“You know what amazes me?” Ed asked Alex.
She shook her head, innocent as her curls. “Everything..?”
He stuck his tongue out at her. “Right when you think you know someone, they go and pull the rug out from under you, and do the last thing you’d expect them to do.”
Alex smiled and glanced around at their opulent surroundings. The weather was fine and bright, the first strains of spring in the air. Sir Anthony Fairchild’s country mansion, with its acres of rolling green fields, was the perfect setting for a wedding. Such grandeur deserved more than a ceremony conducted in the utmost secrecy, with no warning, and no guests: apart from the Bureau and Julia Fairchild, who happened to be visiting.
“Not everyone wants a big white wedding, Ed.”
“I can’t believe they went and did it,” he said. “I mean, according to Beckett, she turned him down the first time. And after the weddings we’ve been to...” He stopped, realising the faux pas.
“It’s all right,” Alex assured him. Time and distance had dulled the pain, as he'd promised. She felt, in a way, that she was luckier than Ellen. She’d lost Adam too, and then Stefano. She’d been the sole mourner, at his funeral: Alex had watched from afar, the rest of the Bureau by her side.
Both Alex and Ellen had their memories. But only Alex still had her friends.
It helped that there were no longer debts hanging over her. She’d finally agreed to Ros fixing one set, and the Hive had unexpectedly cancelled the other. They’d even backtracked on compensation; Alex had sent it, anonymously, to Adam’s victim. Dent had turned up in person, complete with flowers, to deliver the news. Alex believed his change of heart had more to do with Jan than it did with him, tearing up his beloved rule book, once and for all.
Perhaps diplomacy, or new-found common ground, had won the day. But Jan was not above blackmail, and she’d learned more than a few tricks from her team. Alex suspected the emailer had been nearer the truth than anyone would credit. Not that Jan would admit to bugging Dent...even if she had.
“Some things are much more interesting,” she said, cryptic to the last, each time Alex raised it, “if they remain a mystery.”
Ed shook her from her reverie, putting a comforting arm around her. “Sure you’re okay?”
Alex smiled and glanced up at the blue skies above them. “How could I not be on a day like this?”
“Perfect day for a wedding,” Ed agreed. He pointed out Beckett, heading over, juggling three flutes of champagne. “I don’t get why they held it here, though. This place is right out in the sticks.”
“Security, I suppose.”
“That’s all well and good, but I would have liked a bit more notice than an email ordering us to dress smartly and be here at eleven...”
Beckett caught the end as he reached them, handing over their drinks. “Stop complaining and be grateful you didn’t have to work today.”
“We might have to,” Ed pointed out. “Think about all the weddings we’ve been to. When has one of them not ended in one disaster or another?”
Beckett took it as a challenge. He considered it for a second. “Anna Fabrizi got married...”
“Yeah, after I nearly shot her.”
Alex stared at them, recognising the name. “Anna Fabrizi? The Italian Prime Minister?”
“Yeah, we went to her wedding,” Beckett said casually, as if attending the nuptials of European heads of states was something he did every day.
“She’s divorced now,” Ed said. Beckett stared at him, eyes boggling.
“If you’d spent more time watching the news, mate, and less time acting out Jessica Valentine novels...”
“Politics must not leave you much time for a personal life,” Alex mused, as Beckett aimed an elbow at Ed’s ribs.
“It’s a shame though,” Ed said. “Anna and William seemed like they were made for each other.”
“That’s what I thought about me and Adam,” Alex said, resigned. “Sometimes I wonder if there’s any such thing.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ed said. “I mean, look at our bride and groom.”
He held Alex closer, and she snuggled up to him happily. They weren’t officially beyond friendship yet, though. There’d been no rushing into things this time, but something was stopping her from taking it further, even now. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
“You know,” Alex said thoughtfully, “before I got married I used to hear you all, talking about weddings and how they were all doomed.”
Ed squeaked a nervous laugh. “You didn’t take us seriously, did you?”
“We shouldn’t have been thinking like that then and you shouldn’t be doing it now,” Beckett said, in the same voice he used to give orders. “If you spent too long dwelling on everything that’s happened to us, you’d never set foot outside the door again, never mind get married.”
Alex sipped at her champagne, reassured.
“Anyway, we’re about due for a wedding that doesn’t have everything go wrong that can go wrong...”
Ed returned the dig in the ribs. Beckett’s face contorted in apology. Alex waved it off.
“That’s not all we’re due for,” Ed reminded them. “That baby could come any second.”
“It’s not due for a fortnight,” Beckett said.
“This whole circus could easily have waited. No wonder Ros is cranky.”
“You’d be cranky too in this heat if you were as pregnant as Ros is,” Alex said, fanning herself for emphasis. But then she turned to Beckett, backing Ed up. “I did think she looked a bit pale earlier...”
“Because she’s as paranoid about weddings as Ed is,” said Beckett. “Don’t worry. I’m keeping a close eye on her.”
“Me too,” Ed said. “In fact, I’m not letting any of you out of my sight. You know what happens when I do.”
