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From This Day Forward – Chapter Two, Part Three

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.

We were ready shortly before seven to find out that Mr. Quimby was back.

“With the Countess’ compliments, I am here to drive you to dinner,” he said, passively.

So, we got in the back of the Rolls and soon arrived at a bright white Georgian townhouse among a row of others. Mr. Quimby opened the limo door for us and, since it had started raining, held an umbrella over our heads as he brought us up to the doorstep. A butler had the door open immediately and ushered us inside.

I tried to keep my jaw from dropping and did not entirely succeed. The hallway was dark paneled and lit by a crystal chandelier hung over a sweeping staircase with burnished wood banister and steps and Persian carpet on those same steps. Landscapes and a couple portraits darkened by age hung on the wall in ornate frames. The butler took our trench coats.

“The Earl and Countess regret that they have been unavoidably delayed,” said the butler, a youngish man with dark hair. “However, they asked that you join their other guests in the drawing room for cocktails.”

“Thank you,” said Sid.

You need to understand that Sid and I live in Beverly Hills, one of the most affluent places in the country, if not the world. That we live there has more to do with Sid’s frame of mind when he first landed in the Los Angeles area, namely that the house was the first place that looked livable. He’d just graduated from college after having inherited a small fortune from a then nameless relative. He bought the house, then went to work, turning his small fortune into a decent pile. At least, that was the visible part of his life. He was also a member of Quickline, which was why he’d moved to Los Angeles from the Bay Area.

Given our neighbors and the area, in general, we know what serious money looks like. The London townhouse eclipsed anything we’d ever seen before. This wasn’t just wealth; this was generations of inherited privilege. Antiques that some ancestor had bought new. The house looked like a museum. The drawing room was also paneled in dark wood. Deep green velvet drapes covered the windows. More darkened portraits and a few hunt scenes were scattered around the walls. The two sofas and several chairs had to be Eighteenth Century. The mantle around the huge fireplace was marble and intricately carved. A full ebony grand piano sat in front of the windows, and I saw Sid’s fingers twitch as his eyes fell on the instrument.

But the opulence was the least of the surprises.

“Here they are!” crowed Lydia James in her delightful, soothing voice.

She was a tall woman with dark gray hair, cut short and feathered. Henry, also tall, balding, and whose face had a permanent flush, smiled from her side. Both held cut crystal old-fashioned glasses with something amber inside. Lillian Ward, in full matronly grace, sat on one of the sofas with a martini glass in her hand. Near her, standing ramrod erect, was a tallish man with thinning reddish gray hair, probably in his mid-sixties. He had his arm around a woman in her early forties who looked like she’d been a model in her younger years and was still keeping herself up.

Lydia came over and gave me a warm hug, as did Henry. I went over to Lillian, who also stood and bussed me on the cheek.

Lillian smiled and nodded at the tall man. “I’m told you’ve met Congressman Dale O’Connor.”

“Yes,” I said simply.

Sid finished giving Lillian a quick kiss on the cheek and glared at O’Connor. “I’ve known Dale for a good many years.”

“We have, indeed,” O’Connor said. “Sid, Lisa, this is my wife, Adrienne.”

I shook her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” She smiled very warmly at Sid, who ignored it.

“I’m mixing the cocktails this evening until their Lord and Ladyship get here,” O’Connor announced. “What’ll it be? I can recommend the scotch.”

“Sounds good,” said Sid, coolly. “With a little water. Lisa?”

“Um. I prefer single malt if there’s any.” I swallowed, hoping like crazy I’d done that right. I really hated the smoky Islay scotches and knew a lot of the hard-core scotch fans loved them.

“Of course.” O’Connor went over to a breakfront and poured the liquor from cut crystal decanters.

The scotch was fantastic, though I sipped it gingerly. There were hors d’oeuvres, too, and I nibbled, but couldn’t remember what was there.

“I wonder how much longer they’re going to be on that call,” Adrienne said, looking at a canape with a sigh.

