register anyone coming or leaving. Not to mention she was a complete airhead. I couldn’t wait until she took off.” He grimaced. “She wasn’t even that good in bed.”

Marian’s eyes widened, and she looked at me.

I shrugged. “It’s his past. I don’t worry about it.”

“Yeah,” said Sid, shifting. “The only problem we’ve been having recently is with some ladies who resent Lisa for taking me away from the singles scene, which is ridiculous. I left that scene almost a year ago and now they’re getting mad?”

I winced. “Honey, I’m guessing they were thinking you’d come back. Getting married means you’re not going to be back for a long while, maybe not ever.”

“Definitely not ever.” He reached over and took my hand. “Anyway, none of this has anything to do with Lady Beatrice and Mark Flowers. And, by the way, Beatrice seemed more worried that her husband would find out about me than anything else.”

“Hm,” said Marian. “I dare say it will take a bit of finesse to find out whether that is the case or if they suspect you, Sid.”

“I don’t see why they would.” Sid shrugged. “She didn’t see me searching anything of hers, not that there was anything to find. The fact that she was staying at my house made it a lot easier.”

“Alas,” said Andrew. “We can’t know for sure. The best we can conclude is that we are alerted to a potential problem.” He looked at Sid and me. “As we said earlier, your job will be to focus on the drop-off stations. And we do have an early morning tomorrow.”

“We do, indeed.” Sid smiled at me as I rolled my eyes.

I made sure that Sid and I had a couple of the antacids from the previous day. They didn’t entirely help. We offered to take a cab back to the hotel. Marian and Andrew insisted we ride with them in the Rolls. Sid made a point of lowering the window just a touch in spite of the late winter/early spring chill. Well, we were getting gassy at that point – the big downside of a meal like we’d just eaten.

That didn’t stop Sid from getting amorous when we got back to the hotel room. If anything, he was more amorous than usual, which might seem a little odd given the state of our digestive tracts. We made love making all kinds of different noises, and if the air was more than a little fragrant, that didn’t seem to matter.

We cuddled afterward, and I burped.

“Excuse me,” I whispered.

He laughed and burped himself. “Excuse me, too.”

“Oh, dear. We are a pair, aren’t we?”

“So what?” He nuzzled my ear and squeezed me. “We’re the best kind of lovers. Isn’t that what your great aunt said?”

“You mean because we can pass gas around each other?”

“Exactly. I didn’t really get that until tonight. It was so great to have a wonderful meal like that, then come back and make love without having to worry about what my gut was doing or that you were going to run away, screaming in terror.”

I looked at him, indignant. “Who did that to you?”

“Nobody. At least, not that I heard, and truth be told, I didn’t really give anybody a chance to. I didn’t want to take the risk. Had to keep my reputation going.” He squeezed me again. “That’s the best part about being with you. I do sometimes worry about disappointing you, but that’s because I don’t want you to be disappointed. Before, it was that I didn’t want some woman running around complaining that I wasn’t as good in bed as everyone said I was. It was all about my reputation. But now, I don’t have to be Superman anymore. I can’t tell you what a relief that is.”

“I’m glad because I don’t need Superman. Not that you aren’t pretty super. I just need you.”

“As I need you, my love.”

We snuggled for a little bit longer, then fell asleep.

We were out of the hotel far too early that next morning, but we had an early flight out of Heathrow to Switzerland. Now, skiing in Switzerland has never been at the top of my must-do list. On the other hand, you can’t have spent as much time on skis as I have and not want to ski in the Swiss Alps. So, by the time we landed, I was getting excited. I still had to wait.

Marian decided she wanted a late breakfast at a small cafe in the town, and then we’d have to get to the drop-off station. Our luggage was, presumably, on its way to where we’d be staying. Andrew had explained that their staff was made up of CID agents in training. Many of them took undercover assignments as domestic staff in various places in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. The training they got as chauffeurs, butlers, maids, and footmen made them quite desirable. And it also made traveling with Marian and Andrew insanely easy. Their staff did everything, including pack and unpack.

From the cafe, we went to a charming little chalet on the edge of the equally charming little city of Gstaad.

“This is where you’ll be staying,” Marian said as we stood before the door. “Not only do the drop-off stations provide a relatively safe place to hide information, they also serve as safe houses. Assuming, of course, that one can get to one without being followed.”

Andrew smiled. “They’re part of a chain of vacation homes for hire owned by a corporation that, eh, may just be owned by us. It would not be easy to find that out, however. The vast majority of the homes owned by the chain are, in fact, exactly that. There are just some that are, shall we say, harder to reserve than others.”

