I Love You More
Laura knew he was gone even before she opened her eyes. The bed was cold without him. Nevertheless, she put out an experimental hand, running it slowly across the bed sheet. No warm, hair-roughened chest, no smooth shoulder, no soft breathing. Nothing. Her eyes flickered open, and what she already knew was confirmed. The dim light filtering in through the balcony doors revealed an empty pillow.
With a sigh she rolled onto her back, dragging the sheets with her. Well, she mused, staring up at the ceiling, you can't say you weren't expecting it. The warning signs had been there all afternoon and evening. She'd be a pretty poor detective not to have noticed. Like dark clouds gathering before a thunderstorm, there'd been an ominous brooding silence about him that promised trouble.
When he had said he was going for a walk after lunch, she had waited exactly five minutes before following, leaving Mildred to sort out the bill. She'd spent the next three hours shadowing him across every bridge in Venice. Damn, the man could walk. Her feet still hurt from the trek. There'd been no time to change into runners.
To her surprise he'd eventually headed back to the hotel, and she was obliged to sprint up the stairs while he took the elevator. She had just grabbed a magazine and arranged herself in a nonchalant manner across the sofa when the door opened and he stepped inside. His greeting was absent, a mere peck on the cheek, as though his mind were elsewhere. He hadn't even asked why she was panting like a freight train. He'd just gone into the bathroom and turned on the shower.
But it wasn't until dinner that she saw the grim resignation in his eyes. He had come to a decision, and having made the decision he was determined to carry it out. She braced herself but it never came. He didn't say a word. Instead he wined and dined her like it was their last night on earth. And later as they made love in the pool of moonlight streaming through the French doors, he seemed to do so as though he were memorizing her body, drawing treasures from her that he could keep and take with him like a vacationer who roams a beach looking for a shell to remember it by.
So it wasn't at all surprising to wake up and find him gone. And how did she feel about that? Angry? No, she thought, not angry, just extremely frustrated. When would he learn that she was never going to let him go? Wherever he went, she'd follow, and no amount of slipping away into the night was going to change that.
She glanced at the empty pillow and then at the nightstand. Nothing. He'd left without a word. No doubt he thought such a departure would instill within her an all-consuming hatred of him. Perhaps in the old days it would have, but now she knew better. Remington would leave her for only one reason ~ her own good. Somewhere in that crazy, mixed-up brain of his he'd convinced himself that she was better off without him.
Throwing back the sheets, she stood up. Well, they might as well deal with that misconception right now. Shrugging into her robe, she crossed to the balcony and pulled open the doors. A little more light, but not much, seeped in. It was still early morning, probably around 6 AM.
She scanned the gondolas tied up to the dock below. None were missing. She'd made a careful count before going to bed. Her eyes stopped on the gondola closest to the hotel, and she frowned, a flicker of unease curling within her stomach. The man she'd hired to watch the doors was slouched in the boat, his feet propped up on the bow. It wasn't that he was in the boat that bothered her. It was the fact that he was alone. He should have been in possession of a dark, overdressed stranger with blue eyes and Italian leather suitcases.
Damn, she cursed, heading for the bedroom door. Something must have gone wrong. Mr. Steele was a slippery fellow. She should have known he wouldn't use the front entrance like a sensible tourist. He'd probably shimmied up a drainpipe and took the rooftops again. Hopefully, his trail wasn't too cold. She had no interest in chasing him across Europe again. Heaven only knew where he'd lead her this time. The mountains of Nepal?
She flung open the door and burst into the sitting room only to stop dead in her tracks. Remington was sitting on the sofa, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. Joy surged through her. He hadn't left! She'd been expecting him to, but he hadn't! Her eyes fell on the suitcases beside the door. But apparently he had tried.
Crossing the room on silent feet, she sidled up beside him, reaching out a hand to touch his shoulder. He felt like stone, hard and immovable. He also acted like it, his head remaining down, not moving a muscle, not acknowledging her in any way. She wondered if perhaps he'd actually turned into stone like the trolls in The Hobbit, but finally he spoke, and his voice was low and agonized.
'I'm a selfish bastard.' He rasped. 'I couldn't do it. Even though I knew it was for the best, I just couldn't walk out that door.'
'I'm glad.' She said simply.
'My hand was on that doorknob.' He continued as though he hadn't heard her. 'But then I remembered your father. I don't even know the blighter, but he was suddenly there in my head, and then that milksop, Wilson, joined him, and all I could think about was how their leaving had destroyed your ability to trust. And,' he shook his head as though dazed, 'I couldn't do it. I couldn't betray your trust, not after you'd finally given me a scrap of it. If I did, I'd be no better than they were, maybe worse. Even though I knew I had to, I couldn't walk out that door and leave you.'
'I'm glad.' She said again.
'Glad?' He exclaimed, finally lifting his head to stare at her, incredulous. 'How could you be glad? Because of me you can't go home.'
'At the risk of sounding corny, home is where the heart is.'
'You're right.' He said flatly. 'That does sound corny.'
'But it's true.'
'Laura,' he interrupted, his voice full of censure, 'be serious.'
'I am being serious.'
'Damn it,' he growled, clearly frustrated, 'don't you understand? As long as I'm with you, you can't go home. That means no more L.A., no more Frances or Abigail, no more loft and most importantly, no more Remington Steele Investigations. Even if you don't understand what that means, I do, and I'm not going to let you throw it all way.'
'You're not going to let me?' Laura asked. 'Just how do you propose to stop me? You just admitted that you couldn't walk out the door.'
His expression hardened, becoming resigned. 'You've got to tell me to get the hell out of your life. If you tell me to go, I'll go.'
She laughed. 'Fat chance.'
'Laura,' he protested, 'you've got to. It's the only way.'
'Uh-uh.' She said, shaking her head. 'Not on your life, Charlie. Or should I say Harry?'
'You're being unreasonable.'
'You bet I am.'
'It's the only way.' He insisted, running a hand through his hair, obviously frustrated with her refusal to see things his way.
'No, it's not.' She said, sitting down on the sofa beside him. 'I had a brilliant suggestion just this afternoon.'
'We're not moving the agency.'
'Why not? London has just as many crimes as L.A. We won't be hurting for business, and we already have a good reputation with Scotland Yard. Of course, there'll be some paperwork that'll need completed before we can set up office, immigration papers, investigator licenses, that sort of thing, but Mildred can't handle it. We'll be up and running within a few months.'
He stared at her. 'London isn't L.A.'
'No,' he said firmly, 'there are a multitude of differences.'
He searched for a moment and then said. 'The climate.'
'Yeah, no smog.'
'But there's rain. Lots of it. And fog, thick, choking stuff that hangs around for days.' When she didn't look impressed, he continued. 'And what about the traffic? Hell, they don't even drive on the same side of the road.'
'And that's a negative?'
'No,' he said grimly, 'I don't suppose it is. Half the time you don't drive on the right side of the road in L.A. so I suspect you'll feel right at home.'
'You love L.A. You've told me so on numerous occasions. I can see it in your face whenever we're driving around the city.'
'I love you more.'
That shut him up. He stared at her, his mouth slightly open as though he wanted to say something but couldn't. His eyes dropped on the floor, and she wondered what he was thinking. She got her answer when they lifted again, very blue and very grave. The intensity of his gaze nearly took her breath away.
'Are you sure?' He finally asked, his voice like sandpaper. 'I couldn't bear it if somewhere along the way you suddenly decided that you'd made a mistake. So be sure, Laura, be very sure. Because if I stay, it's for keeps. I only have the capacity to be noble once. After that, there's nothing I wouldn't do to keep you by my side.'
Laura's heart seemed to swell within her. How she loved this man. If there'd been any doubt, it'd been erased the moment she saw him sitting on the sofa with his bags at the door. He hadn't left her even when he thought it was for the best. He'd said he couldn't. And now he was saying he wouldn't even if she changed her mind some time in the future. He was just as committed to her as she was to him.
She took his face between her hands. 'I'm sure, very sure. I love you, and no office in L.A. with Remington Steele Investigations printed across it will ever replace the man who earned the right to be called that name in my heart. It would be easier for me to move the agency than to try to live without you.'
His eyes looked suspiciously moist, which was a good thing since hers were threatening to spill over. He blinked once, twice and then reached for her, pulling her into his arms. His mouth came to rest against her ear. 'All the men in the world and you chose to give your heart to a cheap crook. Pardon me for saying so, darling, but you're taste in men is appalling.'
'Maybe so but it's my taste all the same.' She stood up, offering him her hand. 'It's early, Mr. Steele. You ought to be in bed. Care to join me?'
He looked at her hand and then took it, allowing her to pull him to his feet. 'You're taking my ah attempted departure very well. Amazingly so, in fact.'
'Disappointed, Mr. Steele?'
'I will admit to a certain amount of pique.'
She pulled him into the bedroom, shutting the door behind them. 'I was expecting a jailbreak.'
'Hardly that.' He said somewhat indignantly. 'I don't view our life together as 'jail'.'
She considered this. 'Ok, I misspoke. You probably viewed your departure in terms of Sidney Carton going to the guillotine in the place of Charles Darney, right?'
Remington's indignation turned to discomfort. 'Possibly.'
She drew him over to the balcony. 'See that gondola down there? The one with the big guy in the striped shirt? He was paid to detain you.'
'With a right hook to the jaw if necessary.'
He cocked a dark eyebrow at her. 'Still don't trust me, Laura?'
She slid her arms around his neck. 'If a man knows his house is going to be robbed, does he leave the door open? No, he'd take precautions, which is exactly what I did. I had no desire to chase you clear across Europe again, and that's what I would have done. Leaving without a word wouldn't have stopped me. It might have a couple of years ago but not today. You might as well accept it, Mr. Steele, no matter how fast or far you run, I'm always going to be right behind you.'
'Is that a promise?'
'Cross my heart.'
'Wonderful.' He murmured, suddenly sweeping her into his arms. 'I can't think of a more delightful prospect than you following wherever I go. Brings out a man's inner caveman.'
'Caveman?' Laura echoed as he tossed her on the bed.
'Would you prefer Tarzan?'
Laura felt a tingle of desire run up her spine as she watched him remove his clothing, piece by piece. Her own robe had come open when she'd hit the mattress, and she didn't bother closing it. There was something primitive about being tossed across a bed, and she was ready to explore the possibilities.
'Tarzan sounds interesting.'
'How do you suppose Tarzan made love, Laura?'
She stared up at him with dark eyes. 'Primitively.'
He grabbed her legs, pulling her across the bed until her hips where on the edge of the bed.
'Agreed. Shall we put our theory to the test, my sweet?'
Laura smiled, a thoroughly feminine smile, and leaned back against the sheets, snaking her legs around his hips. 'Me Jane.'
The sun had rose higher in the sky, casting a strong, golden glow through the open balcony doors, when Remington spoke again. 'It won't be easy, Laura.'
She didn't pretend to not understand his meaning. 'I never thought it would be. Moving an entire agency across the ocean is not for the faint-hearted.'
There was a pause in which noises from the canal below drifted upwards into their room. Someone was singing, a baritone, deep and rich, lifting and falling its way through a mournful aria. Laura sighed wistfully. She would miss Venice. Where else could you hear a mini operetta outside your bedroom window? Certainly not L.A.
'What happens if we don't succeed?'
His voice didn't sound worried, just curious. She rose up on one elbow to look down at him. A pair of blue eyes met hers. She could see the question in them.
'We'll succeed.' She told him flatly.
'And if we don't?' He persisted.
'Then we devise a way to get you back into the States.'
His laugh sounded like the laugh of a man who'd seen the world and found it lacking. 'Even the Duke of Deception isn't up to that one, my love. If he were, do you think we'd be having this conversation? I've studied the problem front to back, side to side, top to bottom and have arrived at the conclusion that it's nearly impossible. It'd take a bloody miracle, and I, for one, stopped believing in miracles long ago.'
'Well, I haven't.'
She ignored him. 'What kind of miracle are we talking about here?'
'A miracle involving someone high up in the United States government who out of overwhelming gratitude would award me an honorary citizenship.' He shook his head, a cynical smile lifting one corner of his mouth. 'Sorry, darling, but I'm not in the same league as Churchill.'
'But it's possible.'
'For people who believe in the tooth faerie and little green men from Mars.'
'You're determined to be difficult, aren't you?'
'I prefer to call it being realistic.'
'Ok.' She said, dropping back down onto the sheets, her head on his shoulder once again. 'Have it your way. I, for one, won't give up hope. You never know what life might throw you.'
'Curve balls.' Remington said as though he'd had personal experience. 'And once in a while a nice, juicy spit ball that lands right in your eye.'
Laura decided to let the matter drop. It was obvious that Harry had seized control and was determined to see things through a jaded point of view. That dark side, which had always lingered just beneath the surface, waiting to burst forth under the right circumstances, was in full gear. Hopefully, time and experience would lull Harry back to sleep, allowing the buoyant Remington to reappear.
'What about Mildred?' He asked, breaking into her thoughts.
'What about her?'
'Does she come with us or does she find herself unemployed in L.A.?'
Laura chewed on her bottom lip. 'I don't know. I hadn't thought that far ahead. I guess I just assumed she'd come with us.'
'A continent and an ocean is a long way to travel for job security.'
'It's not just job security.' Laura declared. 'She considers us family.'
'That's not much of an endorsement.' He said with a healthy snort. 'I wouldn't walk across the street let alone cross an ocean for my family.' There was a pause and then he added with a bitterness she rarely heard. 'If I had one, that is.'
She decided to leave that little grenade lying where it fell. Curious though she was about his childhood, she knew a touchy subject when she saw it.
'Mildred's view of family is quite a bit different than yours.'
'10 to 1.' He stated.
'The odds that she'll make the move.'
'This isn't a horse race.'
'Do you have a better way of predicting whether or not we'll still have a secretary when we land in Heathrow?'
'Yes, I do.' Laura stated, flinging back the covers and getting up.
She looked around for her robe and then remembered that she'd been wearing it when she'd hit the mattress. Upon further inspection, she found it beneath her husband. After two or three tugs, it finally came lose, the silky fabric nearly hitting her in the face.
'Mind telling me your method?' He asked with a lift of one dark brow.
'It's quite obvious.' She said, shoving her arms into the robe and belting it firmly around her waist. 'We ask her.'
'Now why didn't I think of that?'
'Because,' she said, leaning forward so that they were nearly nose to nose, 'you might have Remington Steele's name, but I've got his brains.'
'That's what I love about you, Laura.' He murmured, tugging at her belt until it came undone, revealing quite a bit of freckled skin to his avid gaze. 'You're so incredibly modest.'
Mildred jumped as the clock tower struck ten o'clock, spilling a few drops of cappuccino on the white tablecloth. She hastily pushed her saucer over the telltale stain. Darned if she wasn't as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, had been ever since she'd gotten on that waterbus. The bomb was no longer her problem so why did she feel like Marie Antoinette waiting for the guillotine to drop?
Of course, it could have something to with what she'd seen from the window of her hotel room last night. It wasn't everyday Mrs. Steele shoved a wad of cash into the hands of a beefy gondolier, and she was instantly suspicious. So suspicious that she'd hurried downstairs, intent on discovering the reason for such odd behavior.
'What gives?' She had asked as soon as Laura re-entered the hotel. 'Why'd you give short, dark and brawny a wad of cash? He blackmailing you or something?'
Laura had jumped at her sudden appearance but quickly recovered. She had grabbed Mildred's arm, urging her over to a secluded corner.
'Precautions, Mildred.' She had said, pushing her into a large, over-stuffed chair. 'I'm just making sure we don't have to catch a flight to Tibet in the morning.'
'You never know where Mr. Steele will show up when he's on the run. He's rather like a roulette wheel in that respect.'
'On the run? Why would he be on the run?' Suddenly the answer had dawned on her and she had frowned. 'He hasn't been pinching priceless works of art, has he? I thought he'd given that up.' She had shaken her head sadly. 'Really, Mrs. Steele, we need to get the boss some help. Do you suppose they have support groups for that sort of thing, kind of like Alcoholic Anonymous?'
Laura had laughed. 'I assure you, Mildred, that the art treasures of Venice are perfectly safe. Mr. Steele hasn't fallen off the wagon.'
'Then why would he be on the run?'
'Because he thinks he's doing what's best for me.'
'Mr. Steele has that effect on people. He often leaves me speechless.'
'Maybe if you explained '
'Mildred,' Laura had said somewhat impatiently, 'you ought to know what's bothering him. You delivered it this morning. He's been acting as broody as a mother hen ever since.'
'You mean the letter from INS?' At Laura's nod, she had frowned once again. 'But why would that caused him to run to Tibet?'
'Because he's gotten it into that head of his that I'd be better off without him.'
'Did he say that?'
'No, but I could see it in his face. He's getting ready to bolt. Probably some time tonight if I know my Mr. Steele. So I hired Guido to stop him. I'm not chasing him clear across Europe again. The last time I did I ended up in jail.'
This was news to her. When had Mrs. Steele been in jail and why? Looks like she'd missed a lot while in L.A. meeting with immigration lawyers.
'It's a long story. I'll tell you about it sometime. Right now we have to stop Mr. Steele from doing something ridiculously noble.' Laura had sighed, shaking her head. 'You know, I sort of miss that cheap crook named Harry. Now there's a man who would have no compunction about ruining my life. He'd take what he wanted and to hell with everything else. I guess I made Remington Steele a little too good.'
'I knew there was something wrong with that gray matter between his ears.' She's muttered before sending Laura an anxious glance. 'Do you think Guido can handle him? He's about as slippery as they come.'
'He's been told to use an upper cut to the jaw if necessary.'
'That ought to do it.'
Now, eleven hours later, Mildred was beginning to wonder if an upper cut was enough to stop Mr. Steele. He was, after all, pretty handy with his dukes. Still, she reminded herself, reaching for another roll, the gondolier had been in his boat that morning when she'd looked out her window. So why the delay in joining her for breakfast? Had the boss given Guido the slip after all? Was Mrs. Steele at this moment jetting off to Tibet without her?
The anxiety was unbearable. There was nothing for it but to go see for herself what had happened. She tossed the roll on the table and reached for her purse, fumbling through her wallet for something to pay the bill with. Nothing smaller than 1000 lire. Drat!
'Morning, morning, morning!' A familiar voice caroled.
The voice was followed by a firm rapping on the table, which sent Mildred and the cappuccino jumping.
'Boss!' Mildred gasped, hand going to her heart. 'What are you doing here?'
'This is the usual place one finds breakfast, isn't it?' He asked, settling himself into a chair and looking around expectantly. 'Where's the waiter?'
'Good morning, Mildred.' Laura said, seating herself in the last remaining chair. 'I'm sorry we're late, but I had a heck of a time getting Mr. Steele out of bed this morning. You know how he likes to sleep in.'
'So he was in bed this morning?' Mildred asked with a pointed look at Laura.
'Of course, I was in bed.' Remington answered, having momentarily given up his search for the waiter. 'Where else would I be?'
'Oh, I don't know.' Mildred said, looking him over for signs of bruising. His jaw was as clean shaven and unmarred as usual. Not even a razor cut. 'I thought you might have taken a midnight stroll or something.'
'I had enough strolling yesterday afternoon.'
'Glad to hear it.' She said stoutly. 'I was afraid you might have fallen into a canal or something. They're all over the place, you know. Got to watch your step.'
'I did notice that, yes.' Remington agreed dryly. 'It is Venice, after all.' He turned around in his chair. 'Where the devil is that waiter? The service at this place is appalling.'
'How do you like Venice, Mildred?' Laura asked brightly.
'I'm not sure.' Mildred admitted. 'I haven't seen very much of it.'
'Don't let it bother you.' Remington tossed over his shoulder. 'Once you've seen one canal, you've seen them all.'
Laura glared at him. It went unnoticed. He was still looking for their missing waiter. She wondered how long Harry would be in possession of her husband. That's what you get for wishing for him last night, she told herself. If he kept it up, she'd have to call in an exorcist. The cynical wisecracks were getting tiresome. She turned back to Mildred.
'Perhaps after breakfast we could do some sightseeing. There's a wonderful little shop that sells carnival masks. It's owned by an order of monks. I know you'll love it.'
Mildred brightened. 'I'm sure I will.'
'Of course, it'll be a whirlwind tour.' Laura warned. 'We're leaving for London tomorrow afternoon.'
'London?' Mildred echoed, her brows pulling together over her nose. 'I thought you'd be going ho ' she stopped, her expression turning sheepish, 'Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot.'
'Actually we're glad you brought it up.' Laura said, sending a sideways glance at her husband. He still had his back to her. 'You see, we'd like to have a little talk to you about the future, about our plans for the agency.' She sent a well aimed kick at Remington's shin. Her foot hit the leg of his chair instead. She grimaced as her toes throbbed. Nevertheless it got his attention. He turned, giving her a questioning look. 'Wouldn't we, Mr. Steele?'
'Wouldn't we what?'
'Wouldn't we like to have a conversation with Mildred about the future?'
'Ah, yes, yes, excellent suggestion, Laura.' He settled back in his chair, crossed his arms and looked at her expectantly. 'Please proceed. I'm all ears. Mildred is too. Aren't you, dear?'
By this time Mildred was looking very confused.
'Is something going on that I don't know about?' She asked suspiciously.
'Don't worry, Mildred.' Remington said soothingly. 'Mrs. Steele is about to enlighten you.'
'Don't you think you ought to do it since you're the boss?' Laura asked pointedly.
'I may be the boss in the technical sense, of course, but we all know the agency's all yours. Please,' he said, waving a negligent hand, 'continue. The suspense is no doubt killing our associate.'
Laura gritted her teeth. She thought they'd discuss this on the way down. It had been agreed upon that Remington would do the honors of inviting Mildred to join them in London. It had been clear over the years that she'd do just about anything for him so naturally he was the man for the job. Obviously he'd had second thoughts somewhere between the elevators and the café. Nice of him to inform her of the change in plans.
'As you know, Mildred,' she began, offering a smile, 'Mr. Steele is no longer welcome in the United States.'
'Because you deported him.'
'Uh, yes,' Laura agreed, momentarily knocked off point. Must they keep reminding her of that? 'But that's not the issue here. What's done is done. Now we have to find a way to live with it.' She took a deep breath and said, 'Since Mr. Steele can't go home, I'm not going home either. I won't be going back to L.A., Mildred. I'm staying with Mr. Steele.'
There was a pause as this information worked its way through Mildred's brain. A multitude of emotions ran across her face before comprehension finally dawned, bringing a perplexed frown. 'If neither one of you goes back to L.A., what happens to the agency?'
'We move it.'
'London.' Mildred repeated, the comprehension slowly turning to resignation. 'Of course, you'll move it. A top notch detective like yourself would want to continue detecting. I don't know why I'm so surprised. I suppose I was still hoping we'd find a way of getting Mr. Steele back into the States.' She looked at them hopefully. 'What about the Vincent Parry passport? Can't we give him a new identity? He's had so many. One more wouldn't hurt.'
'We can't risk it, Mildred' Laura said. 'If he should get caught, its federal prison, and you know Keyes will be watching us like a hawk.'
'But isn't there any other way?' Mildred persisted, her eyes going to Remington. 'You're the master of deception. Think of something!'
'I've done nothing but think.' Remington told her, his voice as tart as green apples. 'I spent all yesterday afternoon rolling it around in my head and always I came back to the same conclusion. It can't be done. Not even Daniel could pull it off. Short of a bloody miracle, my stint as a famous American detective is over. It's pip-pip and cheerio from here on out.'
Mildred drew back, stunned by the sharpness of his response. 'I I'm sorry, boss. I didn't think. I guess I just sort of assumed you could do anything.'
The irritation in his expression drained away, leaving a rueful smile in its place. 'There's no need to apologize, dear. It's just that this super hero has his limits, I'm afraid.'
She sat for a moment or two, staring at her cappuccino cup. Then suddenly she straightened, her expression turning brisk and business-like. 'Well, that's that. If you're moving, you'll need help. I'll do whatever I can.' She turned to Laura. 'I'll get busy on your immigration papers as soon as I get back to L.A.'
'Not just my papers.' Laura said carefully. 'Yours too, I hope.'
'We'll need a secretary in London.' Laura said. 'And you've done such a terrific job in L.A. we were hoping you'd consider continuing your employment with us.'
'You mean move to London?'
'You'd be no good to us in L.A.' Laura confirmed.
'But I have a house.' Mildred protested. 'And what about my nephew?'
'He'll find British hookers just as accommodating as American ones.' Remington noted.
He winced as a foot found its target this time. Bloody hell, what was Laura wearing? Steel toes? He rubbed his offended shin gingerly.
'What about bowling?' Mildred continued. 'Do they have bowling leagues in London?'
'So what do you say?' Laura asked, breaking in.
'I'll have to think about it.' Mildred said warily. 'It's a big step. I've never lived in a foreign country before, never even thought about doing so.'
'It won't be very foreign.' Laura assured her. 'They do speak English.'
'And eats things called Bubble and Squeak.'
'Ah, yes, Bubble and Squeak.' Remington murmured. 'Delightful dish.'
'It sounds about as appetizing as Toad in the Hole.'
Remington opened his mouth to respond, but Laura beat him to it. She would not have this conversation deteriorating into a discussion of English cuisine. Next they'd be debating the merits of kippers.
'You're right.' She said quickly. 'This is a big step, and you need time to think. When you reach a decision, you just let us know, ok? You'll find us at one of the hotels in London. Try the Hampton. That's where we stayed last time when we were looking for Mr. Steele, wasn't it? Now,' she said brightly, 'how about that sightseeing?'
Mildred stood up. 'If you don't mind, I think I'd prefer to go by myself. You know, to think.' She looked anxiously at Laura. 'You don't mind, do you?'
'Of course not.' Laura assured her. 'We understand completely.'
When Mildred was no more than a blotch of color among the pigeons and tourists of San Marco Piazza, Laura turned to Remington. 'Well, Johnny Todd, what you're prediction now? Will we have a secretary or not?'
'Straightway even bet, sweet'eart.'
'So what do you think?'
Remington continued to stare out the rain-splattered window. It hadn't stopped raining since they'd landed in Heathrow a week ago, and he was getting bloody tired of the dampness, the constant gloom and pervasive chill. His Italian leather shoes would never survive such treatment, and the thought of wearing goulashes gave him a headache. He touched his forehead. He could feel one coming on now.
His hand reached for the pocket that held the bottle of aspirin he'd been carrying around since their first day in London. He frowned when it came back empty. Where the devil were those bloody pills? He always made sure he had the bottle before leaving he paused in his mental temper tantrum as memory rushed in. Ah, yes, it was coming back to him now. Laura had distracted him. Something to do with a lacy red teddy, wasn't it? He smiled despite his throbbing forehead.
'I'll take that as a sign of approval.'
He glanced up. Laura was staring at him, arms crossed, one foot tapping a rhythm that mimicked the one in his head.
'Ah did I miss something?'
'Quite a lot.'
He flashed a weak smile. 'Terribly sorry, darling, but I've got this bloody awful headache.'
'You've had a headache every day this week.' She noted dryly. 'You've been popping aspirin like PEZ candy. If you don't lay off those things, you're going to have a hole the size of Crater Lake in your stomach.'
'It always takes me a while to acclimatize to the weather in London.' Remington said in way of an explanation. 'You asked me some sort of question, didn't you?'
'Yes, I did.'
'Would you mind,' his head went back to his forehead as though it needed support, 'asking it again? I'll try to concentrate this time.'
'I asked what you thought.'
'About this.' She said with a touch of exasperation, waving her arms at the space in which they were standing. 'What do you think of it?'
Remington let his eyes roam around the area indicated. 'It's rather small, don't you think?'
'Small?' Laura exclaimed. 'It's got more square footage than our office in L.A. It has five private offices, a conference room and a large reception area not to mention a very roomy kitchenette with built-in dishwasher.' She stalked over to a nearby door and flung it open. 'Just look at that office! It's enormous!'
He joined her at the door, took a quick glance around and said. 'You're absolutely right. It's far too large for us. Probably overpriced as well. This part of London usually is.' He took her elbow, steering her toward the swinging glass doors that had a morbid resemblance to the ones back home. 'No need to be fret, Laura. There are plenty of other properties to see, and we'll take a peek at each of them just as soon as we stop by the hotel, eh?'
Laura dug in her heels. 'I don't want to see any other properties. This one will suit us just fine. It's close to Scotland Yard, and there's plenty of space to grow.'
'Grow?' Remington echoed. 'We have two employees. Me and you. Why do we need an office the size of Buckingham Palace?'
'Because it's not going to be like that forever.' Laura declared. 'We've got an advertisement in the paper for a secretary, and once we're established, we can hire another investigator.' She smiled as visions of the future danced through her head. 'The world is our oyster, Mr. Steele. Just imagine the possibilities.'
'I am, and it's making my head hurt.'
Laura frowned. She didn't like having her bubble popped, and he'd been popping hers with the regularity of Big Ben for a week now. 'How long do you intend to be like this?'
'Like a very soggy wet blanket.'
'Depends on how long it's going to rain.'
'This is no time for flippant replies, Mr. Steele.' Laura gritted. 'I want to know what's gotten into you. I want to know why you've had a headache ever since we landed in England, and don't give me all that jazz about the climate. I want to know what's wrong with you?'
Remington dropped her elbow as though it were the proverbial hot potato and returned to the window without saying a word. Laura's question echoed through his head, drowning out the painful throb that had gotten there before her. What was wrong with him, he wondered as he watched a man with a large, black umbrella struggle to get inside a cab. It was unlike him to be so pessimistic, but who could blame him? He was back in the city that had produced Harry.
'It's London.' He said, his voice sounding wooden even to his ears. What had become of his silver tongue? Turned to lead, obviously.
'I don't understand.' Laura said, joining at the window. 'What's London got to do with it?'
'I don't particularly care for the place despite Berkeley Square and its blasted nightingale.'
