This is the first writing collaboration
between RSteel82 and Suzy Steele. After a recent view party of
Steele at It, the two of us got into an (arguement) vigorous discussion
as to who was in the right. Was it Laura? Was it Steele? Were
they both right and both wrong? We realized there was much more
that needed to be said about Laura and Remington and their trip
to Cannes. And its aftermath. In this writing experiment, we took
separate perspectives on the situation. Tell us what you think!
We can be reached at RSteel82@hotmail.com
If you like it, there may be more to come!
The day had begun just like the host of days before them. Steele had sauntered into the office at a little past ten in the morning, then pausing to rap his knuckles on Mildred's desk called out, "Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning," bringing an effervescent smile to the face of the secretary who adored him. Within only moments of settling into his chair and opening his paper, Mildred bustled into the office with his cup of tea.
"Thank you, Mildred," he told the older woman, smiling fondly at her. "Is Miss Holt in?"
"Shes been holed up in her office for hours now pouring over the agencys budget."
"Oh?" he asked, curiosity peaked. "I could have sworn she made mention last evening that she was going to be doing some legwork this morning on the Brown case.
"Shes waiting on a call from Browns accountant as we speak. I imagine as soon as she gets it, shell be heading out."
Ahhhh, he acknowledged while rocking back in his chair and kicking his feet up on the desk, crossing them at the ankles as he settled in with his paper.
Mildred frowned briefly, then with a slight shake of her head slid a stack of paperwork over in front of him. Laura had intentionally set the files on his chair that morning so he couldn't claim he'd overlooked it. He'd simply picked it up and placed it at the end of the desk - out of sight, out of mind.
"Miss Holt told me to remind you that you need to sign off on these files before lunch."
Steele glanced somewhat disinterestedly at the stack of paperwork, and gave a sigh of discontent. It would have to be dealt with... later. No use annoying oneself with something that could be put off until later.
"Yes, yes, I'll get right to it as soon as I'm done with my paper," he agreed. "Any appointments this morning?"
"Not a one."
"Wonderful," he smiled.
"Wonderful?" Mildred asked, perplexed.
"Well, uh," Steele quickly sought a cover for his gaffe, "We simply have so many cases right now, that it will be good to wrap up a few before taking more on."
Satisfied he had covered adequately, he snapped his paper open with a flourish.
"Mildred, be a love, and see to it that I'm not disturbed until, oh," he glanced at his watch, "Eleven-thirty."
"Don't worry, I'll have everything done before lunch," he assured her, with a lopsided grin.
"You better or you won't hear the end of it from Miss Holt."
"Believe me, I am well aware of that," he answered with a sigh. "Eleven-thirty then?"
"It's your goose," she told him, then turned and left the office closing the door behind her.
Steele spent the next half hour catching up on the news of LA, had checked the local movie listings hoping for a retrospective only to find himself disappointed, and had just settled in to enjoy The Blaster comic strip when the buzzer sounded. Snapping the paper down, he frowned at the phone in annoyance.
Leaning over he stabbed at the button for the intercom.
"I thought we agreed, Mildred, that I'd not be disturbed until eleven-thirty."
"You have a call on line one..." she began, only to be interrupted.
"Well, then, take a message," he told her, trying not to sound as peevish as he felt.
"He says he's an old friend."
"I imagine he does. How many prospective clients have used that line before? Need I remind you?"
"He says his name is Henri Lebret," Mildred persisted.
Steele swung his legs off the desk and sat up abruptly.
Henri , he smiled to himself. What a pleasant surprise this is.
Steele disconnected the intercom, then, picking up the handset, stabbed a finger at the blinking light on line one. He leaned back in his chair with a wide grin on his face.
"Henri! Bonjour, vieil ami! To what do I owe this pleasure?" he greeted the caller, jovially.
"Ah, mon ami, it has been far too long!" the caller replied. "I wish I could say this call was simply for the pleasure of catching up with an old friend, but I fear I need your help."
Steele frowned with concern.
"What's going on, Henri?"
"You remember the Palermo brothers, oui?"
"Of course, of course, nasty bunch they are. Tell me you haven't gotten yourself mixed up with them again."
"Not by choice, I assure you. No, somehow they found out that two business men will be making a discrete transaction here at the hotel and they have decided they wish to disrupt that transaction."
"Transaction for what, dare I ask?"
"The Hapsburg Dagger."
Steele raised a brow at the news and rubbed his chin in interest. While many believed the Hapsburg Dagger to merely be a myth, it was in fact very real. The jewel-encrusted dagger had been presented as a gift to the Hapsburgs during the 16th century. For years now it had been in the possession of a private collector. With the dagger going back on the market and the Palermo Brothers already on the scene, it was a sure bet that others with interest in the dagger would soon arrive as well. Steele felt the early stirrings of adrenaline entering his bloodstream as memories of planning a heist such as this stirred in his mind.
"I see. I am sure it is safe to assume that the Palermo Brothers are not a party to that exchange."
"Of course not. You know as well as I, they do not purchase what they want, they arrange to gain possession through more nefarious means."
"Which is where you come in?"
"Oui. They have threatened to mutilate my dear Joelle should I not gain possession of the dagger before the sale takes place."
Steele leaned forward in his seat, his face filled with anger.
"Bloody hell," he muttered. "The world would be a far better place if someone had taken out those murderous buggers long ago. What can I do to help?"
"As you are well aware, my particular skill set was in smuggling. I am afraid I am out of my league here."
"So you thought of me, of course," Steele said with a sigh.
"I know it is much to ask. You have retired from the life, built yourself a new life there in Los Angeles. I have seen the papers. I am proud of you, mon ami. I simply do not know where else to turn. Joelle..."
Steele closed his eyes, and began unconsciously gnawing at his thumb. He had only been a lad of thirteen when he'd arrived in Cannes, a stowaway on a freighter. For weeks he had lived on the streets there, nicking food where he could, and sleeping in alleyways before fate had arranged for Henri's path and his own to cross. Henri had seen something in him, though Steele was never sure what, and before he knew it he was learning the smuggling trade, had a safe place to kip at night, and meals each day that staved off the gnawing hunger that had so often been a part of his life since he ran at ten years old.
It was a good life, at the time, and only ended when Henri had retired and Steele had set off on his own, heading back to London at fourteen years old, where of course, he would eventually meet up with Daniel. Across the years he'd visited from time-to-time, the Lebert's feeling a bit like the family he'd never had. Henri had taken him in, despite their iffy introduction, and had never judged, simply accepted him, scruff and all. It was one of the few times in his life that he'd truly experienced the kindness of strangers.
So profound was his gratitude towards Henri that, when his beautiful young daughter Joelle had become infatuated with him when he'd visited years later, he worried constantly that Henri would realize and feel the sharp knife of betrayal. Henri trusted him with Joelle, had in fact bragged on many occasion when he was just a lad, that he, Steele, was her protector. To find her, as a young woman, looking at him in hopes of romance had shaken him. Eventually he had learned that a few stolen kisses would keep her happy and content, without raising an alert that the beautiful teen daughter of his friend had developed a tendre for him.
He owed Henri, owed the family, knowing full well that Henri's graciousness had provided him respite from the cruel streets, the aching hunger. It was a debt he knew he could never repay. At the very least, he owed it to Henri to help keep Joelle safe.
But what of Laura? He knew she would be immediately on guard as soon as he announced yet another person from his past had arrived on the scene. They had barely made it through the last time, with Anna, and it had taken them months to truly recover. It had only been in the last few weeks that he had seen the uncertainty and distrust fade from her eyes.
If he set out to steal the Hapsburg Dagger and she found out, it would likely be well and truly over between them. That was not an option, as far as he was concerned.
Yet, he owed Henri.
If only there were a way to steal the dagger but not really steal it...
Steele's eyes flew open, and he rapidly sat forward in his chair, a smile on his face.
"So let me get this straight, Henri. Unless you steal the dagger and give it to the Palermo brothers, they will harm Joelle, correct?"
"Oui," Henri answered resignedly.
"So if there is no dagger for you to steal, then that lets you off the hook. You cannot steal for the Palermo Brothers what does not exist, and they would need to set out to figure out who now has it, correct?"
"Yes, but, as I have already explained to you, the dagger will be here in the hotel."
"Not if I steal it first," Steele replied, a smile of satisfaction on his lips.
"I do not understand."
"It's quite simple really. I'll come to Cannes, steal the dagger. Word will get out that it was taken, and the Palermo Brothers will be forced to divert their attentions from yourself and Joelle to finding the thief. In the meantime, we can return the dagger to the rightful owner, and all ends well. It's bloody brilliant," he enthused. "Okay, Henri, we need to put together a plan. When is this all to take place?"
Steele searched his drawers and found a pencil but no paper. Writing down the information Henri provided on the corner of a page of the newspaper, when he hung up the phone with Henri he ripped the corner off and stuffed it in his pocket, glancing at the door leading into Laura's office as he did so.
Now what? he asked himself.
He stood and began to pace.
He couldn't very well disappear for the several days it would take to travel to Cannes, pull off the heist, make the exchange and return home without Laura noticing. His departure would raise a bevy of questions from his persistent and inquisitive partner.
No matter what, explanations would have to be made.
Crossing the room, he perched a hip on the window sill and stared at her door.
His first impulse was to go to her, tell her about Henri's troubles and ask her to help him help his friend. She had stood by his side when Wallace was killed, vowing they would find his killer together, regardless that it appeared at the time Wallace had robbed their client. She had come through, after all, when Daniel needed help, hadn't she? Even after he had tried to conceal their scheme, and she had discovered his lie. At the end of the day, Laura always came through. It was in her nature to help the potential victim, no matter their station in life. She would be angry at first, of course, as that too was her nature. React first when his past came to call, then calm down and approach it analytically it as she would any other case.
But that was before Anna had arrived on his doorstep... before he had shut Laura completely out... before he had nearly died in the process. He had hurt her deeply, he knew that, although she had never said the words. For months he'd been trying to make amends, to close the distance that she had unconsciously placed between them. He'd even gone so far as to create the elaborate ruse of a secret admirer, using it as a vehicle to express how much she meant to him. He'd been relieved when it had worked, when she had let down her guard. Until, of course, she discovered the truth, shaking the foundation of trust between them again.
This was too soon, too soon on the heels of Anna. He could hear the death knell of their relationship even as he sat there.
It was possible, however remote, that his sharing what was going on would strengthen her trust in him. But as a gambling man he knew the odds were not in favor of that outcome. Still, if he took that risk, would she help? Even more so, would she trust him to know how best to handle this particular situation? This was the life that he'd lived. He knew the players, the potential outcomes, not to mention how best to relieve the current owner of the dagger. No, his Laura wouldnt have the trust in the situation and these people that he had. She would insist from the outset to have control over every aspect of the plan. Worse, if she believed that there could be no positive resolution to the situation - one that would not place the Agency at risk - she would put the kibosh on it and expect him to come to heel. Then in turn, he would be forced to lie to her.
Once again, the death knell rang.
That only left lying to her from the outset and hoping that she wouldn't learn the truth, at least until it was over and done with and the dagger returned to its original owner. He could simply tell her he needed a few days away, to unwind. He had taken many side trips in the past and she'd not questioned him too doggedly about them. Yet, after each trip, he had noticed the distance she placed between them and the return in the veiled looks of distrust sent his way.
Was there no way out, then? No way to help the friend he owed and not risk her trust in him, risk what they were building together?
If only there was a way to get her on board , he thought somewhat wistfully. The idea of Laura and him spending time with one another touring Cannes stirred his blood more effectively than the remembrance of the adrenaline rush of the heist. He could easily imagine dinner at La Palme dOr, followed by a romantic stroll along la Croisette on a moonlit night and holding her in his arms as they looked out over the Suquet of the bay of Cannes. A day trip down to Nice where he could share the Picasso and Matisse Museums would definitely be in order, as was a drive along the coast to Menton followed by a picnic lunch on one of the cliffs perched high above the water. It would be the best of both worlds: he would be able to help a friend he owed a debt a gratitude to, while sharing the romance of Cannes with Laura.
If only, he thought with regret, recalling that only a few weeks past Laura had fairly bubbled over with excitement when an invitation from the Glee Club Alumni group had arrived, asking her to spend two weeks traveling throughout Europe giving concerts. He had briefly considered, then, convincing her to go, to pry her away from the Agency for a little one-on-one time. But the idea of being tied to an itinerary predetermined by Stanford University, whist surrounded by fellow members of the chorus had quickly thrown a damper on the idea. Laura had quickly dispelled the notion of closing down the Agency for two weeks herself, for what she viewed as little more than a pleasant indulgence of a fantasy.
Sighing, he glanced at the files on the corner of his desk, and a peek at his watch told him he had better get moving on completing the dreaded things. Pulling the stack of paperwork over to himself, he pulled the pen out of his drawer and set to work. He had only just signed off on the first case when it came to him.
Good Lord, old sport , he said to himself, you surely are slipping. The answer was right in front of you all along.
The Glee Club Tour, he remembered with a wide smile. The tour would move through seven European cities over fourteen days, wrapping up with the final three days spent in Cannes.
It could not have been more perfect than if he had planned it himself. The Glee Club Tour was the answer to all his problems: he could help Henri, continue to nurture his relationship with Laura by supporting her in what she had just seen as a frivolous dream, and best of all, romance her in some of the most romantic cities in Europe.
It was predestination, for certain.
He glanced at the paperwork in front of him and attacked it with a new vigor. What better way to smooth the road ahead than to present her with all the files signed by her prescribed deadline? No prompting, no prodding, no demanding - just that good old Protestant work ethic that she so admired being exemplified before her eyes.
He diligently worked his way through the files, wrapping up the last one a few minutes after noon. Picking up the stack of files, he headed to her office, prepared to convince his delightful partner of all the reasons the Glee Club Alumni tour was meant to be.
Laura Holt was engrossed in reviewing the agency budgets when Mr. Steele poked his head around the door that connected their respective offices. Shed spent the morning tracking down several of George Browns business contacts and had a pretty good idea that, in fact, Brown was running a Ponzi scheme. She had a call into his bank and until then, she had time to kill, which meant tackling the paperwork that had built over the past week. Because certainly Mr. Steele wouldnt have tackled it.
She sipped from her coffee mug and slowly leafed through the requested documents that Mildred had left on her desk. Shed been a little anxious over what shed find and had been pleased to discover that the quarterly budget sheets looked very, very good. Having an experienced accountant like Mildred on board was a godsend; that woman knew every IRS loophole and plus the ones that the IRS hadnt grasped yet. Between that and an exceptionally busy several months, not only had the red ink vanished from their account books, Remington Steele Investigations had acquired a hefty accrual in the black columns. If this kept up, Mildred would have to find them additional deductions.
Obvious, business-related deductions, Laura told herself firmly. Not like Mr. Steeles beloved Auburn from last year. At least shed manage to squelch that sailboat purchase. Although, if she let herself dwell on it, a weekend with Mr. Steele, just the two of them, sailing to Catalina had distinct romantic possibilities. And maybe that would be an easy way to signal her interest in moving their relationship forward? That business with his ex-flame Anna Simpson had changed her Mr. Steele, mostly for the better if truth be told. Yes, hed been incredibly stupid in that case, rushing to his ex-flames aid while cutting out Laura entirely. Damn near getting himself killed in the process. But, as shed had time to reflect on it, the situation had also shown that this man whoever he really was was capable of deep love, which was something she hadnt expected from her bon vivant thief. And it offered a glimmer of hope for their own potential relationship. She had gained a new insight into him. Like her, hed been badly hurt in love, and she hadnt expected that commonalty. Why she had not expected this did not bear close examination, because the answer would not be flattering to her.
There was another factor in her shifting perspective, and that circled around their protection of the Royal Lavulite, the very stones that had brought them together nearly two years ago. She had made a point in trusting him to develop the transportation plan and, despite near catastrophe, theyd come up trumps in finding those stolen stones. There was also her narrow escape at the end of that case when shed so stupidly fallen off his balcony, and the memory made her blush with embarrassment. It wasnt how shed intended to test his commitment, but afterward hed seemed more forthcoming and candid with his thoughts. Apart from that ridiculous business with the flowers, which only annoyed her by how shed fallen for such an obvious gimmick. Shed refused to put the expense onto the agencys account books on a matter of principle. She hadnt approved of the method, but she certainly got his message. And as Bernice Foxe had spelled out to her a few weeks back when theyd spoken by phone, it was now two full years and he was still here. Not exactly carrying his weight with the agency and still allergic to paperwork, but definitely an asset to her investigations. She considered him a good friend and companion as well. Maybe it was time to rethink their relationship?
Actually, what Bernice had said was, Go for it, girl.
Laura tapped her pencil thoughtfully against the printouts. It wouldnt hurt to research a few numbers, would it? Shed speak with Mildred about the potential tax implications of a boat.