“Unfortunately, we can’t always let them stand empty.” Marian made a face. “It would be too suspicious. We usually hire them to the other travel club members, particularly the ones who are with us as cover. Agents dropping off information generally know to only come during the wee hours of the morning.”

Sid glanced at them suspiciously. “The O’Connors aren’t staying here, are they?”

Andrew laughed. “Not at all. After Quimby’s report yesterday afternoon, we convinced Dale that he and Adrienne might find our preferred hotel significantly quieter.”

Sid laughed, but I flushed vermilion as I realized the chauffeur had not gone on a walk after all. Marian and Andrew looked at me quizzically.

Sid slung his arm across my shoulders. “Lisa’s not quite used to being such a woman of the world.”

There really wasn’t much I could say.

“Very well.” Andrew flashed a brief smile, then pointed to the small read-out screen on the lock. “The cipher locks, themselves, are a bit of genius. If a civilian enters an entry code, the door simply unlocks, as one would expect. However, if an agent uses one of the special entry codes, the lock sends an alert to one of the monitor teams. The lock also flashes an alert if the place has been hired to notify the agent that there might be people inside.”

“It also flashes an alert if there are other agents on the premises,” Marian added. “Either way, any entering agent knows to either come back later or get in and out.”

“That is why it’s important that you make sure you set the lock every time you leave.” Andrew handed us a small notebook. “You will also need to memorize the code book, since the code changes weekly.”

Sid flipped through the book as I thought of something.

“What if we’re staying here, then leave, then another agent comes and wants to stay?” I asked.

“There’s a code for that, too,” Andrew said, then nodded at Sid. “We don’t get a lot of overlap, however.”

Sid entered several numbers into the lock’s keypad. The yellow backed read-out flashed a code. Sid handed me the book. The flashing code meant that all was clear for entry, and I could hear a bolt click back.

“The important part of a drop-off station,” Marian continued as we walked into the front room. “Is that in each one, you will find a series of items in a specific order. Well, usually they are in a certain order. The signal is Forget-Me-Nots. Whatever the decor, there will be some image of that particular flower. The image never hides anything. After that, in a counterclockwise circle, you will find a clock, a table lamp, a chair, a picture frame, and a wastebasket. The idea is that things are supposed to be hidden according to the phases of the moon, except that most of those idiots can’t remember what phase the moon is in, so you need to check everything. That’s why it’s so important that you familiarize yourself with each station. Chairs, lamps, and wastebaskets do get moved every so often. The monitoring team comes to clean up and put things back after every entry, but that doesn’t always help.”

“As for the accommodations, they should be quite adequate,” Andrew said. “And in this case, you’ll be quite alone.”

I blushed again, but Sid grinned.

“Always nice to know,” he said, shamelessly.

“Very well, then,” Marian said. “Find our hiding spaces.” She smiled disingenuously at me. “The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll get to the slopes.”

The front room had a high peaked ceiling and was open to the floor above. Dark wood stairs lined one wall, and I could see two doors over the balcony above. The furniture was comfortable and overstuffed with a dark blue abstract pattern. A Persian carpet covered the gleaming dark wood floor in front of a huge fireplace. I saw Sid mulling something over, but then he turned his attention to the primary purpose of our visit.

The small purple flowers decorated a vase on the fireplace mantle. To the left of that was a real Swiss cuckoo clock, and we found that the door in the front opened. The table lamp was round, fat, and ceramic, but the hiding place was in the brass bottom. A wing-back chair was next, and the back detached. The picture frame surrounding a landscape had room for several canisters of film. There was a false bottom in the wastebasket.

The luggage arrived as we finished. Marian and Andrew assured us there would be a car available for our use, then went off to get checked in at their preferred hotel.

We were on the slopes outside that hotel by noon. Even Sid wanted to get skiing as fast as we could. It was probably a little catty of me, but when we got to the slopes, I was surprised to see Adrienne skiing. She followed Dale down the run as Sid and I got in line for the lift. Sid saw something else, too.

He nodded at Dale. “You think you could take him in a race?”

I snorted. “With one pole behind my back. Why?”

Sid just laughed. “I’m thinking we can squirt some cider in his ear.”