“Oh, I doubt they’re on a call,” Lillian said with a grin as Adrienne smirked. Lillian smiled at me. “They’re not normally very pretentious, but she does occasionally like to make an entrance.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Marian stood in the doorway to the room wearing a lovely chiffon gown in blue, then swept inside, Andrew behind her. “What’s the point of a centuries-old name and all sorts of fusty ancestry if one can’t make hay with it occasionally?” She smiled as she saw Sid and me. “Hello, darlings. I’m so glad you’re here! Did you have a pleasant flight?”

She gave Sid a loud kiss on the lips, then came over and kissed my cheeks. I stepped back as Andrew approached and gave him my hand, which he kissed rather warmly, then he turned and shook Sid’s hand.

“It was good,” said Sid. “Uh…”

“Oh, darling, we’re friends,” Marian said, patting his arm. “Just call us Marian and Andrew. We only use our titles when we’re trying to make a point.”

“So, you’re the Countess…” I gulped.

“Surprised?” Marian laughed. “No matter. Dale, would you be so kind as to mix up a couple of gin and tonics for Andrew and me? And don’t be your usual stingy self and make them good and stiff. Oh, lovely. We’ve got the hors d’oeuvres. Lisa, dear, did you try the duck confit? It’s marvelous.”

It was marvelous. Still, I clung to Sid for dear life. I think the only reason I didn’t run and hide was that I already knew everyone there, except for Adrienne. Sid, with his more polished urban survival skills, was managing quite nicely, even if he was also a little overwhelmed. [That only lasted for an instant. I was more worried about you. And wondering what the hell was up. – SEH] I couldn’t help but feel as if the dinner were more than a welcome to England party. I had no idea if either Adrienne or Lydia knew anything about our side business. Lydia, I knew, had some inkling that her husband did classified work and had probably figured out that Sid and I were involved in it somehow. But she had the good sense and grace to act as if she didn’t. Adrienne was an unknown quantity.

“Sid, darling, I understand you play the piano quite beautifully,” Marian said, sliding up to his other side. “Would you be so good as to play something for us?”

“Sure.” Sid set his glass down on an end table next to one of the sofas, then opened the keyboard and ran his fingers across the keys. “Would a little Chopin do?”

“Sounds wonderful,” Marian said.

Sid glanced at me as he settled himself on the bench and smiled. His fingers gently touched the keys in a couple chords first. Then he slid into Prelude Number Fifteen, which is my favorite of the Chopin Preludes, Opus 28.

There was soft applause as he finished. Sid’s eyes found mine and I couldn’t help smiling.

Adrienne sighed. There was no mistaking her hungry look at my husband. I’m not sure what shocked me more, that I was so jealous or that I’d just mentally referred to Sid as my husband. Well, he was. But still… I fidgeted with the ring set on my left finger, feeling the band as part of it. I’d worn the set many times before, but that had been part of a role I’d played. This time, it was real. I was really married.

A bell softly rang, and Marian announced it was dinner. Andrew took my arm, then led us into the dining room and seated me next to him at the head of the table. Sid had Marian on his arm and seated her at the end across from Andrew, then seated Lillian on the other side from where he was to sit. O’Connor sat across from me, and Henry on my other side, with Adrienne on his other side next to Lillian. Lydia sat between O’Connor and Sid. I saw the preponderance of silverware on the table and realized that we were having at least five courses. I looked over at Sid, who smiled pleasantly at Lillian. He’s even better at place settings than I am, so I was fairly sure he knew what he was up against.

Footmen poured a white wine into our glasses and Andrew stood.

“I think, before we begin, we should drink a toast to our newest travel club members, Sid and Lisa.” He raised his glass as the others mumbled their assent, and they drank.

I looked over at Sid, whose bare wisp of a shrug still managed to speak volumes.

The first course came, three oysters on their shells, perfectly chilled.

“I do not like discussing business over dinner,” Marian announced, after eating one of her oysters with great relish. “However, I fear we must. Dale, would you be so good?”

“The Yugoslavians?” O’Connor asked, noisily slurping down his second oyster.