'But this is where you grew up ' she stopped as though understanding had finally dawned. 'That's it, isn't it?' When he made no effort to affirm or deny, she continued. 'Why didn't you say something? We could have relocated somewhere else.'
He glanced down at her, his eyes holding a world weariness that tugged at her heart. 'Where do you suggest, my dear? Paris? Venice? Or should we try our luck at St. Moritz? No,' he said, turning back to the window, 'you chose the most logical place. It's just going to take a while for me to adjust.'
'Remington ' Her hand touched his arm.
He struggled not to jerk it away, to react as he had when he was a youth of fourteen. This was Laura, he reminded himself, forcing his arm to relax beneath her fingers. This was the woman he loved. They'd been through heaven and hell together. There was no need to retreat, to hide inside the fortress he had so painstakingly built all those years ago. If only they could go back to L.A., to sunshine and warm, pacific breezes, to better memories than the ones he now fought against.
'Mildred was right.' He said abruptly, his mouth kicking up at one side. 'There is something wrong with the gray matter between my ears.'
Laura's brows came down over her nose. 'If you're going to call yourself a cheap crook again, I'll I'll belt you.'
'Why shouldn't I call myself that?' He demanded, suddenly turning and taking her by the shoulders. 'It's true, isn't it? This whole thing is my fault. If I hadn't come up with that hare-brained scheme to marry a hooker, we wouldn't be here right now. If I hadn't act like the cut rate con man I am, we'd still be in L.A.'
To his surprise she smiled. He'd been expecting a right hook.
'If you hadn't been a cut rate con man, we would have never met.'
Remington felt all the frustration, all the anger seeped out of him. How could he argue with a statement like that? She knew exactly how to burst his bubble of self-pity.
He gazed down at her. 'Ah, Laura, I don't deserve you.'
'It'll be ok.' She told him. 'You'll see. I promise. We'll make so many good memories over here that they'll replace all the bad ones.' She paused, her inquisitive brown eyes studying him closely. 'Are they really so bad?'
'Yes. They are.'
'Would it help to talk about them?'
'No.' He said before abruptly switching gears and flashing a cheery grin. 'Well, darling, shall we go and tell the agent we'll take the place?' He glanced around the office, his expression more interested than before. 'It'll need to be repainted, of course. That shade of orange is ghastly. Makes me feel like Peter Pumpkin Eater.' He squinted at the walls in question. 'Navy blue, I think. Yes, definitely navy blue. It'll set off my pictures splendidly.'
'Yes, pictures.' He confirmed. 'I shall have to give Mildred specific instructions on how to pack them. Don't want the glass broken to bits. I spent a small fortune on those frames.'
'I'm sure Casablanca and the others will manage to get over here without much damage.'
He stared at her. 'No, not the movie prints. I'm talking about the photos on the wall of my office.'
Laura suddenly discovered something very interesting on the street below. 'Oh. Those. They're rather out of date, don't you think? You ought to have new ones taken.'
Remington's brows shot upwards. Was Laura actually encouraging him to have more pictures of himself taken? After the way she'd disparaged his wall of fame for being narcissistic? Something was wrong. He could feel it. He could also see it. When had Laura ever stood at a window like a kid at a candy store, her face practically plastered to the glass? She was avoiding him.
'Do you know something about those pictures that I don't?'
Her head didn't move. 'I'm surprised you didn't notice when you stopped by under the name of Vincent Parry.'
There was a long silence before she said. 'They're gone.'
'Gone?' He echoed. 'Gone where?'
'Into the trash can and then to the Los Angeles dump.'
'How did they get from the wall to the trash can?' He asked as calmly as he could. 'Was there an earthquake while I was kicking my heels between those two INS agents?'
'In a manner of speaking, yes.'
A tremor of foreboding shot up his spine. 'Laura, what did you do?'
There was another long silence and then she turned abruptly, her chin going up into the air. 'Well, if you're going to badger me about it, I'll tell you.' The chin went a little higher. 'I took your pictures down and threw them in the trash. It was most satisfying, liberating even.'
'Satisfying? Liberating?' His head pounded as he struggled to control his temper. 'Laura, we're not talking about burning bras here. We're talking about my photo collection. Why in bloody hell would you throw them away?'
'Because I was angry and you were gone and there didn't seem to be much reason to keep them. They were annoying.'
He gaped at her, momentarily speechless.
'Well, aren't you going to say anything?' She demanded when he'd remained silent for a good five minutes. 'Aren't you angry?'
'I'm furious.' He admitted. 'It took me a great deal of time and effort to collect all those photos. Some were priceless. How will I ever replace the one of me with Veronica Kirk? She died last year.' He abruptly turned away from her, shoving his hands into his pockets as though to keep them from encircling her throat. She waited and eventually it paid off. There was a sigh and then he was facing her once again, his expression rueful. 'But I can understand your anger. If I'd been able to get off that plane, I would have gone to your loft and destroyed every hat I could have gotten my hands on.'
The defiant tilt of Laura's chin dropped, and she rubbed her arms as though suddenly chilled. 'Anger makes us do stupid things, doesn't it?' She looked at him, and he could see the regret in her eyes. 'Things we feel terrible about afterwards.'
That was a good enough apology for him, and he took her into his arms. She was tense at first as though not sure what to do and then she melted against him. He pulled her close, resting his cheek against her hair.
'I would have eventually replaced them.' He told her. 'They were out of date.'
'With photos of me and you. It's just not me anymore. It's us. Actually,' he murmured, tilting her chin upwards so he could look down into her eyes, 'I think I'd prefer a wall of just you. In pastels, I think.'
Laura's brow lifted. 'Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting, Mr. Steele?'
'And what would that be, Mrs. Steele?'
'You can't have nude portraits of your wife on the office wall.'
He tilted his head to one side as though in thought. 'No, I don't suppose I can. Pity. I would have enjoyed it immensely.' His eyes went to her lips. 'But there's nothing stopping me from having a private collection, eh? What about it, Laura? Would you be willing to assist a struggling artist?'
'Have you got any pastels on you?'
'I'll go out and purchase some immediately.'
She slid her arms around his neck, her fingers diving into the lush darkness of his hair. 'I've always believed in supporting the arts.'
Their lips met, clung and met again. Since there was no furniture in the office, Remington lifted Laura and set her on the edge of the windowsill, his hand shoving up her skirt so he could rest between her thighs as they continued their kiss. Never mind that those in the street below might wonder at the reason a woman's back was pressed so ardently against the window above. They'd soon get used to the sights and sounds coming from Remington Steele Investigations.
'Oh, I say, pardon me!' A voice said from the doorway. 'I just came up to see if you'd made a decision on the office. I didn't mean to...ah interrupt. I'll just come back later, what? Will fifteen minutes be enough time to ' the voice searched for a polite word to describe their activity, 'decide?'
'That won't be necessary, Mr. Fox.' Remington said cheerfully, turning to face the agent. 'Our decision has been made. We'll take it.'
'Yes. It's got nice sturdy windowsills.' He patted the object in question. 'Mrs. Steele and I never sign a lease without first testing out the windowsills. In our line of business, one never knows when one will be dashing out a window. Best to test them out and make sure they're up to the challenge. What do you think, Laura? Will they pass?'
'Ah yes.' Laura agreed. 'They're very durable.'
'There you are, Mr. Fox. It's passed the test.' Remington said, rubbing his hands together. 'Now where's that contract?'
'I've I've got it right here.' Mr. Fox said a little breathlessly as he rifled through his briefcase. The man was obviously flustered. No doubt he was used to a more conventional sort of client.
Remington peered over the man's shoulder. 'You wouldn't happen to have any aspirins in there, would you? I've got a devil of a headache.'
Mr. Fox paused in his rifling and glanced up. 'As a matter of fact, I do. Never leave home without them. The rain, you know. Plays hell with my sinuses.'
A wide grin burst across Remington's face. 'I know the feeling, Mr. Fox. Blasted low pressure.'
Mildred stood on the sidewalk outside her hotel and tried for the fourth time to flag down a taxi. It whizzed by her, sending a plume of water into the air that drenched her from the knees down. She would have thrown her umbrella after the driver like a Zulu war spear if she hadn't needed the darn thing to keep the rain from finishing the job the taxi had started. What had ever induced her to leave sunny L.A. for this soggy island who called French fries chips and chips crisps?
You know the answer to that one, Krebs. You're a sucker for those two kids of yours. They had her wrapped around their little fingers. Whatever they asked her to do she would do it. Just like a well-trained St. Bernard. Her sense of loyalty would not allow her to say 'no', not when they so obviously needed her. Who else would guard the office while they were off playing Nick and Nora? Someone had to be sensible.
Besides what was left in L.A. except a house, a bowling league and a nephew with questionable colleagues? Without the kids she didn't even have a job. Oh, sure, she could probably go back to Uncle Sam, but after tasting life and finding it sweet how could she go back to tax collecting? She couldn't, and she knew it. That's why she was standing on a rainy corner in London, drenched up to the knees and wondering what the hell 'bangers' were. The street vendor across the road was doing a brisk business in them despite the rain.
In the distance another taxi was approaching. She debated the wisdom of trying one last time before going in search for what the British called 'the tube'. Deciding that 'the tube' sounded even more frightening than 'bangers', she stepped into the road and shook her umbrella at the oncoming black sedan. To her surprise, it stopped.
'Where to, Missus?'
Mildred pulled a newspaper from under her raincoat, leaned over the seat and pointed to a circled advertisement. 'You know where that is?'
The driver squinted at the paper and then exclaimed. 'Blimey, not another one!'
'Another what?' Mildred asked.
'You're the fourth bird today that I've driven to this joint. If you don't mind me asking, Missus, what's so bloody special about Remington Steele Investigations?'
'You've never heard of them?'
'They're just the most famous detective agency in Los Angeles.' Mildred said with considerable pride. 'They've got quite a reputation in London too. They solved that case of the modern day Jack the Ripper a couple years back. And if it hadn't been for them the Earl of Claridge would have been bumped off by a gang of disgruntled miners.'
'You seem to know an awful lot about this joint.'
'I ought to.' Mildred declared. 'I'm their secretary.'
'That so?' The driver said, merging into traffic. Mildred resisted the urge to scream. It would take her a while to get used to this driving on the left side of the road. 'Then how come that advertisement is requesting applicants for the post of secretary?'
Mildred frowned. She'd been wondering that herself, but she wasn't about to share her insecurities with a cabbie. It's not like he was Dear Abby or Joe, the local bartender. 'Because I'm being promoted to investigator.'
That seemed to satisfy him and the rest of the trip was spent in silence. Nevertheless, Mildred breathed a sigh of relief when he let her off at a large, five story stone building. Quite a change from their building in L.A., she thought as she entered through a pair of large glass doors opening onto a high-ceilinged, marble-floored lobby. Less modern but infinitely more posh. Just the sort of place an Earl would feel comfortable unloading his secrets.
Mildred closed her umbrella, shook off the excess water and joined the other people headed for the elevators. She wondered briefly how she'd locate the office she was looking for, but soon forgot her worries when she stepped onto the fifth floor and saw, or rather heard, a terrific commotion. It was coming from the far end of a burgundy-carpeted hallway and seemed to originate from a pair of burly men in coveralls carrying a gray, leather sofa.
She approached with caution.
'Come on, mate,' the larger of the two was saying, 'we've got orders to deliver this 'ere chesterfield to a Mr. Remington Steele. It's marked urgent. We can't have 'is Lordship 'aving 'is crumpets sitting on the floor, can we?'
'You're not coming through these doors until I'm finished.' A man on the other side of the swinging glass doors retorted. 'I'm already behind schedule thanks to that mob behind me, and I've a door post in Chelsea in half an hour.'
'I don't care tuppence for your door post.' The delivery man declared. 'I've got me orders. Now stand aside, mate, or you're going to get a chesterfield right up your hooter.'
The delivery man and his partner hoisted the sofa like a battering ram. The sign painter, who has just finished putting the 'M' in Remington, held his ground. A siege of epic proportions was about to begin.
'You know,' Mildred said, working her way between the sofa and the door, 'if you turned that sofa over onto its side, I'm sure it'll fit right through the half of the door this gentleman isn't working on.'
'Who the bloody 'ell are you?' The delivery man demanded.
Mildred smiled. 'Oh, just a concerned bystander.'
'Well, I don't need no bystander telling me 'ow to do me job '
'Oi, Tom,' his partner interrupted, 'the old bird's right. It'll slip through as smooth as silk, it will. Come on. Shut your gob and give me a 'and. We've got another five sofas to deliver before we can 'ave our lunch.'
Tom didn't have much choice in the matter for his partner was already shoving the sofa through the door. Once across the threshold, however, Tom quickly regained his position of authority, calling out, 'Where you want the chesterfield?'
Several heads turned but no one offered a suggestion. Mildred, who had slipped in behind the sofa, eyed the group. So this was her competition. It consisted of three very young women in mini-skirts and three very old women in herringbone tweed. Was this it? After her chat with the cabbie, she'd been expecting standing room only. It was a tight fit all right, but the close quarters came from various tradesmen and their equipment, not potential secretaries.
Tom was getting impatient and zeroed in on a young woman sitting on a desk, swinging her feet like a school girl. Her hair was an audacious shade of orange. Rather like a creamsicle, Mildred thought.
'Ere.' He said. 'Where you want it, dearie?'
'Don't ask me.' She replied, continuing to swing her feet. 'I don't work here.'
'Right.' Tom muttered before turning to his partner. 'Let 'er drop, Davy.'
The sofa thumped to the floor and Tom and his partner filed out.
Mildred stared disapprovingly at the sofa and then at the young woman. Then she let her eyes take in the rest of the chaos, the noisy, disorderly workers, the bits and pieces of furniture scattered here and there, the phone wires sticking out of the walls. This would not do. It was a madhouse. It grated against every organized, efficient bone in her body. How could the boss and Mrs. Steele allow such pandemonium? As a matter of fact, where were they?
As if on cue, Remington's voice came floating through the office. 'I said navy, Mr. Beadle. That is not navy. It's azure. I can't have azure walls. This is a detective agency, not a bloody resort in Cancun.'
'I assure you, Mr. Steele, when it dries, it'll be navy.'
'And I assure you, Mr. Beadle, I wasn't born yesterday. I know azure when I see it.'
'Someone order a telephone switchboard?' A voice called from the doorway. When no one answered, the voice said. 'Come on, dearies. I haven't got all day. It's nearly time for my elevenses, and my union won't allow me to work through them.'
Mildred could stand it no longer. She took charge.
'Over there.' She said with a jerk of her head toward the phone wires. 'Get busy, buster.' Then she turned to the three young women. Never mind the old ones. She didn't want a lawsuit on her hands. 'Come on, girls, we've got work to do. Grab a hold of the end of that couch. You, too, Carrots.' She said, giving the orange-haired girl a shove off the desk. 'If you do a good job, we'll think about hiring you.'
'Hey,' Carrots exclaimed, 'there was nothing in the ad about manual labor. You'll hear from the Labour Exchange Board about this.'
'Good.' Mildred said. 'I eat government officials for breakfast. Make sure they call before 10 AM.'
Laura slammed down the telephone. Bureaucrats! She was sick and tired of their red tape and endless rules and regulations. Why should getting a simple license be as difficult as getting a new kidney? It taken her nearly two hours and three calls to Inspector Lombard of Scotland Yard to expedite their permit to set up business. Now she had a roomful of applicants to interview if there were any left.
She pulled open the drawer of her desk and removed a small bottle marked 'aspirin'. Office management gave her a headache. Always had. That's why she'd had Bernice and then Mildred. Without them the every day hassles of running a business automatically fell into her lap. No use asking Remington to help. That would be a disaster waiting to happen. He was worse at paperwork than she was. Best to leave him haggling with the interior decorator. How much trouble could he get into choosing a color scheme?
Well, Holt, your headache isn't going to go away sitting here. The only way to affect a cure was to hire a new secretary. She got up and headed for the door but stopped with her hand on the knob. That's odd, she thought, listening. There was no noise, no commotion. She frowned. If those damn workers were taking a tea break again, she'd she'd throw their bloody teapot at them.
'Did you hear that?' Remington asked, cocking his head to one side.
'Hear what, Mr. Steele?' Beadle replied, looking at him over a small mountain of color swatches. 'I don't hear anything.'
'Brilliant observation, Beadle.' Remington noted. 'It's as quiet as a graveyard at midnight. You don't suppose they all went on strike, do you?'
'Oh, no, Mr. Steele, they would have made you aware of their demands first.'
'Glad to hear it. I'd hate to think they'd just pop off without giving a chap warning. All the same I'd better take a look.' Remington headed for the door, grimacing as he passed the azure wall. 'Get that fixed, Beadle.'
'But, Mr. Steele '
'It's been drying for an hour now, and it's still azure. Get it fixed.'
He opened the door and stepped into the reception area just as Laura came storming out of her own office. They would have collided if the sight of the once chaotic office running like a well oiled machine hadn't stopped them dead in their tracks.
Painters were rolling on paint smoothly and efficiently, a telephone installer was just putting the finishing touches on a state of the art switchboard and three young women in very short skirts were seated demurely on a gray leather sofa. And in the middle of all this serenity sat Mildred Krebs, surveying her subjects with the sharp eye of a benevolent dictator.
'Mildred!' They exclaimed in unison.
'Hi'ya, kids.' Mildred called out cheerfully, waving a bright, red kettle at them. 'I'm told it's nearly time for elevenses. I have no idea what that means, but I understand it has something to do with tea so,' she wagged the kettle again, 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do.'
She disappeared into the kitchenette. Laura and Remington exchanged glances and then hurried after her.
'Mildred,' Laura said, 'what are you doing here?'
'I work here. Remember?'
'Of course, I remember.' Laura said impatiently. Mildred had obviously learned a thing or two about slipperiness from her beloved boss. 'But that was in L.A.'
'You offered me a job in London, didn't you?'
'Yes, but '
'I didn't think you'd take it.'
That one syllable held a multitude of unspoken emotion, chief among them intense hurt. Without another word, Mildred set down the kettle, turned off the burner that she'd just turned on and left the kitchenette. She hoped she could make it out of the office with her dignity still intact. What a fool she'd been to assume the offer was still good.
In the kitchenette, Remington's gaze swung to Laura. He knew she could be blunt, but did she have to use a sledgehammer to get her point across?
'If you were going to sack the old girl, couldn't you have done it in a more civilized manner?' Remington asked. 'Over a nice plate of veal, perhaps.'
'I didn't sack her!' Laura exclaimed, clearly surprised to find herself the villain. 'She didn't let me finish!' She started toward the door. 'I'll go explain '
Remington's arm flashed out. 'Allow me. I've more experience in these things.'
'In what things?'
'In begging Mildred's forgiveness.'
Before Laura could say more, he was gone, hurrying after Mildred's retreating back. He caught up with her just as she was opening the bottom drawer of the reception desk.
'Mildred, dear,' he cried, snapping the drawer shut and draping himself on top of the desk in one fluid motion, 'it's not what you think.'
'And how do you know what I think?' Mildred demanded, reopening the drawer.
'Come now, Mildred,' Remington said, flashing his famous grin as his foot deftly tapped the drawer closed again, 'there's always been a connection between us, a certain meeting of the minds, so to speak. I had a feeling about you as soon as we met. I knew that our relationship would go beyond that of fraud agent and tax evader.'
'Uh-huh. Is that why you took off for Acapulco without telling me?'
'Laura needed me. I had to go.'
'Did you have to sock me in the jaw and tie me up as well?'
'You were being unreasonable.'
'I'll show you unreasonable.' Mildred declared, wretching open the drawer and removing her purse. He barely had time to move his foot before she was banging it shut again. 'All these years of working for you, covering for you, believing in you and as soon as my back's turned, you run out and get yourself a new secretary. Off with the old, on with the new. Is there no decency left in the world?' She turned to go and ran straight into Laura. Here was a formidable roadblock indeed. Nevertheless, she lifted her chin and said, 'If you'll excuse me, I have a flight to catch.'
'You're not going anywhere.' Laura said.
'I most certainly am.'
Laura had had enough. 'Look, Mildred, we need you. I think that was pretty obvious when you walked through the door just now. I solve mysteries. I don't manage offices. I'm sorry if my response just now upset you. I wasn't,' she shot a quick look at Remington, 'sacking you or anything. I was just surprised to see you here. I'd given up hope that you'd actually leave L.A. and join us in exile. It was asking a lot.'
Mildred's soft heart latched onto one word. Exile. It sounded so forlorn, so friendless. They needed more than each other in this strange new land. They needed a little piece of home. They needed her.
'I offered you a job in Venice,' Laura continued, 'and that offer still stands. I sure wish you'd take it, Mildred, because if I have to spend one more minute on a telephone with the British Home Office, I'm going to buy a roll of red tape and strangle every government bureaucrat in the United Kingdom. So what do you say? Will you stay?'
There was a tense silence as they waited for Mildred's verdict.
'Well,' she said, 'when you put it like that, I guess I'd better stay.'
'That's the spirit!' Remington said, his own spirits reviving. He suddenly felt almost jolly again. 'It was that word exile, wasn't it? I could see it in your face as soon as Laura said it. Your imagination was stirred, intrigued even. And why shouldn't it be? Some of the world's greats were exiles. Dante, Chopin, El Cid ' He paused as a look of remembered delight spread across his face. 'Ah, yes, El Cid, Charlton Heston, Sophie Loren, Allied Artists, 1961. Excellent movie, simply excellent.'
'On one condition.'
His delight faded. Why did women always have a condition?
'Name it.' Laura said.
Obviously conditions didn't bother her, but why should they? She was a woman.
'I'm promoted to junior investigator.'
Laura hesitated. 'We'd love to promote you, Mildred. You've worked hard on your investigator's license, and you're a first class employee, but,' she glanced around the nearly empty office, 'it'll be a while before we're busy enough to need another investigator. Maybe in a few months '
'No problem.' Mildred quickly assured her. 'I'm in no hurry.' She sent a rueful glance around the office. 'It'll take me that long to get this place ship shape.'
'Well, Mr. Steele,' Laura said, turning to Remington with a smile, 'it looks like we've got ourselves a secretary.'
But Remington wasn't listening. At the mention of a condition and the need for possible negotiations, he had allowed his attention to wonder, and it was now firmly fixed on the gray, leather sofa.
'There's something oddly familiar about those three.' He murmured, tapping his cheek thoughtfully.
'What three?' Laura asked.
Laura followed the nod of his head and was surprised to find three young women seated on a gray couch that hadn't been there two hours ago. All were dressed in short skirts and tight sweaters and looked like they ought to be at a pep rally cheering on the high school hunk rather than sitting on an expensive bit of cow flesh. Who had ordered that monstrosity, she wondered with a frown as she turned to Mildred.
'Who are they?'
'They're what's left of your applicants. The three tweeds left a few minutes after I started rearranging furniture.'
'Yum-Yum!' Remington suddenly interjected.
Laura stared at him. 'What?'
'Yum-Yum.' He repeated, a wide grin spreading across his face. 'Of course, of course, how could I have forgotten? Three Little Maids From School Are We.' He slid off the desk and started re-arranging his shirt sleeves. He'd rolled them up to his elbows during his haggle with Beadle. 'You said something about elevenses, didn't you, Mildred?'
Laura rubbed her forehead. The headache was becoming worse rather than better.
'I believe he's referring to the musical by Gilbert and Sullivan.' Mildred said helpfully. 'The Mikado.'
'Universal Pictures, 1939.' Remington added, frowning. He had found an azure blotch on his cuff. Damn Beadle and his infernal paint.
'I should have known it had to do with a movie.' Laura sighed before taking up the issue of the three women. 'Why are these three still here when everyone else is gone?'
Mildred suddenly looked uncomfortable. 'I promised them a job.'
'A job?' Laura echoed. 'As what?'
'They're very good at moving furniture.'
'We're a detective agency, not a moving firm.' Laura pointed out.
'You never know when we may need three undercover furniture movers.' Mildred offered.
'And what do we do with them until then?'
'How are they at boiling tea?' Remington asked before glancing at the women in question. He focused on the orange-haired one. 'How about it, Miss ah '
'Miss Eppington-Smythe.' She provided.
'Ah, yes, Miss Eppington-Smythe.' He repeated. 'Can you boil tea?'
'I'm British. What do you think?'
'I think you're hired.' Remington said with a smile, ignoring Laura's outraged expression. He'd deal with that later. Right now he was dying for a cup of tea. He hadn't had a decent one for five years. 'You'll find the kettle in the kitchen.'
NOTE: I love everything British. If I poke fun at Britain and its foods, etc., it's merely to convey humor and Mildred's sense of being in an environment that's unfamiliar to her. Also, I'm not sure what pictures Remington had on the wall of his office in L.A. I remembered seeing him in several so I've decided to make them pictures of him with past clients.
Welcome Home, Harry
'As you can see, Mr. Steele, there's an excellent view of the square.' Mr. Fox said, waving a hand at the bank of windows gracing one side of the living room. 'These are some of the oldest and finest trees in central London. They were planted by Edward Bouverie in 1789. And if you look carefully, you can just see the fountain by Alexander Munro.'
Remington glanced out the windows indicated. 'Mm, yes, it's an excellent view of the nymph's elbow. Quite realistic.'
'And it has all the modern conveniences without sacrificing any of the old world charm. I'm sure you and Mrs. Steele would be very happy here. Berkeley Square is a highly desirable location, and what a spot of luck that it came available when it did. The owner is very eager to sell and has priced the flat to move. Let's see, I have the figure right here.' There was a rustling of paper and then Mr. Fox named a dollar amount that had Remington's eyebrows shooting upwards. 'Very reasonable, very reasonable, indeed. At that price it won't be on the market long. I had an oil sheik looking at it just the other day.'
'I suspect he couldn't fit his harem inside.' Remington murmured, letting his eyes roam around the room. 'It's rather small, isn't it?'
Mr. Fox blinked. 'It's a city, Mr. Steele. Space is limited. I'm sure you'll find 107 square meters more than adequate, especially with all the improvements and conveniences, but if you'd prefer something larger, there's a delightful country house in Hampshire I could show you. It's only an hour drive. Very doable.'
'I think it's best to keep Mrs. Steele as close to London as possible until she gets used to driving on the left-hand side. We wouldn't want any unnecessary causalities.' Particularly his, he thought, prowling over to the marbled fireplace. 'Perhaps if I just had a look around '
'By all means, have a look.' Mr. Fox urged, heading for the door. 'I'll just pop downstairs and make a phone call. I should be back in,' he consulted his watch, 'about twenty minutes. Will that be sufficient?'
'More than sufficient. Thank you.'
You've gone dotty, old man, Remington told himself as soon as the door closed behind the agent. Laura had said to find something reasonable, and here he was contemplating a residence in one of the most expensive, exclusive neighborhoods in London. When she found out that he'd chosen Berkeley Square because of a 1933 movie by that name starring Leslie Howard, she'd have him committed. Best to let her believe it was the nightingale that influenced him. She may be able to see the romance in that.
He trod the short distance from living room to kitchen and stood surveying what he considered the most important room in the house. It was surprisingly roomy for a city apartment, more wide than narrow with an acceptable amount of counter space. He'd have no difficulty cooking gourmet meals in here. There was even a double oven built into the wall and a wine rack under the counter. Fully stocked! Of course, it was probably too much to hope that the wine came with the flat.
Satisfied that his culinary adventures would not suffer, he went in search of the master bedroom, which in recent days was giving the kitchen a run for its money. After all, a Peking duck didn't hold a candle to Laura in a red teddy.
He found the room without much trouble and stood on the threshold, rocking back and forth on his heels and frowning. It was smaller than he would have liked, hardly big enough for a King-sized bed, and the closets he opened a paneled mahogany door, giving the space a dismissive glance would never hold his wardrobe. God only knew where they'd put Laura's hats.
Still, he told himself, wandering over to the window, it offered another excellent view. He could see a shoulder as well as an elbow. And it was unlikely that he'd find a flat with a larger floor plan in this part of the city. As Mr. Fox had noted, it was London after all, and space was limited. It wasn't much different than New York or Chicago in that respect. Perhaps once the agency was established, they could see about that county house in Hampshire. He rather fancied himself as a country gentleman.
He was just picturing himself tramping about the gorse bushes with perhaps a setter or two at his heels, pipe clenched between his teeth a pipe? Yes, definitely a pipe when a voice from the doorway rudely interrupted his daydream.
'Welcome home, Harry.'
He whirled around. Daniel, smiling in his carelessly charming sort of way, stood on the threshold, looking about himself with interest. He held a black cane tucked beneath one arm.
'Daniel.' Remington said somewhat stupidly. 'How did you get here?'
'By taxi, of course.' Daniel replied. 'Can't stand the tube. All those people pressed up together like a lot of cattle.' He gave a delicate shudder. 'It's such a populist concept.'
A smile broke across Remington's face as the surprise at seeing his old friend began to fade. 'You never cease to amaze me, old man. How in bloody hell did you find me?'
'My usual way.'
'I didn't know the hotel personnel of London were acquainted with my whereabouts.'
'They weren't.' Daniel informed him. 'But they gave me a newspaper with my breakfast this morning, and I actually read it. I know, I know, it's a dangerous activity, reading a newspaper, but every once in a while I like to take a walk on the wild side, and in this particular instance, it paid off. I learned that Remington Steele Investigations was in the market for a secretary.'
Remington frowned. 'That should have been taken out weeks ago. No wonder we've had females of various sorts and sizes flinging themselves at the door like cats at a fishmonger's. Shoddy bit of work that. I'll have to phone up the Times immediately.'
'So I took careful note of the address,' Daniel continued, not at all concerned about cats or fishmongers, 'and popped around to see what was on the cards. The young woman at the front desk was very obliging. She told me Mr. Steele was out and then proceeded to tell me in great detail where he was and what he was doing. A very forthcoming girl, I must say. Not a disingenuous bone in her body. Whatever did you find her?'
'A girl guide troop apparently.' Remington muttered.