I rolled my eyes. Sid’s favorite musical, bar none, is Guys and Dolls. I think he relates to the whole Sky Masterson falling for the mission lady story line. But one of Masterson’s better lines is that you don’t take sucker bets because as soon as you bet that someone can’t make a card jump out of a deck and squirt cider in your ear, that’s exactly what happens.

I shrugged. “If you want to.”

It was relatively late in the season and a Friday, so the line at the lift wasn’t that long. O’Connor shussed up to us.

“Good to see you two,” he said loudly. “Odds we can have a race when we get to the top?”

“Damn good,” Sid said.

Adrienne slid into place next to her husband. “He’s so competitive.”

Sid couldn’t help laughing. As if he wasn’t.

Sure enough, when we got to the top of the run, Sid held me back and winked. Dale and Adrienne arrived a minute later.

“Well, Sid,” Dale said. “What about that race? Maybe add a little financial challenge?”

Sid snorted. “O’Connor, I’d just be taking your money. Lisa could beat you.”

Dale looked at me, then looked at Sid. “Nice try, Corporal. Now, seriously. What do you want to put up?”

Sid grinned. “I’m serious. How about five hundred bucks that Lisa kicks your backside?”

“Against Lisa?” Figures Dale would fall for it. “You’re on.”

I sighed and looked at Adrienne. She rolled her eyes. The only thing saving me was that I knew I could outrun O’Connor.

We let Adrienne tell us when to go. I was off like a flash. The problem was that we were doing some relatively late season skiing, which meant icy moguls, which are difficult to see when you’re rushing down a slope. I almost lost my balance a couple times. The weird thing is, so did O’Connor, who had presumably been down that run at least once already. Still, I’d been on skis since I was four (maybe three), and late season skiing? I’d been doing that as long as I’d been skiing. Those two times I didn’t see the mogul ahead of time didn’t really matter because I instinctively knew how to right myself. O’Connor had more trouble. At least, that’s what Sid told me later. I didn’t really know because I was focused on doing the run.

It was glorious. There is something about rushing down a slope, with the wind in your face, that is… Well, addicting. It’s as though I’m flying. I love the feeling of it. I wasn’t sure where Dale O’Connor was, and frankly, didn’t care except that he was behind me. I tried not to think about the five hundred bucks Sid had bet on me, even though I knew it had been a sucker bet.

As I finished the run, I went into a side stop that just happened to spray snow all over. I wished I could have hit O’Connor, but he was too far behind me.

He slid up a couple of minutes later. “Good run. Seems you got lucky.”

I shrugged. “If that’s what you want to think.”

Sid and Adrienne slid up next to us.

“Hey, Dale,” Sid called. “Want to go double or nothing?”

O’Connor glared at him briefly, then shook his head.

“We’ll catch up later,” he said, pushing himself toward another lift and run.

I looked at Sid. “There was a second run up there. You want to do it?”

“I always want to do it.” His grin got really hot, and I could see that he was thinking about the two of us making love. “But, yes, we can do that second run.”

“At least you’ve started smiling at me again.” I said, shifting with the thought.

Sid looked at me. “I smile at you a lot.”

“It’s that one smile you get,” I said, flushing again. “I can tell you’re thinking about doing it with me. I just haven’t seen much of it since last summer and I thought maybe you weren’t thinking about us making love that much.”

“Oh, I have been and am,” he said, the smile getting even hotter. “And trust me, it’s more fun to think about now than ever.”

My breath caught. “Good.”

It was a perfectly lovely afternoon. We stopped skiing just long enough to call Nick at four that afternoon (we’d moved into another time zone). Sid and I were late for dinner with the rest of the group, although not for the reason most of them thought. It was just a little too cold for that.

“Lisa talked the lift operator into one more run,” Sid told Marian as we gathered around a fondue pot in the hotel’s bar area.

Gwen Flowers had arrived with Mark and Beatrice in tow. Lillian had declined to join us for that part of our trip since she did not care for skiing. Dale and Adrienne joined us at the fondue pot, cocktails in hand.

“Well, Dale,” Andrew said. “We heard Sid and Lisa set you up this afternoon.”

“I didn’t set anything up,” I said, dipping chunks of bread into the rich, cheesy sauce in the pot.

Dale glared at Sid.

“I don’t understand,” Sid said. “I thought that since you knew Lisa grew up in your district, you’d figure she could ski pretty well.”

“That may have slipped my mind,” Dale grumbled.

“You’re spending too much time in Washington.” Sid laughed.

“I don’t understand,” Gwen said.