With that incentive, she redoubled her efforts on evaluating the bottom line and was thus engrossed when there was that gentle tap at her open door.
Miss Holt? Laura?
Her ersatz Remington Steele wore that look of irresistible charm that still made her heart do a little lurch, ever since he first waltzed into her life and taken it over. She was very good at math and her calculus suggested that she probably ought to take that number and her response seriously. Bernice was right. It had statistical weight.
Steeles face fell as he eyed the papers on her neat desk. Ah, Ive caught you at a bad time. Dont want to distract from the important work of operating the agency. Ill just leave these with you.
And he hesitantly set a stack of papers on the corner of her desk.
She looked at them. Looked at him.
You said you wanted them by noon, he said helpfully.
I did. She was unable to keep the wonderment from her voice.
They all seemed to be in order, he added as she flipped curiously through the clipped pages, putting a little emphasis on the word seemed. So I signed off. The last one was a little questionable on the numbers; you might have Mildred look at the hours again for the security contractor we used.
I will. Her wonderment grew.
How did it go this morning with the Brown case?
Just fine. Our clients wont be happy, but its as we suspected, hes bilking the investors and paid them with money from the new ones. We should get the bank records later today, but it has all the hallmarks of a classic Ponzi scheme.
He tut-tutted. Amazing that people still fall for them. Ill leave you to it. Didnt mean to interrupt.
You mean, you hope to avoid an opportunity to pass additional work to you? she teased him.
No one could run the agency better than you, he said and looked like he meant it, so she let it pass.
Whats up? she asked instead and glanced at her small desk clock. It was just after twelve, so he might be angling a proposition for lunch. Or, even better, his evening plans.
He took that as permission to continue and perched himself on the edge of her desk. I was thinking That usually means its going to cost me money. that youve been working exceptionally hard lately. Lots of those billable hour thingies and hardly a proper vacation. What with protecting the Royal Lavulite, and us not stealing the Jennings diamond for Le Reynard, and then recovering those embezzled bank funds while helping poor Rocky escape Eddie Lucas? He paused for a breath, and Laura thought, Okay, theres the set up. Whats he after this time? Do you suppose hell ever ask for something straight out?
She decided to play along. Which meant tossing his idea out to see what aspect hed come bounding back with. Experience had taught her this was a tried-and-true way to learn what he really wanted. Then its a good thing we had all those other cases to install security and trace missing wills and locate stolen property, because the cases you mentioned didnt exactly pay well.
Ah. His face fell and she couldnt help but take pity on him.
Still. You did a marvelous job designing those security systems for the museum and the Nicolson gallery. And the insurance company paid us for the Lavulite work plus a bonus, since otherwise theyd have to admit their clients were thieves.
There! he crowed. See? And all suggesting a well-deserved holiday.
Her eyes narrowed. Ah, ha. Thats it. Oh? And what brought this on?
To be honest, your glee club tour.
Okay, I didnt see that one coming. I decided not to go, remember? Two weeks away from the agency?
Yes, but you sing as well as you play, and you do love it. Musics in your blood as much as detection. You have little enough opportunity to enjoy it, these days. What with getting the agency on firm footing and all, eh?
She leaned back in her chair and considered his suggestion, surprising herself by not immediately dismissing it. Funny you should say that. I was just thinking along similar lines. Weve worked hard and she gestured at the pages before her were on much firmer financial footing. The clients are coming in and weve got all the work we can handle.
Blue eyes softened as he met her gaze. Youve achieved the reputation and success that you longed for when you started the agency. How much vacation time has Laura Holt taken since she started Remington Steele Investigations?
She smiled back. Precious little, as you know.
Well, then? Perhaps its time to consider paying yourself back?
When you phrase it like that, it sounds very tempting. She sighed a little, wistful. Ive never been to Europe.
Steele looked a little surprised. Truly? Never?
No. I always wanted to go. I even studied French in high school. But when my father disappeared, money got tight. My family couldnt afford an overseas trip. And then I was just too busy, starting my career.
Then well have to take this opportunity and correct the omission.
Did I hear a we just now, Mr. Steele? she teased with a smile. I didnt realize you sang.
Nor is Stanford my dear alma mater. But surely you shant be singing all day. And night. Youll require an expert escort through the sights of Europe. He reached forward to trail a finger down the side of her cheek. His touch sent tingles straight down her spine and suggested other delicious possibilities.
The invitation did say thered be plenty of time for sightseeing. You make it sound irresistible. She rose now and came around the desk to meet him, and tilted upward to press a light kiss on his lips.
Irresistible, he murmured. I like the sound of that. He kissed her back, his mouth opening in invitation, and Laura met him with a gentle nip of his lips and a teasing of her tongue against his. Just to suggest the possibilities.
She pulled back to ask, And are you an expert on the sights of Europe?
Locations here and there, he murmured, moving on to nuzzle her hair. Ill need to brush up if you desire the full benefit of my expertise. What was their schedule again?
Laura sighed happily. Only her Mr. Steele could breathe innuendo into a travel itinerary. These two weeks suddenly sounded much more interesting. Even pulse racing. Amsterdam. Brussels. Paris. Nice. She punctuated the locations with little kisses.
Sounds delightful. Not too late to respond with an affirmative on the trip?
I think theres still time. She pulled away reluctantly, before things got too out of hand, and retrieved the letter from her in-box. Did he suspect that she had pulled it out occasionally to dream about the possibilities? She looked over the description and added, Luxembourg, Barcelona, Cannes.
Each more beautiful than the next.
Then she remembered their last trip out of the country and her brain kicked in to harden her heart and squelch her dream. No cities that are on your forbidden-to-travel list, are there? No Captain Rioss that I need to know about? We wouldnt want a repeat of Acapulco.
Laura. He could have been angry at her abrupt mood shift, but instead he placed a hand on his heart in a pose of mock offense. You cut me to the quick.
They didnt link your name, eh? I knew you were good. Now she was amused. And what name will you be traveling under?
Why, the famous detective Remington Steele, of course. Then he grinned and her heart skipped despite herself. Best you dont ask such difficult questions.
Then Ill give Ron a call and tell him Im in.
His eyes narrowed. Whos Ron?
The choir director and trip organizer.
Eighty years old and gay, no doubt.
Her devil got the better of her. Thirty-five and blond, actually.
Grr. Then you definitely need an escort.
Thats a very good idea, Mr. Steele. And the more I reflect on it, the more I think youre right.
About us working so hard and deserving a vacation. I think Mildred would love to come, too, dont you?
His expression soured and she tried not to laugh. Seriously? Mildred?
Why not? She deserves a little fun as well. Shes invested as much into the agency as we have. Youre her biggest champion and, I have to agree, shes become indispensable. Its only fair that she benefit equally from the fruit of our labors.
How equally? Because its very difficult to split the spoils three ways. Do we really require a chaperon? he said, petulant.
Itll give you something to do while Im rehearsing, she said sweetly. Keep you busy planning ways for us to evade her.
He made a show of protest but Laura could see he was as pleased as a kid with a new toy. This had the potential to be a new page in their relationship. She made a mental note to shop for clothing accordingly.
When Laura finally returned to her paperwork and Steele departed for his own office, he had his back to her. So Laura didnt see his fleeting expression of glee or his tiny pumped fist of victory. If she had, she would never have called Ron to secure her spot on the tour.
The European trip with Laura (and Mildred) was even more successful than Steele had ever dreamed. Amsterdam, the first city on their tour, was much the same as he remembered. Because there had been little prior rehearsal time, Laura was occupied with the choir and perfecting their performance. So it had been Mildred that Steele had taken to the Rijksmuseum to see Nightwatch and the other Rembrandts (far too large to steal, of course, although there was a surfeit of buyers in the market), and the Van Gogh museum, which had definitely made his fingers itch, but he loved Van Gogh too much to put those paintings into private hands.
Laura had come burbling up to him between rehearsals. Mr. Steele! Some of the choristers mentioned a lovely place to stroll after dark. Maybe after our concert tonight? Her eyes sparkled and her enthusiasm was unabated, and he found the heady combination irresistible. This was his other discovery on this trip, that singing induced a post-concert buzz in his colleague that rivaled alcohol. Or thefts of Pitkins. She was humming with energy and enthusiasm. Who knew? Certainly not he, for if he had, he would have prescribed a singing curriculum far sooner in their relationship.
Lead on, Miss Holt. I look forward to your invitation.
So after the post-concert reception she collected her wrap and he let Laura lead the way. The Amsterdam of his youth in the 60s and 70s had been a blur of drugs and hippies and hookers. This Amsterdam had grown up and they strolled, hand-in-hand, along cobbled sidewalks and canals, over the arched bridges and beneath the warm yellow glow of the charming wrought-iron streetlights.
Streetlights. Oh, dear . Laura murmured, Marty said its just one block over, and they turned onto another narrow street and Steele suddenly had a sinking feeling in his stomach as he recognized where and what her charming little street was.
Er, Laura, are you sure its this way?
Yes, yes. Turn left at this street and follow the canal. See! She pointed downstream. There it is! All those garlands of little red lights strung across the water. And she sighed.
The sinking pit widened into a chasm. I hate it when Im right, he muttered. His romantic evening was about to vaporize and he was powerless to prevent the forthcoming disaster.
What? Her step had acquired a little bounce of enthusiasm.
Hungry! he seized on. Arent you hungry after that concert? All that energy and effort. He patted his own somersaulting stomach. I could do with a meal myself. In fact, I recall a little café just over there He attempted a one-eighty degree pivot, but forgot he was wrestling with one-track Laura. It was like budging a monument, or opposing gravity, and her inertia swung him about and forward again.
That sounds wonderful! As soon as we see this! Her steps continued forward.
And now his romantic evening was about to backfire sensationally. Okay, time for plan B. Laura, I dont think you want to go there.
Why ever not? Whoops. Wrong thing to say to a detective. She sniffed and frowned a little. I smell marijuana. But its legal here, right? Surely its not a drug gallery or something? Look at how nicely dressed all these people are.
Now he knew how Cary Grant felt when he tried to divert Kate Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. All they needed was a leopard. Laura, that stroll isnt what you think it is.
All the while their steps drew them ever closer. Oh, come on, she teased. Surely youre up for a little adventure.
Oh, dear, he sighed, just like Cary and crossed the street with her.
See? she said. Its all perfectly charminOh. And she flushed a deep color that perfectly complemented the little strings of red lights that draped across the canals.
She froze in mid-step and stared at the first brightly-lit shop window. It contained a topless woman. A living, topless woman who was perched on a stool and attired in a string bikini, thigh-high net stockings and impossibly high heels. Her blonde hair cascaded over unnaturally large bare breasts.
Thats why its called the Red Light District, Laura, he said dryly.
Oh, my god, she blurted. The woman in the window gave Steele a long-lashed wink. Beckoned with a long red fingernail. He gave her an apologetic shrug and tried to pull Laura away, but she was rooted to the cobblestones.
What is that? she squeaked in perfect imitation of her sister Frances.
I think shes proposing a threesome, but thats never been my thing. How about dinner, Laura?
A three Her mouth dropped open. The woman inside exchanged a knowing glance with Steele. This probably happened at least once every five minutes, judging by the steady shuffle of the crowded pedestrian traffic that flowed alongside and around them. One of the tourists jostled Laura and shook her out of her shock.
Its all perfectly legal, said Steele, hoping to intercept a feminist diatribe. They have regular health checks, protected salary, and the punters are vetted within reason. An eyebrow rose. You did mention wanting to see the sights of Europe.
The hand that clutched his arm tightened. Im going to kill Marty, she ground out.
May I watch?
He said it was popular with the tourists!
One cant dispute that, he agreed and gestured at a passing German-licensed BMW that crawled along the busy street. Inside they could see a portly gentleman driving, portly wife beside him, and seated in the back seat, two children and grandma, all looking eagerly at the window displays. But I dont think this is the romantic stroll you were planning.
She tightened her grip on his arm and now dragged him back toward the safety of the cross street. Maybe we should just have that dinner?
An excellent suggestion. For the record, and he leaned over for a seductive murmur in her ear, my personal preference is to unwrap my own packages.
Yes, she agreed automatically, still a little dazed. But she didnt remove herself from the arm that he ever-so-casually draped over her shoulders, and so perhaps Lauras European eye-opener might not have backfired after all?
At the conclusion of Amsterdam tours that included both the red light district and a visit to Anne Franks house, Steele realized that their two days in Amsterdam were a definite, downer bust. His hopes for a romantic getaway soured further as he considered the tours next stop in Brussels. Cheerful and Belgian were not two words that one typically linked in the same sentence. The busy little bureaucrats were cold water poured upon his romantic soul. Little wonder he had spent no time here.
But he had forgotten one critical Belgian export that made all the difference in Laura Holts outlook. It was Mildreds doing and he could have kissed her for it. The trio were at breakfast in their Brussels hotel and Mildred was leafing through her guidebook.
Heres something that would be interesting to tour, Miss Holt!
I dont do tapestry museums, Steele said dourly as he picked at his croissant. He was beginning to question the wisdom of this trip.
The lace is beautiful, but this would be fun. Its a chocolate factory!
At her words, Lauras head snapped up from her fruit plate, so fast and hard that Steele wondered if he should inspect for whiplash.
Steele couldnt help the silly grin that spread across his delighted countenance. Chocolate, Miss Holt, he said, loading it with all the eroticism he could manage, just to watch her response. The word is chocolate.
How how far? I mean, its probably too far away, she managed to say. Her complexion acquired a warm flushed look that Steele found erotic.
Oh, no, said Mildred cheerfully. The tour lasts ninety minutes and its just a short ride on the tram. Looks like theres even a tasting room.
Steele almost reached forward to grab Laura as he feared her eyes were about to roll into the back of her head. But she recovered just in time, preventing him from administering the breath of life. Too bad.
Mildred looked from her one employer to the other, all the while frowning. Is it something I said? Something I need to know about?
No, no, Mildred, said Steele blithely. Miss Holt likes chocolate. Which is a bit like saying Goldfinger liked Fort Knox. Only more so.
Oh. Then its a pity were here for such a short time.
To Steeles great amusement, in the next moment Laura had plucked the guidebook from Mildreds startled grasp and was running a trembling finger down the page. What time do they open? Rehearsal doesnt start until two.
And that gave Steele an excellent idea. An idea on how to make Lauras trip even more unforgettable. The tour of the chocolate factory along with a little side trip provided an opportunity to infuse this leg of the trip with some much needed romance, which, with a little luck, would provide additional impetus to dislodge the stalemate in their relationship and move it to the next level. A level for which unforgettable would be an understatement.
He rose and stepped around the table, leaning over her shoulder under the guise of perusing the guidebook. He purposefully allowed his lips to accidentally brush across her ear, before speaking in a manner such that his breath would caress her ear. It appears the first tour starts at nine-thirty. Plenty of time for us to catch the tram and arrive with bells on. He watched as goosebumps shimmered across her skin as hed intended.
When do we leave? she asked with thready breath. Her skin flushed as an errant finger brushed against her neck as he moved to return to his seat.
Yeah, when do we leave? Do I have time to change Mildreds words faded at the quelling look Steele shot in her direction. The brush of fingers across the back of Lauras hand, the glance exchanged between the younger couple did not, for a change, escape her notice. On second thought, I hope you kids dont mind, but a tour of the tapestry museum would do my waistline worlds of good.
If youre sure, Mildred, Laura answered absently, distracted by the delicious sensations Steele was creating in her hand and her body beyond it as his fingers traced feather-light abstract designs across her palm. It was only considerable will-power that prevented her from again swooning in response to the expert stimulation, a reaction Steele both noted and appreciated.
Absently signing off on the check, Steeles innate etiquette did not permit him to abandon Mildred to while away the day alone without some measure of conciliation. Perhaps after I deliver Miss Holt to her rehearsal, Mildred, youd enjoy an afternoon tour of the Brussel Cemetery with me? Id not normally suggest such a lugubrious outing, but one mustnt miss the opportunity to appreciate the monument Laliang created in tribute to the victims of Waterloo, as well as the tomb of Jacques Louis David and other monuments which honor the bourgeoisie of the 19th century. Dinner, of course, would follow, prior to our arrival at the theater.
Mildreds mouth formed an o shape, as her love of all things paranormal took hold of her fertile mind. Do you think there are any ghosts haunting the graveyard, Boss?
One never knows, now, do they Mildred? Two-thirty then? Standing, he graced the older woman with a smile meant to charm, while fingers strayed down the inside of Lauras upper arm, before a hand settled under her elbow, assisting her up from her chair. Taking her light wrap from her hands, he smoothed it over her partially bare shoulders. He was unable to resist the lure of saluting the long column of her neck, and found himself pleasantly rewarded when she subtly pressed her back against his chest.
A promising day indeed.