Daniel smiled and gave his cane a twirl. 'What happened to the older lady? Marigold, wasn't it?'
'Mildred.' Remington corrected.
'Ah, yes, Millie.' Daniel breathed as though remembering something delightful. 'Such a faraway look, as if she'd always lived in a garden. No wonder I thought her name was Marigold.'
'You're thinking of Eliza Doolittle.'
'No, I don't think so. I don't know any women by that name.'
Remington resisted the urge to provide him with the correct movie reference. It would be useless to do so since Daniel had never shared his love for the cinema. Perhaps he hadn't needed the escape of Hollywood fantasy to drown out the realities of life as Remington had.
'Mildred is hardly flower-like. Nor is there anything ethereal about her appearance. She's very solid and very real, like a pair of othropedic shoes. A virtual Rock of Gibraltar. You must be thinking of someone else.'
'Perhaps.' Daniel agreed easily. 'But we regress, my boy. You didn't answer my question. Why is she not manning your front desk?'
'Because she and Laura are in L.A., packing up shop, so to speak.'
Remington's voice held an edge to it. He hadn't liked being left behind like a dog tied to a street sign while its owner went inside the butcher's shop.
If Daniel heard the edge he didn't acknowledge it. Instead he said. 'So it's true then. Remington Steele Investigations is moving to London. How extraordinary.'
'There's nothing extraordinary about it at all.' Remington retorted. 'I was deported, and according to some pointy-nosed git in the State Department, once deported, always deported. We have no choice but to move operations.'
'How extraordinary.' Daniel repeated with something bordering on merriment. 'All that angst over a proposal that wasn't needed after all. That's rich, I must say.' He laughed, deep, rich, baritone laughter that grated across Remington's frayed nerves. His head began to ache again. 'How deliciously ironic. What a farce. You stuck your neck in the marriage noose for nothing.'
'It wasn't for nothing.' Remington said tightly. 'I happen to love Laura.'
'Oh, yes, I'd forgotten that.' Daniel cast an amused eye around the room. 'And now you're house-hunting. How domesticated. Are you going to buy the place and carry the bride across the threshold in the time honored tradition?'
This time Daniel noted the edge. He'd pushed the boy too far. 'Now, Harry, don't cut up stiff on me. I didn't mean to make light of your attachment to Laura. She's an extraordinary young woman. And, to be honest, I think it's wonderful that you've found a woman you want to spend your life with. It's a rare thing, a rare thing indeed.' He murmured, his expression dimming as though a cloud of memory had passed across it. 'Please forgive, my boy, I'm afraid I'm just an old cynic. Don't let me ruin your happiness.'
Then,' Daniel said with renewed joie de vivre, 'I recommend you buy this place without delay. It simply reeks of savior faire. History and culture seeps from its very pores.' He paused, taking a deep breath as though sucking in all that haut culture, and then added, almost absently. 'And there's an excellent little jewelry shop on the other side of the square that has the most exquisite pearl and diamond necklace on display. What more could you ask for?'
'Several pounds off the selling price?'
Daniel's smile turned positively oily. 'Come now, Harry, surely you know there are ways of sweetening the deal.'
'What exactly do you have in mind?' Remington asked, intrigued despite the voice in his head that warned him against contemplating anything Daniel might suggest. Funny how that voice sounded a great deal like Laura's.
'Join me for dinner this evening and I'll tell you.'
Laura put the last file into the box and then leaned backwards, hands on hips, stretching her back. It had been stiff and sore for weeks now, but what could one expect after packing two apartments and one office? Mildred had helped, but she had her own packing to do. Now, finally, after nearly two months, they could see the light at the end of the tunnel. They were on the verge of saying 'so long' to L.A. and 'allo' to London.
Straightening up, she sent a lingering glance around the office that had been hers since the day she'd set up business. She had never really liked this cubbyhole, had even resented it at times, especially once the large, spacious corner office had become occupied with her so-called 'boss'. One more than one occasion she found herself wondering why he resided in luxury while she slaved away in a closet.
Well, Laura told herself, tossing a stapler and a handful of pens and pencils into the box, those days of silent envy were over. In London she had an office just as grand, just as luxurious as Remington's. Her lips twitched. And her walls weren't azure. They were a restful shade of moss green. How that little detail galled her husband. His obvious envy and continual frustration over the state of his walls had been quite therapeutic, liberating even. It was right up there with burning one's bra.
She picked up the box and headed for the door, pausing on the threshold to give her cubbyhole one last look. Unexpected moisture welled in her eyes, and even the famous Holt determination couldn't stop it from becoming a tear and rolling down her cheek. She hastily brushed it aside. This was no time to cry. The sight of a tear would have Mildred fluttering and clucking like a mother hen.
Mother. That word, which most people loved and revered, brought a terrific frown to Laura's face as she remembered how she'd spent the previous evening. She'd put it off as long as possible, but with her plane to London scheduled to take off in two days, she'd committed hara-kiri with a phone. She'd called her mother.
Abigail Holt's reaction to the news that her daughter was moving to London would have rivaled any Shakespearean tragedy. Or comedy, Laura amended with a cynical twist of her lips. There had been a lot of dire predictions, a lot of rambling speeches, which might have been English at one time, and heavy doses of unrestrained angst. Not even the news that her youngest daughter had finally married could console her. On the contrary, Remington had become what the spot was to Lady Macbeth, an irreconcilable torment. He was the one ripping her darling child from her maternal bosom.
It was well past midnight before Laura was able to get her mother off the phone, and it hadn't ended there. At six o'clock that morning, she'd been awaked by a terrible hammering on her door. The peephole revealed the determined face of her sister. The general had obviously sent in fresh troops.
Thankfully, it was a Saturday morning and Frances was in possession of all three kids since Donald had conveniently avoided combat duty by going golfing. Conscientious objector, Laura had silently called her brother-in-law as his family had filed past her and taken up residence in her living room among the boxes and packing tape.
Fortunately, all three children provided enough questions and distractions to keep their mother from getting the full wind in her sails, and by eight, the whole troop had filed back out so they could get Dan to a soccer game by nine.
And that's what comes of deporting troublesome Irishmen, Laura had told herself as she'd driven to the office. She should have just married the creep like he and Mildred had wanted. Then none of this would have happened. No packing, no moody husband, no nattering mother, no aggravation. But how was she to know that deportation held consequences? She wasn't an immigration lawyer.
'You ok, hon?' Mildred's voice broke across her thoughts like a lightening bolt. 'You've been scowling at that office for ten minutes now.'
Laura turned, pasting on a bright smile. She hoped it didn't look like the Joker's. 'Just making sure I got everything. How's Mr. Steele's office coming along?'
'All done.' Mildred declared.
'There wasn't much to pack. He never was one for office supplies. I found an old newspaper stuffed beneath a phone book, a tie pin and half a roll of breath mints. Spearmint. I put them on the desk for you.'
'Thanks, but I think I can do without the newspaper and mints.' Laura said, carrying her box over to where the others were grouped into what looked like a lopsided cardboard igloo. 'What about his pictures? Any left?'
'Five survived the massacre.'
Laura brightened. 'Where are they?'
Mildred jerked her head in the direction of the desk. 'With the other stuff. Do you want me to wrap them for you?'
'No,' Laura said, shaking her head as she began sorting through the frames, 'I'll pack them in my suitcase. Safer that way.' A sudden look of triumph lit up her face as she pulled one frame from the others. 'Well, what do you know? Veronica Kirk survived. Mr. Steele was dead wrong, Mildred. Miracles do happen.'
'He'll be thrilled. Let's call him and tell him.'
Mildred reached for the phone.
Laura's voice sounded like a bullet shot. Mildred's hand stopped in mid-air.
'I'd rather surprise him.'
And she knew just how she'd do it, Laura mused, tucking the frames into the over-sized tote bag she'd brought for items too delicate or too prized to trust to the perils of international shipping. A slow, sensuous smile touched her lips as she mentally worked out the finer details. A bottle of wine, some soft, jazzy music, and that little red teddy he seemed so fascinated with. And ribbons. Lots and lots of ribbons. What would a surprise be without gift wrap? Nearly two months away from her husband had made her quite imaginative.
Laura jumped. 'You don't need to shout, Mildred. I'm right here.'
'Are you?' Mildred asked as though there were some doubt. 'I had the distinct impression you were somewhere else. Some place very enjoyable if that look on your face is anything to go by.'
'I was just woolgathering.'
'It must have been some wool.'
Color surged into Laura's cheeks. 'Was there something you wanted?'
Mildred was not the least bit offended by her snappish tone. She just gave Laura one of her 'knowing' look and said. 'I just wanted to let you know that the shippers will be here tomorrow to pick up the boxes.'
'Great!' Laura said with more enthusiasm than a shipper deserved. 'What about the furniture?'
'It's staying with the office. I convinced the landlord to take it. He's going to advertise the place as furnished so he can charge more rent, the old graffer.'
'Well,' Laura said, slinging the tote over her shoulder and turning to Mildred with another bright smile, 'it sounds like everything's under control. How about lunch? We'll go to that little Greek restaurant we've been meaning to try for years and never have. It'll be our going away splurge.'
Instead of the 'great idea, Mrs. Steele, I'll get my purse' that Laura had anticipated, Mildred just stared at her, another one of those 'knowing' looks on her face. Laura, who was not normally a person who squirmed, began to squirm at least inwardly. Her grandmother used to look at her like that, and it had almost always ended in a tearful confession, by Laura, of course, not her grandmother.
Just when she thought she couldn't keep the inward squirm from becoming an outright wiggle, Mildred finally spoke. 'You're taking all of this very well.'
'Taking what well?'
'This.' Mildred said, gesturing to the room around them. 'Packing. Moving. Pulling up stakes. Closing up shop. Whatever you want to call it. Most people would be feeling darn sad right now.'
'Why should I be sad?' Laura asked, hoping her voice sounded cheery rather than defensive. 'This isn't the end of Remington Steele Investigations. We'll be open for business again in a few weeks. This isn't an ending. It's a beginning.'
Mildred didn't look convinced. She got out a Kleenex and dabbed at her eyes.
'I don't know how you do it.' She said, shaking her head. 'You've been here longer than I have, it's your agency, but I'm the one imitating a leaky watering can. How can you look at that,' the tissue waved in the general direction of the red doors, 'and not feel miserable?'
Despite her resolve not to look, Laura's eyes followed Mildred's tissue, and almost instantly moisture collected in her eyes again. She quickly blinked it away. Just think of the possibilities, she reminded herself. She'd been chanting that phrase to herself for months now, ever since Mildred had dropped that INS letter in her lap to be precise, and it had sustained her. It had kept her believing in the future, and it had given her strength to drag Remington and Mildred into that future with her.
'It's how you look at things, Mildred.' She said quietly. 'You've got to think of the possibilities because they're the only things left when your world comes crashing down.'
'And that's what you've been doing all this time?' Mildred asked over her tissue. 'Thinking of the possibilities?'
Laura nodded. 'It was the best piece of advice Mr. Steele ever gave me.'
'The boss came up with that?'
'Well, actually a Greek smuggler named Markos did, but Remington was the one who passed it on to me.'
'Balderdash.' Mildred declared stoutly.
Where did that exclamation come from, Laura wondered. It sounded like something Snidely Whiplash would say as Dudley Do-Right rescued Sweet Nell from the railroad track.
'I assure you it's true.' She insisted.
'Then why has he been moodier than a mood ring ever since that INS letter turned up? He's certainly not acting like a man who's 'thinking of the possibilities'. If you're going to give it, then you ought to live it.'
There was a brief silence and then Laura said reluctantly. 'It's Harry.'
'What's Harry got to do with it?' Mildred demanded and then asked suspiciously. 'Which Harry are we talking about here?'
'Mr. Steele's Harry.' Laura elaborated. 'The name he came in with.'
'I'm not following you, hon.'
How could she explain the dark side of Mr. Steele in terms that Mildred would readily understand? Laura thought for a moment and then the answer came to her. Just explain it as Remington would.
'You've seen the movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, right?'
'Sure. Spencer Tracy, MGM, 1941.'
'Harry is Mr. Steele's Hyde. His alter ego, the part that gives him that dark undercurrent. At least that's the way I look at it.'
Mildred considered this, nodding. 'Uh-huh, I see what you mean, but that still doesn't explain why he's been prowling the office like a caged lion. Sure, he'd rather be in L.A., we all would, but he's on his home turf now. He ought to be relishing his role of Lord Protector. What gives?'
'Memories.' Laura supplied and then hurried on before Mildred could ask the logical question. 'And don't bother asking me what memories because he won't tell me.'
'Great time for Chatty Cathy to get laryngitis.'
Laura leaned back against the desk, crossing her arms across her chest. 'There's still a great deal about Mr. Steele that we don't know, Mildred.'
'Don't I know it.' Mildred muttered. 'That birth certificate was nearly my undoing.'
'What birth certificate?'
'The one I fudged.'
Now it was Laura's turn to look confused and slightly alarmed. 'Could you be more specific?'
'In order to get a marriage license in St. Moritz, I had to provide birth certificates for the bride and groom.' Mildred explained. 'And since I couldn't find one for Mr. Steele, I made a few things up. Sort of like what we did for the passport.'
'Are you telling me that our marriage isn't legal?'
Mildred looked slightly uneasy. 'If you want to split hairs, then, yes, it would have problems holding up under a cross examination by Perry Mason, but I wouldn't worry about it.' She assured her hastily. 'Somebody would have to make a federal issue out of it for it to be questioned.'
'Somebody like Keyes?'
'He'd be the kind that would.' Mildred admitted before saying with renewed optimism. 'But he'll be in L.A., and you'll be in London. He won't bother with the two of you now that you're no longer operating in his territory.'
'Don't count on it.' Laura said darkly.
'Well, if it bothers you, there's only one thing to do.' Mildred said with a simplicity that made Laura's head hurt. 'Find Mr. Steele's birth certificate.'
Laura scowled. Mildred had an annoying habit of making everything sound easy. 'That's a little difficult to do when he doesn't seem to know himself where he came from. Should I go to Ireland and look under every cabbage leaf?'
But Mildred wasn't listening. She was dabbing at her eyes again. 'It must be difficult not knowing where you come from.'
'Yes, it must be.' Laura agreed, suddenly feeling guilty for her comment about cabbage leaves. 'And being in London only reminds him of what he does know and what he knows, he doesn't like. When he was in L.A., he could pretend he's always been Remington Steele. But in London, he can't deny who he is. He's Harry.'
'Poor Mr. Steele.' Mildred murmured. 'Isn't there anything we can do?'
Laura shook her head. 'We can't help him until he opens up. Until then all we can do is help Harry live up to his own advice.'
'That I can do.' Mildred told her.
'Good.' Laura said, straightening up and shifting the tote bag to the other shoulder. The current one was almost numb. 'Now how about that lunch?'
'Sounds super.' Mildred said, tucking her tissue away as she morphed back into the efficient secretary. 'But I've got to call the office first. The landlord's supposed to repair the dishwasher today, and I want to make sure it gets done. I've been after the creep to do it for a month now.'
'Ok.' Laura said, picking up a box containing her desk lamp and other personal items. 'I'll just run this stuff down to the car.'
When she returned ten minutes later Mildred was still on the phone.
'A cat toy?' Mildred was saying. 'How did a cat toy get into the dishwasher none of us even owns a cat I don't care what Phipps says. You tell him that we're not responsible for any previous cats, and if I see a charge on our rent for this, I'll yes, that's exactly what I'll do. You're a quick learner, kid any other disasters cornflower blue, huh? Tell the boss he has my sympathies you do that now, remember, we'll be back the day after tomorrow. I'll ' She stopped. Laura was waving at her. 'Hold on I think Mrs. Steele wants to talk to you ' She handed the phone to Laura with a roll of her eyes.
'Hello? Who's this?'
'It's Miss Eppington-Smythe.'
'Good afternoon, Miss Eppington-Smythe.' Laura said, thinking they needed to seriously look into getting the girl a nickname, 'please connect me to Mr. Steele.'
It took Laura a second to realize she wasn't referring to the TV show. 'Why?'
'Out?' Laura echoed, glancing at the wall clock that was now on the desk. It would be late afternoon in London. 'He's not still at lunch, is he?'
'I wouldn't know.' Eppington-Smythe told her with a blasé attitude that put Laura's teeth on edge. 'He left around ten this morning to meet Mr. Fox, and I haven't seen him since. An old gent came in around eleven, but no Mr. Steele.'
Laura frowned. Hearing that Remington was meeting with Mr. Fox made her stomach do a sickening flop. She'd had her doubts about allowing him to choose their residence, but if she ever wanted to stop living out of a suitcase, there was no other choice. She simply didn't have the time to do it. There was the agency to get up and running. They needed cases, lots of cases, and soon. Between the move, their European escapades and the unexpected addition of another employee, whose sole purpose seemed to be boiling tea, the agency savings account was nearing a critical level.
'You wouldn't happen to know where ' She stopped in mid-sentence. 'Did you say an older gentleman?'
'He went to Berkeley Square,' the girl provided, 'and yes, he was definitely old.'
Berkeley Square! The headache she'd left back in London came roaring back. She put a hand to her forehead. Don't get distracted, Holt, she told herself, concentrate on the old guy. He had the potential of being far more dangerous than bankruptcy.
'Could you describe this old gent?'
'Oh, I don't know.' The girl said. 'I don't pay much mind to geezers, but ' she paused as though thinking hard, 'he was a dapper sort of chap, very smartly dressed, a bit too gray around the whiskers for my liking, but he talked ever so grand. He called me 'my dear' and kissed my hand before he left, told me I'd been of invaluable service.'
'And what exactly did you do to win such praise?' Laura already knew the answer, but she'd been trained to get the facts instead of making assumptions so she asked.
'I told him where he could find Mr. Steele.' When Laura didn't say anything, Eppington-Smythe went on. 'Will there be anything else, Mrs. Steele? It's about time for my tea break, and I'm right fagged.'
'Just put a note on Mr. Steele's desk telling him we'll be flying in on the 3:30 flight from Boston.'
Laura dropped the phone in the cradle.
'Something wrong, hon?' Mildred asked, seeing the dark frown on Laura's face.
'Mr. Steele is apartment hunting in Berkeley Square.'
'The Berkeley Square? The one with the nightingale?'
It was obvious that Mildred didn't share Laura's unease. She looked slightly starry-eyed. It was a song, damn it, not Clark Gable, Laura wanted to yell.
'That's the one.'
'Sounds wonderful.' Mildred breathed.
'Sounds expensive.' Laura corrected before adding with grim resignation. 'But bankruptcy is the least of my worries. There's a bigger threat looming on the horizon.'
'Daniel. He's found Mr. Steele.'
'Exactly.' Laura agreed. 'Do you think you can get us a flight out tomorrow rather than the day after?'
'How extraordinary.' Daniel murmured, leaning back in his chair, wineglass in one hand. 'Linda arrested for jewel theft. How delicious. I'm sorry I missed that.'
'I assure you it wasn't delicious at all.' Remington retorted. 'It was bloody awful. I was forced to do things that even I found beyond the limit of acceptable behavior.'
'Look on the bright side, Harry,' Daniel said, 'you've added yet another skill to your repertoire. Jail breaking is a highly specialized field. It takes a keen mind and nerves of steel. Not everyone can do it. All in all, my boy, I'm proud of you.'
Remington frowned into his wineglass. Somehow it didn't seem right for Daniel to praise such behavior. Jail breaks weren't commendable, even if they were masterpieces of ingenuity. But why should it bother him? He knew what Daniel was like. He, like the fictional Fagin, had been encouraging and honing his young friend's nefarious talents since he was fourteen.
And which character did he most closely resemble, Remington wondered, staring at the dark red liquid in his glass in much the same way as Hamlet must have stared at Yorick's skull. Oliver Twist? Hardly. No innocent, wide-eyed waif was he. Oh no, Harry had been more akin to the Artful Dodger, eager accomplice. If it hadn't been for Laura
He winced as a wave of guilt lapped around his conscience. What would she say when she found out about the sweetheart deal Daniel had gotten on the apartment? It hadn't been illegal, he assured himself. The truth had just been massaged a bit. Something about the government needing it for a sting operation, wasn't it? It was still a bit of a blur to him since Daniel had done most of the talking.
Nevertheless, he wouldn't be eager to volunteered details upon her return. Hopefully, she'd be too busy with the agency to ask him how they could afford such an exclusive address on a gumshoe's salary.
The side of his mouth kicked up in a self-depreciating smile. It'd be the first time since he'd met her that he'd actually want business to come before pleasure. Damn Daniel for leading him down the primrose path. Don't blame the old man, mate, that insidious voice said inside his head, you put your John Hancock on the dotted line. Only a few months back in London and he was already falling back into his old ways.
'Ah, Harry, it is good to have you in London again.' Daniel was saying, re-filling his wineglass from the bottle the waiter had left on the table. 'It'll be just like old times. Well, almost. You've gone and committed yourself to decency and integrity and all that other stuff that makes my skin crawl, but as long as you don't expect me to follow your example, we'll rub along together well enough.' He sighed, leaning back in his chair again, his expression wistful. 'Such a pity Linda doesn't have a streak of larceny in her heart. With her spirit, we could steal half of Europe or at least a good size Duchy.'
'I rather preferred L.A.'
'Bah. What does L.A. have that the south of France doesn't?'
'I'm not living in the south of France.' Remington pointed out. 'I'm living in London.'
Daniel waved away his observation. 'A mere technicality. If you get homesick for palm trees and sunshine, you can hop a flight to Nice. No, Harry,' Daniel told him, 'London is where you belong. It's in your blood, my boy.'
'I'll see about getting a transfusion.'
'Come now,' Daniel chided, 'is London so terrible? It's was the scene of some of our greatest triumphs.'
Could breaking and entering be called a triumph, Remington mused. At one time he had certainly thought so. It had been a damn sight better than picking pockets. Paid better too.
The question had always been in the back of his mind, but since coming to London it had forced its way into the forefront, demanding an answer. Now seemed like as good as time as any to get that answer.
'Beg your pardon?' Daniel asked, clearly bewildered.
'Why did you choose to take me under your wing?' Remington elaborated. 'There were dozens of other pickpockets more skilled than I was.'
Although he continued to smile, Remington sensed a sudden change in Daniel. The eyes that had regarded him with benign interest a moment ago where now shuttered, the lids dropping like a curtain at intermission, and the fingers resting on the tablecloth tightened ever so slightly. If his time with Laura hadn't honed his observation skills, he might not have noticed so good was Daniel's ability at concealment.
The smile deepened and he said lightly. 'You reminded me of myself at that age.'
'You were a pickpocket?'
'I've been many things, my boy.'
'It's funny.' Remington mused, studying his old friend with a thoroughness that would have made anyone else squirm uncomfortably in their seat. 'I've known you for years yet I know absolutely nothing about you, where you come from, where you've been, nothing except the time I've spent with you. Your past is as murky and mysterious as my own.'
'Men like us don't have pasts, Harry.' Daniel said quietly. 'We just have presents.'
Daniel shook his head. 'Futures are for men who have put down roots. Futures are for,' he cocked a graying eyebrow, 'men like Remington Steele. Linda gave you a future when she gave you a new name, and for that I can overlook her annoying habit of always being right. By the way, when does she fly in on her broom?'
It was the old shell game. Divert his attention by insulting Laura. Clever but it wasn't going to work. Not this time. He wanted to know about Daniel's past. At least the part about the wedding rings. Like Pandora, those two little gold bands had opened up a treasure trove of curiosity that Remington hadn't even known he possessed. He hadn't been able to completely get them out of his mind since Daniel had dropped them so casually into his hand.
He opened his mouth but whatever he was about to say was drowned out by a loud, all too familiar 'Hallllllo!' followed by a terrific yapping. It couldn't be, he thought, his head swinging toward the front of the restaurant. Good God, it was. The Honorable Lucinda Hepplewhite was charging right toward him, the Peke under one arm, the maître d', a bevy of waiters and a man in a dark gray uniform trailing her like the foam left in the wake of a battleship.
'Good Lord,' Daniel murmured, 'who is that?'
'The Honorable Lucinda Hepplewhite.' Remington told him, tossing back the last of his wine. He was going to need it.
'And why is she headed in our direction?'
'We had the somewhat dubious pleasure of making her acquaintance in Venice.'
'She can't be all that bad.' Daniel said, rapidly calculating the worth of the necklace, the bracelets on two pudgy wrists, the ear bobs and the magnificent diamond tiara sitting atop a mass of iron gray curls. 'She has more baubles than a Cartier showroom.'
'There are some things that even jewels can't improve.'
'Mr. Steele!' Lucinda cried, arriving at their table in a swirl of blue silk. 'What a surprise to see you here! I would have thought you'd be back in Los Angeles, tracking down hardened criminals. How lucky, how providential for me that you're sitting right here having a glass of wine. And Percy wanted curry this evening. Husbands never do know where to go for dinner, do they?'
'Madam,' the maître d' interrupted. 'I really must protest. Dogs are now allowed in the restaurant.'
Lucinda rounded on him. 'And why not? Dogs have to eat too, do they not?'
'Not in this restaurant.' The maître d' sniffed. 'The Health Department '
'Oh, a pox on the Health Department.' Lucinda retorted. 'My husband is a MP. Do you know what that means, young man? It means that if I tell him to, he'll make a law tomorrow allowing dogs wherever I wish. Now be a good fellow and go away.'
'I'm not interested in tomorrow, Madam,' the maître d' continued, 'I'm interested in tonight. And tonight there's a law stating that dogs are not allowed in restaurants so I must ask you to remove that creature immediately.'
Lady Hepplewhite looked ready to send another salvo across the brow but then decided against it. This dreadful man was interfering with her chat and must be gotten rid of. 'Oh, very well, if you insist. But I assure you tomorrow will be a different matter entirely.' She turned to the man in the gray uniform. 'Take Reggie out to the car, Billings.'
The Peke exchanged hands and was promptly carried off, yapping the entire way. His owner just as promptly pulled out a chair and sat down. One of the waiters, which had remained behind, promptly filled a wineglass for her. From their bottle, Remington noted irritably.
'So tell me, Mr. Steele, will you be in London long?'
'Longer than anticipated.'
'And where is that delightful wife of yours?' Lucinda sent a glance around the room as though she expected Laura to pop out from under a table. 'Is she with you tonight?'
'Laura's in Los Angeles at the moment, but she's due in the day after tomorrow.'
'I knew seeing you here was providential!' Lady Hepplewhite declared, clapping her hands together like a child playing patty-cake. 'She'll be back in time for both of you to attend my little soiree. It's this Saturday, you know.'
'Soiree?' Remington echoed. It sounded like something witches did at midnight.
'Yes, soiree.' Lucinda confirmed. 'It's just an intimate gathering, only 200 guests, but everybody who's anybody will be there so you simply must come. Everyone will be thrilled, simply thrilled, I tell you, to meet the famous detective Remington Steele. We all still remember how you saved the Earl of Claridge from those disreputable miners.'
'I'm afraid that I'll have to decline the invitation.' Remington said flashing what he hoped was an apologetic grin. 'You see, we're moving the agency to London, and it'll be some time before we'll have time to do the social rounds.'
'Moving the agency to London?' Lucinda repeated, a look of wonder lighting her horse-like face. 'Why that's wonderful! We'll be neighbors! Now, I won't take no for an answer. You simply must come.' When Remington opened his mouth to protest, she added slyly. 'There will be lots of potential clients among my guests, Mr. Steele. Earls, Viscounts, MPs, even a Duke or two, all with deep pockets and sordid secrets.'
'There you go, Harry.' Daniel said, lifting his glass as though in a salute. 'How can you possibly say no?'
Remington would have liked to do just that, but the lure of clients was irresistible. If he could present Laura with an Earl with a dead body in his closet, she might overlook what he'd spent on the flat. She may even overlook Daniel's involvement in it. For weeks now, she'd been making noises about their saving account and how they needed to economize. If she were there, he had no doubt she would jump at the chance to graze in such a fertile field even though it came with such a tiresome price tag.
'Harry?' Lucinda was saying, her gaze bouncing between the two of them. She must be practicing for Wimbledon, Remington thought sourly. 'Who is Harry?'
Daniel flashed a smile. 'Oh, just a name I gave Mr. Steele years ago.'
'Have you known Mr. Steele long?'
'It seems like forever. I'm what you call 'an old family friend'.'
'Any friend of Mr. Steele's is a friend of mine.' Lucinda declared. 'You're welcome at my soiree too, Mr '
'Colonel Reginald Frobish, late of the 10th Royal Hussars.'
He extended his hand. Lucinda took it with a girlish giggle. Remington poured some wine in his glass and down it in one gulp.
'Delighted to make your acquaintance, Colonel.'
'Such a beautiful bracelet.' Daniel murmured, brushing his lips against the back of her hand. 'Topaz?'
'Yellow diamonds.' Lucinda corrected. 'Topaz is so common.'
'I couldn't agree more. Anyone can buy them these days.'
'Are jewels a particular interest of yours, Colonel?'
'You could say that.'
Lucinda turned to Remington. 'You must bring the Colonel with you. I insist. The ladies in my garden club will simply adore him, and Lady Brindle has a magnificent collection of sapphires that I'm sure she'll be more than happy to show the Colonel. She's been all over the world collecting them, you know. It's her hobby. She was a bit of a gemologist before she married the Viscount.'
'I'm sure the Colonel has another plans.'
Daniel tilted his head to one side as though in thought. 'No, no, I'm perfectly free.'
'How fortunate.' Remington said, sending Daniel a withering glance. 'But it will depend on my wife, you understand. She's always been susceptible to jet lag, poor dear. Can't get out of bed for days after a long flight.'
'I'm sure she'll be fine.' The Honorable Lucinda said, standing up. 'We women are very resilient.'
'I was afraid of that.'