I shrugged. “Dale is the congressional representative for South Lake Tahoe, where I grew up. It’s a mountain resort area in California. I’ve been skiing as long as I can remember.”

I could see that Dale was looking the two of us over. Adrienne hinted somewhere along the line that Dale didn’t dare challenge Sid to a race. After all, if I could beat Dale that easily, then Sid must be even faster. I didn’t say anything. Sid gave up racing me years ago, largely because he can’t beat me.

Dinner was quite leisurely, but I could see that Sid wanted to get back to the chalet. He kept looking at the firepit in the restaurant, then looking at me. As his smile grew hotter and hotter, I blushed and caught my breath. Finally, the dinner dishes were cleared, and Sid got up.

“Honey, you want to make it an early evening?” he asked me.

“Of course.”

I knew darned well it wasn’t going to be an early evening, though. When we got back to the chalet, Sid and I built the fire in the fireplace. As it got going, Sid went upstairs and brought down a sheet. As he explained, he wanted to protect the Persian carpet and, well, rug burns are no fun.

He let me sleep in the next morning, but not that long. The slopes were waiting. As Sid and I rode up the lift together, my mind wandered.

(February 24, 1973)

It being the middle of the skiing high season, Daddy didn’t get too many chances to go skiing with me, especially on a weekend, but he must have seen something going on. I wasn’t quite fifteen, and it had been a really lousy week.

“You seem pretty down,” he said as the lift chair took off.

I made a face. “Danny stopped calling last weekend. I finally got him to talk to me and he broke up with me.”

“He did? I’m so sorry, honey.” Daddy may not have liked Danny much, but he was sympathetic when I got dumped, as I usually did.

“He got fresh, and I had to tell him no.”

“As you should.”

“Daddy, what’s wrong with me? Tammy Winters said that the boys don’t want to go with me because I act too smart. She says I should play dumb. Danny was smart, but he didn’t care about me being smart. He just wanted to feel me up.”

“Honey, not all boys are like that. You did pretty well last summer.”

“That’s because they only have a week with me. They see me as cute, but that’s it.” I blinked as I tried not to cry. “And it doesn’t matter if they want to mess around because they’re only here for a week and then they’re gone before that can get started. I just want a guy to like me for me. Why is that so hard?”

Daddy sighed. “Sweetheart, you are a very special young lady. If boys now can’t see that, it’s probably because they’re too young. But you will meet a man someday who will appreciate your brain. You may have to wait until you get to college, because that’s where the smart boys go, but you will meet someone.”

It had taken getting beyond college for me to meet that someone. As I had told Sid, dating non-Christians was a pain because all they wanted from me was sex. Then dating Christians was a pain because all they wanted was to get married and I did not want to get married.

“What are you thinking about?” Sid asked.

I shrugged and told him.

“And then you went and fell for the horniest of them all,” Sid chuckled.

“Well, yeah, but it wasn’t about you being that horny,” I said. “We got on because we weren’t having sex. And I knew you weren’t going to marry me. It was always about the friendship. The falling for each other just happened in spite of ourselves.”

“I suppose you could say that.” He looked at me. “But you still don’t get how attractive you are.”

“Attractive for what? Somebody’s plaything? Or devoted servant? Believe me, they aren’t coming around because I have a brain.”

“Well, I am.” He nudged me with his shoulder. “Trust me. Your brain is possibly the sexiest thing about you, and I’ve always thought that.”

I smiled. “You always know what to say.”

“Not always, but often enough.”

We hopped off the chair and made our way to the start of one of the runs. Mark Flowers greeted us as he and Beatrice shoved off. Sid and I made our way down the slope in a leisurely fashion. We stopped about midway down because Beatrice had fallen next to some trees.

“Are you alright?” I asked, sliding up to her.

“Quite fine, thank you.” She smiled weakly. “Mark was ahead of me, then I hit an icy spot.”

Sid reached over and between the two of us, we got Beatrice upright, although in the process, I dropped one of my poles.

“There’s a lot of ice out here,” I agreed, then bent to get my pole back.

“Thank you.” She slid off.

I looked at Sid. “But there isn’t any right here.”

“Maybe this is where she landed.” Sid looked back up at the run.

Four men scrambled out of the trees and came right at us. I tried to push off, but one of the men was already standing on my skis. I wrenched the boots from the bindings while trying to elbow him in the ribs, screaming for all I was worth. I heard another scream echo a little below me. Sid had gotten free of his skis, as well, and began punching, only to dance back when one of the men came at him with a knife. Sid swung his pole at the man and fended him off that way.

