- .STEELE TIES DONT BREAK.
- .Part XIXI
- By Kelly Rourke
- The door closed behind them, dulling the incessant din
of the crowd, and a pleasant night breeze brushed the stray hairs
from her temples. She drew a deep, grateful breath and felt his
arm, warm against her back.
- "This," she said, "is pure bliss."
- In the darkness, she heard his low chuckle. "I must
admit, the crowd was getting to me a bit, too. It's been some
time since I've gone in for that sort of thing. Found it a bit
unnerving, I'm afraid."
- She smiled, as the scent of roses wafted off a small bush
near the low wall surrounding the hotel garden. "Too much
and then some, huh?"
- "I suppose," he said. They were near a small
fountain and he led her to a curved bench nearby. She sank happily
onto the cool marble and he settled beside her, his arm still
around her. She closed her eyes for a moment and leaned her head
against his shoulder. The smooth fabric of his suitcoat pressed
against her cheek and she breathed in his aftershave.
- "I know you're enjoying this, and I hate to spoil
the moment, but
- Her head came up warily and she searched out his eyes
in the moonlight.
- "Well, you did say you'd tell me."
- For a moment her mind was blank. "Tell you? Tell
- "What was wrong in there. Before dinner. When we
got to the table, you seemed, I don't know, disturbed by something.
You said you'd tell me what it was, remember?"
- She sighed. "I remember. I was kind of hoping you
wouldn't." The silence stretched for a moment. "I did
promise, didn't I?"
- He rubbed his hand gently across her shoulderblades. Finally
her chin came up.
- "All right. It's embarrassing as hell. And you can
do the whole 'I told you so' routine. You've earned the right.
It just took me by surprise, I guess."
- "What did?" His voice was gentle, but his eyes
were clear and direct.
- "When you were telling me about this weekend, you
said you had to give a presentation, and head a couple of panel
discussions. You just never mentioned the whole-" Her hands
waved generally in midair. He offered her a puzzled look, but
said nothing. She sighed again, in defeated resignation.
- "You never said you were going to be the keynote
speaker for the conference."
- The puzzled look didn't lift. "That bothered you,
Laura? I don't understand."
- She laughed softly, but without real humor. "I've
never been to a conference like this. This is huge. There are
hundreds and hundreds of people in there, from all over the US
and Canada. And they were hanging on your every word." Her
shoulders slumped suddenly. "You were right. And I'm an
- "I'm sorry, Laura, but what is it I was 'right' about
and what makes you think you're an idiot?" She looked at
him and realized the puzzled look wasn't a put-on. He was genuinely
confused by what she was saying.
- "You said I didn't take you seriously and you were
right. I guess I really didn't. This all just took me by surprise.
You told me you were a professional, respected in your field.
But I don't think I actually believed you, somehow. It never
seemed quite real to me. Until tonight, anyway. I watched those
people coming up to you earlier, but I don't think I really understood,
even then. They were genuinely excited to see you there. And
not just because they liked you. Because they respected you.
And what you do. Those people are impressed by you. And I'm starting
to think they have reason to be. And that
just got me a little shook up."
- Suddenly she couldn't seem to look at him. Her shoes took
on a whole new fascination. But she felt his fingers tapping
the underside of her chin gently, insistently, and she found
herself drawn back to his face once again.
- He was smiling, but it was a gentle smile. "I'm sorry
Laura. I didn't mean to blindside you. I never realized I hadn't
explained the presentation very well beforehand. I'd agreed to
do it for John in a moment of weakness. I usually avoid that
sort of thing like the plague, and so I deliberately didn't think
about it being the keynote address myself. I just thought of
it as one presentation among many. I should've said something
and I didn't. I'm sorry."
- She offered him a wry smile in return. "Oh, come
on. You can manage at least one 'I told you so', can't you? I
deserve that much." He chuckled and pulled her into a warm
- "This isn't about one-upmanship, darling. It's about
making things work for us. For both of us. That's all the really
matters. Don't you understand that?"
- "Actually, I do understand." She snuggled into
the curve of his arm and laid her head on his shoulder again.
Funny how right it felt there. As if it had been waiting to find
its true home for a long time and finally had. "And it really
was a wonderful presentation."
- "Really?" He sounded pleased.
- "Really. I'm enjoying the conference itself, even,
and I didn't expect to. Although
- "Hmm? What?"
- "I could do without all the female competition, I
suppose. I'm sorry, but some of those girls, professionals though
they may be, had their claws sharpened and at the ready. I'd
forgotten what it was like being with you around other women.