She opened a beaded purse and extracted a small white card, which she pressed into Remington's hand. 'There's my address. You'll have no trouble finding it. Cocktails are sharp at seven with dinner at eight. I'll see you then, Mr. Steele, Colonel.'
And with that she turned and steamed across the dining room like the battleship she resembled. The only thing missing was the 41 gun salute.
'Bloody hell.' Remington muttered, staring at the card.
'Trouble?' Daniel asked.
'She lives in Berkeley Square. It would appear that we really are neighbors.'
'Welcome home, Harry.' Daniel said, his chuckle becoming a deep, rumbling laugh. 'Welcome home.'
The door bell rang.
'That'll be Daniel.' Remington said, smoothing the edges of his bow tie into place.
'Don't you mean Colonel Frobish?' Laura asked, smiling sweetly at her husband in the vanity mirror they were both sharing. 'You know, I'm still waiting to hear all about those adventures the two of you had while in the 10th Royal Hussars. You were a lieutenant, weren't you? I'm sure you must have looked how would Miss Eppington-Smythe put it? dishy?...in your uniform. Care you model your braid for me someday?'
Remington frowned at her. 'I see you're set on being difficult this evening.'
'Put it down as the results of jetlag.' Laura said, her voice still dripping sugar. 'You know how susceptible I am to it. Can't get out of bed for days.'
'Laura ' Remington drawled, 'I explained why '
The door bell rang again.
'You'd better get that.' Laura said, leaning forward to apply mascara. 'Colonels rarely like to wait.'
Remington sent her a glance that clearly said he didn't appreciate her sarcasm before turning and leaving the bedroom. A few moments later, she heard him opening the door and welcoming Daniel inside. Just like the spider to the fly, Laura thought sourly, except in this case, the fly was welcoming the spider. Ok, ok, Remington wasn't exactly an innocent waif, she told herself, tossing down the mascara and getting to her feet. He was an adult, and he didn't need her standing guard like the beefeaters at the Tower of London.
She grabbed the emerald green evening gown lying across the bed. A soiree at Lady Hepplewhite was not how she had envisioned spending her first weekend back in England, but, as Remington had guessed, she didn't want to pass up the opportunity to met potential clients. They needed all the business they could get, especially now that they had an address in Berkeley Square to support.
The gown whispered over her head and down her body. She smoothed it over her hips and then looked at herself in the mirror. You'll pass, she thought, turning this way and that, admiring the green shimmer. She ignored the dark circles beneath her eyes. There was no way she was going to admit that Remington might have been right about the jet lag. She felt fine, perfectly fine.
The gown in place, she reseated herself before the mirror and grabbed a handful of hair, twisting it atop her head and shoving bobby pins into it with the force of a witch doctor stabbing a voodoo doll. Berkeley Square, indeed. And he had some nerve to claim he'd bought it because of that blasted nightingale. To borrow a word from Mildred ~ balderdash! It was a well established fact that Mr. Steele like putting on the dog, and this place, she cast a glance around the bedroom, must be in the Great Dane category.
Still she couldn't deny that it was a nice flat. With its wood floors, Tuscan tile and modern upgrades, it was hard to believe that he'd gotten it for such a reasonable price. When pressed, he had muttered something about it being discounted because the former owner had been in a hurry to sell. Perhaps but it still seemed too good to be true, especially when it came on the heels of Daniel's reappearance. It was fishy, pure cod if you asked her, but getting to the bottom of it would take more investigation than she had time for so she chose to believe him for now.
She jumped. When had Remington re-entered the room? He was standing behind her, his image looming dark and mysterious in the mirror. Damn, he looked good in a tux.
'What?' She asked irritably.
'It's ten to seven. Your carriage awaits.'
Without a word she stood up. As she made to walk past him, his hands flashed out, stopping her. She looked up at him inquiringly. He stared down at her, his eyes searching, a small frown on his face.
'You look tired.'
She shrugged. 'Packing up two apartments and one business tends to do that to a person.'
'We didn't have to go tonight.' Remington reminded her. 'I could have sent our regrets.'
'Citing the dreaded jetlag as the culprit?'
If he'd been a girl, he would have blushed. 'It was the only thing I could think of.'
Suddenly she didn't feel like slinging stones any more. Two apartments, one business, a transcontinental flight followed by a transatlantic one had taken their toll. She just didn't have the energy to keep her feathers ruffled.
'I am tired.' She admitted.
'I'll send Daniel around with our regrets.' Remington said, starting for the door. 'He's more than capable of keeping the Honorable Lucinda and her ilk entertained. They won't even miss us.'
'No,' Laura said quickly, grabbing his sleeve, 'we'll go. It's too good an opportunity to pass up. We need the clients.' She sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. 'I just wish Daniel wasn't coming along, especially under the guise of Colonel Frobish. He's up to something, and I haven't the energy to keep an eye on him.'
'I'll do it.' Remington told her. 'I won't let him out of my sight.'
'Isn't that like putting the fox in charge of the hen house?'
'It's the best you're going to get, sweetheart.' He said, leaning forward to drop a kiss on her forehead.
She leaned into him, resting against his immaculate shirt front.
'You look delicious in that dress.' He murmured against her ear.
'Good enough to eat?'
'Oh, yes, one bite at a time.' He followed his words up with a playful nip at her chin, which he quickly soothed with a kiss. 'I missed you. Dreadfully.'
'Not as much '
She didn't have a chance to finish her sentence because his lips were on hers, drowning out whatever else she might have said. It started out as a light caress, just a gentle brush of lips against lips, but within seconds, it had become something much more vigorous, something that included tongues and hands and ragged breathing. Too long, she decided, lacing her arms around his neck, it's been too long without him.
The weariness she had felt a few moments ago vanished under his caresses, and it was all she could do not to throw him onto the bed and have her wicked way with him. When she found herself acting out her own thoughts, flat on her back on the bed with Remington looming above her, she realized he must have been thinking along the same lines. She moaned as his hand trailed up her leg, shoving up the skirt of her gown as it went. Soon he'd be touching
From outside the door there came a loud, insistent cough.
'Damn,' Remington muttered, removing his greatly anticipated hand, 'I'd forgotten about him.'
'I've been waiting to hear you say that for five years.' Laura murmured, running her hands over his chest, which wasn't as immaculate as it had been a few minutes ago. 'Let's not waste the moment now.'
'Duty call, Mrs. Steele.' He said, catching her hands before they could wreak havoc with his tie. With one fluid motion, he stood, pulling her up off the bed and onto her feet. 'We'll finish this later.'
When they emerged from the bedroom a few minutes later, Daniel was lounging against the fireplace mantel, looking completely at ease and not at all embarrassed by what was going on in the bedroom. If anything, he looked amused.
'Linda,' he said, coming forward with arms outstretched. To Laura's relief he didn't hug her. Instead he clasped her hand in his. 'How delightful to see you again. I see your incarnation didn't drain the color from your cheeks. There are as rosy as ever.'
'That's makeup.' She informed him.
'Oh, really?' He murmured. 'I thought perhaps something of a more ah invigorating nature put the color into your cheeks.' When her cheeks became even rosier, he smiled and said. 'Do forgive me for being in Monte Carlo during your ordeal. I had a dinner date with Christine. You remember Christine, don't you? Believe me, had I known what you were going though, I would have been by your side in a flash, offering whatever comfort I could. I have a fine collection of diamond-bladed saws that go through steel bars like butter.'
'Your concern, as always, is touching.' Laura muttered.
'Did you have a pleasant flight into London? No trouble with the broom, I hope.'
'Broom? What broom?'
Remington jumped into action as though jolted by an electric current, grabbing a wrap off the sofa and flinging in around Laura's shoulders. 'Will you look at the time? How it flies, eh? We've very nearly missed cocktails, and I do hate soggy olives. Come along, Laura.' He hustled her toward the door. 'Got everything? Purse? Hat?'
'I don't have a hat.' She sputtered around a mouthful of fur. The wrap had hit her square in the face.
'Excellent decision. Hats should be left to Garbo.' He glanced over his shoulder. 'Daniel?'
'Ready when you are, my boy.' He said with a chuckle.
'Good, good. Full steam ahead, eh?'
Remington stood on the edge of Lady Hepplewhite's ballroom bored as a gourd. He wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but it rhymed so he was happy with it. For the first few hours of the soiree, he had joined Laura in schmoozing the guests. It was, after all, what he did best, but kissing hands and laughing at bad jokes soon palled so he had found a nice, quiet corner where he had amused himself calculating just how many square meters where contained in the Hepplewhite flat.
Certainly more than 107. Somehow or another they had managed to acquire two entire floors just for themselves, the 1st floor for entertaining and the 2nd for living quarters. So much for Mr. Fox's claim that space was limited. He wondered how much they'd paid for such a place and felt thoroughly out of sorts.
A deep, throaty laugh from nearby caught his attention. Daniel was still romancing the stone, putting it on hot and heavy for the gemologist who turned out to be ravishing redhead quite a few years younger than her garden club co-patriots. He wondered if it was the magnificent sapphire necklace around her neck that held Daniel's attention or something more primitive like a large bust and luminous heather blue eyes. Probably both, he decided, taking a sip from his wineglass. Daniel never settled for the one when he could have both.
The thought of busts and luminous eyes automatically had him thinking of his wife, and his eyes went in search of her. She was standing, or rather leaning, against a fake marble pillar chatting with a white-haired old geezer who spent more time ogling her chest than answering her questions. He was the Earl of something or other, and he'd been trailing her like a randy stallion all night. But Laura didn't seem to notice. She was laughing a little too loudly, a little too wildly.
How many drinks had she had tonight? He had never known Laura to get drunk. She was too disciplined for that. But if you mix an empty stomach with jetlag, two or three drinks could to the trick. He glanced at the antique grandfather clock gracing one corner of the room. Nearly midnight. She'd had more than enough time to schmooze clients. It was time to put Mrs. Steele to bed.
He uncoiled himself from his corner and started across the room only to be stopped by Lucinda's voice, slicing through the murmur of voices like a machete.
'Mr. Steeeellllle!' She rang out.
She was the only person who could turn a one syllable name into two. He turned, offering an apologetic smile. 'Lady Hepplewhite, just the person I wanted to see. I was '
'Oh, do call me Lucinda.' She said, ignoring his exit line. 'I feel as though I've known you for ages. Just ages.'
'The feeling's mutual.' He said dryly.
She took his arm, pulling him along behind her like a reluctant child. 'I have someone I want you to meet.'
'Really, Lady Hepple, I mean, Lucinda,' he hastily amended when she gave him a withering glance over her fat shoulder, 'I was just about to collect Laura and call it a night. Early day tomorrow at the office. Got to be alert, you know.'
'This won't take but a moment.' She assured him. 'I want you to meet her because she's a Duchess.' Remington groaned inwardly. Not another Duchess. 'Her name is Margaret Fitzhugh, and she's the Dowager Duchess of Kilmorden, a very important lady. She rarely visits London, stays on her country estate in Derbyshire for most of the time, but she's in town for a few days, and you simply must meet her. Play your cards right and she could give your agency quite a lift. If the Duchess likes you, everyone likes you.'
'I appreciate your interest in our firm, but '
'Your Grace!' Lucinda rang out, pushing through the guests to a corner of the ballroom where a group of sofas were clustered together in a semi-circle. 'Here's the young man I've been telling you about. This is Remington Steele, the Remington Steele, newly arrived from Los Angeles. Do you believe it? He's bringing his investigative firm to London.'
Remington found himself pushed forward into the arc of sofas. Women of various ages, from fifty to eighty, sat like a bevy of peahens, dazzling in their colored silks and sparkling jewels, staring at him. He immediately assumed a charming smile. Old habits died hard, and in this case, he was glad. He had no desire to stand in front of them like a schoolboy told to recite his letters.
There was no difficulty picking out the Duchess. She was sitting in the middle of them like a queen holding court, her silver hair swept into an elegant coil, the blue diamond on her finger shining like Beachy Head. Seven carat, maybe eight, he thought, fascinated. His eyes lifted, and he found himself looking into eyes as blue as the diamond.
He offered a smile. 'Delighted to make your acquaintance, your Grace.'
Instead of saying something polite and supercilious, she just stared at him, a stricken look on her face. He cast a quick look down at himself, hoping his waistcoat was still tidy and shirt still buttoned. Yes, as dapper as ever. He glanced back up just in time to see the Duchess keel over in a dead faint, which sent her fellow peahens squawking and cackling in distress, drawing the attention of nearly everyone in the room. Within moments, he was surrounded and shoved to the back of the crowd.
'What what happened?' Laura asked, suddenly appearing at his elbow.
'She took one look at me and fainted. Dashed awkward.' He sent a glance over his shoulder. 'You don't suppose it was the rissoles, do you? I told you they were off.'
'Must be em ,' she hiccupped, 'empowering to have such an affect on women.'
He stared at her. 'Laura, you're drunk.'
'I am not.' She declared, weaving a little. 'I've only had three drinks.'
'Before or after dinner?'
'That will do it.' He took her arm. 'Come on, Birnam, we're going home.'
'The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Paramount, 1945. Chronic alcoholic goes on a weekend bender.'
'But what about our our schmoo schmoozing?' She protested as he hustled her toward the entrance where a butler waited to open the door.
'We've done enough for one evening. There'll be earls flinging themselves at your door tomorrow morning, especially that old geezer who was so enamored with your bosom.' He snatched her wrap from the coat rack and flung it at her. Once again it landed in her face rather than on her shoulders.
'What about the Colonel?'
'He's a big boy. He knows his way home.'
Instead of getting a cab to take them across the street, Remington marched Laura down the steps and right into the middle of those fine Plane trees, hoping the fresh air would clear her head. If anything it made her more wobbly and by the time they reached the entrance to their flat, he was obliged to sweep her into his arms. She landed with a plop against his chest.
'Do I know you?' Her head had fallen back against his shoulder and she was staring up at him with half-closed, luminous brown eyes. She was fading fast.
'I'm the pool boy.'
'Lovely. I didn't know I had a pool.' She seemed to think for a moment and then asked. 'Do you skinny-dip?'
'At every opportunity.'
The ride up the elevator seemed to take an eternity for a flat on the third floor, but finally the doors opened, and Remington hurried out, carrying his load. Once inside the flat, he set her on her feet beside the sofa before going back and closing the door. He was not prepared for the sight that met his eyes when he turned to return to the living room.
In the short space of two or three seconds, Laura had removed the green gown and was standing in the middle of the room in nothing but a lacy bra and panties. He sprinted for the bank of windows, quickly pulling the blinds. A near naked Laura was not something he wished to share with half of London.
'My, isn't it hot in here?' She asked, reaching around for the bra clasp. 'Aren't you hot? You must be hot.'
She forgot about the bra. Her hands went to his shirt. For someone who had one sheet to the wind, her fingers were amazingly agile. She had his shirt and jacket off and was tugging at his tie before he had time to react.
'Laura,' he said, capturing her hands, 'you need to go to bed.'
'That's what I'm trying to do, silly.'
She worked her hands free from his and went for his zipper. He sucked in his breath as she found his arousal, and he was aroused, damn it, despite her tipsy state. For a moment, he indulged in the pleasure her hands were bringing. She's your wife, that insidious voice whispered, it's not like you'd be taking advantage of her. Had she been sober your evening would have ended in much the same way so what's the harm?
Still under the influence of passion, not alcohol, he didn't protest when she pushed him down onto the sofa. She sat atop him like the Diana she had pretended to be in Venice. As he watched, fascinated, she reached behind her and unfastened the bra. Then she giggled and he remembered.
He immediately shot upright, dislodging her. She tumbled to the floor, landing on her bottom. She blinked up at him.
'Coffee.' He stated, re-zipping his pants. 'You need coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.'
He escaped to the kitchen and stood for a moment or two, regaining his equilibrium, calming his raging desire. Then he reached for the coffee pot. Five minutes later he returned to the living room, carrying a large mug. He didn't know if it was relief or pique he felt when he found Laura curled up on the sofa, snoring softly.
Relief, he decided a few minutes later as he climbed into the bed and pulled his wife close. If there's one thing he knew he wanted, it was Laura fully aware and conscious that he was her husband, not the pool boy. Then, and only then would they discuss skinny-dipping.
'So how did it feel rubbing shoulders with the upper crust?' Mildred asked, bursting into Laura's office the next morning like a small tornado.
The glare Laura sent her was thoroughly lost behind a pair of dark sunglasses. 'There's no need to shout. We're not in Dodger Stadium.'
Mildred shook her head sympathetically. 'Mr. Steele said you were feeling a bit rough this morning. It wasn't the rissoles, was it? He said they were off.'
'I didn't have the rissoles.' Laura said, wishing Mildred would just go away and leave her to commune with her peaceful moss green walls.
Suddenly Remington appeared at the door, grinning cheerfully and carrying a large tray. With an elegant little half step around Mildred, which would have made Fred Astaire proud, he sat it in the middle of Laura's desk much in the way Salome must have presented her mother with the head of John the Baptist. All that was missing was the 'voila!'
Laura stared at it. 'What's this?'
'The cure.' Remington stated.
A glass of tomato juice was going to cure her? She didn't even want to hear his plans for the bottles of Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce, egg and celery stick.
'I don't need a cure. I need to be left alone.'
'Now, now, Mrs. Steele, let's not play the recluse.' Remington tut-tutted, picking up the egg and cracking it against the glass. Laura watched, slightly queasy, as he dropped the egg into the juice. 'We're open for business this morning and the captain needs to be at the helm yelling damn of the torpedoes, full speed ahead.'
'I'm sure my first mate can fill in for me. He frequently does.'
'Afraid he can't this morning.' Remington said, adding Worcestershire and Tabasco to the glass. 'He already has an appointment with a Mr. Beadle about some peacock blue walls.'
'Why don't you just pick a different color?'
'It's the principle of the matter, Laura. I requested navy, and navy I shall get.' He stirred vigorously with the celery stick and then sat the glass down under her nose. 'There you go, my love. Breakfast. Down the hatch.'
The nautical terms were beginning to rake on her nerves. Had he watched a marathon of pirate movies last night while she was 'sleeping it off' or was it being on an island that was stirring his mariner blood? Whatever it was he had no business being so cheerful when her head felt like it was too sizes too big for her shoulders and her stomach was doing the hokey-pokey.
'I'm not drinking that.'
'Of course, you are. It's got all your essential vitamins and minerals.'
'Over my dead body.'
'That can be arranged.' He glanced at Mildred. 'Would you be so good as to get me the agency gun, Mildred? It's in the usual place. Top drawer, second file cabinet to the right.'
'You wouldn't dare.'
'I think you'll find that I'm just as good a poker player as you, Mrs. Steele.' Remington said, completely unruffled by her menacing tone. 'Which one of us will flinch first? Care to make a wager, Mildred?'
'I gave up gambling in Cannes.' Mildred declared.
The stand off was short-lived, however, because it was interrupted by the appearance of Miss Eppington-Smythe in the doorway, her orange hair looking even brassier atop a bright pink sweater.
'You've got a client.' She announced.
'Where?' Laura asked, her heart leaping.
'Out front in the lobby. What do you want me to do with her?'
'Give me five minutes and show her into the office.'
For the first time Eppington-Smythe looked uncomfortable. 'Beggin' your pardon, Mrs. Steele, but she don't look the type to be happy with the number two bloke. She's the type who'll be wanting the top dog, if you know what I mean.' Her eyes slid to Remington and then back to Laura. 'A right toff, she is.'
Laura clamped down on her annoyance. Even in London Mr. Steele drew top billing. 'Very well, Miss Eppington-Smythe, show her into Mr. Steele's office. We'll be with her shortly.'
Still the girl hesitated.
'What is it?' Laura demanded.
'What about the walls?'
'If she wants the top dog then she'll have to take the top dog's walls.'
Eppington-Smythe shrugged and departed.
Laura stood up. 'Shall we go in, Mr. Steele?'
'Just as soon as you drink you breakfast.'
'We haven't got time to finish this discussion.' Laura gritted.
'I'm counting on it.' He told her. 'If you want me to go in and play boss, then you'd better drink up, darling.'
'That's professional blackmail.'
'Of course.' He said with a smile. 'Did you expect anything else from an ex con man?'
'He's got you there.' Mildred interjected.
Without a word Laura grabbed the glass and down the doctored juice in one long, seemingly endless gulp. Amazingly her stomach didn't revolt. It actually calmed a bit.
'Ready?' She asked, slamming the empty glass onto the tray.
'After you, my dear.'
Laura tried to transverse the distance between her office and Remington's at a leisurely pace. She didn't want to appear too eager, too desperate. They were not that hard up for money, she assured herself.
Fortunately, since her head still felt two sizes too big, taking it slow wasn't as difficult as it might have been, and she entered the office, looking calm, cool and collected. The very picture of professionalism in dark sunglasses. Well, there was no helping it. She couldn't let their first client see red, blood-shot eyes.
'We're sorry to keep you waiting,' she said with a smile, 'I'm Laura Steele, and this is my husband '
'Remington Steele.' Their guest finished in a voice that sent servants, not to mention social peers, scrambling to do its bidding.
Laura looked at the woman enthroned in the chair before Remington's desk and wondered for one crazy moment if she were supposed to curtsy or just kiss the enormous blue stone on the third finger of her left hand. It was obvious from the look on the woman's coldly beautiful face that she was expecting something more than a casual how do you do. A red carpet perhaps?
'I am Margaret Fitzhugh, Dowager Duchess of Kilmorden.' She declared imperiously. 'You may be seated.'
Thanks very much for giving me leave to sit in my own chairs, Laura thought, moving to take the chair beside Her Highness while Remington slipped unobtrusively into the large leather chair behind the desk. She was surprised at how ill at ease he looked, rather like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar by a tyrannical grandmother. Where was the legendary Steele charm?
The Duchess sent a dismissive glance around the office. 'I shall give you the address of my personal decorator. These walls are hideous. Peacock blue does not suit an investigative firm. Far too frivolous. You need something dignified. Navy blue, I should think. Yes,' she said, nodding her silver head, 'navy blue would do nicely.'
'Can I inquire as to the nature of your visit?' Laura asked, unconsciously imitating the Duchess's imperious tone.
The Duchess looked at her. 'Do you always wear sunglasses inside, Mrs. Steele?'
'A mild eye infection.' Laura hastily assured herself. 'The light hurts my eyes.'
'It's not contagious, I hope.'
'Not unless you drink it.' Remington muttered under his breath.
'Eh? What was that young man?' The Dowager barked. 'You young people are all alike. Mumbling. Always mumbling.'
'What he said was it's not contagious at all.' Laura amended, casting Remington a withering glance beneath her lashes. 'Now, tell me, Your Grace, why are you here?'
The Duchess frowned fiercely. She obviously didn't like to be pushed, prodded or hurried in any way. Nevertheless, she drew herself upright, her spine ramrod straight and declared. 'I've come to apologize for my behavior last night. It was quite abominably rude.'
What behavior, Laura wondered. The details are last night got fuzzy right after she finished that first martini. She glanced at Remington. It was up to him to take it from here. He still looked unwilling to do so. Like a sphinx, he sat behind his desk, fingers steepled, eyes dark and unreadable. If it wasn't for the desk blocking the projectile of her foot, she would have aim a nice, hard kick at his shin.
'I'm sure there's no need to apologize ' Laura began.
'I assure you that there is.' The Duchess insisted. 'I fainted quite rudely when Mr. Steele greeted me last night. I'm afraid I was feeling unwell at the time. No doubt from something I ate. Lady Hepplewhite employs the most dreadful chef. He claims to be French, but he's Welsh. My grandmother was Welsh and I know Welsh when I hear it. He doesn't know a thing about fine cuisine. Don't misunderstand me. I've known plenty of excellent Welsh chefs, but this man,' she gave a delicate shudder, 'doesn't know a rissole from a risotto.'
'Apology accepted.' Remington said, getting up. 'Now, if you'll excuse us, Your Grace, we have a busy detective agency to run.'
Laura's mouth dropped open. So did the Duchess's.
'Young man, I am not finished.'
'No?' A dark eyebrow rose inquiringly. 'Then pray get on with it.'
The fur stole around the Duchess's arms seemed to expand, rather like the feathers of an offended peahen. Laura could see all those possibilities she'd clung to over the last few months going down the proverbial drain. Remington was flinging them to the ground and stomping on them one by one. You would think after all these years he'd know when to keep his mouth shut.
'I also came with the notion of procuring your services.' The Duchess stated.
Hope flared in Laura's heart. 'You want to hire us?'
'That is what I said.'
'In what capacity?'
'I am giving a small house party at my country estate in Derbyshire next week. Do you see this ring?' She extended her hand. The blue diamond flashed in the pale light coming through the window. 'It's the Fitzhugh ancestral wedding ring. It's been on the hand of every Kilmorden Duchess for nearly five hundred years. The first to wear it was Eloise Fitzhugh, 1st Duchess of Kilmorden. It's part of a larger collection that was given to Richard, her husband, by Henry VII. He proved himself heroic in battle or something equally prosaic. The jewels are incredibly valuable from both a monetary and sentimental stand point, and there have been attempts to steal them in the past. I am not saying that I suspect any of my guests or relations of planning such a thing, but I am of the opinion that it's better to be safe than sorry. Therefore, I would like to procure the services of your firm to provide security during the upcoming house party.'
Not exactly exciting, Laura thought, but it would do. She opened her mouth to accept the assignment, but Remington got there first.
'I'm afraid security is not one of our strong points.' He said with an apologetic smile. 'We only dabble in murder and mayhem. The easy stuff. I'm terribly sorry, Your Grace. Perhaps I can give you the address of Scotland Yard. Inspector Lombard will be able to direct you, I'm sure.'
The Duchess's stole expanded even further. 'I normally do not like to discuss such vulgar things as money, but I'm aware that trades people are concerned with making a profit. Therefore, I'm prepared to compensate you quite handsomely.'
She named a figure that had Laura jumping to her feet. She hurried around the desk and latched four fingers and one thumb around Remington's arm. His smile became pained as she dug in.
'Would you excuse us for a moment, Your Grace? My associate, er, husband and I would like a moment to confer.'
Without further ado she hustled Remington into the connecting washroom.
'What do you think you're doing?' She demanded, snatching off the glasses and glaring at him with blood-shot, brown eyes. She wanted him to know exactly how she felt. Livid.
'Really, Laura,' he said, straightening his cuffs, 'I would think you could find a better place to confer than in the executive bog.'
'Don't you dare try it change the subject.' She warned. 'What are you playing at? Telling the Duchess we don't provide security? We do it all the time. Remember the Royal Lavulite?'
'How could I forget it?' He muttered at the ceiling.
'For that sum of money I'd provide security for her cat.'
'I never knew you were so materialistic. The things people find out once they're married. Appalling.'
'Answer the question.' Laura insisted. 'Why are you doing your damnest to turn this assignment down?'
'Because I've had it up to here,' He indicated the top of his head, 'with Duchesses.'
'You've only known one Duchess, and she wasn't a real one.'
'Are you sure this one is?'
'Do you think the Honorable Lucinda would have anything but a real Duchess at her soiree?' Laura asked, stalking around the washroom like a lioness that had her catch stolen by hyenas. 'I don't even know why I'm discussing this with you. We're taking the case, and that's final. If you don't want to work on it, then I'll go solo or take Mildred with me. We need the money, Mr. Steele. Do I make myself clear?'
'Perfectly.' His expression was flinty.
'Good.' Laura clipped, plopping the sunglasses on her nose. 'Shall we go and tell the Duchess the good news?'
'After you, boss.'
They emerged all smiles.
'Mr. Steele and I have talked things over, and we've decided to take the case.' Laura proclaimed.
The Duchess inclined her regal head as though there'd been no doubt of the outcome. 'If you'll come around to my townhouse around three this afternoon, my secretary will provide you with the details.' She extracted a pale blue card from somewhere within her stole and handed it to Laura. Then she stood up and walked gracefully toward the door. At the threshold she paused and looked back. 'I think it would be best if you attend under an alias. The Steele name is too well known, and I don't want my guests alarmed. Something American, I think.'
Remington threw an arm around Laura's shoulders. There was nothing warm or loving in the gesture. It was pure steel, and it was Laura's turn to smile painfully. 'Johnny and Molly Brown at your service, Ma'am.'
Remington sat at his desk, staring moodily out the window. The office was quiet. Mildred and Laura were still at the Duchess's townhouse collecting details, and Miss Eppington-Smythe, well, as soon as the clock had struck 5 o'clock, she'd gotten her coat and left on the arm of a bloke she had introduced as Mad Dog O'Connor. Delightful name, excellent studded leather collar too, very appropriate for a man named after a rabid canine.
Being a congenial fellow, he might have felt lonely, abandoned even, but not tonight. No, he preferred to be alone. Brooding was always best done by oneself. It allowed all the inner aches and pains to flow freely, and he was aching, most abdominally. Laura had made it clear that she was running the show. He had thought their partnership had progressed to one of a more equal footing, but this morning had revealed the cold, naked truth. Laura was still the boss, and he was still the employee.
His fingers clenched around the tie he'd removed two hours ago, pulling it tight. It would always be that way until he could bring something to the partnership other than nefarious bag of tricks and the ability to play the chameleon at a moment's notice. She would always have the upper hand because she had a name, a family, a college degree, a business. And what did he have? Nothing but memories and questions. Damn!
The tie went hurtling across the room. It landed against the wall and fell softly, gently to the ground. Most unsatisfying. He should have used the lamp.
'That's no way to treat fine silk, my boy.' Daniel's voice said from behind him. 'You'll have a devil of a time getting those creases out.'
Remington didn't even bother to turn around. 'How'd you get in here? The door's locked.'
Daniel chuckled. 'The door was locked.' There was the whisper of linen against leather as Daniel sat down. 'Speaking of that door, you really ought to do something about it. What in the world do clients think when they see 'Remington Steele In'? In what? In Africa, In the club? I know moving a business is expensive work, but couldn't you have taken up a collection to purchase the rest of the letters?'