While Laura indulged herself in the near erotic fantasy of finding herself in a building in which she was surrounded by chocolate, Steele indulged himself in her. Throughout the tour of the chocolate factory hed been unable to resist the urge to place small touches across his intoxicating partners body, and her normally enticing response to him increased exponentially as she fed her addiction, quite literally. For Laura, the chocolate sampling room was akin to the unmanned bar to an alcoholic. As she sampled the chocolate, hed been drawn to sample her, his lips traveling over hers, his tongue touching a lip, dipping into her mouth to savor the enticing taste of her and the sweet treat combined. While his charming partner was normally reticent to public displays of affection, she became not only willing, but eager to share in this piece of decadency. So bewitched was he that before they departed he made certain to obtain a variety of truffles in which she could indulge during lunch.
After a brief detour to a quaint market where Steele purchase a selection of cheeses and fruits, along with a delightful Chardonnay, they adjourned to Parc de Bruxelles where they claimed a fairly secluded spot nestled under a tree, the panoramic view of the Royal Palace of Brussels before them. They bantered throughout lunch about the respective charms of Amsterdam versus Brussels, and he extoled the virtues of the upcoming cities theyd be visiting. Laughter was as frequent as the small touches hed interspersed throughout their meal. Stomachs sated, he stretched on the ground, propped on an elbow, and dropped the bag of chocolates between them. Laura stretched out across him, mirroring his position and eying the bag as though it contained a snake ready to strike.
I really shouldnt, she told him, her gaze riveted on his hands as it opened the sack. Ive already had too much today.
Selecting a coconut crusted truffle from the bag, he held it inches from her mouth. Whats a holiday for, if not to indulge in those things we elsewise deny ourselves, eh?
She moved her body incrementally closer to him and the chocolate held within his fingers, belying the words that followed. I really shouldnt.
Be daring, Laura. Seize the moment. His voice held a bit of the devil in it, his eyes challenging her.
It was the challenge in his eyes, more than the desire for the decadent treat that made her lean forward, take a slow bite from the truffle, her gaze now focused on his. She chewed slowly, breathing out deeply, as the creamy chocolate melted in her mouth. She swallowed, watched him gulp in response, then ran her tongue across her lips slowly, smiling at his catch of breath. She plucked the other half of the truffle from his fingers, holding it up between them.
Would you like a taste? she asked, voice sultry, her eyes now holding the challenge.
His eyes darkened as they focused on her lips, and he moved closer, leaned over her, pressing her back to the ground through nearness alone. Dont mind if I do, he murmured against her lips.
His lips stroked hers playfully, then settled firmly, demanding her full participation. Her hand strayed to the back of his neck, fingers playing in the short hairs at the nape, as her mouth opened inviting him in. His tongue glanced against her own before departing and hummed against her lips before pulling away.
The verdict? she asked, a teasing lilt in her voice.
Ill have to examine more evidence, to come to an accurate conclusion, Im afraid. His fingers plucked the remaining half of the truffle from hers while holding her chocolate-coated thumb between them as he drew it to his mouth. His brow arched upwards, as if asking permission, and receiving no denial his mouth closed over it, his tongue lathing it, removing the sticky residue before releasing it from his mouth.
I believe youve overlooked an important clue, Mr. Steele, she informed him huskily, rubbing her chocolate dribbled index finger across his bottom lip.
Cant have that, now can we? He nipped at the tip of her finger before drawing into his mouth, suckling, drawing a tantalizing sigh from her lips. He held the remaining truffle in front of her lips. Perhaps I need another taste, eh? smiling as she opened her lips, allowing him to feed it to her. He watched her chew for a moment before running his thumb and index finger down the column of her throat, leaving streaks of melted chocolate in their wake.
Keeping her eyes on her face, wanting to see the pleasure there, he dropped his mouth to her throat, lips pressing, mouth suckling, a tongue gliding over the chocolate trails. Her eyes unfocused from the sensuous contact before her lids fluttered closed and she sucked in a staccato gasp of air. Fingers splayed across the back of his head urging more contact as another hand feathered up his back. She felt the slight shudder at the first contact of her hand against him, then lost herself in the movement of muscles under her fingers as he pushed himself up on his elbows, his head descending towards hers. Their lips fed hungrily, tongues teased, stroked, touched and retreated, their mouths challenging one another in a dance of desire. A hand stroked up her ribs, a thumb daring to stroke across a nipple. Her back arched and she cried out into his mouth, her fingers digging into his back in ardent response to the touch. On a deep moan, he forced his hand away from her breast and pried his lips away from hers with regret. He bussed her on the neck, before rolling onto his back, placing space between them as they tried to slow their stampeding breathing.
When her breathing had returned to something approaching normal, Laura sat up, tucking her legs to her side. Her fingers reached out and brushed an errant lock of hair off of Steeles forehead. When his gaze met hers, she smiled at him, then blithely inquired, Have you enough evidence to render a verdict Mr. Steele? Laughing, he hooked his hands around the back of her neck and drew her down for a quick kiss before releasing her.
It occurs to me, Miss Holt, that the Agency may want to consider diversifying its investments.
Oh, in what way? she asked with a trace of suspicion.
I hear chocolate factories are very good investments. Matter of fact, if this is how you react to one truffle, I suspect the company would be quite profitable off of my purchases alone. He grinned at her delighted laugh before shoving himself to his feet and offering her a hand up. Im afraid, Miss Holt, that our delightful little encounter must come to an end if we are to get you to rehearsal on time.
Picking up the bag of chocolates he tucked them in his jacket pocket. After a quick and final kiss, he slid an arm around her back, pleased when she leaned her head against his shoulder as they walked to the exit of the park.
If a dour little city like Brussels could inspire the delectable little encounter in which theyd just engaged, he could only imagine what sensuous Spain and romantic France held for them.
By the time the Stanford glee club had arrived in Paris, Steele happily concluded that a real thaw had come for himself and Laura. Mostly in Laura. The shift was partly his doing, to be sure, but part of it came from Laura herself. It was as if this whirlwind tour of Europe, combined with his own advances, had shaken out and blown away her own doubts and insecurities. He saw the change whenever their gazes met, which was happening with increased frequency. For the first time since Anna had shown up, that look in her eyes had disappeared, the one of distrust and fear that she would be hurt again. He began to think that perhaps the past might finally be behind them. And the future looked quite encouraging.
So did his plans with Henri Lebret. The two of them arranged to meet in Paris one morning while Laura was occupied with yet another rehearsal. Hed sent Mildred off to the Louvre, promising her that one trip would not be enough and that hed accompany her again later. He met with Henri at a favorite café.
Mes ami, it is good to see you again! said Steele after a bout of hugs and back claps and the French touches of the cheek that passed for male intimacy.
And you as well, Degare. It has been too long since you last visited us. Joelle sends a hundred kisses, which I am instructed to deliver in person. So please consider them delivered, he added with an arched eyebrow.
Is she all right? How is she doing? Henris daughter Joelle was very much the little sister to Steele and he worried for her safety.
She is frightened, of course. She is also excited. She always liked that frisson of adventure. But the Palermo brothers are not an adventure.
No. Quite the opposite. Well, lets see what we can do to keep her safe.
I brought the detailed building plans as you requested. And photos of the relevant locations.
Mmm, said Steele as he flipped through the images. So the relevant apartment is on the second level of the four story building?
Yes, and there is a very handy alleyway behind that is not very visible. They spent the next hour studying the collection of papers spread on the little table before them, and at the end Steele had a plan, a short list of purchases for his friend to acquire, and a comment. Its a sin, Henri, that someone so foolish about security is permitted to own something so precious.
Oui. I have occasionally remarked that a person may be blessed with happiness, brains, and a good fortune, but seldom two of the three. You, dear Degare, appear to be one of the exceptions.
If I am, its because I had good friends to help and rely on. You know that you and Joelle are dear as family to me.
His friend cocked his silvered head as if to inspect his old friend. The Los Angeles appears to suit you well. You look happy and content.
I am, Steele agreed and realized he truly meant it. I have almost everything Ive desired.
She must be very beautiful, indeed, then. And I expect very intelligent.
Steele laughed. Exactamont! Unparalleled beauty and brains enough to run a small country. He waited as Henri lifted his drink and then added, Shes a private detective, and was rewarded with a startled bout of coughing.
Does she know about your plan? Henri asked once hed recovered.
Oh, no. Not my Laura. Im afraid shes anything but receptive when people from my past come calling, although I must admit not without cause given prior events. Shes the reason Im here. Her college alumni club has singing engagements including Cannes.
And so you led her to believe that you are here to accompany her tour, when it is really the excuse to conceal your adventure.
Steele winced. You have a clear-headed way of describing things, Henri.
Henri clucked his tongue. My petit Degare, you are still too much the gambler at heart. Still the young boy who took his earnings and hitched back to London, instead of being the man who sits before me. If you cannot be honest with her, then perhaps she is not really the one. Take it from an old man, this is how you win a womans heart when you want her for life.
Except Miss Holt is not your typical woman. If I knew how to win her heart, Id have it by now.
I am not so sure I believe you, he said, annoying Steele, and then pushed back his cup. Well, I wish you success in that matter. And I pray your plans do not misfire. He rose. Well keep in touch. And thank you for helping an old friend.
He and Henri did indeed keep in touch as their plans solidified. He reviewed them over and again and was impressed with their simplicity and elegance. He would meet Henri again once in Cannes, where the equipment awaited him. He was conscious of the clock ticking. While he and Laura were in Barcelona, the Palermo brothers had stopped by Henris home one evening and threatened Joelle again. It was only through severe self-restraint that Steele kept himself from bolting to Cannes and thrashing the hoodlums himself.
That, and an awareness that his relationship with Laura was indeed shifting. Very definitely for the better. She was increasingly receptive to his attentions and sought him out during the post-concert receptions. By day, they spent Lauras free time arm-in-arm as they toured the sights museums, cathedrals, and other cultural attractions that he knew would interest her. And he found himself enjoying seeing the familiar sites through her eyes. He would at times find himself off-balance, as his mind registered that he was not immune to the spell of romance being woven around them. He became increasingly aware that, should they consummate their relationship during the whirlwind European tour, far more than the line between boardroom and bedroom would be crossed. Cautious boundaries between stubborn hearts would be breached as well.
It was during their last night in Barcelona that the earth shifted beneath his feet. After the concert, theyd dodged their fellow travelers and gone to the esplanade, and hed held her in his arms as they stood above the harbor. He felt the heady heat of her desire, her need to be closer still. Her small hands had gently pressed his ribs as she melded herself to his body, while in turn he succumbed to the overwhelming need to taste the sensitive skin of her neck, tease the flesh of an earlobe, nibble the crook of a shoulder. Even now as he lay in his too-lonely bed after theyd parted, he could taste the sweet tang of her perfume on his tongue, feel the texture of her skin under his lips, hear the muted sounds of her pleasure, smell the intoxicating mix of scents that was so uniquely her.
His craving for her knew no end. The simple thought of their satiated bodies entwined after theyd reached the peak of pleasure together made his body clench with a need of such magnitude hed not previously believed possible. Yes, much had shifted this evening. He could no longer deny that he would be unsatisfied until she was his, and his alone. And he hers. Perhaps most telling in this shift was that this recognition was not accompanied by fear, but by peace.
Tonight shed given him every indication that if he had asked her to make love with him, she would agree. Had she asked, hed have been unable to say no. However, it had not been the moment they both deserved. Why did it have to be their last night in Barcelona? They had an early train to catch in the morning. When they made love the first time, he wanted to be able to wake with her slowly the next morning, no pressure to go anywhere, with every opportunity to lose themselves in each other again.
More pragmatically, the next night he would execute his plan for stealing the dagger in Cannes. Henris admonishment still rang in his ears, and he found himself not quite comfortable with the idea of making love with Laura while he held back a secret from her. Guilt at his deception tweaked his conscience. Hed grown more at home with the honesty that had become increasingly second nature to him over the last two years, while duplicity was becoming a foreign land fraught with obstacles he preferred to avoid. He had no doubt as to the cause of this change as the former found Laura by his side, while the latter meant leaving her behind. No, best to get through tomorrow, then put it all behind him. After tomorrow night, no more. No more lies between us. The cost of being found out has become more than I am willing to pay.
Two days hence, he smiled to himself. Perhaps that would prove to be the day they finally gave themselves over to one another. With the tour at an official end, they would visit the sites of Cannes, then in the evening dine at Le Palme Dor, indulge in some fine champagne, plenty of dancing, followed by a romantic stroll along le Croisette - all as hed envisioned back in LA. After, if she decided the time was right, if she was ready to turn the page and recognize, as he had long ago, that they were meant to be lovers, it would truly be a magical moment. When they looked back on their first time together, as there was no doubt in his mind there would be many more times to follow, they would have the memory of a wonderful day spent together before they crossed that line, and a long day spent enjoying one another to follow. It would be all that she deserved.
He smiled at the idea of waking with her in his arms, and he found himself more eager than normal to see her which was saying a lot, as the highlight of each of his days was that first moment in which he saw her. His Laura. He hoped that the thought would become a reality in the days that lay ahead.
It was in Barcelona that Lauras blood began to quicken and that occasional itch morphed into a persistent demand for attention. It had started in Brussels over that amazing moment with the truffles and steadily built from then on. In Paris Steele had introduced her to pain au chocolat, which was enough to endear him completely, a fact which hed probably figured out. Now, with just three days left in the tour, Laura had finally silenced her doubts that it was time to address that itch. In the meantime, Steele and Mildred had assiduously attended every concert.
But why? shed asked them after their last post-concert reception in Barcelona. Youve heard by now our entire repertoire. You could probably even slip on-stage to sing and no one in that audience would have a clue. Surely theres a tour or a restaurant or something that would be more interesting than listening to us again. I wouldnt mind.
But youre wonderful! gushed Mildred. I cant get enough of you guys! You sing so beautifully! And those Americana songs, like Gershwin? Makes me proud to be an American!
Laura glanced at Steele. He raised an eyebrow and said, I enjoy watching you enjoy sing, and the intensity of his gaze was enough to make her blush.
At that point another woman in the choir whod been within earshot paused to join the conversation. Dont send him away, for goodness sake! We enjoy watching him, too!
Upon which, Steele favored the woman with a smile that nearly made her drop her appetizer plate.
Laura! greeted a new voice and Steeles smile vaporized.
Cant you get rid of that insignificant puppy? he hissed in Lauras ear.
Hes the choir director.
And Im very good with a crossbow.
Hush! Behave! Laura turned her full wattage smile onto their director in polite overcompensation. Hello, Ron. That was a wonderful concert tonight. You really know how to bring out the best in us.
To which Steele countered, As compared with what I could bring out. Laura pretended to not hear that, which was challenging since his suggestion only piqued that itch.
Rons cluelessness in matters of romance was monumental and had earned Steeles soubriquet altar boy starting from their concert in Brussels. Why, thank you, Laura, Ron now said. You know, its our last night here in Barcelona. Would you enjoy a stroll along the harbor?
Ive only seen it from the daylight, she said, mischievous. On our way to the Picasso museum yesterday. Mr. Steele has a thing for paintings in museums. He just cant get enough of them.
She was rewarded with an eyebrow cocked at her and she chuckled inwardly. Truly, he had been a model museum-goer on their trip. Must be driving him crazy. But he only said, How odd you should mention the harbor, Ron. Miss Holt and I were just on our way. Theres a lovely little tapas restaurant that I know.
Rons eyes bugged. Topless?
That was what Laura had heard, too, and it was only by biting her lip that she averted an attack of the giggles.
Tapas, Ron. He gave it a Catalan twist. Its the local cuisine. Little plates. Little bites. Surely he felt her sudden flush of heat through the hand that rested on her bare arm? He gave her a gentle squeeze. Oh, my, yes, he did.
Sounds romantic, said Mildred with that knowing look, not even pretending to be subtle.
It is, Mildred, Steele assured her. Ron, tell me. When does our train depart in the morning?
Eight a.m. He made a show of calculating. We should be back in time to meet everyone in the lobby by six. Barcelonans are known for their late night hours. Laura caught his wink at Mildred, who fastened her own grip on Rons sleeve.
Ill bet Ron would like to tell me about his plans for the concerts in Cannes. Wouldnt you, Ron? She smiled warmly at him. And I could use a freshened drink.
Bless you, Mildred, Laura heard Steele murmur. Then he expertly steered Laura from the group and toward the exit. To think I had opposed including her on this trip. That womans getting a raise when we return.
Oh, come now. Rons harmless, she teased.
So are bed bugs, said Mr. Steele and swept her into a taxi.
The restaurant was a small, intimate café in a side street just off the central district. They had an outside table with a perfect view of the night-lit harbor. She enjoyed Rioja the local Spanish wine for the first time, warm and berry-rich, and they sampled the promised little plates of appetizers handmade sausages, cold salads, pickled vegetables, smoked octopus and spoke about nothing and everything. She talked about how the polyphonic music raised those goosebumps, and he shared amusing stories about the colorful individuals hed known in France.