I hate to admit it, but it still gets to me a little."
- He laughed again and pulled her very close. "Laura,
I promise, you will never have to worry about me and any other
woman, ever. You're all I want. You're all I'll ever want."
He kissed her gently. "You can believe that."
- She smiled. "Oh, you can convince me easily enough.
But who's going to convince them?"
- His smile matched her own and then suddenly his face brightened.
"Hey, I've got an idea!"
- "Cattle prods?"
- "What? No, not about that. Listen, I've got those
panel discussions I've got to lead. And there are a couple of
lectures tomorrow I'd actually like to go to. There might be
some you'd want to listen to as well. You don't have to, of course.
I have a list back in our room. But I only have one panel discussion
I have to be at on Sunday, early in the morning. What would you
say to a day, or at least most of a day, spent sightseeing together?
Hm? You and me in San Francisco?"
- "We could do that? Just duck away from everything
and go off on our own? Like a mini-vacation? Yes! Let's do it!"
- He hugged her gently to him for a moment, then looked
at her quizzically. "Anyplace you want to see, especially?"
- "Not really. Anything. Everything. Just a day alone,
the two of us? We could sit on a park bench and not move and
I'd be perfectly happy."
- He grinned. "There might be a park bench along the
way somewhere, but I have a few ideas I think you might actually
like, as long as you're up for it. I'll save those for later,
- She hugged him happily herself. "Still my man of
mystery. Some things never change. Well, the good things don't,
anyway. And I'm glad of that."
- He pried a beer can out of the mud and spotted a candy
bar wrapper caught in a plant a little ways past it. Sighing,
he retrieved that, too. People came here to "worship nature",
and ended up doing things like this to it. How many small animals
had caught their snouts in aluminum can openings, tearing skin,
risking bad infections? How many other helpless creatures had
simply choked to death on bits of plastic that were never meant
to be swallowed? Nature lovers and the grief they caused. Never
mind the grief to the planet itself and what would inevitably
happen to the overall ecosystem.
- Taking care of a place like this, he felt, was like being
chief mourner at the longest funeral ever held. But someone had
to do it, he supposed, tucking the wrapper and the can away in
the garbage bag he kept tucked into his belt.
- And shoes now, too? He scowled as he moved closer to a
mudhole, where a woman's pump lay upside down. Someone had been
having some kind of good time, if they were leaving clothing
behind. He reached down and tugged at the footwear, trying to
loosen it from the suction grip the mud had on it.
- He had to tug on it for a few moments before it came loose,
heel first, as it turned out. He stared blankly at the woman's
foot still sticking up out of the mud for a few startled moments
before getting down and beginning to pull, hard. As he would
tell the police later, he just instinctively tried to get her
loose from the mud. Of course, she was already dead and it took
a little time to find the head that was still buried after the
rest of her body had been pulled up. Still buried in the mud.
Separate and alone.
- And why, he wondered incongruously, had they taken off
her head and not her shoes?
- Church bells were peeling from somewhere blocks away as
they stepped out of the hotel into the morning sunshine. Laura
drew a happy breath.
- "It feels good out here. I think we're going to have
a good day!"
- "In that case, let's get a move on, before Howard
or someone else finds out we're leaving and decides to tag along,"
he said, taking her hand and heading toward the sidewalk. "It's
only a block and a half to the streetcar stop. And if I remember
correctly, you enjoy a good trolley ride, don't you?"
- "Oh, I wouldn't miss it!" she said happily,
her quick steps matching his own. "And I'm glad John gave
his blessing to our escape plans. I have to admit, though, I
thought today's panel discussion went really well.
- Better than that one yesterday afternoon, anyway."
- He grimaced. "Well, I blame yesterday afternoon on
the blowhard from Seattle."
- "Who was he, anyway?"
- "I never found out, except he seemed to be someone
Howard knew from somewhere, appropriately enough. He doesn't
work for our outfit, that's one consolation."
- "You'd think he was planning a court case, the way
he kept cross-examining you and everyone else on the panel. I
think the other people in the audience were ready to take him
out toward the end."
- He grinned as they crossed the street and headed toward
the transit sign halfway down the block. "I was watching
for him to show up at today's discussion and I noticed several
other people kind of looking for him too. I think he decided
to make himself scarce after yesterday's performance. And he
wasn't at last night's panel discussion either. Maybe he decided
to become the fly in someone else's ointment and while they have
my sympathies, I still wouldn't take him back for all the tea
- They and the trolley arrived at their stop simultaneously
and he quickly found two seats near the back. He ushered Laura
into the seat nearest the open window and settled happily beside
her. Laura, for her part, was looking eagerly out at the passing
- "It's been too long since I've been in San Francisco.