“I fear that may enter into it.” Marian glared at O’Connor. “But that is not why we are gathered here tonight.”

I was puzzled. I had figured that Lydia knew more about our secret business than she’d let on. But Adrienne was still there, and it was clear that we were going to be discussing top secret business. I could only assume that both Adrienne and Lydia had the clearances.

I looked at Lillian and then got a good look at Henry’s face. Neither of them betrayed anything. Henry cleared his throat.

“Sid, Lisa.” He shifted in his seat, then took a large gulp of wine. “We are making some changes in the operation. As you know, we’ve had to rebuild two lines over the past couple years. What you may not have realized was that we also needed to make repairs on the Red line, as well.”

“Our line,” said Sid.

“You two have been the hub team for that line for six years.” Henry paused. “About three and a half since Lisa joined you, Sid.”

Sid’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Henry. “Nineteen-eighty. How much of this has to do with Lydia getting breast cancer that year?”

“Everything,” Lydia said, then ate her last oyster. “I was Henry’s partner, but had to retire because of the cancer.”

“I’ve been trying to retire since then,” Henry continued. “The problem was, you needed a partner, and that partner would need enough training and experience to keep up.”

O’Connor sat back in his chair, his oysters long gone. “Sid, the intent was always that you were going to replace Henry at some point. That’s why you were sent to L.A. in seventy-six, after you graduated from college.”

“What about Eric?” Sid asked. “I thought he was your partner.”

“Eric was more of a hub than a floater.” Henry sighed. “He was supposed to be your partner, but then Eric was killed in May of eighty-one, which is when I started pushing you to find a partner. We’ve been limping along for the past four years, trying to get all the pieces into place.”

“Not to mention restoring two lines,” Lillian grumbled.

Marian waved her fingers, and the three footmen sprang into action and removed our plates. I had to figure that the footmen had security clearances for our conversation. No one seemed to notice that they were there otherwise.

“So, now you and Lisa are ready,” Henry said. “I’ll be around until July, but in the meantime, you two are now the floaters for Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

Sid’s eyes widened. “That’s… Wow.”

“You mean we’re being promoted?” I asked, looking between Henry and Lillian.

“Exactly,” Lillian said. “That’s why we’re all here now.”

The footmen placed small bowls of perfectly clear yellow bouillon in front of us. More white wine was poured, and I’d barely finished my first glass.

“This is going to be your training trip,” Marian said. She took a sip of her bouillon and sighed happily.

“What?” I yelped. “We’re on our honeymoon!”

Lydia smirked at her husband.

Henry shrugged. “I know. I’m afraid that can’t be helped. We needed a good cover to get you two over here. Not that you’ll need it after this.”

“I don’t understand,” Sid said.

“It’s a matter of establishing a visible friendship,” Marian said. “You are friends with Henry and Lydia, and with Lillian, and now with us. I must say that wedding invitation helped a great deal.”

O’Connor snorted. “It’s not going to do us a lot of good if those Yugoslavians decide that Sid and Lisa are the targets of their plot.”

“Why on earth would they do that?” Marian asked, glaring at O’Connor.

“Oh, please.” O’Connor rolled his eyes. “We’ve known about the plot for over two months. They should have moved on it before now.”

Both Marian and Lillian sighed.

“I’m afraid he’s right about that,” Lillian said, then sipped from her wineglass. “Sid and Lisa are the only new Americans in your circle.”

“That’s assuming any Americans connected to us are part of the plot,” Andrew said. “We do not know that to be the case. We simply know that getting the American government to negotiate is the intended goal.”

Marian noticed that we’d all finished our bouillon and signaled the footmen.

“But our government won’t negotiate,” Sid said.

Marian sighed. “We’ve had several bits and pieces of intelligence that the thinking on the part of our plotters seems to be that if they get someone with a high enough profile, your government will be forced to.”

“Well, that lets us out as a target.” Sid smiled as a footman placed a plate in front of him with a bit of white fish on it covered over with julienned vegetables and a creamy sauce. “We make a point of keeping a low profile.”