From there, they hailed a cab and Steele leaned forward with new instructions to the driver, who gave them a wink via his rear view mirror before taking them to their next destination. Their ride ended at a club, where their door was opened by a uniformed liveryman and Laura was escorted through wide doors into a discreet club. A band played soft, danceable jazz. They were shown to a table but spent very little time seated. Instead Laura spent the next several hours slowly revolving in her Mr. Steeles arms, with an occasional pause for refreshment.
At one point the quintet moved into As Time Goes By and the arm around her waist tightened. He gave a little sigh. She responded by resting her head against his shoulder and murmured, This is perfect, Mr. Steele.
Anything for my Ilsa.
Finally, the combo wound through Gordon Jenkins arrangement of the Benny Goodman closer Goodbye and then began to pack their instruments. Laura glanced at her watch. Two-thirty!
Feels like we just arrived.
Feels like weve always been here.
A corner of his mouth upturned. I like the sound of that.
From the club, it was a short walk to a moonlit waterfront that still thrummed with other late-night visitors and romantics. He had tucked her shawl more warmly about her and dropped a not-in-the-least casual arm about her shoulders, bringing her close as if they were lovers. She reclined her head against him as they drifted along the esplanade.
In many ways, we already are lovers. We know so many of each others little intimacies. Weve seen each other in various states of undress, know each others clothing sizes. Watched the other sleep and waken. She felt a little tingle of anticipation. Maybe now is the time?
They had long been perceptive of each others thoughts and emotions. Now, he must have felt her tremor, for his arm tightened further. Are you cold?
No. Rather the opposite, in fact.
Im glad to hear it.
Its beautiful here, she said, not really changing the subject and nodded at the dark water of the boat-filled harbor and the ripples of light that danced and shimmered across the waves.
Unmatched, he agreed and she knew he wasnt talking about the physical landscape.
Have you noticed? We havent argued once on this trip. Thats progress, dont you think?
I stopped thinking a good three hours ago. There are far more interesting entertainments.
On a night like this, almost anything might happen.
Almost anything, he echoed softly.
As if it were a signal, Steele paused. At the same time Laura swung toward him and tilted her face upward. His came down for a gentle touch of lips on lips. Laura responded immediately, parting hers to invite him further, and after a moments hesitation he accepted, nipping at her lips and, as she responded, his tongue flicked across hers. Her hand moved upward and curled through the fine hairs at the back of his neck. His own drifted upward to entangle through her thick hair. Pulled her forward and she moaned a little as sensations rippled through her, stunning further thought.
Laura The word was a mere breath in her ear as he shifted to sample its lobe. As warm lips explored the sensitive skin behind her ear. She sighed and pressed against his warmth as little shocks rippled through her. He somehow knew exactly where to apply the pressure, where she was most sensitive to his touch.
This is right, her fogged brain repeated, this has got to be right. How could he not know? He had to be feeling the same, for his responses matched hers, move for move.
Suddenly a shrill whistle shattered their intimacy. They leapt apart, startled. Before them, also walking along the quay, were the retreating backs of a young lad and his girlfriend. She was tugging at him, clearly embarrassed, while he was grinning and waved a hand signal back at Steele, a gesture that even Laura could interpret, and she flushed beet red. But then Steele began to laugh and Laura couldnt help but join him.
Cheeky kids! he said, grinning broadly.
Shocked at their elders behavior, no doubt. Im sure I was never that cheeky.
He chuckled. I was.
Im sure you were, she teased. And Ill bet she was a stunner.
A proper treat to look at, with almost as much sass as you. Fortunately for me, I was too terrified to touch her.
Laura was delighted by his unexpected candor. You? Afraid of a girl? I dont believe it.
Afraid of her father. I had a strong sense of self-preservation, even at an early age.
They strolled a little longer and Laura felt intoxicated. His little caresses along her arms and sides, the warmth and strength that radiated beside her, his unique scent that was a mixture of sandalwood and masculinity. It was an effect as potent and heady as his beloved champagne.
She was so wrapped in his physicality that she felt like she was floating, her feet barely brushing the pavement. And tomorrow, she murmured, mostly to herself, tomorrow is Cannes.
At her words, his muscles tensed ever so slightly, and his step briefly hesitated. If she hadnt been completely at one with him, she would have missed it.
The little furrow appeared. Is there a problem?
What? His mind had clearly been somewhere else. Eh? Problem? No, not at all. Tomorrow is Cannes. Another beautiful city. Another moonlit night with an enticing woman. He paused, then, and drew her in for yet another dazzling kiss. One that made her toes curl and her brain fog and set other parts of her body jittering. When they finally, reluctantly, parted, he said, And its time to get you back, Ilsa. Its an early start tomorrow.
Till tomorrow, she said, dropping her voice huskily. Who knows what adventures it will bring?
Adventures, indeed, he agreed and gently guided her steps back to their hotel.
Their hotel was dead-quiet when they finally returned. The registration desk was empty and the elevator bell echoed in the marble lobby. She rather regretted that Ron wasnt around to clock their arrival. She would have loved to see his shocked expression.
Steele was oddly quiet on the relatively short train ride from Barcelona to Cannes. The scenery was compellingly beautiful, and Laura had made a special effort with her own looks, especially given how little sleep theyd had. But he seemed abstracted, caught up in his thoughts, and Laura wondered if perhaps he was summoning the same courage that she was. His reaction to her last night was real and unequivocal. Tonight. Yes, tonight was going to be The Night.
She spent the ride watching him from the corner of her eye while pretending to read her book a racy French novel that shed ostensibly picked up to brush up her high school French. The subject matter didnt help or helped all too well, depending on ones viewpoint. She found herself fantasizing about running her hands across his bare chest and that sexy curling hair. Tracing her lips down the soft skin behind his ear and under that strong jaw line. Curling her palm around the curve of his hip. Then she realized her slacks were growing damp. She reached for his discarded newspaper and at that moment his eyes opened and met hers. She went instantly scarlet but managed to hang on to give him a sexy, flirtatious smile, just so he knew that she didnt mind his knowing. An eyebrow went up, a corner of his mouth lifted, and then he closed his eyes again and sank back into his reverie.
It was going to be a long rehearsal when they got to Cannes. And an even longer concert.
Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy, indeed.
Steele released the throttle of the BMW motorcycle, then, shifting gears, pressed down on it once more, allowing the bike more fuel as he accelerated through the streets and narrow alleyways of Cannes. A quick glance at his watch was cause for him to grimace and inspiration enough for him to accelerate even further. Based on the last ten nights, Lauras concert would be ending shortly.
Damn , he muttered to himself. Hed counted upon only missing one, maybe two at the most, of the shows intermissions. Those brief absences could easily be explained away: hed been waylaid by a chatty audience member, the need for a quick drink to soothe his parched throat, a quick call to a nearby bistro to secure them dinner reservations. All innocuous and each easily believed. There was not a doubt in his mind that Laura would be watching for his presence, anticipating his visit backstage. He had established the precedence himself, drawn as hed been the last ten days of the tour to seek out a moment alone with her between acts.
One could hardly blame a man after all. Hed been absolutely enchanted by her, night-in and night-out. My, shes a vision to behold, up there on that stage, he thought to himself now, a smile of remembrance drawing his lips upwards. Not for a moment had she appeared nervous singing before the large crowds that gathered each evening. No, not his Miss Holt. Rather, the joy at doing something she loved, purely for the sake of pleasure, lit her from within. Hed been unable to tear his gaze from her and often stole glances at the audience members. Their eyes were drawn to her as well, and it filled him with pride. So hed been unable to resist the lure of stopping backstage at intermissions to cast his eyes on her in a much closer proximity, where hed also had the pleasure of brushing his fingers against her arm, placing his hand on the small of her back, demonstrating clearly his enjoyment of her performance. That Laura would look up at him with those warm brown eyes sparkling with appreciation for his attentions only made those brief moments all the more significant to him.
Yes, she would be looking for him, he knew. He felt his gut tighten briefly at the thought that he would be the source of her disappointment, yet again. Not a moment passed before he had to forcibly stop himself from grinding his teeth, though hed freely allowed his jaw to clench as he realized that his escapades that night had opened the door for Ron Whatshisname to make another clumsy pass at Laura. While Laura was bemused by the choral directors obvious crush on her, Steele found it simply galled him to no end that the blighter would hit upon Laura in his presence.
Bloody hell, its not as though weve kept our relationship to one another under wraps during this tour, he thought to himself. Quite the opposite, actually. While certainly weve not been, err, necking backstage, it is more than obvious to every other member of the tour that we are involved. But yet that bumbling, bombastic excuse for an altar boy acts as though hes completely unaware.
In fact, just the night before after the show had wrapped the Barcelona leg of the tour, the choral director had asked Laura to take what hed hoped would be a romantic stroll along the waterway. Steele had been more than a bit put out, as his arm had been around Laura at the time, his fingers resting lightly on the bare skin of her upper arm, whilst he made several remarks laced with sensual double entendres that left her skin flushed with heat. Even now, he could feel his blood stir, his body grow taut at simply the memory of how her skin had grown warm under his fingers as a rosy tint spread across her skin in reaction to his words. Hed longed to turn her into his arms and run his mouth along her lips, down her neck and across the tantalizing freckles on full display in her strapless evening gown, to fan the flames of her desire into a crackling fire that would consume them both with its heat. It had taken considerable self-control to limit himself a slight squeeze of her arm, acknowledging he was well aware of the effect his words were having upon her.
And, all the while, the inept want-to-be Lothario continued to hit on Laura. Had Steele not been so bemused by Lauras responses to his intentional play on words, he might have been irritated by the sodding twit. It was only for because the altar boy appeared so clueless that Steele had responded as cordially as he had.
The thought that the altar boy had a bloody open field to Laura right at this very moment chafed. Not that he believed for a moment Laura would take the bugger up on any offer made, but that the want-to-be-suitor would even have the opportunity to make an advance on her was, at the end of the day, his own bloody fault.
The heist had gone smoothly, brilliantly and hed left the hotel, dagger in hand, well before schedule. Hed be lying if he denied that hed enjoyed the jolt of adrenaline which had coursed through his bloodstream as he began to enact his carefully laid out plan. That rush was one of the hardest things about the life to give up. Hed once explained to Laura during the Pitkin affair that the rush would temper over time. Yet, after a prolonged absence from life on the shady side of the street, his physical and mental response to the dare of the theft had been more pronounced this evening than in the latter days of his former career.
Hed enjoyed himself, this was true enough. Yet, hed recognized early on, as hed scaled the wall outside of the hotel, that something was missing. Someone was missing. Hed grown accustomed to Laura accompanying him on their little jaunts to the shady side of the street. Having her by his side, seeing her responses sometimes benefiting from those responses hed found to be more alluring, more invigorating than even those first days of his career. Now the memories of their little adventures stirred his body to life: the kiss shared in millions of dollars of shredded money in the destruction bin at the Federal Reserve; her adorable request that he never tell her mother about their heist of The Five Nudes of Cairo even as she never blinked an eye, grabbing onto the zip line and careening across the museum in the air; and, lest he not forget as though he ever could - her thoroughly delectable response to the heist of the Pitkins.
In his former life he had once likened the rush that accompanied the heist to a quick shag with a stranger: the first tingle of anticipation, a little finesse to gain entrance, the nerve wakening crescendo, a quick exit, followed by the inevitable feeling of emptiness once the act was complete and there was nothing left to look forward to except the next quick shag with a new stranger.
Ah, but a heist with Laura? Its like us, what we are and are meant to be. The dance of two lovers resisting what they are meant to be to one another, prolonging the seductive dance of the courtship; reluctant and heady acceptance; the merging of two bodies mind and soul; and the finding of solace in one anothers arms as the crescendo of the melding ebbs.
Just the memory of their heists, the intimacy of them, left his body craving the next encounter they would share. Yes, visits to the shady side of the street were far more appealing with Laura by his side. Hed missed her tonight, terribly. If only .
Thoughts of Laura spurred another quick glance at his watch.
Damn , he muttered to himself again. The concert would be well over by now, and there was no doubt in his mind that Laura would soon be stewing as his absence became conspicuously more noticeable.
It had been the lingering meeting with Joelle that caused the delay. The crush Joelle had on him when he was just a lad had not dissipated across time. Whereas the agreement had been he would meet Joelle, hand off the dagger, and then both would go on their way, instead she had fallen on the behavior of her youth and she had pouted and cajoled him into staying longer than he should. And, like in those days, when shed leaned in for a kiss, hed allowed it. It was clear the moment her lips had touched his that she hoped for more than a single kiss. It had been a pleasant kiss, that he could not deny, but there was something decidedly lacking: cinnamon colored eyes swimming with desire; skin flushing a gentle pink from pleasure; captivating freckles; the scent of honeysuckle and springtime; and the trill of contentment when a body melted into his embrace. Pleasant, but not like Laura. Nothing was like Laura. It had not been difficult to separate himself from Joelle and send her on her way.
Finally arriving at the theater, he secreted the motorcycle in the alleyway at the rear as planned. The bike would be found soon enough and returned to the rental agency, he was sure. Pulling his handkerchief from his pocket, he swept the dust off of his jacket and pants, then quickly rubbed the top of his shoes on the back of his pants to restore their shine. After a quick swipe at his mouth, to assure none of Joelles lipstick lingered, he smoothed down his hair, confident that all signs of his little evening foray had been removed.
Pulling the wallet that contained his lock picks from a pocket, he quickly selected the two that he would need. A quick canvas of the building during Lauras rehearsal that afternoon had assured him the door in front of which he stood was unmanned and would allow him quick, more importantly covert, entrance to the backstage area. With a glance to make sure he was alone, he made quick work of the locks, then slid into the building unobserved.
There was no singing from the stage area and he realized that he was late, quite late. Hopefully Laura would not be in a pique, would not ask too many questions. It had been a long day, and he was looking forward to a quiet dinner, followed, with a little luck, by some tantalizing kisses shared with her then a good nights sleep.
Taking a deep breath, he walked backstage, nervous about how he would be greeted, hoping that she would not take one look at him and know he had once more deceived her. He could only hope that if she did realize, did ask, that he could make her understand, after the fact, as she always had before.
He detoured from his course, momentarily, ordering two glasses of superb Chardonnay from the bar, then made his way through the throngs of people mingling backstage. A warm smile lit his face as he at last saw her across the room, neck craned, seeking him out. From where he was he could see that she was clearly anxious and unable to hide her annoyance with the altar boys determination to plaster himself to her side.
A feeling of relief swept through him. The heist was completed, the dagger safely in the possession of Henri and Joelle, and in a few brief days it would be returned to its rightful owner. Laura was blissfully unaware, and, even more importantly, was as eager for him to be at her side as he was. They would, of course, be forced to mingle for a while, but he looked forward to the moment they could make their escape and he could pull her into his arms once more.
Slipping up behind Laura quietly, he leaned down and intentionally allowing his warm breath to caress her ear, whispered, Miss me?
He stepped to her elbow as she turned to smile at him. He nodded briefly at the glass in her hand. I see you already have your drink? and he held up the two glasses of wine he had selected for them.
He watched the relief that swept through her at his arrival and as her eyes lit with pleasure.
Yes, the evening had been a success , he thought to himself. Henri and Joelle are out of danger, Laura was blissfully unaware of his deception, and now an evening full of promise loomed ahead. A success indeed.
The concert in Cannes went swimmingly. If concerts could swim. They were again sold-out, the newspapers having noticed the prior glowing reviews and gave the Stanford University choir good publicity. The audiences had good-natured curiosity about the American performers and the Stanford reputation didnt hurt. And Ron despite his one glaring fault was outstanding at matching their repertoire to the audience. For Cannes, he opened with a series of European and French choral pieces, emphasizing Faure and Gounod and Ravel, all masters of choral song. He included the Palestrina because they had really nailed it. For the last portion it was American masters Coplands Shaker Song and several spirituals, Gershwins Porgy and Bess and Virgil Thomsons Poems of Edmund Lear. They concluded with Berlins Yankee Doodle Dandy, which Laura automatically connected with watching Cagneys movie of the same name with Mr. Steele several weeks back when Ron had sent the sheet music.
And where was Mr. Steele? The choir was bussed to the venue and Mildred and Steele would follow later by taxi.
I have a pressing engagement hed said when he stopped by her room late that afternoon. Hed brought a pair of filled champagne glasses and they had made a lovers toast, wrapping arms around before sipping.
Alcohol before the concert? she had teased him.
Just to put that beautiful glow in your cheeks.
And whats your pressing engagement that cant wait?
I just want everything to be perfect.
She deliberately held his gaze. Everything looks pretty good from here.
Mmm, he agreed with that understated smile and slight arch of the eyebrows. Perhaps dinner and dancing?