I love this city."
- "I remembered that," he told her. "So I
figured that, by the time we get to where we're going, it should
be near enough to lunchtime. Or at least brunch. What would you
say to seafood? Nothing too expensive, but I think I found the
right place for it. We should be able to get something good."
- "Why? Where are we headed?" she said, turning
to meet his grin.
- "Oh, I thought you'd enjoy a trip to Fisherman's
Wharf, for starters at least."
- Her smile was at least as broad as his.
- While lunch was far from an elegant affair, he was right
in that it was very good. They dined at an outdoor café,
watching the passing crowds, trading quiet observations and enjoying
themselves thoroughly. After eating, they wandered along the
storefronts for a bit and he even let her lead him into an old-fashioned
- He didn't seem as out-of-place as she might have thought
and even showed enthusiasm over the various games and attractions.
She went through her spare singles and quarters rapidly, but
managed to beat him handily at air-hockey. And then, despite
his former allergy to pocket change, he turned out to have a
small stash handy and showed a surprising aptitude at skeeball.
In fact, he ran up such an impressive score that they attracted
a small crowd of admiring youngsters and he cheerfully distributed
his winning tickets among them after he made certain she wanted
nothing the arcade had to offer in exchange.
- Back out on the boardwalk, he offered her a sly grin.
"Are you up for dessert? It means a bit of a walk."
- The grin intrigued her so much she let him lead her three
blocks away. The aroma reached them before they reached their
destination and his smile grew broader as her eyes grew wider.
When they actually reached Ghiradelli Square, she was almost
trembling with excitement. He seemed to enjoy the tour of the
factory as much as she did and he refused to let her out of a
trip to the gift shop afterward, reminding her that people back
home might like a small token of appreciation.
- He even agreed to carry the delicious-smelling gift bags
for safekeeping when they left, surreptitiously slipping in an
extra package that she hadn't seen him purchasing. That one he
would make sure she was given after returning home.
- To distract her from the enticing smells emanating from
the bags, he coaxed her into a brief cruise of San Francisco
Bay and endured her good-natured teasing about making the captain
actually stop on Alcatraz Island as they sailed past the stone
landmark. Her teasing was easily offset, however, by the fact
that she spent the trip leaning into the circle of his arms,
using them to fend off the wind that swept across the bay.
- Back on dry land, she talked him into catching a bus and
visiting Telegraph Hill, going all the way to the top of Coit
Tower. Fortunately, the tower, unlike her old loft apartment,
boasted an elevator. He did groan a bit, though, looking out
at the spectacular views in all directions.
- "What's wrong?"
- "Nothing, really. It's just
- "Just what?"
- "How can you bring me to a place like this, Laura,
without a paintbrush or an easel in sight? It's positively cruel!"
- She managed to keep a straight face when she assured him
that her laughter had been purely sympathetic. On the way back
down, they overheard some other tourists talking about a free
art exhibition at Washington Square and decided to check it out
- A local bus dropped them off and they spent time walking
from stand to stand, chatting with artists and those just interested
in art. And at one point, she slipped away from him as he became
intently involved in a technical discussion with one of the artists.
In a nearby tent she purchased a small art kit with a palette,
a set of paints and several decent brushes. These she stashed
away in her purse as a surprise gift for later.
- At last, tired but satisfied, they boarded another bus.
This one delivered them to Chinatown. He led her through streets
already illuminated by paper lanterns and other bright lighting,
managing to guide her to a nice restaurant, despite her insistence
that a trip to the platte map office might be more appropriate.
While the restaurant didn't boast any special rating, the food
was good and plentiful and they each sampled as many different
dishes as they could. As always, she was the more adventurous,
though his skill with chopsticks would always be better than
- It was still relatively early when the cable car dropped
them off near their hotel. He noticed the small park along the
way back and pulled her by the hand over to a small bench near
a yew tree and smiled at her contented sigh as she settled on
- "Satisfactory day, love?"
- She leaned over, laying her head against his shoulder.
"More than satisfactory, actually. That was honestly fun."
- He rubbed her shoulderblades gently. "I hate the
sound of that."
- She pulled back and looked up at him. "You do? Why?"
- "Because it sounds as if you've had far too little
fun in your life. At least recently." His smile held that
hint of pain it had worn so often since returning to her and
- "I wouldn't say that, exactly. I have fun. Granted,
it's usually with Harry. But fun, nonetheless."