I wasn’t so lucky. Even as I reached for the man in front of me, another got behind me and I felt the icy sting of a blade at my neck. I released my one pole as the man pulled me backward. He said something to his fellows and two of them went back into the trees, I could only guess to get something.

Breathing heavily, Sid dropped his ski pole. There was more screaming from around the slope as other people noticed what was going on. Sid was about to back up when I jammed my knuckles hard into the sweater-clad arm that was holding the knife to my neck. The man dropped the knife and ran, as did his partner. Sid and I didn’t waste any time. We got our skis back on, grabbed our poles and pushed off and away.

Beatrice met us at the end of the run, her face creased with terror.

“Oh, my god!” she gasped. “Are you alright?”

Sid cursed. “Lisa, you’re cut.”

I touched my neck where it stung. “It doesn’t feel serious.”

Sid slid over next to me, glaring at the cut. “Okay. Doesn’t look that deep, either, but we’d better get something on it.”

I was almost more annoyed that blood had stained my lovely new sweater. After Sid had gotten my cut covered with a couple of bandages, I rinsed the sweater out with cold water. I had a t-shirt on underneath, so taking the sweater off was no big deal. The rinse job meant I wasn’t going to be wearing the sweater outside until it dried. I put the sweater next to the dining room fire pit. It wasn’t quite lunchtime, but I figured if I ate lunch then, the sweater would dry. I could always catch a snack around two or three, and possibly again at four, when Sid and I called Nick. Sid joined me, as did Marian and Dale O’Connor.

“Well, this is simply beyond annoying,” Marian said. “Whoever attacked you got clean away, no thanks to Beatrice’s caterwauling.”

“I started it,” I said, feeling guilty. “I was trying to look like a civilian.”

“Now, are you three still so certain that Sid and Lisa aren’t our targets?” Dale snarled.

Marian rolled her eyes. “No one said that they positively weren’t. Only that it seemed unlikely, and it still does.”

Sid frowned. “I also got a strange vibe from those guys. It was as though they wanted to take us out rather than take us hostage. And it was strange that Beatrice just happened to land right there.”

I sighed. “She said she slipped on some ice, but there wasn’t any nearby.”

“She was calling for help,” said Marian.

“So did I.” I bit my lip. “How much of that was cover and how much was real?”

Sid shook his head. “She also could have slid further than we realized. On the other hand, why would she set us up? It’s possible she figured out that I’m an operative when she stayed at my place, but I don’t see how. I was watching her pretty closely.”

“Unless Mark set her up,” said Marian. “And why he would do that, I have no idea. The problem is we don’t have a lot of evidence either way, and, unfortunately, we still don’t know what the actual objective of the Croatian plot is beyond getting the American government to negotiate with them.”

Dale shook his head. “Okay. You’re right. There’s a lot we don’t know about what’s going on. But I say we need to keep a solid eye on Sid and Lisa.”

Marian nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

I sighed. “Maybe we should go back up to where we were attacked and see if we can find something, like maybe that icy spot Beatrice supposedly slipped on.”

Dale, Marian, and I ended up going down that run. My sweater had dried nicely by the time we finished lunch. Sid decided to hang around with Mark and Beatrice in the hopes of getting something, anything, from them.

I was right. There wasn’t even the least bit of ice or bumpiness in that immediate area. In fact, there wasn’t any ice anywhere near there, nor were there the tracks that would have been visible if Beatrice had slid a significant distance. In fact, nothing had disturbed the snow around where Sid and I had been attacked, except for that immediate area. I got my skis off and planted them, then walked back into the trees, with Dale close behind me. The men had clearly run, and I suppose we could have tracked them, but Dale decided that we didn’t need to. I had to give him credit. Tracking them probably wouldn’t have revealed that much.

That evening, Marian, Andrew, and Dale decided that they would stay as close to Sid and me as possible. Except for when we were in the safe house, which was fine with Sid and me. That part of our adventure was working out remarkably well.

We spent another day, Sunday, in Gstaad. Gwen asked Marian over fondue that evening if Marian and Andrew were headed for home, and Marian told her that the two of them would be following Sid and me to Venice. I suppose I should have been paying more attention. Except that Sid was distracting me by nibbling on the back of my neck.

Thank you for reading. For more information about the Operation Quickline series, click here.

Please check out the Fiction page for the latest on all my novels. Or look me up at your favorite independent bookstore. Mine is Vroman’s, in Pasadena, California.

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