Sounds splendid. Who knows what the night might bring?
He had blinked at that bold declaration, caught a little off guard, and she smiled to herself. Good. I want to keep him guessing. Consider the possibilities. She set down her glass with reluctance. Unfortunately, I need to leave and catch the bus.
Ill meet you there.
Ill count on it.
He picked up her wrap and she turned so he could place it around her. Although not before he had gently saluted the back of her neck. His lips lingered before pulling away and she shivered under their promise.
And now, here she was, post-concert, and no sign of Mr. Steele. He had made himself memorable during the prior concerts, and that now made his current absence from the intermission unmistakable. She puzzled over it as she helped herself to tea during the intermission and encountered Mildred at the refreshments table that was set up back-stage.
Oh, magnifique, honey, greeted Mildred from backstage as the choir filed back at intermission.
Thank you, Mildred. She was still feeling that post-performance buzz that came when like-minded souls merged to make heavenly music together. Laura thought about her post-concert plans and decided it was an apt metaphor.
Wheres Mr. Steele sitting tonight? she asked as casually as she dared. She liked the idea of singing for Mr. Steele, wherever he was. Twice shed spotted him in the audience and noted the upturned, sensual lips as he enjoyed the music. Enjoyed watching her. It was foolish, probably. Giddying, definitely. And fun.
Oh, hes out there somewhere, Mildred promised. He wouldnt miss your last concert for anything.
Arent you sitting together?
Not tonight. There was some sort of mix-up with the tickets. But I know hes out there.
Thats good. I just wish he was here. Despite herself, she began to pace in an attempt to channel her growing tension.
Mildred looked at her. You okay?
She shook her head and couldnt repress her smile of anticipation. The woman was definitely detective material. Im fine. Well, just a little nervous, Laura confessed.
But why? The concerts going great.
She had to say something; it was all she could do just to make it to the end of the show. And, after all, they were girls together, united by their work and a common subject. Its not the concert, she confessed.
Mildred frowned. Not the concert? Then, what?
Its us. I mean, me and Mr. Steele.
Her associates puzzlement grew. You think theres something wrong?
No! No, Mildred. Rather the opposite. I think that maybe She hesitated again as the old fears tried to resurface. But then, brave Laura returned. Fan-dancer Laura. Wild and impulsive Laura. The one who had been locked away for three years, forgetting about life. Until Europe. Until she saw her Mr. Steele under the prism of European style and sophistication. There would be two more days on the Riviera, uninterrupted by concerts or rehearsals. Anticipation bubbled through Lauras veins and she impulsively clasped her friend by the shoulder. Mildred, tonights The Night!
A new chapter to begin! These past two weeks I dont know its something about being in Europe the first time. Its opened my eyes. Given me a new perspective on life.
All I got was a tan.
Ive always been so analytical, Mildred, always needing to know how everything fits before I make a move. No more! You cant live like that! Youve got to live a little, take a chance! She finished on a trill.
Now Mildred got it. Que sera sera!
Exactly! Laura chimed in and pulled Mildred into an excited hug. She felt a huge release as her decision was made. Yes, it felt exactly right.
Mildred pulled back to look at her and the puzzled frown returned. What exactly are we talking about, honey?
Laura thought of the lovers she had seen who strolled Parisian streets. Steeles amused, knowing expression as he offered her truffles in Brussels. Her first pain au chocolat. Last night in Barcelona, dancing in his arms. Confident, knowledgeable, his own man. Not a creation. Yes, very much a man.
Let me put it this way, Mildred. Ive had certain reservations about Mr. Steele. But he and I have worked side-by-side for two years now. Weve grown together. Hes more responsible, more caring. And I feel bolder, more confident So
Mildreds eyes widened as she finally twigged to what Laura didnt say. She beamed happiness. I get it! Tonights the night! Thats great! She leaned in confidentially. So, how did Mr. Steele put it?
Laura hedged a little. Actually, Mildred, he doesnt know yet.
Mildred did a double take. Am I missing something somewhere?
Look. This is my decision. Its up to me to tell him know how I feel.
Oh So youre going to jump him?
Laura flushed. Mildred! Wheres your sense of romance? She gestured with her tea cup. This is the Riviera, where passion blooms with only the slightest encouragement.
Oh, I get it. Youre going to let him jump you!
Laura felt her cheeks warm and she gave Mildred a reproving look. Im sure when the moment comes, it will be as romantic as only Mr. Steele can make it.
It was a familiar voice, but not the one Laura hoped for. She turned and tried not to show her disappointment as the choristers began filing back to the stage for the second half of their performance. Oh. Hi, Ron.
Mildred looked him up and down and didnt bother to hide her own interest. Hi, again, Ron.
Ron turned quickly to Laura. He seemed to be summoning up courage. I thought, maybe, just Laura sighed. He was. you and I could, ah, grab some dinner tonight? Aafter the reception? He even stammered a little.
The delivery style was so diametrically opposite Mr. Steeles that she felt a little sorry for him. It wasnt in her heart, however, to be mean, so instead she overcompensated and gushed effusively, unaware it suggested interest. Ron was so nice. And so wrong. Oh. Thanks, Ron. Thats very kind. But I have a date.
You do? Oh. Well. His cluelessness and disappointment were writ large across his countenance. No wonder Steele called him the altar boy. Shucks. Um, maybe a drink tomorrow, then?
Oh, boy. Persistent. And she had trouble telling him to go away. Ah, sure. That would be nice, she agreed. Anything to send him away. She knew Mr. Steele would appear at any moment. Was probably watching across the room, laughing to himself. Or grinding his teeth. She hoped the latter. A little jealously wouldnt be amiss here. Ron bounced off, a happy puppy. And the instant his back was turned, Lauras smile vanished.
Mildred smiled at her. If you dont want him, can I have him?
Hes all yours, Mildred. Fire away.
But by the time the concert ended, there was still no Mr. Steele. Mildred hadnt spotted him yet, either. And Ron had noticed. He paused beside her as people headed toward the reception room. Stood up?
Its beginning to look that way, she said dourly. Her earlier enthusiasm was fading fast. She glanced around the crowded reception room with frustration. Rescue me! I thought you were good at this?
Suddenly there was a familiar voice at her elbow.
Laura? Ah, there you are. He magically appeared from backstage and was absently dusting his impeccable suit with his pocket kerchief.
She turned swiftly as physical relief swept through her. But she couldnt quite keep the annoyance from her voice. Where have you been?
I had to step out for a breath of fresh hair after that last number. It was deeply moving. Oh, yes. Deeply moving. The standard Steele spiel. Lauras eyes narrowed. Whats he up to?
Yankee Doodle Dandy? asked Ron.
Stirring rendition. Always gets me here. He clapped a dramatic hand to his chest, then offered his arm to Laura. Shall we?
She took it, but gave him a look that clearly said, I know youre up to something.
At the reception, Laura found her mood softening. The guests were lively and interesting, and Steele was again attentive, although a little distracted. At one point he vanished, only to return shortly thereafter with fresh drinks for them both. Miss me?
Thanks, she said with a smile and sipped what turned out to be an excellent Chardonnay. He had excellent taste in wine and knew what would please her. So, why were you really late? I missed you at the intermission.
Didnt want to spoil the mood. Caught by a concert goer who wanted to share more than impressions of your vocal performance. She was the very devil to shake off. He gave a delicate shudder and Laura laughed.
Always too good looking for your own good. He gave her a quick look and Laura smiled serenely at him. Oh, yes. This is going to work tonight. There was a new light in his eyes that hadnt been there earlier that afternoon. Hed been excited ever since the concert ended. It bode well for their evening.
Unfortunately, she badly misread the cause of his euphoria.
Damn, damn, damn, and double damn, Steele ruminated silently, much later that evening, as he and Laura walked down the hotel corridor towards their rooms.
As theyd exited the elevator, hed unconsciously placed space between Lauras body and his own.
Logically, he knew it had not been her fault, discovering the clues at the site of the heist that could lead to his own downfall. It was one of the things he loved most about her: her quick mind and keen observations that made her the successful private investigator that she was. She had no way of knowing that it was the details of his crime that she had been slowly unraveling piece by piece; had no way of knowing that with each discovery she was tightening the noose around his neck a little more.
Normally, he took great pleasure in watching her skills at work. Tonight, however? At the moment he found himself annoyed with her, recognizing even as he was that it was unfair. She had no way of knowing, as she had ferreted out one clue after another, that she was providing Inspector Vouray with one more nail in his own coffin. How could she know? He had chosen to exclude her, again, and his carefully laid out plans were falling apart around him, again.
Truthfully, he was more angry with himself than he was with Laura, actually far more so. Hed made one mistake after another, and now was caught fully in his own web of deceit. He should have gone to Laura in LA, should have trusted her to stand by his side, to help him, help his friend. They worked best as a team, he knew that, one nearly always seeing a small detail the other had missed. Certainly, she had unmasked many of the small details hed missed tonight, his carelessness. What had he been thinking when he tossed the dickey at the trash can, having made no move to conceal it? What had he been thinking driving up to the building in plain view of any number of residents in the nearby apartments?
Now, everything was at risk: the life hed begun to carve out for himself in LA, his career career? as a private investigator Laura.
Laura. He turned his head, realizing too late that shed been speaking to him.
"I'm sorry; I didn't hear you."
"Nothing," she replied, as though nothing was amiss.
But everything was amiss, how did she not know? He needed to get to his room, to plan, to try to figure out a way out of this mess. Unless he came up with something quick, he was going to find himself sitting in the pokey, unable to do anything but watch as his life fell in tatters at his feet. His intrepid partner would see to it, not realizing until it was too late she would be unmasking her Remington Steele as the culprit. Her Remington Steele. The Agency. A fresh wave of guilt rolled over him when it finally occurred to him what he might have just done. Back during Descoines first appearance, hed told Laura he didnt want to be remembered at the man who left her life in pieces. What have you done, old sport? You better find a way out of this before your actions cost her everything.
They finally arrived in front of the door to her room.
Ill see you in the morning, okay? he told her, still distracted, and stepped towards his own room.
Only to find her hand on his arm, pulling him to her, her lips on his. It took a moment for the kiss to register, but when it did he responded, although not with his usual commitment.
Surely, shes not decided tonights the night, he found himself wondering with a certain amount of dread, as their lips parted.
A little early to turn in, dont you think, she asked with a glimmer in her eyes, as she smiled up at him.
"I- I have a bottle of Dom Perignon in my room, would you ?"
"Sounds lovely, Laura answered, her voice low, seductive.
As he followed her towards his room, he could not help but look at her, baffled. Surely, he was misinterpreting the signals. Laura would neither be this bold nor misunderstand the importance of the moment for him, for them. She would know that when they finally consummated their relationship in that long awaited magical moment how important it would be to him to lay the groundwork: a romantic dinner at a nice restaurant, dancing, sensual touches and kisses throughout the evening meant to stir the anticipation, a quiet suggestion made and accepted, their bodies at last merging into one. Certainly, Laura would know that when they finally became lovers he would not want it to be as it had been with his assignations in the past: a bold move, then straight at it. Surely, she knew
"How convenient. One can order breakfast without ever leaving bed, she told him, taking the room service menu off the knob of his door, then leaning alluringly backwards, placing her body between his own and the door.
Bloody hell, he thought to himself, What else can go wrong this evening?
"Can I get my key in the door?" hed asked, unable to hide the note of confusion, perhaps exasperation in it.
"Oh," she smiled, then slid her body to the side.
He opened the door and allowed her to enter first, all the while trying to decide how to thwart her plans, at least for tonight, while making her understand it was not a rejection, but a postponement which would allow him to create the night the two of them deserved when they at last became lovers. Laura was a romantic at heart, much like he, and it should not take too much to dissuade her to wait one evening, so they could capture the moment in a truly worth manner.
He closed the door behind her, and smiled at her, while her return smile warmed him to all the possibilities of their two days left in Cannes.
As he moved out of the hall into the bedroom proper, Laura only a step behind, he froze, and then attempted a retreat at seeing Joelle sitting on his bed. Laura stepped around the corner just in time to see Joelle launch herself into his arms.
"Mon Cher, I need you so desperately!
Steele stood stunned, arms dangling at his side as Joelle clung to him, and watched Laura, trying to apologize silently, hoping that she would give him a chance to explain and not just assume
Instead, he watched as Laura tore the room service menu shed been holding into little pieces that she then tossed into the air, a stunned look on her face. When she turned to look at him, at last, she did so just in time to watch his arms unconsciously wrap themselves around Joelle. She never saw the look of apology, the look of slight desperation on his face. Only his arms, wrapping around a new lover.
He saw the flush of humiliation crawl up her skin. Then she spun on her heel, gave him a slight shove to move him out of her way, and headed quickly out the door.
Steele pulled Joelle out of his arms and forced her down on the end of the bed, quickly following in pursuit of Laura. He barely caught his door before it slammed in front of him.
Laura, Laura, wait, wait, Its not what you think! he called after her, quickly closing the distance up the hallway. He grasped her arm and turned her to look at him.
Her face was tight with anger and humiliation. She refused to make eye contact with him and turned her head away from him altogether.
Laura, please, I can explain he began, his voice softly pleading with her.
She turned to look at him then, her face a cool mask of disinterest.
Youre a grown man, Im a grown woman, Mr. Steele. Theres nothing to explain, she told him, then yanked her arm out of his grasp and turned her back towards him, while pulling her room key from her purse.
Opening her door, she entered her room and slammed the door in his face. Steele reached up and touched the door as though he could touch Laura herself, somehow knowing she stood learning against her side of the partition. With a heavy sigh, he dropped his hand and shoved it in his pocket. He returned to his room, dejectedly, to find out what had brought Joelle there.
Yes, this evening could get worse, he acknowledged to himself. The only question left now, is how much worse?
Laura had thought Mr. Steeles enthusiasm during the post-concert reception was entirely due to the promise that lay before them. A promise that would remove the last barrier between them.
Unfortunately, only later did she understand shed badly misread the cause of his euphoria. Very badly.
It had started when Mildred and Ron and that guest who turned out to be a French police inspector essentially conspired to shoe-horn her and Mr. Steele into investigating some ridiculous burglary. A jeweled dagger, of all things! And tonight? Of all nights? God knew why the Inspector thought he needed Mr. Steeles help? And at 11 pm at night? Surely the French police knew all about art theft!
Bless his heart, Steele wasnt interested either. In fact, for a moment there she thought he might even bolt the scene of the crime. So while the Inspector was busy schmoozing the famous Americaine detective, Laura did her best to find a few clues that she could offer the Inspector, tidbits so that hed let her and Steele go. It was a good job of theft, she had to admit. But even an expert makes a mistake or two. Just the mere fact hes human means hes going to leave evidence. So she found a witness who had heard a lone motorcycle and saw an unfamiliar black BMW bike parked in an alleyway. Found that odd black dickey in the trash. It shouldnt take the Inspector too long to figure this one out.
I think the Inspectors heard enough from us, she finally said to Steele as they watched the officers consult. Lets say we let them do their jobs.
Steele looked down at her, more than a little astonished. Can this be Laura Holt? Turning her back to crime?
I think the French authorities have the case well in hand, she said serenely. We can find better topics to occupy ourselves. And she pointedly tucked her arm into his own.
Ah! Exactly my view, Miss Holt! A gendarme hailed a taxi for them and they traveled back to their hotel. Laura kept her arm entwined with his all through the ride back. For his part, Steele was still distracted and Laura had trouble pinning it down. Probably running through all the possible suspects he knows. It certainly sounds like the kind of theft hed have knowledge of. She smiled to herself. Maybe he needs another hint about tonight? She shifted to subtly press her leg against his, and dropped her hand to tangle their fingers.
He glanced at her. In the dark shadows of the vehicle it was hard to read his features, but she could hear the sincerity in his voice. Im sorry, Laura. This is not the evening I planned for us. I promised you dinner, but weve long-missed our reservation.
She smiled at him, to show him that she hadnt minded. Fate had other plans for us. As usual. Then she tilted her head. Theres always tomorrow night, Mr. Steele. And its a concert-free evening. She lifted an eyebrow in imitation of his own.
Mmm, he said and squeezed her hand. But the kiss that dropped on her lips was a light touch, so she let him be for the time being.
There were still people in the hotel lobby upon their return, although the numbers had thinned. There was laughter from the bar area and, when Laura glanced over there, saw a few of her fellow choristers sharing a late night drink.
Too crowded, she told herself and continued with Steele to the elevators. She rode beside him and was aware of her partners every breath. Probably every heartbeat. Her nerves were abuzz with the sensation that it was time to make her move. Take that chance. Steele still seemed a little withdrawn. Hes expecting me, yet again, to bid him good night and good-bye to his libido.
Not this time.