'The painter had a door post in Chelsea.'
Why couldn't the old man take a hint and go away? He was in no mood for Daniel's banter.
'Was there something you wanted?' He asked irritably.
'As a matter of fact there was.' Daniel said, unperturbed by his less than welcoming manner. 'I want to know why you disappeared last night and left me with your hippo. It was a most unpleasant way to spend an evening.'
'It wasn't a hippo I left you with.' Remington pointed out. 'I believe it was a ravishing redhead with equally ravishing sapphires.'
'She also had a jealous husband, a very large jealous husband. Played rugby at Cambridge.'
There was a pause and then Daniel said. 'Is is my imagination or is something bothering you? I haven't seen you this moody since well, since you were fourteen.'
Remington hadn't intended to tell him anything. He hadn't intended to tell anyone anything. Yet, like a man possessed, going through the motions but not really wanting to, he found himself opening his mouth, spewing out the whole sorry episode.
'It's Laura.' He said, swinging around in the chair. 'We've had a disagreement.'
Daniel's brows shot upwards. 'And that bothers you? I was under the impression that you disagreed quite a lot. You ought to be used to it by now.'
'This time was different. She told me flat out that we were taking a case whether I liked it or not. I felt like a bloody hired hand.'
'Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't she done that before?'
'We weren't married then.' Remington snapped. 'I was just an employee.'
'Who was doing his damnest to sleep with the boss.'
'And you think marriage should give you certain ah rights?'
'Well, shouldn't it?' Remington demanded. 'What happened to what mine is yours and all that rot?'
'You're asking the wrong person, my boy. Never had the chance to experience that blessed institution. Thank God.'
'What about those rings?'
A shutter seemed to fall across Daniel's expression. 'That was a long time ago and extremely brief. It would hardly make me an expert.' He shifted to a more comfortable spot in the chair, crossing one knee over the other. 'What exactly is it about this case that you don't like?
'The early warning system.'
'You know. The early warning system.' Remington said impatiently. 'That feeling I always got when a heist was going to go bad. Remember? You named it yourself. I got it just before Mildred handed me that INS letter, and I'm getting it now. There's something about that Duchess that unnerves me.'
'Does this Duchess have a name?'
Was it his imagination or did something, some emotion perhaps, flicker in Daniel's eyes?
'Did you say Kilmorden?'
Remington inclined his dark head. 'Yes, Kilmorden. To be precise, Margaret Fitzhugh, Dowager Duchess of Kilmorden. Ever heard of her?'
Daniel tilted his head to one side as though giving the question some thought. 'I might have. I run across quite a few Duchesses in my line of work. They collect an amazing amount of jewels. Always top quality.' There was a pause and then he said. 'But if your early warning system is going off, then you mustn't ignore it. Best to tell Broom Hilda, er, Linda that she's on her own on this one.'
Remington shook his head. 'I can't do that.'
'Was she thinking of your partnership when she didn't consider your feelings on the matter? When she ordered you to take the case?'
'No.' The response was short and clipped as the hurt of a few minutes ago surged to the surface once again.
'Then,' Daniel said with an elegant shrug on his shoulders, 'I really don't see why you're obligated to keep your side of the bargain. Show the chit that she can't order you about like a trained poodle. Without Remington Steele where would she be?'
The Harry side of him said 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead', but the Remington side hesitated. Where would she be? Back home in L.A., that's where. It was because of him that she was in London so desperate for clients that she'd take a case guarding a bloody cat if necessary. The least he could do was do his job. The agency was just as important to him as it was to her. It provided him with a life he could be proud of.
He ran a hand over his face in a gesture of weariness. 'I made a commitment, and I'm going to keep it.'
'Commitments.' Daniel scoffed. 'Nobody keeps commitments these days.'
'I do.' Remington stated, leveling a steely-eyed look on his friend. 'Besides, if my early warning system is working properly, then I can't let her walk into a dangerous situation without back-up. I'd never forgive myself if something happened to her.'
Daniel stared at him, his expression grim. The boy was a fool, especially when it came to that woman. She had led Harry into more danger than he ever had, and she had the nerve to view him as the threat. Now she was on the verge of unraveling years of hard work. Well, Daniel thought philosophically, if Harry was determined to follow his precious Laura into hell, then there was only one thing he could do.
'Very well.' He said with the air of someone washing his hands of the matter. 'But I would advise you to take precautions.'
'Precautions.' Remington considered the word, rolling in around in his head before shooting Daniel an inquisitive look. 'What would you suggest? A bulletproof vest? A pocketful of Ninja throwing stars? A poisoned blowpipe from Borneo?'
Remington frowned. He could just picture Laura's reaction. The Exorcist was tame in comparison. 'I don't think '
'I'll travel incognito.' Daniel assured him. 'As your valet.' When Remington continued to hesitate, he added. 'Your Laura would be doubly safe with two sets of eyes watching her back. I'll drive up to the estate early as servants often do, and by the time, she finds out about me, I'll be firmly entrenched. She won't be able to send me away without causing a scene.'
'She's not above doing that.' Remington warned.
'If she needs this case as badly as you say, she won't dare ruffle the waters. Duchesses do not approve of scenes. It's bad ton.'
There was a silence as Remington considered the pros and cons. Laura would be livid, but after the way she'd treated him this morning, she deserved a little rebellion within the ranks. Besides, two pairs of eyes were better than one, and since her wellbeing was more important to him than anything else, he was willing to risk her fury.
'I'll send the address around to your flat tomorrow morning.'
'Splendid.' Daniel said, standing up. 'I shall get started on my role immediately. A pair of fake sideburns ought to do it.'
'Ah, Daniel,' Remington called, stopping the older man as he was about to leave the office, 'we'll be traveling under the name of Johnny and Molly Brown. Do you think you can play valet to a Texas cattle baron?'
A grin spread across Daniel's face. 'It'll be my greatest performance yet.'
Laura sat in the long, white Cadillac convertible with the longhorns welded to the grill feeling absolutely ridiculous. She should have known that leaving the details of their disguise to Remington would result in overblown showmanship. He never did anything by half measures. Every role he played was an Oscar performance.
She cast a glance at him from beneath her lashes. Even in a gray western cut suit, string tie, black Stetson and boots he looked totally at ease while she felt like an extra on the Howdy-Doody Show. She glanced down at herself. A calfskin skirt with fringe? Where did he find this stuff? Somehow she had the feeling that the Duchess was expecting something a bit more low key from her security detail. Was this his revenge for forcing him to take the case?
Undoubtedly, she decided grimly. He'd been a polite iceberg ever since the Duchess had come to see them. In the office, he did everything she told him to do without complaint, the model employee. But as a husband, she might as well snuggle up to a polar bear. He was all cold feet and fangs.
She wasn't exactly sure what she'd done that morning. Sure, she'd been a bit firm ok, bossy but they needed the money. She couldn't let some ridiculous aversion to Duchesses keep them from succeeding, not after all they'd given up. They couldn't lose the agency. It was their livelihood. It was the only thing they had left from their life in L.A.
She thought he'd realize that, but apparently he hadn't. Instead of getting over it like he had in the past when she'd gotten a bit too forceful, he had retreated inside his fortress and slammed the drawbridge behind him. It was not the reaction she'd been expecting from him, but as Mildred had pointed out, he'd been moodier than a mood ring, and their return had not changed that.
So how did one lie siege to a fortress, she wondered, absently combing her fingers through the fringe on her matching jacket. Flaming arrows? Battering ram? Catapult?
'Was this car really necessary?'
Flaming arrow won the day.
'You don't expect 'Longhorn' Johnny Brown to arrive in a Fiat, do you?' Remington asked, his eyes on the road. He hadn't looked at her since they'd gotten in the car. 'We rich, American cattle barons have a certain standard to maintain, a stereotype to perpetuate.'
'You seem to be betting a lot on the assumption that nobody at this house party has ever seen 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown.' She noted. 'That's kind of risky, don't you think?'
'No, I don't think so.' Remington replied. 'Johnny and Molly Brown are common enough names, and that's where the similarities between us and the movie end. We made our money in cattle, darlin', not gold mines.'
'Hey, boss, that's really good.' Mrs. Belle Starr a.k.a. Mildred Krebs said from the back seat. 'You sounded just like John Wayne.'
He flashed a grin in the rearview mirror. 'Thank you, Mildred. I've been working on it for the last three days. But are you sure I didn't sound more like Bogart in Virginia City than the Duke?'
'The point is,' Laura said, interrupting before Mildred could rush to assure him that upon further reflection he had sounded just like Bogart, 'as security we're not supposed to stand out. In these get-ups we're bound to arouse suspicion.'
'On the contrary, Laura.' Remington said, slowing the car as he turned on the road leading to the Kilmorden estate. 'The more outrageous the character, the more likely for people not to be suspicious. After all, if you're trying to hide something, why would anyone in their right minds dress this like? They'd want to blend in, not stand out. Our cover will be perfectly safe. No one will ever suspect two loud-mouthed, flashy Americans of being undercover dicks.'
Laura winced. There he went, using that word again. She was almost certain he had done it on purpose. He knew she didn't like her profession referred to in such a crude fashion.
'I suppose there must be logic in that theory somewhere.' She muttered. 'But must you call yourself 'Longhorn'?'
'I did consider Mad Dog,' Remington murmured absently, his attention focused on finding the Kilmorden driveway, 'but it was already taken.'
Laura's gaze swung to him. 'By who?'
'Miss Eppington-Smythe.' He supplied. 'Delightful chap, wears a leather collar with studs. Hence, the Mad Dog, I suspect.'
'You seem to know quite a bit about our newest employee.' Laura noted.
'You learn a lot over a cup of tea.'
I just bet you do, Laura fumed.
The car slowed and then turned into a driveway flanked on either side by stone pillars topped by sinister looking stone ravens. Almost immediately they found themselves surrounded by trees of every shape and size, from thorny hawthorns to mighty oaks, gnarled and bent with age. The further they drove, the thicker the trees became, enclosing them in a world of dense, cool shadow.
But there was little time to enjoy the twilight world of tree and shadow for just as suddenly as they'd entered, they left, bursting into the light once again. Cresting a low hill, Remington brought the car to a stop, allowing them a moment to gaze at the sweeping panorama of the Kilmorden estate, which culminated in a sprawling, stone castle sitting proud and majestic among carefully manicured lawns and gardens.
'Wow!' Mildred exclaimed. 'Would you look at that? It's just like something out of a gothic novel. It's hard to believe that real people actually live in a joint like that. This Duchess must be one rich cookie.'
'Aptly put, Mildred.' Remington murmured, setting the car in motion once again. 'I'll have to remember that. I can just imagine the Duchess's face if someone called her a 'cookie'. Priceless.'
'You try it, and it'll be the last cookie you ever call someone.' Laura threatened.
'Are those real swans on that pond?' Mildred asked as they passed a large, rectangular stretch of water bordered by meticulously clipped evergreens.
'Reflecting pool.' Remington corrected. 'The toffs have a habit of fancying up the obvious.'
'Please refrain from calling our hostess and her guests 'toffs'.' Laura said severely. 'We're supposed to fit in, remember?'
'Sorry, boss,' Remington replied, 'I fell out of character for a moment. Won't happen again.'
Laura turned in her seat to face her husband. 'Ok. That does it. I've had enough. What's this all '
The rest of her words were drowned out by the strident chords of 'Dixie'. Remington had hit the car horn, and he kept hitting it until servants flooded out of the castle's double doors like ants out of an anthill. They were instantly swarmed.
'That's more like it.' Remington declared, climbing out of the car and pausing to survey his handiwork. 'Your service needs improvement, bub. Back home I'd have a fill-up, oil change and tire rotation in the amount of time it took your guys to respond.'
'Bub' was the Duchess's personal secretary, Mr. Ambrose Hightower, a dark, sallow-faced man who made Boris Karloff look like a pussy cat. He was standing on the top step, peering down at them with much the same expression as the stone ravens at the gate. There was little doubt as to what he thought of their disguise. Could you say appalled? Unfortunately, Laura couldn't blame him. She was feeling pretty appalled herself after that performance on the car horn.
She hurried up the steps. 'I apologize for our uh unconventional arrival, Mr. Hightower. It's just part of our cover.'
The secretary sent a dismissive glance up and down her fringed attire. 'I certainly hope so, Mrs. Steele.' His eyes slid to Mildred who was struggling up the steps with a suitcase. 'Another servant of yours? What's this one supposed to be? A lady's maid?'
Laura frowned, wondering what he meant by 'another servant'. Was this the aristocracy's way of referring to an employee?
'You met Mrs. Krebs a few days ago when we met to discuss details.'
'Oh, yes,' Hightower said, 'I'm afraid I didn't recognize her under all those rhinestones.'
'She'll be posing as our secretary. Her name is Mrs. Starr.'
'I wasn't aware that a modest collection of jewels, valuable though they are, warranted so many personnel.' Mr. Hightower noted dryly.
'We believe in being thorough.'
'Quite.' He inclined his dark head in the direction of a white-haired gentleman directing the removal of their baggage. 'Jamison, the butler, will show you to your rooms. Tea will be served in the Duchess's private sitting room in,' he glanced at his watch, a large, bulky gold affair, 'fifteen minutes. She desires your presence in order to go over a few details before you meet the other guests this evening at dinner. Will that be agreeable?'
'Yes, of course.' Laura said before asking. 'Have all the other guests arrived then?'
'Everyone but Mr. Wesley, but he's always late. Wesley is the youngest son of the late Duke's brother, Lord William.'
'How many children does William have?'
'Three. You'll meet them tonight. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a number of other arrangements to see to.' And with that he turned on his heel and strode away.
'Toffee-nosed git, ain't he?' Mildred asked at her elbow.
'Mildred,' Laura said severely, 'I think you and Mr. Steele are immersing yourselves a little too much in the culture.'
'When in Rome.' Mildred replied with a shrug.
'I couldn't agree more.' Remington declared, joining them. He cast a glance around and then turned back with a smile. 'What exactly did I just agree to?'
'That Mr. Hightower is a toffee-nosed git.' Laura supplied.
'I was thinking more along the lines of cadaver myself.' Remington said. 'All these chaps look as though they'd just stepped out of a coffin. And here comes the head zombie now. Look sharp, ladies. Remember what happened to the sweet young things in the Night of the Living Dead.'
Jamison had finished the luggage removal and was striding slowly and stiffly in their direction. He stopped, began to bow and then jerked upright, his eyes widening. 'S-Sir?'
Remington threw out a hand and took the butler's in a hearty shake. 'Glad to meet you. Swell place you've got here. Right fine, a real humdinger.'
Laura watched with interest as the butler blinked, stared and blinked again. He was acting as though he couldn't quite believe his eyes. She knew Remington's outfit was better suited for a hog roast than an English estate, but it wasn't that shocking.
'Er, yes, quite.' The butler finally said, staring at the hand that had so recently been pumped like an old time hand pump. He tucked it behind his back. 'If you'll follow me, I'll I'll show you to your rooms.'
'Yes, siree,' Remington continued as they entered the spacious entrance hall of the castle, 'this here is a mighty fine place.' He stomped a booted heel against the floor. 'Marble. I'll have to see about getting some of this stuff installed back home. Sure beats the hell out of ceramic tile, hey, Molly?'
The procession continued on past suits of armors and walls draped with regimental flags and upwards along a wide, curving staircase and through a maze of corridors until Jamison finally stopped in front of a pair of heavy double doors. He pushed them open and gestured for them to enter.
'These will be your rooms.'
'Hey, this is dang nice.' Remington declared, looking around the large, somewhat gloomy room with exaggerated appreciation. 'Where's the bed, Jamie?'
'It's Jamison, sir.' The butler replied. 'And the bedrooms are to your left and right.'
A wide grin spread across Remington's face. He took off his Stetson and slapped it against his leg. 'Now, ain't that something, Molly? They knew how you snore and wanted to make my stay as enjoyable of possible.' He looked at Jamison. 'That's plumb nice of you, but I prefer to sleep with my wife. Habit, don't you know.'
'When the castle was built, it was customary for husbands and wives to have separate bedrooms.' The butler intoned.
'Amazing they ever made it out of the Dark Age.'
'But if you prefer to share a bedroom,' Jamison continued, ignoring the comment. 'Both chambers have been aired, newly sheeted and made suitable for occupation. When you're ready to be taken to the Duchess, please pull this cord, and I'll come directly.' He turned to Mildred. 'Your room is across the hall. Please follow me.'
The double doors closed with a slow, gentle thump, leaving Laura and Remington alone in the sitting room.
'It's a good thing for you that we're married or I'd demand extra compensation for this part.' Remington declared, tossing his hat on the brocade sofa. 'Playing the country bumpkin is bloody difficult.'
'Perhaps Marty Snyder and Ruth Etting would have been better suited to your talents. He was gangster, wasn't he?'
'Mm, yes, Love Me and Leave Me, James Cagney, Doris Day, MGM, 1955. You just possibly may be right. I guess that's why you're the boss, and I'm not.'
'There you go again.' She exclaimed, whirling on him. 'Calling me the boss.'
'Last time I checked, you were the boss.' Remington said, picking up a statue of a half-clad Grecian wood nymph. He looked at it critically and then set it down before prowling over to the door, which led to the right-hand bedroom. 'You are the boss, aren't you?'
'Technically, yes.' She admitted. 'But that hasn't been an issue between us for years. We're partners.'
Laura frowned. He was deliberately avoiding the subject, asking questions rather than answering them. How would she ever get past the drawbridge if he refused to lower it a little?
She watched as he opened the door of the bedroom and went inside. Was that his way of telling her that he'd decided to take advantage of the separate sleeping arrangements after all? Well, fine. If that was the way he wanted it, then that red teddy she'd packed would remain in her suitcase. She started toward the other bedroom, and then stopped at the sound of a door closing with unnecessary force.
Turning, she was surprised to see her husband leaning against the bedroom door he'd just entered and just as quickly departed, his expression she'd seen that look before. It usually preceded the discovery of a woman in a closet.
'What is it?' She asked.
He flashed a nervous smile. 'I suggest we use the other bedroom.'
'Why? What's wrong with that one? Did you find a body in the closet with a stiletto in its back?'
'I should be so lucky.' He muttered under his breath before taking her arm and steering her toward the other bedroom. 'Bed's too hard. Like a slab of concrete. Considerate, loving husband that I am, I couldn't possibly allow you to sleep on such an affront to the mattress industry. I'm sure this bedroom will be much more acceptable.' He threw open the door. 'Ah, yes, this is much better.'
Laura looked at the gold drapes, the gold rugs, the gold patterned wallpaper and the gold brocade chairs before a gilded marble fireplace.
'And a fine shade of yellow it is.' Remington said, throwing himself on the bed. 'Gold's been beautifying the boudoirs of kings and queens for generations.'
'I don't like yellow.'
'Just close your eyes and tell yourself you're doing it for England.' He told her as he gave the mattress an experimental bounce. 'Mm, much better. No squeaks.'
'I thought you liked squeaky beds.'
As she had planned, that comment immediately got his attention. He stopped bouncing and looked at her. She nearly gasped at the force of desire she saw in those blue depths. He wanted her badly. So what was he waiting for, she thought as he continued to recline on the bed, not making any attempt to act on the longing in his eyes. Couldn't he see that she wanted him just as badly?
She took a tentative step forward. That was enough to set him in motion. He sprang off the bed as though it had just given him an electrical shock.
'Although I'm sure a discussion on the merits of mattresses would be stimulating, invigorating even, I'm afraid I'll have to take a rain check.' He declared.
'Because there's a Duchess waiting for us, and she doesn't seem the type who tolerates tardy trades people.'
And with that he left the room. Seconds later, she saw he give the cord Jamison had indicated a hard pull, so hard she was surprised he didn't rip it right out of the ceiling. She frowned. Breaking down that drawbridge was obviously going to require a lot more than flaming arrows.
You're a bloody fool, Remington told himself as they followed Jamison down the hallway to the Duchess's private sitting room. What good was it doing him to continue playing the offended husband? All it was doing was making Laura more uptight and him more moody. He wanted to let it go, but he felt like someone who had one tire stuck in the mud. No matter how hard you reversed, it just wouldn't budge.
Somehow he was getting the feeling that it didn't really have anything to do with Laura ordering him to take the case. As Daniel had pointed out, it wasn't the first time they'd disagreed over a client. So why was this time different? He'd told Daniel it had to do with being married, but he was beginning to have his doubts. No, something else was bothering him, something that had been gnawing at him long before Laura put her foot down.
It wasn't Laura or the agency. It was London, and the memories, always the bloody memories. He had told Laura that he didn't want to talk about them, but perhaps
His thought was interrupted by Jamison pushing open a pair of wide double doors and announcing in a voice barely above the temperature of permafrost. 'Mr. and Mrs. Johnny Brown, Your Grace.'
The Duchess was enthroned on a chair of cream and gold brocade, resplendent in dark blue silk. A low table set with tea things sat in front of her, and to her right, seated in a matching chair, was another woman, younger but still well into her sixties. She smiled, her eyes on Remington. He returned the smile, and her rosy cheeks dimpled prettily.
'That will be all, Jamison.' The Duchess said with a nod of her head.
Jamison departed, closing the doors softly behind him.
'When I said American,' The Duchess said, her tone frosty, 'I wasn't expecting J.R. Ewing. Please explain yourself, young man. That horn of yours scared my peacocks half to death. They've been shrieking for hours.'
Remington flashed his legendary smile. 'I'm right sorry about that, Ma'am '
'Don't try that good ole boy routine on me.' The Duchess declared. 'I know perfectly well where you come from. Britain, isn't it?'
'You don't sound Irish. What happened to your brogue?'
'I lost it at Oxford.'
Laura's dark head swung in his direction. He kept his eyes on the Duchess.
'And how does an Oxford man get to America, Mr. Steele?'
'The usual way. By plane.'
The Duchess's lips twitched. From laughter or irritation, he could not tell. 'Be seated. Both of you. Clementine will pour out.'
The other woman picked up the china teapot with blue periwinkles and began pouring.
'Clementine is my younger sister.' The Duchess explained, accepting a cup. 'She came to live with me when her husband died three years ago off the Cape of Good Hope. He was a Commodore in the Royal Navy.'
'I'm sorry.' Laura said. 'Was it a bad storm?'
'Oh, no,' Clementine said, her voice as mild as her sister's was crisp, 'Gregory didn't go down in a storm. He died of a heart attack. Margaret always told him not to smoke and drink so much, but he always said he had a reputation to uphold. He seemed to think all seamen needed to have a bottle of rum in one hand and a cigar in the other. Still,' she said with a sigh, passing Laura one of the dainty cups, 'he looked ever so handsome in his uniform.'
'Clementine, don't monopolize the conversation.' The Duchess said, sending her sister a repressive glance. 'Mr. Steele was about to tell us how he came to be in America.'
She was nearly as good at prying into his past as Laura was, Remington thought. Well, might as well give the old girl what she paid for.
He leaned back against the sofa that he shared with Laura, cocking his head to one side. 'At the time I was working for the South African government.' Laura began coughing frantically. He thumped her on the back and continued. 'I was on the trail of an unscrupulous, though incredibly clever, con man who had his sights set on stealing some very valuable jewels. Royal Lavulite. Perhaps you've heard of it? Stones so blue '
'It is said that they were once pieces of the sky.' The Duchess finished.
'So you've heard of them.'
'A long time ago at another tea there was a man who described the Royal Lavulite in just the same way.' The Duchess murmured over her teacup. 'Do continue, Mr. Steele. I find your story fascinating.'
'Mrs. Steele, formerly known as Miss Holt, was providing security for those jewels during their stop in L.A. They were on a promotional tour. And the rest,' he threw up his hands, 'is history. We joined forces and together diverted the thief's attention down more pleasurable avenues. I, of course, was impressed with Mrs. Steele's keen mind and persuaded her to work for me. Does that satisfy your curiosity?'
'It begins to.' She said cryptically before picking up a piece of note paper from the table and handed it to Laura. 'Here is a list of my guests. I had Ambrose type it up for you. There are a total of twelve, not including yourselves and Clementine. Six of those guests are relatives of my late husband, his younger brother William's offspring. They are the Ws.'
'The Ws?' Laura asked, looking up from the list.
'Wilcox, Wendy and Wesley.' The Duchess supplied. 'Their mother has a fetish for the letter W, I suppose. Dreadful woman. She and William are now both deceased. Their son, Wilcox, is the current Duke of Kilmorden.'
'I don't know much about English succession,' Laura said slowly, 'but doesn't the title go to the heir of the firstborn son?'
'You and your husband had no children then?'
The Duchess's face became almost brittle. 'On the contrary. We had a daughter. Her son would have inherited.'
'You said 'had'.' Laura noted. 'What happened to her?'
'She died in an auto accident over thirty years ago.'
'So am I.'
'Would you like to see a picture of her?' Clementine asked, suddenly breaking into the conversation. Before Laura could answer, she removed a locket from around her neck. But instead of handing it to Laura, she gave it to Remington. 'She was very beautiful, was she not? Her name was Jane Harriet. She was named after our mother.'
Remington studied the miniature snapshot. The girl that looked back at him was indeed beautiful. Thick black hair fell to the girl's shoulders, the ends curling upwards, a light colored band holding it back from a heart-shaped face. She was smiling, and her eyes, the color unrecognizable in the black and white photo, were bright and full of mischief.
'Very beautiful.' He agreed, quickly passing the locket to Laura.
Why was his hand shaking? Ridiculous, he told himself. It was just a girl. A dead girl. In the photo she couldn't have been more than sixteen.
'There's a larger portrait of her in the gallery.' Clementine continued. 'We had it painted on her eighteenth birthday.' A wistful look came across the woman's face. 'We had such hopes for Jane. She was such a bright girl, so beautiful yet not conceited like a lot of girls are. Everyone loved her. I don't know why anyone would want to '
'That's quite enough, Clementine.' The Duchess interrupted. 'Let's not dwell on the past. Jane is gone, and Wilcox is Duke of Kilmorden.' She looked at Laura. 'He and his wife, Aisling, arrived earlier this afternoon. They prefer to live at our estate in Kent while I live here in Derbyshire. Wendy and his husband, Mark, arrived last night, and we expect Wesley any day now. He's unmarried, but I suspect he'll arrive in the wee hours of the morning with some tart on his arm. That's his usual way of making his presence known.'
'And the rest of the people on this list?' Laura prompted.
'Close friends of mine. I do not expect any trouble from them.'
'So you suspect one of your relatives of wanting to steal the Collection.' Laura said. 'Why? As Duke wouldn't it already belong to Wilcox?'
The Duchess shook her head. 'The Kilmorden Collection belongs to the Duchesses, not the Dukes. It is not passed on until the current Duchess dies or gives it away. In essence, the Collection belongs to me until I wish to pass it on.'
'And you do not wish to pass it on.' Remington concluded.
'No, I do not.' The Duchess retorted. 'I haven't found anyone worthy of them.'
'We'll need to see the Collection and how and where it's stored.' Laura told her. 'It's part of the process of setting up security.'
The Duchess picked up a little silver bell and rang it. Ambrose Hightower materialized out of nowhere.
'You rang, Your Grace?'
'Please show Mr. and Mrs. Steele the Kilmorden Collection.' She then turned her attention back to Remington and Laura. 'Dinner will be served at eight. Afterwards, we'll be retiring to the downstairs drawing room for conversation and cards. You'll meet the other guests at that time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with the head chef regarding tonight's dinner.'
Having been dismissed, Laura and Remington rose and followed Ambrose across the room and into the hallway. They were led through a maze of corridors until the secretary stopped in front of another pair of double doors. Pushing them open, he ushered them into what appeared to be the library. Books lined the walls from floor to ceiling, broken only by the occasional painting wedged in between shelves.
'We keep the Collection in this wall safe.' Ambrose told them, pulling a painting of a farmer's pasture to one side to reveal a combination lock. 'Only the Duchess and I have the combination.'
He quickly unlocked the safe and removed an ebony box, which he opened with a small key attached to a key ring that he'd removed from his pocket. Blue diamonds on a bed of black velvet glittered up at them. There was a necklace, bracelet, earrings and brooch. Remington picked up the necklace, holding it up to the light.
'Where do you keep the key when you're off duty?' Laura asked.
'I have a small safe in my office.'
Remington replaced the necklace and then wandered over to a painting on the wall. Behind him, Laura continued to question the secretary. She was taking this job much too seriously, he thought, studying the brush strokes carefully. Mm, yes, just as he suspected. He wandered over to another painting, this one of a little girl and a dog. He made his way around the library, stopping at each painting. Finally, satisfied, he returned to where Ambrose was just putting the box back into the safe.
Laura glanced at him. 'Enjoy yourself?'
'It was quite enlightening.'
'We've seen all we need to see here.' She said. 'Let's check the premier of the building.'
They were picking their way through yew bushes when she asked. 'So what did you think of the diamonds?'
'Good quality but hardly worth a security detail.' Remington said, watching as she checked a window. 'I'd be more concerned about the paintings. They're worth far more than those jewels.'
Laura stopped and looked at him. 'What are you trying to say?'
'I'm trying to say that I believe we're here under false pretenses.'
'The Duchess appears to have taken quite a liking to your husband.'
Laura frowned. She'd just been thinking the same thing. What was Remington up to? Something that would no doubt blow up in his face as well as her own. After insulting the Duchess in their office and feeding her a tissue of lies upon their arrival, he was now making a deliberate attempt to charm the old girl, and Laura could only assume it was because he wanted to know the real reason she'd hired them.
False pretenses, he'd say. The words had echoed through Laura's head all afternoon. Did the Duchess have an ulterior motive for bringing them to Kilmorden Castle? It seemed fantastic that she would, after all they'd never met the woman until the night of Lady Hepplewhite's soiree, but she was having a hard time brushing aside Remington's observation as sour grapes or the ramblings of a mad man. He knew jewels and art. If he said the collection was mediocre, she believed him.