- He tapped her playfully on the nose. "Really? Tell
me about all the fun." She scowled at him and he laughed
gently. "No. I mean it. Really. Tell me about the fun you
and Harry have had. I want to hear about it."
- She smiled and laughed at him in return. "We have
fun of a kind. We go to the park and play and get silly. And
I take him to the zoo and shopping with me and, oh! We went to
Disneyland last year with Frances and Donald and the kids. And
there was a carnival early this summer. And we go for walks and...well...we
have fun together. That's all."
- He pulled her gently to him. "I can believe that,
Laura. All that and more. And I bet he has the best time when
he's with you. I'd love to see you getting 'silly' with the little
guy. I really would."
- She snuggled against him for a moment, then looked up
- He sighed and shook his head. "I just wonder if you
have any fun of your own. That's all."
- "I was never one for fun and frivolity, even in the
old days, was I? Be honest." She patted him reassuringly
on the shoulder. But his expression didn't lighten.
- "I don't know that's quite true, Laura. I remember
having fun with you. And I remember meeting your friends, people
you knew. People you'd meet for dinner or lunch or parties, even.
It just seems there was more in your life for you back then,
- "I've had things in my life for me." She still
sounded mildly defensive.
- "Like what?" he challenged.
- "I have books and music and tv. You know what a big
reader I am. Harry's not awake all day, you know. I do other
- He kissed the top of her head. "I know you love reading.
I just worry that you read case files more than fiction. And
you? Watching tv? When? I mean, it, Laura. You've never been
big on that sort of thing. Old reruns of Atomic Man, maybe. Many
of those, are there?"
- She was forced to laugh again. "Well, not so many
of those, I guess. But I do watch tv after Harry goes to bed.
- "Oh yes. I'd noticed the VCR hooked up at your apartment.
Gone With the Wind was your favorite, as I recall."
- "I rent it from time to time. But I'm not obsessive
- "What do you like to watch?" He looked genuinely
curious, which gave her a small burst of pleasure, for some reason.
But she flushed a bit before answering.
- "I pick up videos at the library sometimes. And there's
a little video store between here and the office I stop at sometimes.
I just prowl to see what they have. Sometimes I'll just pick
something up at random."
- "Like what?" he asked, and noticed that her
flush grew deeper. "Laura?"
- She growled softly. "Old Bogart movies, if you must
- He smiled, broadly. "Really?"
- "Well, not all the time!" She frowned at his
grin. "I rent other things, too."
- "Like what?"
- She sighed. "If you must know, old movies I've heard
you mention from time to time. Like Notorious. Things like that.
I sometimes think I've watched old black-and-white movies more
than my mother ever did."
- He hugged her again. "I don't know why, but that's
almost the sweetest thing you've ever said to me."
- She punched his side, lightly. "You!" Then she
sighed and leaned into him again. "I don't know, I suppose
it was a way of keeping you with me. In one sense, at least.
Almost like we were watching together, somehow."
- He sat up straighter and took her head in his hands, gently
cupping her cheeks. "Laura, you have me from now on. You
won't have to worry about keeping me with you ever again. I promise."
- She kissed him and held him close. "I believe you.
Somehow, I just know. And it makes me feel better than I've felt
in years. I also have the feeling," she added, smiling up
at him, "that fun's not going to be such a stranger in my
life anymore, either."
- He laughed and stood up, pulling her to her feet as well.
"I think I can pretty much guarantee that, as well. Ready
- She nodded and fell into step beside him, her arm wrapped
around his waist, his around her shoulders. As they waited for
the light to change at the corner across from the hotel, he got
a sudden look of consternation.
- "What's wrong?" she asked.
- "I just realized we forgot something really important."
- "I don't think we picked up any present to take home
- She laughed. "Oh, I took care of that yesterday,
back at the hotel."
- "You did?"
- "At the hotel gift shop." The light turned green
and they headed across the street. "You see, a few years
ago we were visiting Mother and Harry noticed a snow globe she
had. He loved it. Played with it for almost an hour that day.
So, since then, whenever I've had to go out of town, I've picked
him up a snow globe. I haven't gone out of town all that much
without him, but you must have seen the four he already has on
the shelf in his room."
- "I noticed them, but I didn't think much about them,
I suppose. Snow globes, eh?"
- She looked up at him as they neared the front door of
the hotel. "Mother got him one, I got him the rest. But
this one I want to come from Mommy and Daddy, if you don't mind."
- "I don't mind at all. I'm delighted, in fact."
- "Good. When does our flight leave?"