The doors parted and they continued, in step, toward their rooms, just a few doors apart. Maybe he was still upset over having that ridiculous inspector interrupt their evening plans? She decided to coax him out of what seemed to be just a little bit of a funk. That Inspectors a real character, isnt he?
Sorry? I didnt hear you?
Thats okay. Its not important.
He paused at her door, apparently anticipating their usual ritual when he unlocked her door after receiving her key. Always the gentleman. See you in the morning, he said and began to turn away.
He didnt get far. As he started to turn away, Laura launched her attack. She reached for his sleeve and pulled him back for a kiss that was meant to sear into his brain. She showed him how very much he excited her. How much he meant to this woman.
When she finally let him up for air, he shook himself a little. And definitely looked more cheerful.
She dialed up her seductive voice. Its rather early to turn in, dont you think? No reason for the Inspector to spoil our evening.
That eyebrow rose. Ive a bottle of Dom Perignon in my room.
Of course, you do . That sounds lovely.
With lighter step, she followed him several doors down to his own room. As he began to work the lock, a master craftsman, Laura detached the service card that hung from the door. A wicked thought occurred to her. Just in case hes still uncertain. She slipped herself between him and the door.
How convenient, she said, rotating the card to read the French wording. One can order breakfast without ever leaving bed.
His metal key fell to the carpet and bounced. Gotcha, Mr. Steele! Glee coursed through her as he picked it up, instantly smooth and suave again.
He looked at her as she leaned against the door frame, with only the service card between them. Can I get my key in the door?
Oh. She slid aside and let him work. She loved watching him handle a lock. His hands would be like that on her. Undressing. Unfastening. Her breath caught.
The door swung open. She stepped inside, Steele behind her. Hed left the light on.
Mon cher! I need you so desperately!
A young brunette in a low-cut dress sprung from his bed. His bed! And thrust herself into Steeles arms, practically bowling him over. As Laura watched Steele struggle to recover his balance, his arms wrapping around the girl, her romantic evening shattered into thousands of tiny shards. A thousand cuts to her heart.
She took the service card, tore it in half, and dropped it on the floor. Vision whirled and unfocused. She was out of the room and down the hall before Steele even noticed she had disappeared. She didnt want to listen to his lie-woven apologies.
Shed made it all the way to her own door when she felt his grip on her arm. She hadnt even noticed he had followed her. Hadnt heard anything except the roar of humiliation in her ears.
Laura! Laura, wait! Wait! Its not what you think! He looked panic-stricken. So he damn well should.
She couldnt bear the lies any more. She looked away, her face tight as she tried to hold back tears. Hes not worth crying over, Laura. Hes no better than Wilson. Its finally clear to me.
Laura? Please, I can explain
Icy calm, Laura . She schooled her face to a mask of indifference. Turned back to him.
Youre a grown man, Im a grown woman, Mr. Steele. Theres nothing to explain. She pulled her arm from his grasp that same hands that held me close not an hour before and somehow managed to open it. Slipped inside and slammed the door in his face. She expected him to follow or stick his foot into the door to keep open the communication line. But he didnt.
She slumped heavily against the door, her head bowed in disappointment. After a moment, she heard his steps move away. Only then, did she let the tears sting.
Hes been stringing me along! No wonder he wasnt around for the concert! Other plans, indeed!
That two-timing, duke of deception! Unrepentant louse! Cut-rate con-man! The epithets flew fast as her anger stormed and raged. Needing an outlet, she began to pace the short distance from door to window. Window to door. Dodge the bed.
Dont fall apart, Laura, she muttered as she wore a track in the carpet. Door to window. Window to door. Do something constructive Break something. There was a hideous vase on the table before the sofa. She snatched it up, moved to heave it
Then looked at it. Too expensive. Analytical Laura.
Looked at it again. Was jolted by anger as she remembered that lithe beauty in Mr. Steeles hotel room. Probably in his arms already. So much for Dom Perignon.
Oh, what the hell.
She whirled and threw blindly. The vase sailed out her open window. Horrified, she rushed to the window and peered out. Fortunately, she couldnt see anyone lying prone on the ground.
In fact, she missed her target. From her view above, she now saw Steele and that little hussy pile into an open convertible and drive off.
She bolted from her room, rushed down the flight of stairs, and plowed through the lobby and into the open air. The convertible was long gone, of course. She stared into the night and at the light traffic, pretending she could find them. But it was pointless.
Im ridiculous. Thinking he might be reliable. What the hell was I thinking!? Hes got a girl in every port! No wonder he was so keen to visit Cannes! Has he been doing this every night? Wooing me by day and getting satisfaction by night?
Tears prickled at her eyes. She cried an inarticulate sound and stomped her foot. I could kill him!
If I could catch him.
Laura Holt, you are the stupidest fool I have ever met! Thinking you meant something to that that..thief! Thinking you were special.
The only thing youre special is for is a free trip to Europe.
And he probably paid his portion it with a heist! A little bauble from the Riviera!
She ran hands through her hair. Brushed at the dampness on her cheeks. Why did I ever think !?
Hurt and angry, she turned and headed back into the hotel. So much for tonight being the night. As she stepped into the lobby, she encountered Ron.
Terrific. Of all people.
Hi, Laura! The darndest thing just happened. I was out for a walk and someone threw a vase at me.
She blanched with mortification. Oh, no!
No worries. It just missed. He peered at her; she must have gone pale. Say, it looks like you could use a drink, too.
She turned to glance back outside. Any car was long, long gone.
You know, Ron, youre absolutely right. She took his arm and let him lead her toward the hotel bar, where the other choristers were still reveling.
This was not how I intended to spend tonight.
What a fool I am.
Steele paced the confined area of Beau Gestes deck where he and Laura were to rendezvous. He was worried. She should have been here by now. Had Smith discovered the missing dagger, then? Had he discovered Laura was complicit in its disappearance? If Smith harmed one hair on Lauras head, Steele vowed he would devote his life to making him pay.
He turned on his heel, knowing he should havent waited so long to go back after her. Knowing why he had taken so long. Knowing that he didnt have it in him to watch round three of Laura making out with that wanker Smith. Recognizing that, if she were in danger and those few moments meant harm had come to her, he would never forgive himself, he took two quick steps across the deck, when he saw her approach.
Laura moved to stand across from him and immediately grabbed the neoprene pants to her dry suit and began wiggling into them. She refused to make eye contact with Steele. He ran his eyes up and down her body, assuring himself that she was unharmed. His mind automatically registered her rapid breathing that had yet to calm down, her swollen lips and the red around her mouth, on her chin, her neck, caused by Smiths whiskers as hed kissed Laura, run his mouth over her skin. He felt the knife that had impaled his body, frighteningly near his heart, twist and bury itself a little deeper.
He knew shed been hurt, deeply, last night when shed found Joelle in his room waiting for him. He was not so obtuse as to not know, immediately, what shed believed. It was too soon on the heels of Anna, to the time when hed turned away from her and to another woman. Hed not expected her to listen to his explanations last night. Hed hoped. Hed been willing to grovel, if shed have allowed it. No, he got exactly what hed expected: a door in his face.
Hed known that she needed time. Time to calm down, time digest, time to stew. Only then would she allow him to give her the explanations she needed, deserved. After, shed need even more time before shed be able to give him the benefit of the doubt, to forgive him.
Then, his actual deceit came to the light of day, in the form of the Palermo Brothers chasing him down the shoreline that very morning. Shed been angry at his deception, but that he could have worked with, worked around. If it had only been that hed committed a heist without her knowledge, had hidden it from her, he felt certain they could have worked through it, come out fine on the other side. But when hed watched a light in her eyes dim, then die, as she realized his support of her participating in the Glee Club Tour had been little more than a ruse, hed become truly worried.
Then shed said the words that had left him stunned, had made his blood run cold.
"Ex-partner, Monsieur Lebret. When this case is finished, so are we."
Theyd argued, vociferously, throughout the streets of Cannes. In that hed had no concern, as they argued often, with gusto. What had concerned him was the honesty with which theyd fileted one another. It was outside of the nature of their relationship. Needed perhaps, but foreign nonetheless and most certainly brutal. Still, hed believed they had taken a step towards healing, as their arguments on a personal level relieved the tension and allowed them a chance to breathe, think, to consider each others perspectives.
Hed begun to believe they would be alright, despite her claims that their partnership would not work. Had, until she'd drawn blood, with purpose and malice aforethought, nonetheless, back there, in Smith's stateroom.
Yes, yes, he'd told her it was her "department" to draw Smith's attention, to distract the man while he searched Smith's stateroom and relieved the odious blighter of the dagger. Distract, not engage, tempt, bedevil.
Bloody hell, we'd moved away from the art of seduction for professional purposes, learnt our lessons with Dominic, with the whole sodded most eligible bachelor disaster.
The words she'd spoken earlier in Smith's stateroom still reverberated in his head.
"I think your whole problem is, you don't know the difference between what is professional and what is personal!"
Blast it. Watching that tosser's mouth feast on Laura's lips, her neck as his hands freely roamed...
Watching Laura jolt, hearing her cry out in shock when the tosser had burrowed his face on her shoulder and had clearly sunk his teeth into her...The swine took liberties that Lauras never permitted me, even after two sodding years. You're damned right it was personal, and she knew it. She shoved the knife in, watched me bleed and enjoyed every moment of it!
"He's the jealous type..." she'd mocked, making sure she'd had his attention, followed by the wink that all but said, "get ready for this," and close on its heels another barb: "I'm the adventurous type."
Oh, she'd meant to draw blood and drawn it she had, indeed.
Now, as he stood watching her pull on the top of her dry suit, he realized that Laura was likely trying to do more than draw blood. She was making it clear that they, personally, were well and truly done after Joelle, after his latest deception.
He felt fear settle into the marrow of his bones.
"Laura, I was beginning to worry."
"About Smith, or me?"
Come here, he told her quietly, grabbing the lapels of her dry suit and pulling her body against his.
He kissed her, felt her freeze briefly in his arms, then as he pressed his lips more firmly against her own, a short murmur of thanksgiving escaped from deep within him as her hand reached up and touched his upper arm. He inched his head back, looked down at her flushed skin and was drawn to kiss her again, before he made himself stop.
He'd found the answer he needed, in that momentary loss of complete control, when against her own will Laura had reached up and touched him.
Giving her a pat, they headed to the stern of the boat, ready to make their escape, dagger in hand.
As her soon-to-be ex-partner helped her reach a grab-hold on the yacht Beau Geste, Laura had to admit it felt good to have him working at her side. And, although she would never tell him this aloud, he really was very, very good at what she privately called his James Bond stunts, like their undetected scuba swim to the yacht where Freddie Smith had stashed the Hapsburg Dagger. His knowledge seemed boundless in these matters and not for the first time she wondered if he really got his ideas from the movies? Or were the movies yet another in a succession of disguises that concealed who he really was? On board, she surreptitiously watched as he removed his own dry suit to reveal an impeccable tuxedo ensemble beneath. Admit it, Laura. Youre going to miss working with him. Hes bright, fully capable, and damned irresistible. Im already regretting Ill never know what making love with him would be like.
That was the moment when she looked up and caught him watching intently as she peeled the last part of her rubberized suit away from her ankles, freeing her own loose silk trousers. His blue eyes were dark and he was clearly mentally undressing her. Damn, indeed.
No. That way lies trouble. More heartbreak. More of being dragged into situations where I have to rescue your ass. This isnt what I started the agency to do. So she kept her return look cool and focused on fastening her espadrilles, hoping he didnt notice her betraying flush of color.
The details for re-stealing the dagger became obvious the instant Freddie Smith saw her. Unfortunately. Because he looked odious and vulgar. The antithesis, in fact, of her own thief. Would Steele be like Smith in another ten years, after he left? Laura felt a pang of remorse. I couldnt bear it if he changed.
Freddies personality turned out to be as ugly as his looks. Both Laura and Steele got his read instantly: self-absorbed, spoiled by success, and susceptible to flattery and a pretty face. With an exchange of understanding glances, Laura detached herself from Steeles company and attached herself to Freddies proffered arm. They hadnt exited the room before she noticed Steele vanish in the opposite direction.
Drinks? Freddie asked as they stood at the bow. A waiter materialized with a drinks tray. Without asking her preference, he selected champagnes and passed a flute to her, all the while trying to peer down the sequined front of her cover-up.
Laura raised her glass, holding it deliberately high in an attempt to deflect him. Heres to new friends.
Bottoms up, agreed Freddie and drained half of his. His other hand brushed not-the-least discreetly against her hip. How do you like my little boat, Frances?
Its very big, Laura replied quickly and then winced at her unintentional innuendo, because of course he wasnt referring to the boat. She backed away a half step as she smelled the whiskey on his breath. Terrific. Have you had the Beau Geste long?
Not long enough, he quipped with a definite leer. I always enjoy putting my boats through their paces. See the speed shes capable of.
Oh! Crap! This guys worse than Mr. Steele and without the merit of good looks or actual wit. Im sure she never gives you cause for trouble, Mr. Smith.
Au contraire. A little fight makes it all the more interesting, dont you think? He drank, draining the glass. Call me Freddie.
Help! God, I hope Mr. Steeles found his cabin and the dagger. Why do I always land the awful jobs in this partnership? Trying to stall, she gestured at the harbor before them. Starlight sprinkled across the calm waters, and the view reminded her of Barcelona, which only annoyed her further. She had to distract this gorilla. This is a beautiful view. I can see why you like to visit.
Its a beautiful view from where Im standing, too. There was a ripple of laughter from Freddies guests somewhere behind them. But much too crowded.
She had to buy Steele time. Are you offering a personal tour? Id love to see your yacht. What will be the furthest from Freddies quarters? Ill bet her engines are something else. All that horsepower. Id love to see them.
Freddie smiled down at her. It was an ugly smile and his bad teeth didnt help him. Look under the hood, eh? He extended an arm. This way, then. Its a very big engine.
They drifted below decks, pausing occasionally for Freddie to greet a guest and glad hand. It occurred to Laura that he didnt know most of the people attending his party. Drifters and hangers on, apparently. Interesting. He escorted her below deck but rather than take the next stairwell down, instead began walking the narrow corridor.
Oh, Lord! The vulgar man is taking me to his stateroom! She tried everything. Stumbled over her sandal. Sneezed. But Freddie was nothing but persistent. He reached to open the door at the end of the short hall and she gave an extra loud sneeze, hoping to warn Steele. At the same time, Freddie turned a key in its lock.
Dont be shy, luv. This is the deluxe tour.
She stepped inside and made two horrifying discoveries. The first was that this really was Freddie Smiths stateroom. The second was that Mr. Steele was inside and clearly visible as he hovered before a safe. Thinking fast, she clutched Freddie by the shoulder, swung him about so that his back was to the staterooms interior, and did the one thing that would fully occupy his attention. She kissed him. A big, repulsive, whiskey-sodden kiss. With her view of the stateroom over her suitors shoulder she saw Steele vaporize into the bathroom.
Her partner safely hidden, she pulled away for air.
Freddie grinned, displaying that appalling smile again. Well, Im glad to see youre not one for the preliminaries. Neither am I. And he picked her up he was a muscular man and tossed her onto the bed. He tossed himself beside her and loosened his bowtie. Lets have some fun.
Good gad. The things I do to cover up for you! You damn well better be finished by now. This guy is drunk and disgusting.
She tried to keep her focus on Steele while keeping Freddies attention on her. It was damned difficult. And in the close confines of the room she knew Freddie might hear their intruder. So she made her attentions loud and vigorous, to cover up any incidental noise.
Over Freddies broad shoulder she spied Steele peer into the room. His eyebrows rose at the scene and she clearly saw him mouth the word at her. Disgusting.
Disgusting?! Like I have a choice in this matter? She lifted a hand and gestured frantically at the stateroom door. Get going!
To which he mouthed back silently, I dont have it yet.
She moaned for Freddies sake and gave Steele a classic eye roll, making clear her disappointment in his lack of progress. She began a little series of halting ah-ah and began to pant, trying to distract Freddie further while giving Steele cover to leave.
He did, finally. But at the door he paused. Took a good look at Lauras attempts to keep Smith distracted. At the same time, Smith started to rise.
Youre a little tigress, arent you? I love a woman with spirit.
Oh, yes! she trilled vacuously and pulled him back down for another serving of whiskey breath and whisker stubble. Go, dammit! Finally, Steele left the room, his face dark with thunder. A moment later there was a brisk knock at the now-closed stateroom door. Thank God!
Who the hell is that? growled Smith in a passible imitation of a frustrated Mr. Steele. Laura looked innocently at him. He rose to answer, not bothering to tuck in his boiled shirt.
So glad I found you, she heard John Robie say at the door. Theres been a little altercation at the bar. I think your assistance is needed.
Freddie turned back to her, partly closing the door to block Robies view. Ill be right back, luv. Dont lose that feeling.
She smiled seductively and put her lust into it. Dont worry.