She turned to the woman at her elbow. 'He has a way with people.'
Especially women, she wanted to add, watching as something Remington said caused Clementine to dimple and the Duchess to smile. Lady Hemingway and Mrs. Brewster-Cole were not immune either. Both women tittered appreciatively.
Caroline Iverson, who'd been introduced as an old family friend, smiled. 'I've never known Margaret to warm to someone so quickly. It's quite amazing.'
'You've known her a long time then?' Laura asked.
'My whole life. The late Duke and my father were the best of friends. They met at Eton, and even though my father was only a Viscount, they remained fast friends right through Oxford and beyond. We spent a lot of time here in Derbyshire, holidays, summer breaks. The Castle was like a second home to me.'
'So you knew the daughter.'
Laura watched as a cloud seemed to pass across Caroline's homely face. The smile dimmed, becoming almost bittersweet.
'Jane was my dearest friend.' She finally said. 'We played together here at Kilmorden, went to the same boarding school and when it came time to be introduced to society, our come out balls were only a day apart. It was hard on all of us when she died, especially the Duchess. She's never quite been able to let it go.'
'It was an auto accident, wasn't it?'
Caroline nodded. 'She was in Ireland visiting a school friend of ours. She'd been there for quite some time. Four to five months, I believe. When the Duchess received the news, she collapsed. There were rumors that they had to call in a nurse because Margaret had gone a little mad. She kept insisting that Jane had been murdered.'
'Murdered?' Laura asked sharply. 'Why would she think her daughter had been murdered?'
'She was half mad with grief, and there'd been a man, a very unsuitable man. I'm afraid I don't know all the details.' Caroline said apologetically. 'You see, my own father had died only a year or two before, and my mother was devastated. I was so busy caring for her that I lost contact with Jane.' There was a pause as she cocked her honey-brown head to one side. 'But I can't say I was surprised, not once the shock wore off. I'd always had a feeling, a premonition really that Jane would meet with a bad end. She was such a head strong girl. She had the arrogance of Dukes in her, that's for sure.'
Laura frowned. Caroline's Jane didn't seem to coincide with Clementine's. But friends often saw things that doting aunts didn't. Who was the real Jane Fitzhugh, she wondered, taking a sip from the glass of sherry a footman in a white wig and dark blue livery had pressed into her hand earlier. She would have liked to explore the matter further, but she was there to guard a collection of blue diamonds, not delve into rumors of murder .no matter how tempting. Besides, what good would it do thirty years later?
'The title automatically reverted to Lord William's son, Wilcox, upon the Duke's death three years later.' Caroline continued. 'It's no wonder the Duchess thought her daughter had been murdered. Wilcox had the motive and the nature. He always was a beast. He was nasty as a boy and not much better as a man.'
A beast undoubtedly, Laura decided, but was he capable of murder?
Her eyes went to Wilcox and his wife, Aisling. They were seated with Wendy and Mark Gilchrist at the far end of the room, well away from the other guests. A more disagreeable couple she'd yet to meet unless you wanted to count his sister and brother-in-law. The looks on their faces when introduced to Longhorn Johnny Brown and his wife, Molly had been priceless. She imagined that Macbeth and his wife must have looked similar when confronted with the ghost of Banquo.
'Does Wilcox have children to inherit?'
'Two. A son and a daughter.' Caroline took a sip of her own sherry before saying with forced cheerfulness. 'But let's not talk of Wilcox and his brood of vipers. Tell me about you and Mr. Brown. Have you known the Duchess long?'
Laura would have liked to talk more about those vipers but answered the question. 'For only a week. We met her while she was in London.'
'How unusual.' Caroline murmured, studying her with pale brown eyes. 'Margaret is notoriously reserved. Mr. Brown must have left quite an impression.'
'Just like a stamping machine.' Laura said into her sherry.
'You're in cattle, aren't you?'
'Ah, yes, longhorns.'
'Funny.' Caroline noted. 'I can't detect one hint of western accent in your voice. And Mr. Brown,' her eyes slid in Remington's direction, 'he's not at all what I'd expected a cattle baron to be like. He's so polished. Like one of those adverts for Stetson cologne.'
Laura searched frantically for an explanation. Lies didn't come to her as easily as they did her husband.
'Funny you should mention adverts,' Laura exclaimed, faking surprise, 'because that's what he was doing when I met him. Making adverts. In New York City. I'd gone down to the city on business. From Connecticut. That's where I was born and raised. Shortly after we married his Uncle Earl died and left him a ranch in Texas so we decided to try our hand at cattle.'
Caroline appeared to accept her explanation, and Laura breathed a sigh of relief. Bullet dodged.
'I imagine being Texans you like to hunt.' Caroline said suddenly.
'Uh yes.' Laura agreed warily. 'Mr. Brown can't wait to get out there and start shooting.'
'Good. Good.' Caroline said cheerfully. 'We're hunting snipe tomorrow. The Duchess always has a spot of hunting for her guests even though she hates the sport herself. I always look forward to it. I've been an avid sportswoman all my life. Played hockey at Rodean. You and Mr. Brown must join us.'
'Oh, I don't '
'Do say yes.' Caroline urged, placing a large, sun-browned hand on Laura's sleeve. 'I know I'm quite a bit older than you, Mrs. Brown, old enough to be your mother, but I believe we're going to be good friends. It's so seldom I meet someone at the Duchess's house parties that I can really talk to.' She paused, looking at Laura with those pale eyes again. 'There's something about you that reminds me of Jane.'
'I suppose one or two snipes won't hurt.' Laura said reluctantly.
'Splendid.' Caroline said with a smile. 'We gather in the foyer at 10 AM. Don't worry about a gun. The Duchess has plenty.'
'Snipe hunting!' Remington exclaimed as they entered their rooms a little after midnight.
'That's what I said.' Laura confirmed. 'Snipe hunting.'
'Do you know what a snipe is?'
Laura ignored his question. 'You've hunted fox. How difficult can it be to hunt snipe? It's the same concept. Human kills animal and calls it sport.'
Remington removed his jacket, tossing it across the arm of a chair. He pulled irritably at the string tie. 'There's a great deal of difference between fox hunting and snipe hunting. For one thing you're not expected to shoot at a bloody fox.'
'Oh, yes, I'd forgotten.' Laura said sweetly. 'It's more humane to let the dogs do the dirty work.'
It was the night of Lady Hepplewhite's soiree all over again. The only difference was there was no hope of getting Laura drunk. Pity. An amenable Laura would make apologizing a lot easier. He let his eyes drift over her body. She was wearing that green gown again, and he wondered how hot he'd have to make it so she'd remove it. Probably more heat than he was capable of generating. She looked as frosty as a Siberian January.
'The point is,' he said as patiently as he could, 'we'll be expected to fire a shotgun.'
'That shouldn't be too difficult for Longhorn Johnny Brown. He's descended from a long line of distinguished gunslingers.'
Remington felt heat surged into his face. 'You heard that, did you?'
'Half the room heard it. You were piling it on a bit thick, don't you think?'
'I just told the ladies what they wanted to hear.'
'And did all that butter help you discover why the Duchess brought us here?'
'No.' He admitted, not at all surprised that she'd figured out his motive for cozying up to the Duchess. 'She's one shrewd cookie.'
'According to Caroline Iverson, she's a mad cookie.'
'If she's mad, I'm the March Hare.'
'If she's not mad, then she must be right about someone murdering her daughter.'
'I knew it!' Remington exclaimed, jumping up off the sofa where he'd sat down to remove his boots. 'I knew there was going to be a murder in this thing somewhere. The early warning system is never wrong.'
Laura stared at him. 'What early warning system?'
'The one that tells me when a heist is about to go wrong. It went off just before Mildred dropped that bombshell in our laps, and it sounded once again when I saw the Duchess sitting in my office looking like Bloody Mary Queen of Scots.'
'Is that why you didn't want to take this case?' Laura demanded. 'Because of some gut feeling?'
'To be precise, it's more like the witch in Macbeth. 'By the prickling of my thumb, something wicked this way comes.'
'Are you telling me that your thumb prickles?' Laura asked incredulously.
'More like the palm of my left hand.'
'I'm telling you, Laura, it's never wrong.'
She turned away from him, stalked across the room and then stalked back. 'Ok, let's say this pricking palm thing is accurate. What do we do about it now? We're already here.'
Remington brightened. 'That's the spirit. I knew I could count on you, Laura. You pack the bags, and I'll go tell the efficient Mrs. Starr we're leaving.'
He took off for the door. Her voice stopped him dead in his tracks.
'That's going to look a bit odd, don't you think? Taking off in the middle of the night?'
Obviously she wasn't as reliable as he had thought.
'Better odd than dead.'
'Aren't you the least bit curious why the Duchess brought us here?'
'I'm of the opinion that curiosity is a highly overrated.'
'Well, I don't share your opinion.' Laura told him. 'I say we stay here, provide security for a mediocre collection of jewels and wait to see what the old lady has up her sleeve.'
'I was afraid you were going to say that.'
'Glad to know we're on the same page.'
Laura turned to go to the bedroom, but Remington's hand flashed out, catching her arm. She looked at him.
'Not so fast.' He said. 'I have something to say to you.'
She sighed. 'I'm really not in the mood to argue with you '
'I want you.'
That wasn't what he'd planned on saying. Far from it. He'd wanted to apologize, to explain a few things, but his limbo obviously had other ideas. Fool, he scolded himself. There was no way in hell she was going to let him into her bed after he'd been holding her at arm's length for nearly a week. Women like Laura demanded explanations, and quite frankly, she deserved one.
Without waiting for her reply, he dropped her arm and turned away.
'Just where do you think you're going?'
He stopped, turning back. She was standing where he'd left her. He gestured toward the right-hand bedroom. 'To bed.'
'The bedroom's this way.' She said, jerking her head toward the room behind her. He stared at her, stunned. As he watched a slow, sensuous smile lifted her lips. 'Unless, of course, you prefer mattresses as hard as concrete. It's ok with me, but it'll be your body taking the beating not mine.'
Remington tried not to gape. 'Are you saying '
She sidled over to him and draped her arms around his neck. 'Yes. Definitely.'
It wasn't what he'd been expecting, but Laura could be an unpredictable lady at times, and he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He stooped and swept her into his arms.
Disclaimer: I apologize if they don't have snipe hunting in Derbyshire, England. I ask you to overlook any inconsistencies or inaccuracies. I choose the things I do in order to make the story more humorous rather than to mirror reality. When possible, I try to reflect reality, but sometimes I do take liberties. Sometimes I will bend reality to fit the situation.
Dangerous Things, These Snipe
She really shouldn't have given in so easily last night, Laura decided, staring at the man sleeping in her bed, his dark head buried in the pillow. There was a lot to be said, to be discussed, and such easy compliance on her part was bound to give him the wrong idea. All of their problems could not be solved in a bed.
Much to her annoyance, she felt a smile tugging at her lips. Maybe it didn't solve anything, but it certainly worked off a lot of pent-up frustration. She'd been so pleasantly exhausted afterwards that she hadn't even bothered to ask him about the other bedroom and why he'd been so shifty about it earlier. She did not for one minute believe the story about the mattress.
Her eyes went to the closed door and then back to her husband. His breathing was deep and even. Still asleep. She thought about waking him but decided against it. A quick snoop would tell her what she wanted to know, and she'd have plenty of time to wake him in a more satisfying way. And then, afterwards, quite a bit afterwards, they could have a chat about those things that needed to be discussed.
She slid from beneath the sheets and grabbed a robe from the end of the bed. Within seconds, she was pushing open the door of bedroom to the right. It opened on well oiled hinges, and she slipped inside. Weak sunlight streamed in through the diamond-paned window, revealing a room decorated in pale blues.
That in itself was suspicious. Why would anyone, even one of Remington's unique tastes, prefer a room the color of Dijon mustard over one of blue? She sat down on the bed. Uh-huh. Just as she suspected. The mattress was no harder than the one they'd just slept on. She let her eyes wander, looking for the clue that would solve the mystery.
Her eyes fell on the closet or in this case the armoire. Bingo. It was his favorite hiding spot. With the air of a magician unfurling his cape to reveal the empty space where his scanty-clad assistant once stood, she threw open the ornate mahogany door and frowned. Nothing but clothing. She peered closer, rubbing the material between her thumb and forefinger. Remington's clothing. How'd his get hung up when hers are still in her suitcase?
She left the armoire and pulled open the dresser drawers. Socks, underwear, even those ridiculous handkerchiefs. In the connecting bath, she found various toiletries, all unpacked and neatly arranged across the marble counter. When had he had time to unpack, she wondered, reviewing yesterday's activities. He'd disappeared briefly to change for dinner, but there was no way he could have done all this in the time allotted. Had the Duchess provided a chambermaid for her guests, and if so, why had the girl ignored her things?
Something was definitely fishy. Either she could stand here and mull it over in her head or she could go to the source and demand an answer. She turned to head back to the other bedroom and promptly ran into someone entering the bath.
'Oh, excuse me.' She said, staggering backwards. 'I didn't see ' she stopped, her eyes widening. 'You!'
Daniel smiled at her over an armload of fluffy white towels. 'Good morning, Linda. Sleep well?'
She had heard that angry people saw red, but she'd never quite believed it until now. What she saw as she looked at Daniel was not merely red; it was a blazing scarlet.
'What are you doing here?' She gritted between clenched teeth.
'I'm the valet.' Daniel stroked his ridiculously long Mutton Chop sideburns. 'But I must say I'm a little disappointed in my disguise. You recognized me immediately. I must be slipping in my old age.'
'You're here to steal the Kilmorden Collection, aren't you?'
Daniel looked offended. 'I know you don't care for me, Linda, but are insults really necessary? I wouldn't waste my time on such second-rate baubles.'
'The paintings then.'
'I assure you that I'm not here to steal anything. I'm retired.'
'Then why go to the trouble of getting the Duchess to hire you?'
'Then how '
Comprehension dawned. If the Duchess hadn't hired Daniel to act as valet, then there was only one other way he could have gotten there.
'Why that that ' Words failed her.
'Now, before you go and tear a strip off the boy, you ought to know that he did it for you.' Daniel told her.
'For me?' Laura exclaimed. 'How could bringing you along be good for me?'
'He sensed danger, and I, being as fond of you as I am, naturally offered my services. Two sets of eyes are better than one.'
'The early warning system.'
'You've heard of it?'
'Oh, I've heard of it.' She declared grimly, pushing past Daniel on her way out of the bath. 'And now I'm going to see just how well it works. Let's see if it can detect this.'
He was exactly where she'd left him, on his stomach with his head buried in a pillow, sleeping like a baby. Well, it was time the 'baby' woke up. She glanced around the room. A vase of flowers were sitting on a nearby dresser. She grabbed it and flung the contents, flowers and all, on her sleeping husband. He awoke with a gasp, lifting himself up on his elbows while water ran down his back and sides.
'What in bloody hell ' He growled.
'I'll give you bloody hell,' she growled back, 'you lowdown, conniving, yellow-bellied varmint!'
Hearing her voice, he rolled to one side. 'Laura, what the hell are you playing at?'
'What am I playing at?' She exclaimed. 'You're the one that's smuggled an old reprobate into this house.'
'What are you talking about?' He demanded, his dark brows meeting above his nose.
'She's referring to me.' Daniel said from the doorway.
Remington's gaze went from Laura to Daniel and then back to Laura, his eyes widening as the full implications of the situation dawned.
He tried a smile. 'Laura, dearest, I can explain. There's a perfectly good reason why Daniel's here.'
'Your early warning system?'
'Exactly. How'd you know?'
'Just a wild guess. It seems to be your explanation for everything lately.'
'Now, Laura '
'You're fired.' She declared. 'Pack your bags. Both of you.'
'Fired?' Remington exclaimed, sitting up. 'You can't fire me. I'm your husband.'
'Of course. I distinctly remember a wedding service in front of a disgruntled civil servant.'
'It takes more than a service to make it legal and binding.' Laura shot back.
He scowled and started to throw the sheets back. Then he remembered he was missing certain articles of clothing and was forced to stay where he was, among the tumble of sheets and flowers. Not exactly a threatening pose, Laura thought with the smug satisfaction of a person who knows they are in complete charge of the battlefield.
'What are you talking about?' He demanded.
'Ask me what?' Mildred was standing in the door, looking at them as though they'd gone mad. 'Hey, you kids better keep it down.' She warned. 'I could hear you in the hallway.'
'Mildred,' Laura said, turning to her, 'please find Jamison and have him bring that monstrosity of a car around front. Longhorn is leaving.' She cast a scathing glance at Daniel who had taken up residence in one of the gold chairs. 'Along with his valet.'
'Valet?' Mildred echoed. 'The boss doesn't have a ' she stopped, her eyes falling on Daniel.
'Good morning, Millie.' Daniel said cheerfully. 'You look divine in denim.'
Mildred beamed happily. 'I don't know who you are but thank you kindly.'
'I see my disguise isn't as bad as Linda led me to believe.' Daniel noted, getting up to take Mildred's hand in his. 'It's me, Millie. Daniel.'
Mildred's eyes widened. 'Why that's amazing! I didn't even recognize you. Are those Mutton Chops real?'
'Don't encourage him.' Laura said. 'Just get him a ride out of here.'
'Laura,' Remington tried again, 'if you'd just calm down and let me '
'One more word out of you, and I'll ' she paused, searching for an appropriate threat.
'Linda,' Daniel's voice cut across her fury, 'did you hear what Mildred just said?'
Laura swung around to glare at him. 'Of course, I did.'
'She said she could hear you in the hallway. If she can hear you, others can too.' He paused as though to let his words sink in. 'I wonder how the Duchess will feel about her guests creating a scene. The nobility can cut up pretty stiff about such things. She might even ask you to leave. Empty-handed.'
It was all Laura could do not to fling the vase she still held at his smiling face. He was right, damn it. The Duchess was not the kind of client who would condone her employees creating scenes no matter how warranted. And even if they were there on false pretenses, they still needed that fee she'd promised. With colossal willpower, Laura clamped down her anger.
She looked at Remington. 'Get dressed.'
'We'll discuss this later. Right now we have a job to do.' With extreme care she replaced the empty vase on the dresser and then walked over to the window. The sky was gray and thick with clouds. 'We have an appointment to hunt snipe at 10 o'clock. We have exactly forty-five minutes to get ready.'
She remained standing at the window until she heard the door close. 'Is he gone?'
'Yep.' Mildred said. 'Slunk out of here like a dog with his tail between his legs.'
'Don't you dare feel sorry for him. He's a lowdown, conniving, yellow-bellied varmint. His hide ought to be nailed to the barn door.'
'I thought so myself at one time.' Mildred told her. 'But don't you think you ought to hear him out? I'm sure he has a good explanation.'
'Undoubtedly. If there's one thing Mr. Steele's good at, it's explanations. Even though most of them are right out of MAD magazine.' Laura declared, leaving the window to go pick up her suitcase. She tossed it on the bed. 'Don't worry. I'll hear him out, but it'll be in my time, not his.' She unzipped the case and flung open the lid. 'Now tell me, Mildred, what does one wear to hunt snipe?'
Mildred shook her head. It was amazing how quickly that girl switched gears.
The wait was intolerable. Was she never going to come out of that bloody bedroom, Remington thought as he made yet another circuit around the sitting room. To control his impatience, he reviewed once again the explanation he was going to give. It sounded pretty lame. Probably because it was the truth. A lie would sound better, be more believable. He considered making up a real beauty for her but quickly decided against it. He was in enough trouble as it was. She deserved the truth.
The door to the bedroom finally opened and he turned, expecting to see his wife. He saw Mildred instead. His dark brows came together in a fierce 'V'.
'Where's Laura?' He demanded.
Panic suddenly gripped him in a vise, squeezing the very air from his lungs. Had his shenanigans finally pushed her too far? She had said that they wouldn't, but
'Gone?' He asked sharply. 'Gone where?'
Mildred considered telling him a bold face lie just to see him squirm a little, but his expression was so panic-stricken that her soft heart wouldn't let her. 'Downstairs. She said you were taking too long to tart yourself up.'
He started for the door and then stopped, turning back, his expression troubled. 'Ah, Mildred, did she, ah, say anything about me while you were in there together?'
'She called you a lowdown, conniving, yellow-bellied varmint.'
'I've already heard that one.'
'Other than that she was all business.'
'I was afraid of that.' Remington muttered. 'The efficient Miss Holt has returned.'
'And why shouldn't she?' Mildred asked. 'That was a dang fool thing you did. You know how she feels about Daniel.'
Remington ran a hand through his hair. 'I wasn't thinking clearly at the time. I was angry about the way she told me we were taking the case, and when Daniel showed up ' He sighed, shaking his head, 'well, he's very persuasive, and I was in the mood to be persuaded. That doesn't excuse it, I know, but that's how it happened.'
'What's he doing here anyway?' Mildred asked. 'What's his angle in all of this?'
'He's providing back-up.'
'Sounds fishy to me.'
'I assure you it's all on the up and up.' Remington told her. 'I didn't like the case. It felt wrong, all wrong, and when Daniel suggested I take precautions by bringing him along, I jumped at the offer. Two sets of eyes are better than one.'
'I swear that's all it was.' Remington insisted, starting to feel desperate. If Mildred didn't believe him, how would Laura? Hell, the woman had a career based on the principle of suspicion. 'We knew Laura would never agree to it so Daniel disguised himself as my valet.'
'Really fooled her, huh?'
Remington opened his mouth to protest and then shut it again. For the first time it occurred to him that Daniel's willingness to protect Laura from an unknown danger was a tad bit out of character. He'd shown no great concern over her recent incarceration, had found it amusing even. And, of course, it was foolish to think that Laura would not see through his disguise. Daniel must have known that. Did he have an ulterior motive for joining them on this case? Was it for Laura's benefit that he'd disguised himself or for someone else's?
False pretenses. First the Duchess and now Daniel. His left palm began tingling, and he hurriedly shoved it into the pocket of his jeans. There was no time for that. His first priority was Laura.
'I'll deal with Daniel later.' He said grimly. 'Right now I have some explaining to do.'
'Right now you've got snipe to hunt.' Mildred corrected. 'You're already ten minutes late.'
He'd forgotten about that damn snipe. No sense in making Laura even angrier by standing her up. He headed for the door and then stopped as an uneasy memory teased him. 'Ah, Mildred,' he called, hand on doorknob, 'what did Laura mean when she said a wedding service didn't make things legal and binding?'
'Is that what she told you to ask me?'
'Yes. What did she mean by it?'
At first it looked as though Mildred wasn't going to answer, but then she took a deep breath, put on her fraud face and said. 'She means that if the marriage was challenged in a court of law it doesn't have a leg to stand on.'
Icy fingers crept up his spine. 'I thought I told you to make it wiggle-proof.'
'And I told you there was a little issue concerning your birth certificate. Remember?'
'I'm afraid not.'
She sighed. 'I told you when I got to St. Moritz, and you told me that the important thing was to get her believing that she was married to you. So that's what I did.'
A glimmer of memory flickered.
'Ah, it's a little vague, pet.' He admitted, putting a hand to his head. 'I was suffering under great strain at the time. Could you refresh my memory? What's the problem with my birth certificate?'
'It doesn't exist.'
'Of course, it exists.' Remington said irritably. 'I wasn't born under a cabbage leaf.'
'It might exist,' Mildred told him, 'but nobody, including yourself, knows where it is. How am I supposed to find a birth certificate with no names, no locations, no anything? It's impossible.'
She had a point, and it scared the hell out of him.
'So you're saying that just because I don't have a blasted birth certificate Laura could get the marriage annulled tomorrow?'
'She wouldn't do that. A woman who turns her life upside down for a man isn't about to hand him his walking papers.'
'Are you sure? I haven't exactly been congenial for the last few months.'
'Then I suggest you start making yourself congenial.'
Mildred's words echoed in his head like a drum beat as he left the room and hurried down the hallway to the wide, curving staircase. Make yourself congenial. How was he supposed to do that when he'd already dug a good size pit for himself? A charming smile and a few softly spoken words weren't going to cut it with Laura. She knew all his tricks. It would take a lot more than that to soften her attitude towards him. He frowned. There was only one way to do it. He was going to have to be vulnerable.
'There you are, Brown.' Lord Hemingway bellowed from the foyer. 'About time you showed up. Don't think much of your punctuality, what?'
Colonel Brewster-Cole snorted. 'The boy wouldn't last one day in the Army.'
'I'm mighty sorry that I kept you boys waiting.' Remington drawled, his eyes sweeping the group for Laura. She was in conversation with Lady Hemingway and a woman he vaguely remembered being introduced as Caroline Iverson. 'But that high-falutin' valet I hired misplaced my boots.'
Hemingway eyed the cowboy boots in question. 'Hope those are waterproof, Brown.'
'Sure are.' Remington assured him. 'We have some right fine downpours in Texas. Real gully washers.'
'How fascinating.' Wilcox Fitzhugh murmured, detaching himself from the wall where he and Mark Gilchrist had been leaning. He tossed Remington the 20 gauge shotgun he was holding. 'I hope this will do. I'm afraid my aunt doesn't stock horse pistols.'
Remington caught the gun easily. 'If that's all you folks have, then I'll have to make do.'
'Are you familiar with hunting snipe, Mr. Brown?' Wilcox asked.
'We don't have much call for it in Texas.' Remington said. 'We prefer more ornery critters like coyot and rattlesnake.'
'What a pity we can't accommodate you. I'm afraid we don't have such 'critters' over here.'
'Not of the four legged variety anyway.'
The two men stared at each other, their mutual dislike apparent. Remington had never had much use for men of Wilcox's ilk. He'd met plenty of them on the streets of London, men with fat wallets and even fatter egos. They'd been easy touches. Now that he'd met one face to face he was even less impressed. The man was a supercilious ass.
'Are we going to hunt snipe or not?' Caroline Iverson demanded, suddenly joining their group. She wore hip-waders and carried an open shotgun over one arm. 'The dogs are getting restless, and so am I.'
'Then by all means, Carrie,' Lord Hemingway said, hefting his own gun to his shoulder, 'let's hunt snipe.'
Laura picked her way along the edges of the large pond. The ground was boggy, and with each step she sank almost to her ankles in black muck. Not for the first time she wished she'd taken Caroline up on her offer of hip-waders. Even then she doubted she would have moved any faster. She'd always been physically fit, but she found herself wholly unprepared for the effort needed to slough through an English bog.
Pausing to catch her breath, she scanned the horizon. It was grey and dreary and eerily desolate. The others were nowhere in sight. Even Remington had deserted her. She was completely alone except for the bullfrogs, the marsh grasses and the pervasive drizzle that coated everything in a fine mist.
Up ahead she saw what looked like an old log. How it got there she couldn't guess, since there were very few trees in this portion of the Kilmorden property, but it looked like a good place to sit down, rest her tired legs and pry some of the muck off her boots. Tucking her gun under one arm, she set out as quickly as the muck would allow. She had almost reached her destination when her right foot stuck and stuck fast.
She wiggled it back and forth, trying to dislodge it. No good. If anything, it only helped bury the foot deeper into the mud. She even stooped down and tried to physically pull the foot out with no luck. There was nothing for it. She'd have to remove the boot and then try to dig it out. She knelt to untie the laces and then froze. The uncanny feeling of being watched seized her, running up her spine like an icy finger.
'Who's there?' She called out, her voice sharp.
There was no answer. Just the soft rustle of wind in the willows. Keeping her eyes on the area around her, she felt on the ground for the gun she'd put down while untying her boot. Her fingers touched cold metal and closed over it, pulling it to her. Don't be silly, she told herself. If anything was watching her, it was probably those elusive snipe.
Nevertheless she raised the gun to her chest as she searched the marsh for the person or thing that had their eyes on her. The feeling was still strong, and she had the gun all the way to her shoulder, taking aim, when Remington suddenly emerged from the swaying marsh grass. He stopped in his tracks when he saw her.
He tried a smile. 'I know you're mad at me, Laura, but don't you think shooting me might be a bit drastic? Couldn't we sit down and talk about it first?'
She lowered the gun. 'I didn't know it was you.'
'Well, that's certainly encouraging.'
'What are you doing here?'
'I think that's obvious, don't you?' He asked. 'I came looking for you.'
'When a man's wife disappears in a bog, he naturally tends to feel some concern.' Remington retorted. He had obviously reached the end of his patience with her questions.
She knew she was being overly suspicious, but she still couldn't shake the feeling that someone or something was watching. Since Remington was with her, it couldn't have been him creating that feeling. Something was still out there, lurking. Good Lord, Holt, soon you'll be believing in swamp monsters next.
'I'm sorry.' She said, forcing her fingers to relax around the gun barrel. 'It's this place. It gives me the creeps.'
'Mm, yes, I see what you mean.' He murmured, glancing about. 'There is something sinister about it. Just like those blasted ravens at the gate.' His eyes fell to her foot. 'You appear to be stuck.'
'I'm not stuck.'
'Then what do you call it?'
He grinned. 'Is admitting defeat so intolerable, Laura?'
'Why should I admit defeat when I'm not defeated?'
Still grinning, he stooped down and grabbed hold of her leg. With three hard jerks and a terrific sucking sound that must have been heard in Scotland, her foot popped free. She wobbled a little, and he steadied her, taking her arm and helping her over to the log. Once she was seated, he sat down and lifted her left foot, placing it over his right knee. Without a word, he began prying muck off her boot.
'You don't have to do that.' She told him. 'You're getting your hands dirty.'
'They've been dirtier.'
There was a long pause, making Laura think he wasn't going to answer, but then he said. 'Grubbing through trash bins for food.' The side of his mouth kicked upwards in a rueful smile. 'There was this little Italian restaurant, Papa Verdi's, that had particularly good ones. I'd find at least one take out box a night, the food inside not even touched. Lasagna, ravioli, spaghetti.' He shook his head. 'There were times that I wondered whether or not they knew.'
Laura held her breath, waiting for him to continue. It wasn't often he shared glimpses into his past, especially his childhood. She didn't want to ruin the moment.