More wine was poured, this one with just a hint of creaminess. [It was a Chablis and an amazing one, at that. – SEH]

Lillian sighed. “Which makes your pronouncements of doom all the more annoying, Dale.” She put up a hand to stop O’Connor’s protest. “Yes, you have a point on the timing, but that’s all. If Sid and Lisa need to know what’s going on, it’s only part of their training, and because Marian and Andrew are wrapped up in it somehow.”

“I agree,” said Marian. She looked at me kindly. “We’re going to make this as leisurely as possible. I’m not completely insensitive to a honeymoon, for Heaven’s sakes. Now, Henry, dear, would you please explain the process?”

Henry nodded and finished a bite of fish. “Alright. As you two know, floaters oversee their respective lines. There are four floater teams, each connected to a specific port of entry. Miami is the Yellow line; New York is Green; Seattle, Blue; and L.A., Red. Each of those four ports of entry has four hub teams, one from each of the lines, so there are sixteen hubs. Quickline mostly services operatives in Europe and South America, although we do occasionally serve operatives in Israel. The CIA has another courier branch servicing incoming intel from the rest of the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. All calls for service go through Lillian first. She knows who’s where and doing what. Floaters pick up the packages, process them, then assign the route, going through a hub team as the first stop.”

“Why?” I asked.

Henry chuckled. “As you two may have noticed these past couple months, packages coming in from overseas have a high likelihood of having tails with them. Floaters and hub teams are generally more experienced and better at losing said tails. Not always, but generally. Also, floaters and hubs are more likely to get called on to handle investigations when those come up. Since floaters also must know everyone on their line, they know their people by their real names. Now, the reason we’re here in Europe is that you two need to know our allies’ courier system.”

“Alas,” said Marian, looking over the table. Sid was still nibbling at his fish, as was Lillian. “It does occasionally happen that one of our couriers or one of yours can’t quite make it to a port of entry in the States. So, we’ve developed a series of caches, if you will, where information can be dropped and all you must do is go in and get it. Well, avoiding the usual observation and such.”

Sid rolled his eyes and pushed back his plate. “Which is, of course, the trick.”

Andrew chuckled and smiled at me. “If we didn’t know you two would be good at it, you would not now be here.”

Marian looked at Lillian, saw that she was done, and signaled the footmen again. I looked over at Sid. The poor darling had already eaten at this one meal more than he normally ate all day. The only thing mitigating it was that the food was beyond phenomenally good. Me, I was in hog Heaven. Well, not entirely. I couldn’t believe it, but I was starting to fill up, not a common occurrence at all.

The next course almost made me cry. Roast saddle of lamb. I love lamb and almost never get it because of Sid’s ban on red meat at the house. This one came with a red currant emulsion, of all things, and it was divine.

“While you will need to learn some of our codes,” Marian said. “The important part of all of this is that you need to visit each of these drop-off stations and familiarize yourselves with them. The nice part is they’re scattered all over the Continent, which will make a rather nice tour of Europe for you.” She looked at me. “Lisa, you seem rather nonplussed.”

I winced. “Well, no. I mean, a tour of Europe does sound lovely. I don’t want to be ungrateful.”

Sid rolled his eyes. “What Lisa is trying to say is that she was hoping to spend more time in England. Where all, lover?”

“The Lake District. Stratford Upon Avon. Especially Stratford. Oxford. Westminster Abbey. Maybe the Tower of London.” I sank into myself. “I have my Masters in English Literature.”

Marian laughed. “How lovely. Oh, I do wish we could do all of that. Well, we shall the next time you come, and there will be a next time. I can promise you that.”

“That sounds nice,” I said with a smile that I didn’t feel.

“In any case, we will do what we can to make things run smoothly.” Marian smiled warmly, then rolled her eyes. “Obviously, we can’t make any promises. Still, I think we’ll manage a nice visit for you, after all.”

Henry grinned. “Lisa is a big Shakespeare fan.”