She waited a count of three after Smith departed, then rushed to the door and grabbed at Steele to pull him inside. To her surprise, he yanked his arm out of her grasp. What happened, Laura? Did your libido get in the line of duty?
Im trying to protect your ass and youre accusing me of getting too involved in the part!? She decided to play it cool. We were half-way to the bow when he stopped and said, Why dont we start with my stateroom? What was I supposed to do?
Youve managed to put me off for two years. The least you could have done was hold him up for five minutes, he snapped back and crossed the small room to resume his work on the safe.
His inability to recognize that she was only distracting Freddie to help him was the last straw. She didnt have to kiss that South African Lothario and why the hell was she covering for Steele anyway? He had no business complaining about what she did to cover his sorry ass. It was his fault that she had to do it in the first place! Especially how hed turned her down flat the night before, and after two years of trying to jump into bed with her? Everything in the past few days crashed together and her devil got the better of her. Surely thats not jealousy I detect, she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Were talking business.
Laura snorted. That was rich, coming from Mr. mon cheri Joelle. Are we? I think your whole problem is that you dont know the difference between whats professional and whats personal.
Now Steele did pause in his work. He turned toward her, angry. I dont know the difference?
That arrow struck home. What she wanted to say was that old childhood taut: takes one to know one. Instead, she took refuge in her analytical skills. Shed have it out with him later. For now, she glanced at the door. Finish the job, will you?
Its done, he replied without enthusiasm and opened the door of the safe. He looked inside and withdrew an object encased in a soft bag. Opened it. And with a mock flourish displayed the Hapsburg dagger.
Show off. So what do you want, applause? Shed had enough of his grandstanding. She pivoted and stalked from the room, only to rush back bare seconds later. Hes coming!
She leapt back onto the bed and posed herself as Steele ducked back into the bathroom, barely in time as Freddie entered. He was in a bit of mood himself. I dont know what your friend was talking about? There was no problem up there.
Her pique at Steele loosened her tongue and her daring. He was probably just looking for me. She saw Steele peer with annoyance around the corner. Hes the jealous type. She reached for Freddie and he leered over her, his breath heavy in her flushed face. The fact that hed had another whiskey above deck only fueled her pique.
Yeah? And what type are you?
She looked Steele straight in the eye. Im the adventurous type, she said huskily and pulled Freddie atop her with a kiss that illustrated the point in no uncertain terms. You want to be jealous? Ill give you jealous. Only you would think Id find this half-witted playboy even remotely attractive. Well, now youll have to watch. This could have been yours. Once. But not anymore. Were finished. But instead of darting nimbly from the room, like a cat burglar, her partner took his time exiting the room with a stroll that was almost languid. In response to her audience, Laura redoubled her efforts, moaning and writhing as if she was having an orgasm right there. She squealed and gasped as Freddie breathed sonorously in her ear and as his meaty paws traveled beneath her shirt. Finally, hours later, Steele slipped out and closed the door silently. And as soon as he had done, Laura bolted up right, throwing Freddie aside. Oh, my gosh!
Freddie pulled up. He looked a little dazed from the onslaught and his eyes were unfocused. It wasnt just from all the liquor hed consumed. What?
She said the first thing that popped into her head. Mr. Robies anti-seizure medicine. I forgot to give it to him.
It can wait. He reached for her, and Laura laid a hand on his bare chest, visible within his unbuttoned shirt.
I dont want him to interrupt us at an inopportune moment.
Freddie sighed. Right.
Thank goodness sex made Freddie stupid. Laura rolled from the bed and was on her feet in a heartbeat. In seconds she was at the door. She paused as she opened it. Gave him her best seductive smile. Dont lose that feeling, she said huskily, echoing his early comment.
She slipped out and sprinted up the hall, hoping that Freddie hadnt noticed the absence of a handbag to carry medication in.
As she guessed, she found Steele nearly dressed for his return swim to land. He looked anxious, in a hurry to get away before Freddie discovered the dagger was gone. She quickly pulled on her suit, carefully avoiding Steeles gaze, and only really acknowledged his presence when she needed his help to slide the heavy air tank over her shoulders.
But all he said was, I was beginning to worry.
About Smith or me? she shot back, still angry with him over everything. Over Cannes. The theft. For lying about their vacation. For forcing her to sever their partnership.
Laura. Come here.
What? She straightened with annoyance. Now what?
And he grabbed the lapels of her wet suit and pulled her into a kiss. Correction. A passionate, curl-your-toes kiss that was completely out of keeping with her smoldering fury at him. Of its own volition one arm rose to press his in betrayal of her anger. He was everything Freddie was not. Handsome, elegant, gentlemanly. He smelled of sandalwood and ocean and tasted of heaven. Time stood still. Then she felt him pull back slightly and she could feel her answering flush. But before she could jerk away, he doubled down and pressed his suit again. And once again, it was he who let her go.
Im not giving him the satisfaction of that. It was an impulse. She yanked on her flippers, pulled her mask over her face and slipped into the water, not caring if he followed or not. But of course his soft splash followed only moments later. She was a strong swimmer but it didnt take him long to join her side as she swam for shore, focusing on her sure strokes, on the landmark they had agreed to swim toward. Anything except Steeles jealousy, and her own response to naked passion.
The evening prior had extended well into the small hours of the morning as Steele and Laura had answered an endless barrage of questions, first from the local gendarme, the Police Municipale du Cannet, then later with investigators from the Police Nationale, called in response to two police officials having been arrested and detained on multiple charges of murder, kidnapping, and attempted murder, not to mention the theft of the Hapsburg dagger. When questions were exhausted and answers sufficiently provided, he and Laura had returned to the Majestic Hotel in relative silence. Their bodies were taut with exhaustion after a day of endless expenditures of adrenaline starting with their run down the beach to escape the Palermo Brothers, then followed by their argument on the streets of Cannes, the heist of the dagger from Smith, their mental and physical reactions to Laura's chosen methodology of distracting Smith, their near brush with death at the hands of Vouvray and Deguiche, then, of course, the police interviews. Normally, after a day like this, the mood would have been celebratory, their bodies still vibrating with energy. The police interviews would have been followed by a drive back to the loft or his flat, filled with a sprightly review of the case and outcome, a suggestion of a drink, more conversation, and, if his luck held, as it had in the past year, some enticing interplay of their lips, which required no words at all.
This night had held none of those things. The cab ride back to the Majestic had been done in a nearly oppressive silence, the air charged with a cacophony of all the things that had been said, needed to be said, and of raw emotions that could not, would not be expressed. When they had arrived at the door to Laura's room, he had taken her key and opened it for her, again the gentleman. Without deliberation, his treacherous body had automatically taken a step forward, his hands had begun to reach for Laura's waist, to draw her into a goodnight kiss that was inevitably filled with longing. He stopped abruptly, when his mind registered his body's attempt and found himself hoping she had not noticed his instinctive response. Instead he bid her a softly spoken goodnight, and had stood there as she walked into her room, the quiet snick of the lock once the door had closed echoing in the abandoned hallway. Unbidden, his hand came up to rest on the door, and for a moment he'd given into the desolation that had been creeping into his bones and laid his forehead against the door, allowing himself a moment to feel the heaviness of his heart as he mourned the loss of the goodnight routine that had been a staple in his life for more than a year now. He exhaled deeply, then adjourned to his own room where he could sate his body with, at least, the sleep it craved.
What a foolish notion that was. Sleep did not come easily and, when it did, it had not come well. He'd tossed and turned, waking frequently. Finally, shortly before nine, he surrendered the idea of forty winks and stumbled out of bed before tossing himself into the shower, wondering if Laura, at least, was slumbering peacefully, hoping that she was. Drying himself off in front of the bathroom mirror, he noted his bloodshot eyes, his drawn pallor, and the heavy five o'clock shadow that was verging on the early vestiges of a beard. He wrapped the towel around his waist then ran a hand over his whiskered jaw. With a shake of his head, he decided to forgo his morning shave, the normally effortless task seeming daunting at the moment. He half-heartedly dressed in a black polo, accompanied by tan chinos and a black belt, his wardrobe holding little interest to him. Sitting heavily down on the end of the bed, he reached down to pull on his shoes, before finally succumbing to the heavy sigh he'd been holding since he'd awakened.
This is not how today was supposed to be , he thought to himself with another slow shake of his head. Was it only two nights ago that I believed I'd wake this morning with Laura in my arms, after a long night of making love with her?
Pushing himself up from the bed, he moved to the desk and pulled out a sheet of the complimentary stationary held there. After consideration, he picked up the pen and wrote a carefully worded note:
Please honor me with the presence of your company for dinner tonight at the
Palm d'Or. We've reservations at eight o'clock. I will pick you up at seven, if you're
Rubbing a hand across his neck, he pondered how to while away the long day that stood before him. He knew, without a doubt, that Laura would avoid him, that she needed time for that analytical mind of hers to dissect the events of the last days. It was not the process that concerned him, but the conclusion she would reach. Never before in his life had someone else held a deciding hand in the course his life would take, yet this little slip of a lass held all the cards in her hands while he had none. There were only two choices for him to make: request one last card from the dealer and hope for the best, or fold his hand and walk away.
He took a moment to worry the side of his thumb, then picked up the phone and dialed a series of numbers. After a brief conversation he hung up, then grabbed his wallet and room key from the dresser and headed out the door.
He strolled the streets of Cannes, old haunts stirring memories he'd hoped had long since been forgotten. As he passed a small boutique, he recalled fondly the modiste that had provided splendid, custom additions to his wardrobe across the years. Normally, any trip to Cannes guaranteed a stop by the shop, but on this day it held no interest. He soon found himself standing in front of the Musee de la Castre. He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. With a shrug of his shoulders, he ascended the steps.
He'd strolled the museum for the better part of two hours. He toured the collections of the Baron Lycklama and his antiquities from Persia, the ruins of Tiger, Turkey, Constantinople and Jerusalem. Remembrances of beautiful things now lost. He perused the Romanesque chapel, where he wandered through the displays of ancient musical instruments and stopped to admire the human faces of days long past that had been carved into the capitals atop of the pilasters which held up the arched doorways. He'd managed briefly to take his mind off Laura, but found himself ruminating once more as he scrutinized the landscapes of Joseph Conti and the maritime scenes of Ernest Buttura.
When he'd believed that last night was going to be "the night," he'd carefully planned for today: a tour of the museum, followed by lunch at a little café up the street where they could sit at an umbrella-topped table outside and watch people pass on the cobbled streets; a stop by Chantal's shop, to treat Laura to a few of the modiste's custom outfits; an intimate sail over to Iles de Lerins where they would share a romantic picnic dinner; and then the return to his room, where he could take her in his arms once more. At this very moment, he could see the sparkle of Laura's eyes as she took in the paintings before him, could feel his arm running along her side as he stood beside and provided a jaunty history of each of the paintings. He shook himself briefly.
Yes, well enough of this, then , he thought to himself. Best to go meet Henri and leave thoughts of the memories we would have created here to haunt the passages of the museum along with other ghosts of days past.
Outside the museum he hailed a cab and watched with disinterest as the scenery passed by. Thoughts on Laura, he barely noticed when the cab stopped at a small café in Le Suquet, nestled in the old town section of Cannes. Handing the driver his fee along with a generous tip, he exited the cab and took up residence at one of the tables outside the café. With a tip of a single finger in the air and a forced smile towards the waitress nearby, he quickly held a chilled glass of chablis in his hand. It was here that Henri found him brooding when the older man arrived.
"Bon après-midi , mon garçon. Je ne peux pas vous dire combien je suis heureux que vous avez appelé," Henri greeted him jovially, grasping Steele's hand and shaking it before pulling him close and slipping him on the back.
"Ah, Henri," Steele replied, as he took his seat next to the man, "Certainly you know I could not leave without saying goodbye."
"I had hoped, oui. Yet, I also regretfully lay witness to the trouble that has befallen you because of my request. So I could not be sure."
Steele sighed, and averted his eyes briefly. Trouble, yes, one could call it that.
"Yes, well, what's important is the dagger has been returned to its true owner, the Palermo brothers are no longer a threat, and Joelle is safe." I refuse to regret answering his call for help, even if the cost was too high. At least our slate is clean now.
"Je ne vous remercierai jamais assez. I cannot thank you enough for that. My darling Joelle is everything to me..." Henri turned his full focus on Steele before continuing, "as I suspect your Miss Holt is to you."
Once more, Steele averted his eyes, but not before Henri saw the flash of distress that passed across his face.
"Your Miss Holt has not forgiven you your deception then yet, oui? Does she not see that all's well that end's well?"
"Yes, well, I'm afraid the situation's more complicated than that."
Steele sighed deeply, then flagged down the waitress indicating a refill of his wine.
"Laura... Well.... Laura demands truth, expects trust. She doesnt believe the end justifies the means. I lied to her, I failed to trust her. Granted, I had my reasons, but the facts are still the same. It's of no matter, anyhow. Once she found Joelle in my room waiting for me, she would have ended us then and there, regardless of the rest."
"Surely she does not believe..."
"What else is she to think?"
"So where does this leave you, my boy?"
Steele thumbed the rim of his glass for several moments while considering the question. Considering how honest he should be. Then recognizing this was Henri, that he would understand, he opted for honesty.
"I'm considering cutting my losses, starting fresh again. There's little reason left to return to LA now. I only stayed for..." he trailed off. Better to walk away, than to be walked away from. I've had my fill of that in this lifetime. Why did I ever believe it would be different with Laura? Hasn't life taught me well and good that what others take for granted is never meant to be mine?
"Ah, my boy, your heart is bruised and you are not thinking clearly."
"However do you mean?"
"The French, we have a saying: 'Il ny a quun bonheur dans la vie, cest daimer et dêtre aimé.'"
Steele arched a brow, questioningly.
"'There is only one happiness in life: to love and to be loved.' If you walk away from love, you walk away from life."
"We're merely friends, Henri. Good friends."
"You can lie to yourself, mon garçon, but not to me. I've seen how she looks at you, how you look at her. It is clear what you are to one another. Vous êtes dans l'amour avec elle et elle avec vous."
"Yes, well, even if that were true - and I'm not saying it is - it is of little matter now."
"To the contrary, it always matters. Where is your Miss Holt now? Has she left?"
"No, no. Likely at the hotel, stewing." And deciding my fate.
Henri made a display of glancing at his watch, then frowned at it.
"Have somewhere to be, Henri?"
"Oui. I'm afraid I must go the police station and give my statement, to explain how my Joelle and I got caught up in all this."
"Then, I suspect it is time for us to bid adieu until next time, eh?" Steele asked rising to his feet while holding out his hand, as Henri stood to leave.
"Oui. Que nos chemins se croiseront à nouveau très bientôt. I hope our paths cross again, very soon."
"Myself, as well. Take care of yourself, and Joelle."
"I will certainly try. Adieu, mon garcon. Think about what I have said."
Steele watched as Henri walked to the corner then turned down the alleyway. Tossing several bills on the table, he flagged down an approaching cab, ready to return to the Majestic and catch up on some sorely needed sleep. He suspected he would need his wits about him tonight, should Laura accept his invitation to dinner.
Steele stood at the window, one hip perched upon it, staring out at the beach below. While he had fully intended to get some sleep upon his return to the hotel, once more he found it alluded him. Instead, he'd spent the afternoon mulling his options, trying to come to a decision.
Stay or go? Go? Or stay?
There were no easy answers this time. In the past, when things fell apart, he'd found it all too easy to simply disappear into the misty night, only to surface in a new country, with a new name. It was one of the aspects he'd truly enjoyed about his living his life on the other side of the street. There were no ties that bound him to any place, to any person. When things became difficult he could pack up and be gone within a couple of hours.
Then it all changed the day he met Laura. He created a life for himself in LA. He had a job he enjoyed, one in which he made a difference - something that he found himself inordinately drawn to, surprisingly. He had a home to return to each night. And Laura? In her he found a partner he trusted, a good friend, and a hopeful lover. The first two he felt certain he could walk away from, yes, with regret, but still able. The last? He didn't know. Yet, leaving might be preferable to seeing her and knowing each time what he'd lost, knowing that she no longer wanted him part of her life.
I need her . The thought came unbidden, unwelcome to his mind, yet forged on. Even worse, I need her to need to be a part of my life, as much as I need to be part of hers.
His gaze settled on a lone figure strolling slowly down the beach, obvious to all around her. He lifted a hand and traced a finger over the pane, as though stroking Laura's hair, her neck. His heart ached as he watched her figure. She usually stood straight and proud, chin tilted slightly upwards defying anyone to question her grit, a bit of a dare glinting in her eyes. Yet, as she strolled along the beach, her head was tilted downwards, her shoulders slightly stooped, her arms wrapped around herself as though seeking comfort. To know that his actions had taken this toll on her wounded him to his core.
You did this to her, old sport. You and you alone.