“Beckett and Ros tend to disappear?” Alex offered. Ed and Beckett dared to laugh. The months separating this wedding from Alex’s had removed some of the sting from it. Even she could raise a small, ironic smile, remembering what a disaster it had been.
Ed glanced around the expansive grounds, a hand perched on his forehead like a visor, shielding his eyes from the sunlight. He pointed to a glade past the courtyard, shaded by trees that hung heavy with blossom. Alex screwed up her eyes, spying two figures there.
“Let’s go see the bride,” Ed said.
They walked at an indulgent, langorous pace, Alex holding Ed’s hand loosely. Ros and Jan were sitting together, talking. Jan turned as they approached and smiled at them. She looked radiant. She was wearing an expensively cut ivory suit, a matching hat and something Alex had removed from the relevant finger of her own left hand: a gold ring.
“Jan,” Beckett greeted her. He grinned at his colleagues, pretending to bow. “Or is it Lady Jan now?”
Jan actually blushed. Alex suppressed a chuckle at how surreal it seemed. After the secrets they’d uncovered of late, the last thing any of them had expected was for Jan to go one better. She’d decided to marry Sir Anthony Fairchild three decades after she’d first turned him down, and invited them all to the wedding: without ever once mentioning it.
Ed smirked. “Don’t you mean Lady Barb—”
“Director will be more than adequate,” she said, voice as smooth as her suit.
“You always told me you and Sir Anthony were friends,” Beckett complained. “You said all you wanted was to finish off the day at the Bureau and get home of a night to feed your cat.”
“That was a private conversation, Beckett...”
“No such thing,” he muttered. The hangdog look on his face made Alex snicker, rather unkindly. Ed cackled through his champagne.
Christa had taken his decision to call off the wedding with surprisingly good grace. Finding out Ros was pregnant was a whole different kettle of fish: Beckett had found that a tough one to explain, and since Christa had come to the Bureau to have it out, the whole team—plus the receptionist, two lift mechanics, pest control, and a contingent from the Hive—had heard him do it. The juicy development had been circulated in excruciating detail around every branch of the security services.
“You’ve been rather a naughty boy, haven’t you, Beckett?” Dent had said, unable to disguise his glee.
The one thing the rest of the world wasn’t privy to was whatever had passed between Christa and Ros. As for Beckett, he’d got off lightly, all things considered. His Jeep not so much, once Christa’s decorator friends were done giving it a respray.
“Our friendly local gossip’s going to have a field day,” Ed said. “Jan and Sir Anthony, having a red hot affair...”
Jan glared at him as she stood. “I can assure you, Ed, that sometimes companionship is more important than red hot affairs.”
He winked at Alex suggestively. She pretended not to smile.
“I don’t understand why you kept it so quiet,” pressed Beckett.
“Or why you had to do it now, of all times,” Ed said, tag-teaming. “I mean, poor Ros can’t even stand up and you drag us out to the manor on what we think is some hugely important secret mission...”
Ros’s eyes bored into him. “Poor Ros?!”
“You’re sitting down, aren’t you?”
“I am resting my legs,” she corrected tersely.
“Just make sure you keep them crossed,” said Ed. Ros swatted him smartly across the knees.
Jan gave a thin smile, acknowledging the point. “I realise the timing is poor. But Julia is only back in the UK for three days. It was very important to Tony that she be here—and it was important to me to have you all here, too.”
“Ignore him,” Ros said. “I had no intention of missing it.”
Jan squeezed her on the shoulder fondly. Ed stared at her with suspicion, a question in his narrowed eyes. You knew, Alex translated. Ros smiled.
“You know what they say,” Beckett reminded Jan, eyes full of mirth. “‘Marry in haste’...”
“I would hardly call thirty years ‘hasty’,” she said. The words were sharp, but Alex saw something soften in her, at the reminder of that long cessation. Losing Sir Anthony had given Jan a unique perspective on the romantic trials and tribulations her team had undergone. She was better acquainted with heartbreak than her brusque exterior would ever have suggested.
“Well, second time lucky...” Beckett said, finding Ros’s hand.
“Is not necessarily second best,” Jan finished for him.
“Does this mean you’re leaving the Bureau?” Alex asked. The others stared at Jan, the prospect belatedly dawning on them, but she laughed.
“Tony may be stepping down at the next election, but I can assure you—I have no plans to do the same. No,” she declared, “as of tomorrow, it is business as usual.”
“So we’ve had a day off and a wedding and nothing bad’s happened yet,” Ed said. “Don’t tell me we’ve broken our run of bad luck..?”
Beckett glanced at the sky, looking dubious.
Jan shook her head. “The forecast is perfectly clear.”
“You have to stop worrying, Ed,” Alex said with a smile, “and accept the fact that nothing else is going to happen today.”
Ros shifted in her seat, frowning. “So the part where weddings equal disaster...”
“Belongs in the past,” Alex told her, and believed it, wholeheartedly. Today was not for dwelling: it was about the here and now, and all that lay ahead. Her and Adam, Beckett and Christa...they hadn’t worked out. But this was one relationship that was going to. As for Beckett and Ros, and her and Ed, they’d been through too much to throw it away again, and waste thirty years waiting and hoping for a chance to put it right.