“Indeed,” said Andrew. He smiled. “I do believe we can manage a day trip to Stratford Upon Avon tomorrow, can’t we?”

“Of course we can,” said Marian. “Would you like that, dear?”

“I’d love it,” I gasped, blinking back tears. “I love Shakespeare.”

“And we’ll all be standing by,” Lillian said, sending O’Connor a quick glare.

“Well, Lydia and I are going to have to leave tomorrow,” Henry said, a pall of sadness settling over the both of them.

Sid caught his breath. “The cancer’s back, isn’t it?”

Lydia nodded. “We have our next appointment on Wednesday. It’s not all bad news, though.”

I reached over to him. “We’ll be here, Henry. And I’ll be praying for the two of you.”

He smiled. “I appreciate it.”

Lydia smiled at me. “We both do.”

We turned back to our food. After a pause, Marian went back to covering the drop-off stations, which didn’t really mean much. O’Connor wanted to talk more about the plot by the Yugoslavians, but Marian did not, for some reason. I couldn’t help but hope it was because Sid and I really didn’t need to be on top of that case, although I was a little worried that O’Connor seemed to think we’d be targets.

We moved on to a lovely salad, then cheese, and a dessert that was… Well, frighteningly intense, given what we’d already eaten. It was a wheel of pastry filled with clotted cream and bits of candied fruit. The top had been sprinkled with powdered sugar, and we were offered cream to pour over it. Of course, I tried it. It was delicious, although I couldn’t eat that much of it. Sid nibbled, but really didn’t have any appetite left and he doesn’t really care for sweets, anyway.

After dinner, we made our way out of the townhouse. There were three taxi cabs waiting for us. Sid and I staggered to the last of them, Marian’s promise to pick us up at nine in the morning ringing in our ears.

Sid snuggled up next to me and nuzzled my ear happily. I wasn’t quite so happy.

“This is amazing,” he whispered.

“What?”

“We got promoted, honey. That’s enormously big.”

“We’re working on our honeymoon.” I tried not to sulk.

“Okay. That part sucks. But promotions don’t happen very often in this biz. It says a lot that they were planning this for us.”

“They could have said something.” I looked at him. “I know you’re happy. That’s the important thing.”

Sid’s eyes narrowed. “As long as you’re happy, too.”

I took a deep breath and thought about it. “Yeah. I guess I am. Except for working on our honeymoon.”

He chuckled. “Except for that.”

Back at the hotel, Sid spent quite a few minutes in the bathroom and seemed okay. I washed up, then stripped for bed. He smiled as I slid under the covers.

“How are you feeling tonight?” he asked.

“Tired. You?”

“Pretty tired, too. But I’m open to making love if you are.” He slid over and pulled me next to him.

“Oh. Am I allowed mixed feelings?”

He laughed. “Of course. What’s going on?”

I yawned. “I’m really tired, but I really want to make love, too. It feels so good.”

“Ah.” He chuckled. “I may just have a way around that.”

It was a nice way to make love and be tired at the same time. We fell asleep quickly afterward.

I was chatting with someone, I couldn’t tell who, but then I was in a closet, my Smith and Wesson Model Thirteen in my hand. Sid was on the other side of the door and another man. I shot. Bright red blood splattered against the wall. I couldn’t escape it. It was my fault… My fault.

I came awake gasping and sitting up. Sid rubbed my back.

“It was just a dream, honey.” His voice was soothing, and I clung to him. “You’re alright. I’m here and it was just a dream.”

I got a hold of myself. “Okay.”

He smiled softly. “Are you sure?”

“I think so.”

“Was it the usual?”

I nodded. “Yeah. I don’t know why. I didn’t have one leading up to the wedding. Why now?”

“Could be all sorts of things.” He squeezed me gently. “Let’s face it, we’re not on vacation anymore. It’s probably that.”

“Yeah.” I sighed, then looked at him. “Can we… Um…”

“Um, what?” Sid obviously knew but wasn’t going to let me get away without saying it.

“Um. Make love?”

He chuckled warmly and kissed the back of my neck. “Of course, my darling.”

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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