It was annoying, this habit Remington Steele had with the truth, most especially when the truth was least wanted. But as he told Laura several months back, when he explained why he knew there was no future for him and Anna, he'd changed. Laura changed him. Honesty was becoming more and more second nature to him. Why, then, knowing that the cost of a lie, this lie, would be the loss of Laura, had he chosen deception once more?
He had no easy answers other than one: fear. Fear of her reaction to someone from his past reappearing in his life, too soon on the heels of Anna. Fear that when if he handed her his trust in the form of a plea to help his old friend, that she would deny him her own trust in return. Fear that he'd find that look in her eyes again, the one that only recently, finally, disappeared: the look that said his past would always have a greater hold on him than his present. Fear that this would be the time that she finally gave up, turned and walked away.
So, instead, he'd lied. Hoped not to get caught. Hoped that they could continue to nurture their personal relationship until it finally reached the fruition of all its promise, even as the lie lived between them. He'd lied despite the fact that history had shown, repeatedly, that when he excluded Laura, deceived her, his plans inevitably blew up in his face. He ticked the numerous examples off in his head. His covert attempts to help Daniel with Hoskins; Anna; and now Henri. In every instance he'd cut her out, and in every instance when the chips were down she'd been there to bail him out.
And in each instance, I hurt her. Terribly. Time and time again she has been there for me when the evidence demanded that she should not, yet still I refuse to trust her as she needs.
Captain Rios, in Acapulco. She'd shoved herself into the guards to allow me time to escape, all the while knowing she could have been arrested, could have lost all she'd worked for. She helped me nick the Five Nudes of Cairo to stop Felicia's blackmail, and was arrested and humiliated in the process. When I believed Veronica Kirk, despite the evidence at hand, she put her faith in my instincts. When Amy Fogelson threatened to expose me on the evening news, Laura came up with the material that had commanded Fogelson's silence. She stood by me when Descoines framed me for murder and put her own safety at risk in order to retrieve the evidence that would prove my innocence.
Bloody hell, she even put me in charge of protecting the Royal Lavulite, the very gems I had planned to steal right out from under her before we met.
She trusted me to be her Remington Steele.
He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them once more, to continue following her lonely sojourn.
He was forced to acknowledge through introspection that there was only one place Laura had adamantly refused to give him her trust: She did not trust him not to leave. It was not irrational fear on her part. After all, he'd told her several times across the years that he could afford her no promises, give her no guarantees. She'd no idea he'd realized long ago that he was incapable of leaving her.
He laughed sardonically to himself.
May as well admit it, old sport. You can kick about the idea of leaving all you want, but you can't. Won't.
He ran his finger against the glass once more, caressing, comforting her in his mind, while recalling Henri's words from earlier:
If you walk away from love, you walk away from life.
He closed his eyes and lay his head back against the window casing, sweeping a hand through his hair before reaching down and taking a slip of paper from his pocket. Opening his eyes, he read her words once more:
Of course I'll join you for dinner this evening. I'll see you at seven.
It wasn't much, yet her agreement to dine with him this evening, coupled with her unintended response to his kiss last night, fanned the thin flame of hope in his heart that they'd find their way back to one another.
Once more his eyes sought and then found her as she walked along the silver sands of the beach. He could only hope, now, that whatever decision she reached would leave the door open just enough that he could slip back through and steal her heart once more. In the meantime, he'd simply have to accept her decision, whatever it might be, unwanted though it would be. Elsewise there were no choices for him to make, because at some point, and he was quite unsure when, that demanding and prickly woman walking along the waterfront had become the very best part of his life.
Walk away indeed.
They had spent the night with the authorities clarifying what had happened and giving their statements, and then spent the morning catching up with badly needed sleep. Laura rose around noon and had lunch with a subdued and contrite Mildred, who was still mortified over her losses at the casino. Laura had trouble hiding her annoyance as well and shed finally sent the woman to see what Steele was up to. Now she walked solo along the Cannes harbor front, where topless vacationers laid on their towels and absorbed the warm September sun. She needed time alone with her thoughts. Thinking about what she had promised. What she had revoked. And whether she had really made the right decision. She needed to hear what her fine, analytical brain had to say. She also hoped she might hear from her heart.
What she didnt know was whether she wanted to see this coast again. Its silver sands and lavulite seas had held such fine promise just a few nights before. It was where the ribbons binding her heart had loosened. Where shed seen the possibilities. Where daring Laura had made her decision, and her heart sang with her choice.
And it was where daring Lauras heart had been broken. Shed needed those ribbons to lash the pieces back into some semblance of repair. Her betrayal when she discovered John Robies identity was too painful. It was a betrayal of the deepest cut because he had hoped his caper would go unnoticed. Worse, he had believed she wouldnt help him to aid his old friend. The reality was she likely would have hell, she actually did help! once she had a chance to think it through. What did that say for their relationship that he was afraid to come to her when he needed help? Did that mean he was, at a fundamental level, the lone wolf? That Remington Steele was just a passing gig until he grew bored? Or got her into his bed?
Keep the bed out of it, Laura , she told herself firmly. That door is bolted closed.
More importantly, what did it say about her, if he believed he couldnt seek her help?
Because there would be a next time when his past roared out of the shadows and cornered them both in an impossible situation. Felicia and the Five Nudes. Daniel Chalmers. Captain Rios. Anna Simpson. Thank god Kessler and Neff were imprisoned in South Africa for good, for poor Ben Pearsons murder. What would be next past episode to disrupt their lives? Put her beloved agency at risk? Because the surest thing Laura knew was that there would be a next time. And until her ersatz Steele finally leveled with her and told her what else she should be worried about, how could she possibly plan a counter attack that would keep him and the agency safe?
Im talking as if we have a future together. And we dont. Because I cant possibly plan for every contingency. I cant spend my time fixing his problems at the expense of my job or our clients.
She sighed deeply. And as she exhaled, she realized that was her heart speaking. Her heart worried for him. How many Palermo Brothers were out there, waiting for the opportunity to gun him down? When a theft would go wrong and hed be imprisoned? Or a future Kessler and Neff succeeded in killing him? In a dozen years would he be like Freddie Smith, indulgent and dissipated as hed fallen back into smuggling and shady-side economics? She shook her head impatiently. She didnt want that for him. Shed seen from the beginning his goodness. She wanted to keep him safe. Keep him happy.
His words came back to her, from another time when everything had been on the line. There are two ways to go through life, Laura. Like you, the mathematics student, expecting to find your universe in perfect working order, demanding too much of yourself and everyone around you. Finding yourself disappointed at every turn.
Is that my problem? Do I expect too much from you? From myself?
And he had continued. Or like me. The wanderer, entitled to nothing, not even parents, finding myself pleasantly surprised when things do go right or someone pats me on the back instead of kicking me in the teeth.
And thats what Ive done, isnt it? Kicked you in the teeth.
But you kicked first.
Why do you always make it feel like its my fault?
The afternoon sun was bright and stung her eyes despite her sunglasses, so she squeezed them shut, pretending it was the glare.
I just dont know if I want to put up with this anymore.
Laura had hoped the walk would clear the cobwebs but if anything it increased her confusion. She decided she needed a break and took herself to one of the beachside restaurants and ordered a café au lait. It was a magical experience that wouldnt happen once she returned to L.A. As she nursed her drink and her wounds, an unexpected and vaguely familiar voice spoke.
May I join you, Mademoiselle Holt?
Henri Lebret stood before her small table. What was she supposed to say? Go away, youre the root cause of my misery?
He added, I was taking my afternoon walk when I saw you. I sought advantage of the opportunity.
Recognizing that Henri, in fact, had sought her out, she gestured at the unoccupied chair. Please.
To the waiter he said, Café au lait, sí vous plait, then turned his attention back to her.
I wish to thank you again, Mademoiselle Holt, for your generous assistance with my troubles. Please accept my apologies that you were pulled into my problem.
Its what I do for a living, Monsieur Lebret, she said, reverting to a safe gracious response. I cant say it was no trouble, but given that you were up against the police, Im glad I was able to help you and your daughter.
I know. I can see you are very kind. And this is why I hoped to speak with you privately. Without Degare present.
Laura blinked. Degare?
Her spine straightened. His name is Degare?
A corner of Henris mouth lifted. No. I do not know his name. It is the name I gave him when he was going from boat to boat and looking for work. It means lonely one. Or wanderer.
Her stifled disappointment was replaced by a swell of empathy. She recalled his words from last year. When I cant pick myself up, I invent a new person. Like Xenos. How did he end up here?
He shrugged in the Gallic manner. This I do not know. He was a little older than a child, maybe thirteen? Impossible to know. He stole my food and he stole my wallet. And then some street toughs cornered my little Joelle and he bloodied himself to protect her. So I gave him a job and a bed and regular meals because I could see this young boy had a mans honor code.
Laura was fascinated. This was more than she ever knew about her Mr. Steele. That seems awfully young for a young lad to be on his own.
It was. One sees the street urchins, they are everywhere. But there was something different about him. You see, he and my Joelle were of an age. She is maybe a few years younger. And he took her under his protection. Unlike most of the boys who tried instead to get under her skirts.
But I thought Oh, hell. I dont know what I think. She gestured a sketch of helplessness. I mean, I assumed he and Joelle Im sorry. Ive no business saying that.
I am not offended. You have a claim in the matter. Im a man. I see how Degare looks at you, and how you look at him. He sipped from his coffee, framing his thoughts. And I saw how he looked when you told him that you were finé. That is why I had to speak with you alone.
My relationship with Mr. Steele is purely a professional one. I cant risk the agencys reputation with someone who flouts the law.
Well, there is the law, and there is the law. And your Mr. Steele has a very strong sense of the law. Or what I should call a moral code. He is not like the other men in this business. The Palermo brothers, nest ce pas. Or that Inspector Vouvray and Lieutenant Deguiche. Degare will not kill or cheat. He did this thing because I asked him to. And, I expect, because he still sees himself as Joelles protector. You must not blame him for what happened. He did it because he is that rare person, like yourself, mademoiselle, who does have a code of honor.
Laura frowned as she processed what Henri was saying. And not saying. Finally she said, So you are a father figure to him?
Oui. One whom he would come and go from. He lived with my little family perhaps a year, a little more. As he said, I was a smuggler then, and he learned the trade. He worked very hard, and one day asked to return to England with his savings. Joelle and I were heartbroken because he was like a son and a brother. He leaned forward over his cup and saucer. And this is the important thing. When you said to him you were finé, I saw the same expression Joelle and I shared when he said he was leaving. You broke his heart, mademoiselle. I do not think you understand that.
Then he has a funny way of showing it, said Laura, defensive. A partner doesnt go behind your back and seek forgiveness if hes caught.
A partner would understand loyalty, said Henri, and the declaration made Laura squirm.
Were not partners. Not anymore.
Henri only elevated a brow. Degare would visit us later, now and again. He was very good at his work. But he only worked alone. Even now, he would only let Joelle collect the dagger after he had stolen it, although she begged to go with him. But last night, the two of you worked together.
I didnt give him a choice in the matter. Id have broken his legs if he tried to go it alone.
He chose to work with you. This also spoke volumes to me. He accepted you as a partner on Freddie Smiths boat. This I have never seen before. Jean and Michel and Ricard, they were always the lone wolf. Until now. He has great trust in you.
Laura shifted under his steady gaze. If youre trying to make me uncomfortable, youre succeeding.
After a moment, Henri continued. I have not seen my young friend in some time. And I remarked on the change that I see. I think this is your doing, mademoiselle. He is happy and content. He has a purpose. Like the married man who finds his wife is also his mistress.
Laura blushed furiously. Itsits not like that, she stammered quickly. Its purely business.
Then it is an interesting business, given how you look at each other. He finished his café. I have said what I came to say. This problem with the dagger was my doing, and he was simply trying to help an old man who loves him. There is nothing between him and Joelle; she likes to tease him, like a sister. And the person he really loves is you. Please rethink this decision to send him away.
He rose and then paused, and Laura realized she was expected to extend her hand. When she did, he pressed it once, lightly, to his lips.
I am pleased to meet the woman who has made my Degare so happy. From an old man, thank you for his happiness.
Laura stared at his elegant, retreating back, speechless. None of these people were what she thought them to be, not Henri, not Vouvray, not even Mr. Steele.
And what was she supposed to do about it?
She hadnt a clue what to do. Henri had shaken every assumption and every conclusion she had drawn about this mysterious man who had taken over her life. She paid her bill and returned to pacing the beach front and down, not seeing the silver sands or the lavulite sea.
Moments and conversations shifted through her memory. How he had stifled her protests when first they met and she discovered his deception, so that she didnt inadvertently betray her agency. The night he asked her to join him in the museum to steal the Five Nudes of Cairo. How Felicia had been put out at her exclusion. How hed grabbed her hand and held her secure when shed fallen from that beam, on their way into the treasury building. His knowing look when she discovered him standing at that hotel phone, ringing her in the Acapulco lobby. How he stood by her when Descoine tried to frame Steele and kill the both of them. His innocent delight at finding himself a Peppler. How he pieced together the clues on a case time and again. How they often worked without words and knew exactly what the other would do and say.
And there was the beautiful Steinway that mysteriously materialized in her new loft apartment.
She remembered how he stood up for his dead friend Wallace when the coroners aide assumed it was a drug overdose. How he helped Daniel to avenge the Majors murder. Helped Barney Kiernan, the man who abandoned him in South America, to keep an infant named Joey safe.
How he kept her safe when shed lost self-control after her house was destroyed. When he refused to sleep with her, even though shed asked.
It was a funny sort of loyalty.
She continued to walk the seafront, hugging her arms to herself, and unaware that a lone figure in a hotel room with an ocean view stood in his seafront window and kept his gaze fastened not on the scenery, but on her lone figure as she paced the miles of sand.
It was their last night in Europe. Laura wanted to cry or scream over what might have been, but that was pointless because it wouldnt change what had happened. The Riviera had gone from a romantic dream to a crucible of their partnership. That was the problem with dreams. Eventually one awoke.
Steele had left a note requesting to escort her to dinner. She could hardly refuse him. She dressed to please him for one last time. Drawing a line in the Riviera sand. He collected her from her room, cool and proper and heart-melting gorgeous in his tuxedo and hand-knotted tie. She knew she would never recover from him.
They finally had their dinner at the Palme dOr. She let him order for them both and caught his raised eyebrow that let her know he understood the joke. Moved to dancing. And after a few numbers she led him outside to one of the balconies that overlooked the Cannes harbor. Her heart pounded in her throat. She wanted to remove his shirt studs and run her hands across his torso for one last time. Be enraptured by that searing kiss that shut off her analytical brain as her blood rushed elsewhere.
As usual, Steele was attuned to her mood and she was grateful that he opened the forbidden topic that had unexpectedly lodged and left her voiceless.
So, he began mildly, does Remington Steele return with you to Los Angeles? Or does he disappear into the misty night? The night was clear, but she forgave his poeticism.
She had thought this through. How can he disappear now? Youre not just a nationally known detective anymore. Youre an international hero. The evening edition of the English-language International Tribune had been full of the news about the dagger and its return. As she had once phrased it, long ago, its great publicity for the agency.
Well, if the shoe fits She must have made a face, for he added hastily, Im joking, Laura.
I know. She looked at the harbor lights again, then back at him. Look, why deny it? Were a terrific team. Our only problems arise when we try to cross the line between the boardroom and the bedroom. She sighed. Look, I know you care about me. I care about you, too. A great deal. But if we both care about preserving this partnership, then we cant try to conduct a romance at the same time. The words were coming easier now. He seemed to be accepting her little speech. Weve had enough experience to know that it just doesnt work. Thats why Ive decided not to see you anymore outside of business hours. A corner of her mouth lifted, trying to lighten the dead weight of her words. It will be hard at first, but its for the best. We just have to give it up. She paused and when he didnt say anything, added, Well? Say something.
Its obvious youve given this decision a great deal of thought, Laura, and Im not going to try to talk you out of it.
Her eyes widened in relief. Youre not?
We must try, he continued solemnly, to respect each others feelings, even when they run counter to our own. Especially then.
She sighed in relief, not hearing the direct opposition of his words against hers. Shed only figure that out later. Right now, she said, I thought you were going to fight me all the way on this.
Not at all. Since you feel so strongly about it, I suggest we try this plan of yours and see how it works.
Behind them and across the harbor, a fireworks show illuminated the sky. The reflected light danced in his enchanting blue eyes and the cheerful display echoed her own gratitude at his understanding. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
He pulled back and smirked at her.
I give it a week.
As the fireworks lit the harbor behind him, Steele could only repeat one mantra over and over again in response to Laura's decision to end them personally while keeping their business association alive.
It was purely ironic that the phrase described both his desolation at her decision to end their romance as well as what he knew his life would be like in the months to come, as he waited for Laura to come back to him.
Bloody hell, indeed.