'But,' he said, flinging a clod of mud on the ground, 'like all gold mines, it eventually ran out. They went out of business, giving away too much free food, I suspect, and it was back to grubbing through greasy fish and chip wrappers. Of course, things improved after I picked my first pocket. I could buy the fish and chips. I felt like a right toff, I did. But even then I was still hungry. I lived with that gnawing ache in the pit of my stomach until Daniel found me.' He paused, staring off across the marsh, the mud forgotten. 'I can still remember the first meal he fed me. It was roast beef at some pub in Whitechapel. The beef was as tough as an old shoe, but it might as well been Beef Bourguignon as far as I was concerned because for the first time that ache was satisfied.'
He bent his head and went back to removing mud from her boot. Laura stared at him, her expression perplexed. Finally she asked. 'Why did you tell me that?'
He looked over at her. 'You gave me something very dear, your life in L.A. It's only right that I give up something equally dear, my memories.'
'I guess it's my way of apologizing.' He gently placed her foot on the ground and then turned to face her. 'When you told me we were taking the case whether I liked it or not, I was angry. It stirred up a lot of insecurities. I thought we were partners, but at that moment, I felt like a hired hand. It was your agency again, not ours.'
'It is ours.' She said quickly.
He held up a hand as though to stop her words. 'Let me finish, ok?' She nodded and he continued. 'I realize now that you were just doing what you felt you had to do to keep the agency going. You've been keeping us all going, haven't you, Laura? You've given up everything for me. The least I can do is not be so sensitive. My only excuse is that I haven't quite been myself for the past few months, and that memory I just shared with you is only a glimpse into the reason why. I have a lot more where that came from, some much worse.' The crooked smile returned. 'The funny thing is it doesn't hurt quite so much now that I've shared it with the woman I love. It feels as though an infection has been drained.'
Laura felt the hard knot she'd been harboring since finding Daniel in the blue bedroom begin to unravel. There was still much that needed to be discussed, but now she was ready to listen. She reached out her hands, grasping his, which was still dirty with pond muck. But she didn't care. She just wanted to touch him.'
'Any time you want to share a memory, I'm here.'
'It'll take years to share them all.' He warned her.
'I'm not going anywhere.'
'Promise.' She looked at him. 'There's still a lot more we need to discuss.'
'And I'm still not happy about how Daniel came to be here. It was lowdown, conniving and '
'Glad to see you were listening.'
'To your every word.' He assured her. 'Even when I don't like what I'm hearing.'
'And about last night ' she said, keeping her voice neutral.
'Now those are memories I won't mind sharing.' He told her, his voice lowering, becoming more intimate.
Laura felt heat flood her body, but she held onto her control resolutely. 'I don't want you to think that all our problems can be solved in a bed.'
He lifted a dark eyebrow. 'They can't?'
She tried to look severe but couldn't keep the twinkle out of her eye. 'Well, perhaps, one or two could benefit from a hands-on inspection.'
His arms slid around her, pulling her close. A hand wandered beneath her jacket. 'In the interest of improving marital relations, I suggest we start working on a preliminary inspection immediately.'
'Your concern is admirable, Mr. Steele.'
She lifted her face, anticipating the feel of his lips on hers, but it never came. A loud gunshot cracked across the marsh like a whip. They froze and then jumped when the mud at Laura's feet exploded, sending bits of mud and grass into the air.
'A mistake like that could get a person killed.' Remington noted, his brows coming together in a dark scowl. 'Can't those idiots tell the difference between a snipe and a person?' He started to get up.
A bullet went whizzing by, lodging itself into the log where he'd just been sitting with a hard thud.
'That was no mistake!' Laura yelled, grabbing his arm and jerking him down just as another bullet whizzed overhead.
Flattening themselves as close to ground as possible, they waited out the onslaught. The gun blasted twice more, sending one bullet in the log and the other into the ground dangerously close to Laura's head. Dark, moist earth rained down on them like shrapnel.
'This log isn't going to protect us for long.' Laura said, lifting her head to take a quick look around. 'If we can crawl into the longer grass, the shooter won't be able to see us.'
Remington lifted his own head. 'And how do you propose to get from here to there? It'll be just like the duck shoot at one of those bloody fairs.'
'Snipe, Mr. Steele.' Laura corrected. 'Not ducks.'
Without waiting for his reply, she got to her hands and knees and like a runner at the starting line took off, sprinting across the open field, keeping her body bent and low to the ground. She reached the swath of taller grass and tumbled forward, rolling until she came to rest on her stomach with a splat in a patch of shallow water. Before she had a chance to gain her bearings, a body landed beside her, sending a wave of water right into her face.
She sputtered, wiping at her eyes. When she could see again, she glanced over and found her husband, soaked to the skin and covered in bits of mud and duckweed. He looked none too pleased. In fact he looked like a tomcat that had been given a bath by two mischievous little girls. Thoroughly annoyed. Had he been that cat he would have been hissing and spitting right about now.
'Where the bloody hell are you going?' Remington growled as she began slithering toward the edge of the tall grass.
'Don't use that tone of voice with me.' She retorted. 'I'm just as wet and mucky as you are.'
Remington's lips firmed. 'Where, dear wife, are you going?'
'To try and see who the shooter is. They're eventually going to have to come out of hiding.'
'That's my Laura.' Remington muttered, slithering after her. 'Always on the job.'
After fifteen minutes of lying side by side in the tall grass like lions waiting to pounce on passing prey, Remington finally said. 'I think whoever it was has flown the proverbial coop.'
Laura considered this. There'd been no gun blasts since they'd entered the taller grass. Yet she'd seen no movement, no hint of the shooter.
'Well, there's only one way to find out.' She said, getting to her knees.
Remington pulled her down again. 'I'll do it.'
'See anything?' She asked once he was upright.
'Lord Hemingway. He's walking right toward us.'
'Good Lord, what happened to you?' Lord Hemingway exclaimed as they emerged from the marsh, wet and covered with mud.
Laura glared at him. 'You ought to know. You were shooting at us.'
'Shooting at you?' The man sputtered. 'I haven't used this gun all day. Not a damn snipe in the whole marsh.' He paused, his bushy gray brows pulling down low over his bulbous nose. 'But somebody was shooting. I heard the shots and went to investigate. Thought maybe someone had finally found a snipe. Wanted to get in on the action.'
'Likely story.' Remington snorted.
'It's not a story!' Hemingway retorted, clearly offended. 'It's God's own truth! I swear by my honor as an earl.'
'That smoking gun doesn't say much for your honor, friend.'
The Earl drew himself up ramrod straight. 'I'll have to know that the Hemingway family has lived by its honor for over five hundred years.'
'Where are the others?' Laura asked, cutting across their exchange.
'Don't know.' The Earl admitted. 'We split up an hour or so ago. Lottie started back to the castle with that Iverson woman while Fitzhugh and Gilchrist took off in opposite directions. The Colonel was with me for a short while, but then he said he'd had enough traipsing about in a bog and headed back. Can't say I blame him. I was about to do the same thing when I heard the shooting.'
Laura frowned. There was no reason to believe Hemingway, and there was no reason not to believe him. His alibi was just about as tight as the others. Anyone of them could have been the shooter. All had guns and all were by themselves except for Caroline and Charlotte Hemingway. Not only that but anyone from the house could have gotten a gun and snuck off to do a little target practice.
But what reason would any of these people have for shooting at them? She could only think of two. It was either a warning, something to frighten them off, or it had been a deliberate attempt at murder.
Remington could see the wheels turning in his wife's head. Surely she wasn't going to believe this, he cast a peevish look at the earl, pompous old windbag. They'd been shot at, Hemingway was in the vicinity, case closed. They'd goosestep the old bugger up to the castle, call the police and then pack their bags and leave this godforsaken place.
'You're not going to believe him, are you?' He demanded.
Laura shrugged. 'He's got as good an alibi was everyone else. Anyone could have pulled that trigger. Even the Duchess.'
Remington scowled. Damn it, he'd prove it to her. He grabbed Lord Hemingway's gun and opened the barrel. Two shells were in place. That didn't prove anything, he assured himself. The man could have reloaded before coming forward. Remington felt the barrel. Cold. He sniffed the end. No hint of gunpowder.
Laura looked at him. 'Satisfied?'
Remington tossed the gun back to the earl. 'Not by half.'
'I suppose it would be wishful thinking to blame it on the snipe.' Laura murmured as they started back toward the castle, the earl well ahead of them. Remington had refused to let him walk behind where a bullet to the back would finish the job.
'Why blame it on the snipe when we have the shooter right here?' Remington asked. 'It's an open and shut case, Laura. The earl's your man. He was in the vicinity, and he had the opportunity. He also has beady eyes, which, as any movie detective will tell you, is a sure sign of a criminal mind.'
'He also had an unfired gun.'
'A mere technicality.'
'Hasn't your movie detectives also told you that it's never the obvious suspect?'
'I guess I'm just a cock-eyed optimist. I keep hoping that one of these days we can solve a case before a dead body shows up.' He sighed, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket. 'Today those dead bodies could have been ours.'
'Well, look on the bright side, Mr. Steele,' Laura said, linking her arm through his, 'we know at least one thing for certain.'
'Your early warning system is working like a charm.'
To answer a question from a reviewer: A snipe is a wading bird, characterized by a very slender bill. I've included a picture for anyone who's curious. According to several sites on the internet, hunting season in the UK for common snipe begins August 12th. I must admit ignorance as to whether or not Derbyshire, England has the proper habitat for snipe. I have taken some liberties with time. If I strictly follow the time period in which Remington & Laura were in Venice (during Carnival), they would probably not have been at Kilmorden during snipe hunting season.
If At First You Don't Succeed
'Such a terrible thing to happen to you and Mr. Steele the other day.' Clementine murmured as they walk in the garden after dinner. It was an unusually warm evening, and the guests had all moved out to the lawn where the servants had set up lanes for bowls. 'Margaret was so upset that she's suspended all hunting.'
'Yes, I know.' Laura said dryly. 'Caroline has been talking about nothing else. I almost feel as though she's blaming us for the Duchess's decision.'
'Well, between you and me, Carrie is a little too fond of that shot gun.' Clementine said. 'She always was a dreadful tomboy. Fishing, playing cricket, shooting birds when she should have been learning how to be a lady. She looked so awkward next to our Jane. Like a colt, all legs and shaggy mane. But Jane adored her and insisted that she be given a come-out at the same time as herself. Of course, the young men naturally gravitated to our Jane. So pretty and such a sunny personality. I really must show you her portrait. I keep telling Margaret we ought to move it to the drawing room where it can be seen, but she won't hear of it. No, Clementine, she says, it must stay in the gallery with the others.'
'The entire Fitzhugh family.' Clementine replied. 'From the 1st Duke to Charles, Margaret's late husband. They're all there.' There was a pause and then Clementine suddenly returned to her original topic. 'Of course, I told Margaret that the shooting must have been an accident.'
'I'm sure that's what the shooter wanted it to look like.' Laura agreed.
Clementine looked at her sharply. 'Are you saying it wasn't an accident?'
'One shot is an accident.' Laura told her. 'But we were shot at several times. That seems pretty deliberate to me.'
'Oh dear.' The older lady said worriedly. 'How distressing. It's a wonder you haven't left us.'
Yes, a wonder, indeed, Laura thought, remembering the chorus she'd had to withstand upon their return to the house. It'd been three to one in favor of packing up and going back to London. Strangely enough, it had been Daniel who'd been the most adamant. He'd cornered her in the maintenance garage where she'd gone to borrow an all terrain vehicle in order to drive back to the scene of the shooting and have a look around.
He'd stopped her just as she was getting behind the wheel.
'Laura, be reasonable.' He'd said, placing a hand on her arm. 'We must leave this place at once.'
She had paused. It was unusual for him to use her real name.
'I don't agree.' She'd told him. 'I think it's important to find out who was shooting at us and why.'
'It's more important that you leave while you still can.' He'd countered. 'There's evil in this house.'
Evil? Strong word for Daniel to use. Strong word to use for a place he'd supposedly never been before a day or so ago. Laura couldn't stop her suspicions from multiplying like rabbits.
'You seem to know a lot about it.' Laura had noted. 'Have you been here before?'
His expression had given nothing away. 'I know the kind. I've been in houses like this before. Deep, dark secrets that are better left undisturbed. Don't let you natural curiosity lead you into following a course of action that you'll later regret.' His fingers had tightened on her arm, almost becoming painful. 'Take Harry and Millie and go back to London. Now.'
Without waiting for her answer, he'd abruptly turned on his heel and left. That had been two days ago, and so far his dire predictions had yet to come true. It had been so quiet, so peaceful that Laura was almost beginning to doubt her own conclusion. Almost. The bullets she'd found in the mud and the log had convinced her that it wasn't a hunting accident. They'd been using birdshot. The bullets she found were the kind used in rifles, not shot guns.
The question that continued to bother her was why. She suspected the Daniel might possibly be able to shed some light on the subject but he wasn't talking. So where to start? Why would any of these people wish to harm or possibly kill her or Remington? It could hardly be for the Collection so she could only guess that it had something to do with the real reason the Duchess had brought them to Kilmorden.
And since the Duchess was talking even less than Daniel her only hope to getting to the bottom of things was to question the nearest of kin. Surely Clementine would have some idea of what her sister was up to. Daniel had said 'deep, dark secrets'. The only 'deep, dark secret' surrounding this family seemed to be connected to the death of Jane Fitzhugh. It seemed as good a place to start as any.
She turned to Clementine. 'Caroline mentioned that there'd been a man in Jane's life.'
Clementine frowned. 'We don't mention him, especially around Margaret.'
'The Duchess is on the other side of the lawn. She won't hear you.' Laura pointed out. 'Was this man so very terrible then?'
'No, not terrible.' Clementine corrected. 'Just unacceptable.'
'In what way?'
'He was a commoner, and the daughters of Dukes don't get involved with commoners, Mrs. Steele. That probably sounds snobbish to you, coming from the United States, but that's just the way it is among the nobility.' Clementine told her, almost apologetically. 'Of course, at the time, we didn't know that. Jane passed him off as the younger son of an Irish Baron. We were all quite taken with him. Margaret, me, even Caroline. He was a handsome devil with a tongue that must have come out of the Blarney Stone itself. It was only later that we found out that he was the son of a grocer from County Clare. Charles had gotten suspicious, men often do, and had hired a private investigator.'
'And what happened?'
'Naturally Charles ordered Jane to stop seeing the man.'
'And naturally she refused.'
'Of course.' Clementine said with a small smile. 'Girls can be so headstrong, especially when it comes to men, and our Jane certainly had her fair share of spirit.' The smile suddenly died away. 'She took off for Ireland, saying she was going to visit an old school chum. Five months later she was dead.'
'And the man?'
Clementine shrugged. 'Drifted back into the shadows from whence he came.'
'What was his name?'
Laura felt a stab of disappointment. She had almost been expecting, anticipating even, the woman to say a different name, a name like Daniel Chalmers. It would certainly explain his dislike for the house and its family, and he would be around the right age for it. So much for wishful thinking.
They walked a little ways further, following a path lined with rose bushes, before Laura asked. 'How did the Duke and Duchess take it?'
'They were devastated. We all were.' Clementine said. 'But it was particularly hard on them, her being an only daughter and the only heir. When Charles died three years later and Wilcox assumed the title, for Margaret it was like Jane had died all over again. Neither she nor Charles had cared much for his younger brother, William. He was always a bit of a ne'er-do-well, and Wilcox had always been such an unpleasant boy.' She suddenly looked uncomfortable, twisting her hands together anxiously. 'I'm afraid that Margaret for the longest time believed Wilcox responsible for Jane's death.'
'How could he be?' Laura asked. 'She died in an auto accident.'
'I know it sounds incredible, but once Margaret gets an idea in her head, it's nearly impossible to shift it. She barely spoke to him for years, but lately, she's begun inviting him and his family to Kilmorden. I think she's realized that if the Fitzhugh line is to continue, it'll have to be through Wilcox, no matter how loathsome the thought.' There was a pause and then she suddenly turned to Laura with too bright expression. 'Do you play bowls, Mrs. Steele?'
It was an obvious attempt to change the subject.
Laura eyed the activity on the lawn. Mildred was in the process of beating Colonel Brewster-Cole. She had made the transition from bowling to bowls very well. The fact that she, a mere secretary, was even allowed to join them that evening had been a feat managed by her beloved boss. Remington had somehow convinced the Duchess to grin and bear it. Too bad he couldn't work the same miracle on the Colonel. The man was positively glowering.
'I've bowled a little bit back home,' Laura began, 'but I don't think '
'Then you'll do just fine.' Clementine declared, taking her arm and leading her across the lawn.
For a delicate-looking woman she was surprisingly strong, and Laura soon found herself with a bowl in her hand, taking aim at something called a 'jack'. She would have preferred to continue her conversation with Clementine, but that lady had taken a seat beside the Duchess, effectively ending any more questions about a dead girl named Jane.
Laura sent the bowl rolling across the grass and then frowned. The bowl had taken an unexpected curve. She had the uncanny feeling that the same thing was about to happen to their case.
'Your secretary appears to be giving the Colonel a damn good hiding.' Wilcox Fitzhugh noted, settling himself in the chair beside Remington. 'I'm amazed that Aunt Margaret allowed her to join us this evening. She never lets that scarecrow Hightower anywhere near a social function. Servants,' his voice rose in a fairly good imitation of the Duchess, 'do not mingle with their employers.'
'Mrs. Starr isn't a servant.' Remington informed him coldly. 'She's a friend.'
'Ah, yes,' Wilcox said, waving his gin and tonic at him, 'I'd forgotten you're a Yank. You chaps actually want to be friends with your employees. How egalitarian of you.' He lifted his glass in a salute and downed a healthy swallow. Then he slumped back in his chair. 'Still, it's odd how old Maggie took a shine to you so quickly.'
There was nothing odd about it at all, Remington thought, somewhat irritably. Charming ladies was a specialty of his. Hadn't that been how Laura and Murphy had employed him in the first few months at the agency? The Duchess might be well into her sunset years and more than a little toffee-nosed, but she was still a woman.
'One would think,' Wilcox continued, sending him a sidelong glance, 'that you had an inside lane with the old girl.'
What exactly was the man implying, Remington wondered, his brows coming together in an irritated frown. And inside lane to what? He hadn't even known the Duchess until a few days ago, and their initial meeting had been frosty at best. Even now he wasn't sure he liked the old girl. She was always asking about his past, where he was born, who his parents were, and as Laura could testify, such questions made him uncomfortable.
Now Wilcox was looking at him in that weasel-like way of his, implying God only knows what. The gin had obviously pickled the man's brain.
'I reckon she just likes country boys.' He drawled.
'She never has before.'
'Well, you know what they say about women '
Wilcox stared at him. 'What do they say?'
Remington searched around for a satisfactory answer. What did they say about women? He smiled, showing a lot of teeth. 'Come now, Willie, we're men of the world. Surely I don't need to spell it out.'
The man's pale brows came together in a scowl. Remington couldn't tell if it was a scowl of annoyance at the familiar use of his name or a scowl of bewilderment. He might have found out if the bowls game hadn't suddenly broken up, sending the participants and spectators in search of new amusement. Mark Gilchrist, the Hemingways and Caroline Iverson apparently thought it could be found with them for they surrounded the two men like a gaggle of geese.
'Bowls is certainly no replacement for hunting.' Caroline declared, flinging herself down in a lawn chair.
'Hear, hear.' Lord Hemingway agreed, settling himself a bit more gingerly. Even then the wicker chair creaked under his weight. 'It was dashed inconsiderate of Margaret to cancel all of it because of one little accident.'
'Hardly little.' Remington put in. Hemingway was still at the top of his chief suspect list. 'Molly and I were dang near killed.'
'Tosh!' Mark said with a laugh, waving another one of those infamous gin and tonics at him. 'Hunting accidents happen all the time. My good friend, Porky Lipton, had his favorite spaniel bitch killed by a stray bullet only last fall.'
'If it were an accident,' Remington drawled, 'then how do y'all explain rifle bullets being used rather than birdshot?'
'Rifle bullets?' Hemingway exclaimed. 'You must be mistaken, Brown.'
'Molly went back to scene of the shooting and found several rifle bullets.'
'So someone was using a rifle.' Mark said. 'What does that prove? It's not unheard of to use a rifle to hunt snipe.'
'If they'd hit a snipe with them bullets, there wouldn't have been anything left but feathers.' Remington told him. 'They were the size used for hunting deer.'
There was a silence. An uneasy silence, he thought, watching the faces of the people around him. They all seemed to be looking anywhere but at him. They weren't even looking at each other. Only Caroline Iverson regarded him with open interest, and it was she who finally broke the impasse.
'You've hunted snipe with a rifle before, haven't you, Wilcox?'
Wilcox jumped as though his chair had received an electrical shock. He glared at Caroline. 'Not that day. We were all using shot guns.'
'Apparently not everyone.' Remington murmured.
'Then it must have been someone who wasn't in our party.' Wilcox insisted. 'We were all together, and we can all testify that all of us had shot guns.' His eyes darted to everyone in the group. 'Am I right or aren't I?'
'You're right.' Hemingway agreed with a sigh. 'We all had shot guns.'
'Which would mean that it wasn't an accident.' Remington concluded. 'Whoever fired those shots wasn't interested in shooting snipe.'
Wilcox glowered at him. 'You sound more like a bloody detective than a cowboy.'
Remington flashed another toothy grin. 'Molly and I read a lot of mysteries. It can get mighty lonesome on the range, you know.'
'Well,' Charlotte Hemingway broke in cheerfully, clearly wanting to lighten the mood, 'whether it was an accident or not, we can be sure it won't happen again. Margaret's made sure of that. What do you suppose she'll offer as a replacement?'
'Croquet.' Caroline said gloomily.
Remington sat silent as the rest of the group began debating the pros and cons of croquet, his eyes once again studying the men and women around him. Their reactions had been interesting. All had looked uneasy except for Caroline. He wondered what that meant and wished that Laura had been a part of the conversation. Surely she would have put together a theory by now.
'Well, if y'all will excuse me,' he said, getting to his face, 'I'll just mosey off and find my wife.'
He had only taken a few steps when a voice stopped him.
'I say, Brown?'
He turned. Wilcox had followed him. 'Yeah?'
'Do you ride?'
'I reckon I do.'
The man cast a quick look behind him at the group and then said. 'Perhaps you'll join me for a ride tomorrow morning. Say about seven?'
Remington's first reaction was to say no, absolutely not. Riding with a weasel like Wilcox would be akin to Chinese water torture, one agonizing drip at a time, and he opened his mouth to deliver a resounding no when he paused, his eyes studying the man. There was a restless quality about Wilcox that made him wonder if he had something weighing on his mind, something he'd like to share, something that might shed some light on why someone would take aim at two Yanks.
'I'll be there.' He said and then turned to go find Laura.
Laura woke with a start. She lay in bed, listening. All she could hear was Remington's soft breathing beside her. Yet something had awakened her.
Her eyes went to the bedside clock. It was a little after two. They'd only been asleep for a couple hours. The bowls game had ended when the Duchess had announced her intention of going to her rooms a little after ten o'clock. The others had dispersed to find their own amusements. She and Remington had headed to their room where they spent fifteen minutes discussing what they'd learned from their conversations with the other guests and a good hour making love atop a gold brocade bedspread.
She was smiling in recollection of their vigorous romp, remembering how the tassels on the canopy above had danced crazily, when she heard it. A light tap against the windowpane. Her eyes went to the window directly across from the bed, which glowed like an eerie rectangle. They were on the second floor. It was impossible for someone to be tapping against the window. Unless they were clinging to the side of the building like Spiderman, she amended as she waited for the tap to come once again.
It did, and she got up, reaching for her robe. Her hand touched the brocade coverlet instead. She stood for a moment, puzzled, and then remembered that Remington, in his enthusiasm to remove it, had flung her robe in the general direction of she paused, thinking well, she wasn't quite sure. She hadn't much cared where it had landed. At the time she'd been much too interested in what those talented fingers of his were doing to care about a robe. It had never occurred to her that she might need it during the night.
She glanced around, searching for something to take its place. Remington's robe was draped across one of those ugly yellow chairs. It wasn't her style, being black and slinky and thoroughly useless at keeping out the cold, but any port in the storm. She had just tied the belt and was getting ready to pull her hair from beneath the collar when another one of those taps sent her jumping backwards. A pea-sized rock has just struck the glass.
What kind of numskull was throwing rocks at their window at two in the morning? She grasped the window ledge and heaved upwards, intending to give the miscreant a good old fashioned tongue lashing. It groaned in protest but opened, and Laura leaned out, searching the ground below. Nothing but yew bushes and a statue of a wood nymph.
Figures, she thought, getting ready to shut the window, run off and hide when you're caught. Suddenly a flutter of white caught her eye, and she paused. As she watched a figure in a flowing garment detached itself from a hedge of cedars and drifted, almost floated along the hedge before disappearing into the deeper shadows of the south garden.
Without bothering to stop and question what or who it was, she did the first thing that came to mind. She went in pursuit. Hurrying across the bedroom, she let herself into the sitting room and then out the double doors into the hallway. She frowned, wishing she'd brought a flashlight. The hallway was dark, much too dark, but undeterred she felt her way along, allowing her instincts to guide her in the direction of the staircase.
It, too, was dark, and her frown deepened. She distinctly remembered a pair of wall scones lighting the stairway as she, Remington and Mildred had climbed the stairs to their rooms. They'd been burning dimly but sufficiently. Now they'd been mysteriously turned off. Only the silvery light from high clerestory windows showed her where the top step began.
She placed her foot on it and instantly regretted her impulse to hunt down an elusive rock thrower. Two hands, and they were hands, she assured herself, appeared out of the darkness and gave her a terrific shove. She teetered for a moment, her own hands grasping frantically at the railing, before she lost her balance and went tumbling down the stairs.
If she hadn't learned how to take falls in gymnastics while in college, she might have broken her neck. As it was, she only ended up with a good whack on the head when she landed in a heap on the marble floor. Darkness momentarily engulfed her.
When she opened her eyes again, she found herself staring into the face of a young man. He was standing over her, hands on hips, looking down at her as though she was something the cat had drug in.
'Who are you?' She asked.
'Wesley Fitzhugh. Who are you?' He shot back.
'Lau Molly Brown.'
'Dashed stupid place to take a nap.' He commented. 'You scared the living daylights out of me.'
'I'm not taking a nap.' Laura snapped. 'I was pushed down the stairs.'
'Were you now?' He said, his eyes going to the steps in question. 'Why would someone be doing that?'
'Good question, Mr. Fitzhugh. You wouldn't happen to know the answer, would you?'
'Me?' Wesley exclaimed, flattening one palm against his chest. 'I just got here. How would I know who you've buggered off enough to send you tumbling down a flight of stairs?' He suddenly brightened as a thought struck him. 'But if you want me to hazard a guess, I'd say Wilcox did it. He always has been a beastly sort of chap. Used to pull wings off dragonflies.'
Laura scowled. 'That's terrible.'
'I told you he was a beast.'
'I haven't heard many good things about you either.'
He pulled a long face. 'Auntie's been talking again, has she? She's never forgiven me for Candi Cane.'
'That was her stage name.' He provided helpfully. 'She's an exotic dancer, specialized in holiday cheer. You should see what she can do with a Christmas cracker. Brought her up here last Christmas, thought she'd liven the old place up. Auntie went apoplectic when she popped out of a plum pudding in nothing but a Father Christmas cap. Now I thought that quite amusing.'
'I just bet you did.' Laura muttered, sitting up. 'How about giving me a hand?'
Wesley proffered the requested hand, and Laura managed to get to her feet. She hurt all over, but she was lucky to have nothing more than bruises and a lump on the back of her head. She started up the steps, leaning heavily on the banister. Her left ankle felt as though someone had tried to twist it off.
'Hey, where you going?' Wesley called.
'Sounds delightful.' He said, hurrying up the steps after her. 'Would you care for company?'
I don't think Mr. Brown would like that.'
'Oh, you've got one of those, do you? Hard cheese.'
They'd reached the top of the stairs and Laura started limping down the hallway. She jumped when she felt an arm go around her waist.
'What are you doing?' She demanded, stiffening.
'Helping you.' Wesley told her. 'Suspicious creature, aren't you?'
'You would be to if someone had just chucked you down the stairs.' She retorted. 'By the way, did you happen to see anyone lurking about the garden when you came in?'
'Nothing out there but Auntie Clem's old Tom. Damn near tripped over the thing.'
Laura sniffed the air. 'Are you sure it wasn't a bottle of scotch that caused you to trip?'
He grinned. 'You've got a good nose, Mrs. Brown.'
'That's what Mr. Brown is always telling me.'
She pushed open the double doors and they shuffled into the sitting room.
'Laura?' Remington's voice called from the bedroom. 'Is that you?'
'I thought your name was Molly.' Wesley said in her ear.
'Laura's my middle name. Mr. Brown prefers it.' Raising her voice she called out. 'Yes, it's me, and we've got company.'
Remington took the hint and appeared in the doorway, dressed but disheveled in jeans, an unbuttoned shirt and bare feet. He scowled at Wesley. 'Who's this bugger?'
'Wesley Fitzhugh.' Laura answered.
'I should have known. The Prodigal always returns at some point.' He glared at the arm around Laura's waist. 'Affectionate blighter, isn't he?'
'He was helping me back to the room.'
'Because someone just pushed me down the stairs.'
Remington's suspicion immediately turned to concern. He hurried forward, detached her from Wesley's side and helped her over to a chair.
'Are you ok?' His eyes ran over her anxiously.
'Just some bruises and a lump on my head. And my ankle feels like someone tried to twist it off.'
He immediately began searching for the lump. She winced when he found it.
'Are you sure you were pushed?' He asked.