It felt like a new beginning. Not just for Jan and Sir Anthony, but for the Bureau.
“How about the part where lying is our superpower?” Ed said, casting a sly glance at Jan.
“Not mentioning something, Ed,” she said, “is hardly the same as lying about it...”
“There’s a reason they call it the secret service, you know,” said Alex.
Four weddings, two funerals and one baby later, it seemed that Ed was inclined to agree. “That’s as maybe,” he said. “But I kind of like to know where I stand, when it comes to my friends.” He looked at each of them in turn, face grave. “So no more of it, okay?”
Alex pulled him aside. “So you haven’t got any...I don’t know...dark secrets you’d like to tell me about?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Like the name on my birth certificate?”
“Or are we talking about the body buried under my patio?”
“Ed, I’m being serious.”
His piercing blue eyes locked onto hers. “Might be the one.”
She smiled at him, and suddenly she knew why she’d been holding back. Her experience with Adam had caused so much pain. If she gave her heart away again, it had to be to someone who would take care of it; someone she could trust.
But she could trust Ed, she knew she could. She knew every inch of him, far better than she’d ever known Adam. She didn’t doubt that now. It didn’t matter if he was filling in as Bureau chief, or playing the joker—he was being himself. She’d once rejected him for that, but now she considered it the most appealing thing about him.
“Me too,” she said as she leaned up and kissed him. It was a long, passionate kiss, and though she was dimly aware of Beckett whooping behind them, and of Jan saying something to Ros, as Ed wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer, she felt so safe and secure that she blocked out the world, and abandoned herself to the moment.
Reluctantly, they pulled apart. Alex giggled as she saw the others watching them, eyes out on stalks.
“Weddings,” Ed explained lamely.
“Too much champagne,” added Alex.
“You know,” Ros said with a smile, “I’m sure the Fairchilds have plenty of spare rooms if the two of you would like to be alone.”
“Where was I?” Ed wondered in a pointed effort to ignore her. Alex slid a hand down his arm. He slipped it into his. “Oh yeah. I was waiting for you lot to promise a spot of full disclosure.”
“Actually, Ed,” Beckett said, “I think some things would be better off kept to yourself.”
Ed looked suitably reprimanded, but Alex wasn’t fooled. She’d caught the smile at the corners of Beckett’s mouth, the warm glance he’d swapped with Jan. He was keeping up appearances; being at his belligerent best.
“That’s a shame,” Ros said as she looked up at Beckett, “because there’s something I ought to tell you.”
“What, you want to see them slobbering over each other?”
“I’ve been having contractions all afternoon.”
Ed had bent over Alex for another kiss, but he pulled away so fast upon hearing Ros’s words that he almost toppled over.
“ROS!” Beckett bellowed.
“I didn’t want to interrupt the wedding...”
He rolled his eyes. “Ros, will you never learn that sometimes people want to be interrupted? You should have told me!”
“It’s probably a false alarm...” She winced and blew out a breath. “But somehow I doubt it.”
“That’s it,” Beckett said. “We are going to the hospital, right now.”
“I’ll drive you,” Jan said, beaming in a most un-Jan like way. She held out her palm. “Your keys, Beckett?”
Beckett was sweating. He began a frantic search, patting down every pocket. Ed squeezed Alex’s hand in excitement.
“Jan,” Ros protested, “it’s your wedding day.”
“I believe it’s the bride’s prerogative to spend it however she wishes,” Jan said. “I’ll go and tell Tony what’s happening.”
“Got him under the thumb already, eh Jan?” Ed teased. Alex was expecting a scowl, but instead, her lips began to curve. Ed punched the air in triumph as Jan darted off across the gravel, holding her hat on with a hand, trying and failing to hide her smile.
Ros frowned after her. “I feel terrible.”
Beckett dropped to his knees, misinterpreting. “Are you in a lot of pain?”
“Oh trust me, Nick,” she said sweetly, “I promise you’ll be the first to know.”
Alex turned to Ed, who was grinning like the village idiot as he watched Beckett hunting through his pockets for the hundredth time. “Looks like you were right about us and weddings, then.”
He laughed at her, or possibly at Beckett. “Alex, there is a big difference between a drama and a disaster. Or should I say, a birth and a death...”
She nodded, struck by the symbolism. It was as if everything had come full circle: drawing a final, definitive line beneath the past.
“Come to think of it,” Ed said, deep in thought, “we’ve never had a birth before, have we, wedding or no wedding...”
He twirled her in a dance, and then skipped like a hyperactive schoolboy through the contents of Beckett’s pockets, scattered like confetti across the grass, joining in the search for the missing key.
Alex stood amidst the chaos, an oasis of calm. She glanced up above her at the sky, as blue as it had been on the day of her own wedding, hugging the same golden sun. They were the same—and yet they weren’t. The promise this sky held was a very different one, and it was looking down at a very different Alex. She wondered if Adam would recognise her. And, if they were to meet again one day, after everything she had learned, whether she would recognise him.
She allowed herself one brief, melancholy moment, then walked towards Ed, and the present, with a smile.
It was where she belonged. And, at long last, it was a place she was perfectly content to be.