Satisfied that she wasn't bleeding profusely, he turned his attention to her ankle. He wiggled it back and forth experimentally. She bit down hard on her bottom lip. A cry of pain would no doubt have him bundling her into a car for a ride to the nearest hospital.
'I felt two hands on my back.' She gritted.
Remington released her foot and sat back on his heels, scowling. 'Laura, this is serious. This is the second time someone's tried to kill you. It's time we left.'
'Whoa!' Wesley said from the chair in which he'd flung himself. 'Did you say that someone's tried something like this before?'
'We were shot at while hunting two days ago.' Laura told him.
Wesley paled and ran a hand through his already mussed hair. 'I knew I should have stayed in the city with Pidge.'
'Pidge?' Remington echoed.
'Pigeon O'Reilly.' Wesley supplied. 'She performs with trained pigeons.'
Remington stared at the man as though he'd gone mad.
'Mr. Fitzhugh has a fondess for exotic dancers.' Laura supplied.
'Lovely.' Remington muttered before asking her, somewhat irritably. 'What were you doing roaming the halls of Kilmorden at two in the morning anyway?'
'Someone was throwing pebbles at our window.' She explained. 'They woke me up. When I looked out the window, I saw someone in white disappearing into the garden. Naturally I went to have a talk with the person.'
'Did you say white?' Wesley asked, sitting up straight.
Laura looked at him. 'Yes. Why?'
'I see our Janie is at it again.'
'Janie?' Remington asked. 'Who's Janie?'
'Our resident ghost. All these old places have them, you know. The toffs make a bloody fortune charging admission to see them.'
'Ghosts don't throw rocks.' Laura stated.
'This was not a ghost.' Laura insisted. 'It was a person, and they were throwing rocks at our window for a reason.'
'To lure someone to their death perhaps?' Remington suggested.
'Sirens do that.' Wesley put in. 'Our Jane isn't a siren. She's just the average, run of the mill spook.'
Laura glared at him. 'Exactly how many scotches did you have tonight, Mr. Fitzhugh?'
He shrugged. 'Oh, three or four. Nothing I can't handle.'
'That's debatable.' Laura snorted.
'Look,' Remington said, breaking into the exchange, 'can we get back to the point of this conversation?'
'Which is?' Laura asked, lifting an eyebrow.
'That we need to leave this place immediately. Right now. Tonight. Someone is trying to kill you.'
'Which is exactly why we need to stay put.' Laura declared, getting up and limping toward the bedroom. 'I've never run away from danger in my life, and I'm not about to start now.'
'Spunky bird, isn't she?' Wesley asked, clearly impressed.
'Remington glanced at him. 'Don't you have a bed to pour yourself into?'
'Auntie's got my usual room prepared, I suppose.'
'Then why don't you go to it.'
The men studied each other like opponents in a ring, and then Wesley got up. He obviously knew a threat when he saw it. 'Right. I'll just be leaving then.'
Remington watched him depart, making sure the bugger did what he said he was going to do, and then got up and hurried after Laura. He caught up with her just as she was climbing into bed.
'Laura,' he drawled.
She looked at him. 'What?'
'You can't go to sleep with that knot on your head. You should stay awake for at least another hour.'
'Fat chance.' She declared, falling back against the pillows and pulling the sheets up to her chin. 'I'm beat.' But she sat up again when he pulled a suitcase from beneath the bed. 'What are you doing?'
'But those are my clothes.' She protested when he tossed an armful of lacy undies and bras into the case. They were soon followed by the contents of the armoire, hangers and all.
'Brilliant deduction, my dear.' He told her, retrieving her shoes and tossing them in as well. 'I suggest you get dressed. The ride back to London will be a bit nippy in nothing but a bed sheet.' He smiled that old rakish grin of his. 'I won't mind, but you might.'
'I'm not going anywhere.' She retorted, removing the clothing as fast as he could put it in. 'There's a mystery here, and I'm going to solve it.'
'Laura,' he said, sitting down on the bed and taking her by the shoulders, 'someone is trying to kill you. That beautiful neck of yours might not mean much to you, but it means a great deal to me. I'm not going to sit by and let some nut bump you off.'
She stared at him and then said. 'What makes you think that whoever is doing this won't follow me back to London?'
He hadn't thought of that. She could see the worry turn to something darker. His jaw clenched and his eyes took on a steely glint. 'If he does, I'll kill him with my bare hands.'
'I appreciate the offer.' She said, laying a hand against his cheek. 'I've never known a man willing to kill for me, but I'd prefer you not go to prison. I'm not as skilled in jail breaks as you. Don't you think it would be better for everyone if we stayed here and solved this thing?'
'And how are we going to do that?'
'We're going to do what we should have done as soon as we saw those jewels.'
'Confront the Duchess and find out exactly why she brought us here.'
He considered her suggestion. 'It might work.'
'It'll at least give us an idea of what this is all about.' She said, her hands sliding beneath the open flaps of his shirt. 'You've got too many clothes on.'
'Laura,' he protested as she pushed the shirt off his shoulders and then reached for the button of his jeans, 'do you know what you're doing?'
'I always know what I'm doing.' She murmured, trailing kisses along his collar bone. 'You said you wanted me to stay awake for another hour, didn't you?'
'You just fell down a flight of stairs.' He reminded her, his protest losing its clout when it came out in a long, drawn-out gasp.
'Sex, Mr. Steele, releases endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers.'
'Then I see no reason to argue with science.' He said, pushing her down into the pillows.
The Portrait in the Gallery
'You're late, Brown.' Wilcox said as Remington entered the stable yard. 'We had an appointment to ride at seven. Tardiness is a bit of a habit with you, what?'
Remington glared at the man. He was in no mood for Fitzhugh's barbs. He'd gotten very little sleep last night thanks to Laura's tumble down the stairs, and his patience was feeling the effects. Not that he was blaming her not directly anyway. Indirectly, well, that was different matter entirely. She simply refused to see sense and leave the blasted place. As a result, he'd spent the remainder of the night staring up at that ugly yellow canopy, his ears attuned to every creak and groan.
Someone was trying to kill her. That statement really shouldn't have made his blood run cold, not with Laura's history, Carl and the bulletproof jacket came instantly to mind, but this time was different. This time they didn't have a clue why someone wanted her dead. And he didn't put much hope in getting the truth out of the Duchess. That old bird was one tough cookie. She wouldn't speak until she was ready.
And when would that be, he'd asked himself as he'd strode toward the stables. When someone was dead? His worry fueled by a sleepless night burst into angry flames. So help him if Laura was harmed in any way because of that old lady's scheming he'd personally wring her bloody neck.
He walked over to the dappled gray horse a stable lad was holding and patted its nose before sending Wilcox a steely look. 'If you've got a problem with that, you're welcome to ride alone.'
'No, no,' Wilcox said hastily, 'I've waited this long. What's another minute or two?' He tried an apologetic smile that looked more like an attack of indigestion. 'Don't mind me, Brown. I had a bit of a rough night. Couldn't sleep.'
'Join the club.' Remington muttered, checking the reins and saddle. Both were secure.
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'Someone pushed Molly down the stairs last night.' Remington glanced up, fixing a hard blue gaze on him. 'I don't reckon you have any idea who that might have done something like that.'
There was a pause in which both men studied each other, and then Wilcox said stiffly. 'I don't like the tone of your voice, Brown.'
'Sorry. I tend to get real sore when some ornery critter tries to hurt my wife.'
'Well, I didn't do it.' Wilcox retorted. 'You can ask Aisling if you like. I didn't leave the room all night.'
'The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.' Remington murmured under his breath.
'What?' Wilcox asked. 'What was that?'
'Oh, nothing.' Remington assured him, placing a boot into the stirrup. 'Just a little Shakespeare to brighten up an otherwise drab and dismal morning.'
He heaved himself upwards. The horse danced to one side, unbalancing him. He tried again and this time landed with expert ease in the saddle, a perfect mount which is why he was so startled when the horse instantly began pawing the air and neighing loudly. The stable lad grabbed at the halter but missed as he dodged the flailing hooves. Remington clung to the saddle, stern-faced, as he worked to control the animal, but it was to no avail. The horse, his eyes rolling wildly, shot off across the yard, headed for the open fields.
'Brown!' Wilcox shouted.
But Remington didn't hear him. He was too busy keeping his seat. Had he not been an excellent horseman, he would have found himself on the ground long ago. Which might not have been such a bad thing, he thought grimly as they approached a low stone fence. Falling off when the horse hadn't reached full speed would have only brought a few bruises. Falling off now, when the horse was at a full gallop, would cause more serious injury, possibly even a broken neck.
The fence was approaching fast, too fast. He braced himself, preparing his body for the jump. They sailed over, landing with a hard thud on the other side. He might have let out a victory yell if the landing hadn't caused the horse to immediately stop and throw his legs out in a tremendous buck. Slightly unbalanced from the jump, Remington didn't have time to react. He found himself flying over the horse's head. Then everything went dark, mercifully dark.
Laura was just emerging from the bathroom when she heard the sirens. They weren't like the ones she was used to. These went 'nee nah nee nah'. She wondered briefly what poor soul needed an ambulance before continuing into the bedroom where she dressed in dark brown slacks with matching jacket. No western garb today. She wanted to look her most professional when she confronted the Duchess. She was just tying a scarf of muted greens around her neck when Mildred burst into the room.
'There's been an accident!'
Laura stared at her. It was unusual for Mildred to be so flustered and out of breath. It must be some accident indeed. Another shooting perhaps?
'What kind of accident?'
'It's the boss.' Mildred said grimly. 'He's been thrown off his horse.'
Laura didn't ask any more questions. She left the room, hurrying down the hallway as fast as her sore ankle would let her. She didn't need to ask anyone where the accident was. All she had to do was follow the 'nee nah nee nah'. And if that hadn't been enough, she could have just followed the trail of servants collecting in a field behind the stables. Even some of the guests had gathered. The Colonel, Lord Hemingway and Caroline were among the group huddled around the ambulance.
She pushed through the crowd and had almost reached the inner circle when a hand caught her arm.
'Not so fast, Miss.' A voice said. 'Only emergency personnel are allowed near the victim.'
'I'm his wife.' She declared, straining against the hand.
'Well, in that case '
The hand released her and she surged forward. Even then she had a hard time seeing Remington. He was surrounded by paramedics. They were busy strapping him onto a carrying board, his head and neck secured by side supports. She glanced wildly around, hoping for someone with answers and was surprised to see Wilcox, standing nearby, his expression anxious. He was worrying a riding crop between his fingers.
'What happened?' She asked.
Wilcox shrugged helplessly. 'I don't know. As soon as he mounted the horse it went mad. There was no way he could have stayed seated. No way.'
Laura grabbed the arm of a passing paramedic. 'What's going on?' She paused, swallowing hard. 'Is his neck broken?'
'We don't think so.' The man said. 'But it's hard to tell with him being unconscious. Best to let the hospital decide.' He saw her staring at the supports and strapping. 'Those are just precautions, Miss. We do it with everyone that might have a spinal injury. It could cause further damage if we don't.'
She watched as they lifted the board and carried to the waiting ambulance. The doors thudded shut with a finality that sent a shiver down her spine. Then with a squawk of the siren, the ambulance was off. Was this an accident like Mildred said or was this another attempt at murder? As she hurried to the garage where the long, white convertible was housed, she dreaded the answer.
Remington woke with a blistering headache. It throbbed and pounded and basically made life miserable. He groaned and tried to raise his left hand to his head. But he couldn't. It felt heavy, like it was incased in stone. His eyes fluttered open and then immediately shut again as the bright whiteness of his surroundings sent pain ricocheting through his head. Where was he? Heaven?
He opened one eye, just a crack. No, it wasn't Heaven. That wasn't St. Peter standing at the end of his bed with a clipboard in his hand; it was Nurse Ratched.
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Jack Nicholson, United Artist, 1975.' He murmured and was relieved to see his brain was still working even if it was aching abominably.
The nurse's head came up at the sound of his voice. 'So you're awake at last. Dr. Gordon will be glad to hear it.'
'Where's Laura?' When the nurse didn't respond as quickly as he would have liked, he took matters into his own hands. 'Laura?' He called. When she, too, remained stubbornly unresponsive, he called more urgently. 'Laura!'
'Mr. Steele.' The nurse scolded. 'This is a hospital. We don't raise our voices.'
He ignored her. 'Laura!'
There was a flurry of footsteps and suddenly Laura's face appeared above him.
'I'm right here.' She said. 'What are you yelling about?'
'Where the devil am I?' He demanded. 'And what's this thing on my wrist?'
'You're in the hospital.' Laura told him. 'And that thing on your wrist is a cast. You've seen one before. You had one on your left leg and your right leg at the same time. Remember? They were your consolation prize for being Bachelor Number Four.'
He frowned and then winced as the movement of his brows set off another pounding crescendo in his head.
'My head hurts.' He mumbled miserably.
'That's because you've got a concussion.'
He looked up at her. 'What happened?' His expression turned anxious. 'You can tell me, Laura. Was I set upon by five or six ruffians? Ran over by a speeding lolly? Eh? Eh?'
'You don't remember?'
'It hurts too much to remember.'
Laura took pity on him. 'You went out riding this morning with Wilcox, and you fell off your horse.'
Despite the pain, the frown returned, blacker than before.
'I do not 'fall off' horses.' He stated haughtily.
'Sorry, sport,' she said with a smile, 'but you fell off. Right on that head of yours. You were lucky to only break a wrist.'
'If I fell off,' he retorted with as much dignity as he could muster, 'and I'm not saying I did, it must have been under unusual circumstances.'
'It was.' Laura told him. 'Wilcox said your horse went mad as soon as you were in the saddle.'
Remington closed his eyes, trying to remember. A memory of a crazed gallop across a field ending at a low stone fence swam out of the pain in his head. Never in his life had he seen a horse act so strangely, so crazed when only moments before it had been serenely placid. His frown deepened as his left palm, half-encased in plaster, began to itch.
'When do I get out of here?' He asked irritably.
'Tomorrow morning. They're keeping you overnight for observation.' Laura moved to one side as a candy striper came in carrying a tray. 'Hope you like Jell-O.'
The first person Laura saw when she got back from the hospital was Daniel. He met her as she was walking from the garage to the castle.
'He's got a concussion and a broken wrist.' She said wearily. It was only a little after two in the afternoon, but she felt beat. 'They're keeping him overnight for observation, and if everything goes well, we can pick him up tomorrow.'
'I'll have his things packed and ready to go.'
'We're not leaving.' Laura snapped, her temper flaring. How many times did she have to tell the man that? 'We're staying here and solving this thing. Somebody is trying to kill us and I intend to find out why.'
'Not us.' He corrected her. 'Harry.'
'Attempts were made on both of our lives.' Laura pointed out.
'Your involvement was purely coincidental. A happenstance of proximity.'
'You seem pretty sure of that. Do you know something I don't know?'
'As a matter of fact, I do.'
He held out his hand. On the palm lay a small metal object. It looked like a steel burr. She looked at Daniel. It wasn't exactly what she'd been expecting. She had hoped for a confession.
'That,' he told her, 'is a device used to turn normally placid horses into crazed fiends. It digs into their skin, causing pain. I found it cleverly wedged into Harry's saddle. The stable lad would have never found it unless he was looking for it.'
Laura stared at the metal burr, her mind whirling. Was Daniel right? Had Remington been the target all along? They were both together at the shooting. The shooter could have been aiming at either one of them. But what about last night? It had been she who'd been pushed down the stairs. There was no doubt of that.
She paused as a thought occurred to her. The hallway had been dark, and she'd been wearing Remington's robe. Normally her longer hair would have identified her as a woman, but last night, in her haste, she'd left her hair tucked beneath the collar. In the dark, a mistake could have been made.
But how could the murderer have known that Remington would come out of the room in response to the rock throwing instead of her. They couldn't have. They would have had to take a chance, a gamble. It must have been a disappointment to find they'd pushed the wrong person down the stairs. It meant they'd have to arrange yet another accident.
She would have liked to ask Daniel how he'd known Harry had been the target, but she had other fish to fry at the moment.
'Would you mind if I borrow that?' She asked in a tight voice.
Daniel looked at her suspiciously. 'What for?'
'To make a business call.'
Before he could answer, she'd snatched it out of his hand and started up the stairs. Ignoring the ache in her ankle she strode resolutely toward the Duchess's private quarters. Grasping the double doors, she flung them open. Ambrose Hightower, seated at a desk, jumped up.
'Mrs. Steele ' He began.
'Where is she?'
She saw his eyes flicker toward a door to the right before he said coolly. 'The Duchess is busy at the moment.' He flipped open the schedule book on the desk. 'Perhaps if you came back at four '
'This can't wait, Boris.' And with that she charged across the room, brushing him aside like a running back going for a touchdown.
The Duchess was seated behind a desk similar to the one in the outer office, a pen in her hand, when Laura burst through the door.
'I'm sorry, Your Grace.' Hightower said gloomily. 'I tried to stop her.'
'It's ok, Ambrose.' The Duchess said, lowering her pen. 'I've been expecting her.'
Hightower departed, closing the doors behind him.
The Duchess looked at Laura. 'I'm surprised you waited this long.'
'The stakes got a little too high today. My husband was nearly killed.' She slammed the steel burr onto the desk. No wonder the horse had gone mad, she thought as the metal bit into her hand. 'That was found under his saddle.'
'Crude but effective.' The Duchess murmured. 'How is Mr. Steele?'
'Do you care?' Laura demanded. 'It seems to me that you have very little concern for the lives of those you employ. We're just pawn pieces in some mysterious chess game. You didn't bring us here to protect the Kilmorden Collection. That was all a ruse. You brought us here to solve a thirty year old murder. What puzzles me is what Mr. Steele has to do with that murder.'
The Duchess studied her for a long moment or two, her blue eyes cool as a mountain lake, and then stood up. 'Follow me, Mrs. Steele.'
'To the answer, of course.'
Laura wanted to demand an explanation right then and there. She was tired of playing games with this old lady. Nevertheless, she followed as the Duchess led her from of the room. Ambrose looked up sullenly as they passed his desk but said nothing. He's well trained, Laura thought as they entered the hallway. Had it been Mildred she would have wanted to be in on the secret.
It seemed as though their walk from one end of the castle to the other would never end, but finally the Duchess led them into a long, wide hall, which was completely bare except for two brocade benches. On the walls hung a multitude of portraits. This must be the gallery that Clementine had spoken of.
The Duchess stopped in front of a portrait of a young woman with black hair and vivid blue eyes. 'This is my daughter, Jane. As Clementine has already informed you, it was painted on her 18th birthday.'
Laura stared at the girl. She seemed familiar somehow, and the familiarity didn't come from viewing Clementine's locket. 'She's very beautiful.'
'And headstrong.' The Duchess added. 'She chose a very unsuitable man to consort with.' She sent Laura a sidelong glance. 'No doubt Clementine's told you about him as well.'
'Caroline mentioned him first.'
'He's the man I told Mr. Steele about. He came to tea one day and wove a pretty little tale about stones so blue they were said to have once been pieces of the sky.' She gave a little laugh. 'My, but he was a charming devil. We were all enchanted by him. Me, Clementine, Caroline.' A small frown appeared between her brows. 'Perhaps Caroline most of all. He flattered her, and she wasn't used to men paying her compliments. But Charles was suspicious.'
She took a couple of steps, stopping in front of another portrait. 'This is my late husband.'
The man looked stern, the classic example of an old world autocrat. Laura took an instant dislike to him. She could easily see this man glowering over the little tea party like the god Saturn, waiting to devour his daughter's happiness.
The Duchess, sensing her dislike, said. 'He wasn't nearly as autocratic as he looks in the portrait, my dear. He was raised to be a Duke, and to the world, he was everything a Duke ought to be. But in private, Charles could be quite tender. He loved his daughter dearly, and that is why he had the man investigated. Unfortunately he misjudged our daughter. I don't think it ever occurred to him that Jane might be in on the deception.'
She moved off, moving further down the hall, and Laura followed. They passed several portraits until the Duchess stopped once again, this time in front of a nearly floor length painting of a man in red doublet, black hose and fur-trimmed overgown.
'And this is Richard Fitzhugh, the 1st Duke of Kilmorden, the man who started it all.'
But Laura barely heard her. She was staring at the portrait, stunned. The black hair was much longer and the clothing all wrong, but the man who looked down his patrician nose at her was the spitting image of the man known as Remington Steele. The only difference was their eyes. This man's were dark, like black diamonds, while Remington's were vivid blue just like the girl's in the first portrait, Laura realized with a sickening little jolt.
'Now do you understand why I brought you here?'
'But ' Laura searched for word, 'how?'
'Isn't it obvious, my dear?' The Duchess asked. 'Jane must have been pregnant when she left for Ireland.'
'It's impossible.' Laura stated, her normally efficient brain resisting what her eyes told her was true.
'That's what I thought when I first saw your husband.' The Duchess said. 'His resemblance to Richard overwhelmed me, and I did a very silly thing. I fainted. When I came to, feeling like an old fool with all those women squawking about me, I still couldn't believe what my eyes had seen. Was it just a fluke of nature, I wondered. There was only one way to find out. I had to get to know this man called Remington Steele. So I hired your agency and brought you here to Kilmorden.'
'And did you find out what you wanted to know?'
'When he described the Royal Lavulite exactly as Jane's lover had, there was no longer any doubt in my mind.' The Duchess declared. 'However, there are complications. If I want to claim Mr. Steele as my grandson, I will need hard evidence. That's where you come in.'
'Me?' Laura asked. 'What do I have to do with all of this?'
'You're a detective, aren't you?' The Duchess demanded. 'Find me the evidence.'
Talk about asking for the impossible, Laura mused, staring at the old lady. They'd been searching for Remington's heritage for years now. Not intensely, no, but there'd been clues along the way that had always ended in dead ends.
'All we've got to go on is a resemblance to a man in a portrait.'
'That resemblance is enough to make someone very nervous.' The Duchess pointed out. 'As Jane's son, he would automatically inherit the title and the estates. I, for one, do not think it's any 'accident' that Mr. Steele is in the hospital right now.'
Laura eyed her thoughtfully, remembering what Clementine had said about the Duchess's opinion of her late husband's nephew. 'You suspect Wilcox.'
'He gained the most from Jane's death, and consequently, he has the most to lose if Mr. Steele is proven to be her son.'
'Do you have any evidence that he's responsible for Jane's death other than motive?'
The Duchess looked unwilling to answer, but she finally said with grim resignation. 'No, I do not.'
'And do you have any evidence that Jane was murdered?' Laura persisted.
Once again the old lady answered grimly. 'No.'
Laura could tell that it took a lot for the old lady to admit that what she'd believed for all these years was not based on any hard evidence. If pressed, she would probably call it mother's intuition. Yet Laura frowned. There was no denying that a pattern had emerged. Jane had died in an auto accident. Likewise, she and Remington had nearly lost their lives in so-called 'accidents'. If there was a murderer, he or she appeared to favor the indirect approach of bumping off their victims.
Still it seemed incredible that the same person who'd killed Jane, if she had been killed, would want to kill her son as well. The most likely motive would be the title, and if that were the case, Wilcox would certainly be the prime suspect. According to Caroline, Wilcox used a rifle to hunt snipe at times and he was with Mr. Steele when his horse bolted. He had motive and opportunity. But maybe that was what someone wanted them to think.
If she accepted this case, she'd have more than one mystery to solve. She had to discover Remington's parentage as well as a murder well over thirty years old. Both trails were cold as a Siberian winter, but the challenge appealed to her. Yet she hesitated. How would Remington feel about her poking around into his past? Knowing how he felt about family, how would he feel about inheriting a grandmother and a Dukedom to keep her in?
The Duchess, growing impatient with her silence, finally demanded. 'Will you take the case or not, Mrs. Steele?'
'I don't know.' Laura admitted. 'I have a feeling my husband would not be pleased.'
'Not pleased?' The Duchess exclaimed, her silver brows shooting upwards. 'Why ever not? I would think inheriting a Dukedom would please any one.'
'Mr. Steele has a thing about family.'
There was a pause and then the Duchess said. 'I'm afraid you have no choice.'
'What do you mean?'
'Someone has reached the same conclusion as we have. As long as he lives, he's a threat to them. Therefore, even if you leave here, his life will always be in danger now that they know he exists.'
Laura grimaced inwardly. She was right. The only way to keep Remington safe was to solve this thirty year old mystery. In the process, she was likely to uncover his heritage. She'd have to take the risk. His life was more important than his wrath.
She looked at the Duchess. 'I'll need to know everything your husband found out about Michael Connors.'
'There's a file in the safe. I'll have Ambrose retrieve it for you.'
'And I'll need to know something about this school friend of Jane's, her name and where she lives.'
'Her name is Deirdre Carson. Her family has an estate outside of Dublin, but I don't think she'll be able to tell you much. Jane, I'm sorry to say, lied to us. She never visited Deirdre. She went to Ireland to be with her lover.'
'Maybe you're right.' Laura agreed. 'But I still have to exhaust every lead.'
'So you'll take the case.'
'As you said, I have very little choice if I want to keep Mr. Steele alive.'
Laura was putting the finishing touches on packing when Mildred walked into the bedroom.
'Nice to see you've finally seen the light.' She said, surveying the open case with grim satisfaction.
Laura glanced up. 'What light?'
Mildred waved a hand at the case. 'You've finally decided it's time we got out of this place.'
'You're not going anywhere.' Laura told her. 'I am.'
Mildred looked perplexed. 'You're the one who's insisted that we hang around this pile of rocks and now you're leaving while the rest of us stays? Am I missing something?'
'I have to go to Ireland, Mildred.'
'Ireland? What's in Ireland?'
'Mr. Steele's birth certificate, I hope.' Laura muttered, shutting the case and zipping it closed.
'Why this sudden interest in Mr. Steele's birth certificate?' Mildred asked suspiciously.
Laura sat the case on the floor before turning and looking at her secretary. She's debated whether or not to tell Mildred exactly what was going on, and she had come to the conclusion that the less people knew, the better, but now she was having second thoughts. If Mildred understood the full significance of her mission, she'd be better able to keep Remington safe while Laura was gone.
'Have a seat, Mildred.' She instructed, motioning to one of the yellow chairs. 'I have something to tell you.'
Fifteen minutes later Mildred breathed. 'Wow! It's just like a historical romance novel. Thwarted love ending in murder, mayhem and a long lost heir.' She sighed rapturously. 'Who would have thought that a con man with five passports was an heir to a Dukedom?'
'I know. It's incredible.' Laura agreed. 'That portrait was pretty convincing, but now that someone is trying to kill Mr. Steele, there seems to be little doubt. But we need evidence. One way or another I have to find out what happened over thirty years ago. It's really the only way to keep him safe.'
'So you believe that story about Jane being murdered?'
Laura shrugged. 'I don't know what to believe at this point. That's why I have to go to Ireland.'
'And what are you going to tell the boss?'
'I'm not going to tell him anything.' Laura said, getting to her feet. 'You're going to pick him up from the hospital tomorrow and tell him I'm doing legwork and will be back in a couple days.'
Mildred looked skeptical. 'You know he's not going to be happy with that.'
'I know.' Laura said, picking up her case. 'But he's going to have to live with it. He's in no condition to be gallivanting around Ireland in pursuit of what he doesn't know is his past.' She looked at Mildred, her expression deadly serious. 'He's in danger here, Mildred. I'm relying on you to keep an eye on him. This murderer appears to like arranging accidents so you must stress on Mr. Steele how important it is to stay with the other guests. If he kicks up a stink, ask Daniel to help you.'
'I'll do my best.' Mildred promised.
'That's all I can ask.'
Laura hurried down the stairs and out to the garage where one of the Duchess's many vehicles waited for her. She had mixed feelings about leaving Remington in Mildred and Daniel's care. If there was any way she could have done this without going to Ireland, she would have, but it appeared that country held all the answers. It was the home of the mysterious Michael Connors, the place where Jane had died and the country where the young Harry had been left.
She tossed the suitcase in the back seat and climbed under the wheel. Her first stop would be at the home of Deirdre Carson. From there she would visit their old friend Flanagan and see if he could tell her anything about Patrick O'Rourke, the man who'd been given a stolen pocket watch. Finally it would be on to County Clare where she hoped to find some trace of the elusive Michael Connors.
It was a lot to accomplish in a couple days, but somehow she had to find a way. Remington's life depended on it. Mildred and Daniel could only protect him for so long. Eventually the murderer would try again, and this time Harry's luck might not hold.
In Pursuit of a Past
It was somewhat of an unpleasant shock to Remington to be wheeled out of the hospital the next afternoon and see Mildred leaning against the fender of the long, white convertible rather than Laura. His mood, which had been flirting with petulance all morning, teetered on the edge of a full scale temper tantrum. He scowled at Mildred.
'It's good to see you too.' Mildred replied, holding the door of the car as he transferred himself from wheelchair to front seat.
'Ridiculous contraption.' He snorted, giving the wheelchair a contemptuous glance as it was rolled away by the candy striper that had delivered his daily supply of Jell-O. 'I told them I didn't need it, but they insisted. I broke my wrist, damn it, not my legs.'
'They're just taking precautions.' Mildred assured him, hurrying around to the other side of the car and climbing under the wheel.
'You didn't answer my question.' Remington pointed out. 'Where's Laura?'
'You really know how to make a girl feel wanted.' Mildred said, turning the key and bringing the big white beast to life. 'I drive all this way to pick you up and all you can ask about is Mrs. Steele. What am I? Chopped liver?'
'Where's Laura?' He repeated for the third time. Perhaps this time would be the charm, he thought sourly.
'And she couldn't stop long enough to pick me up?'
'It's a little difficult when she's in Ireland.'
'Ireland?' Remington exclaimed, his head whipping in Mildred's direction. He winced as the sudden movement set off a throbbing jolt of pain. 'What's she doing in Ireland?'
Remington struggled to maintain his cool. Any minute now this was going to turn in Abbott & Costello's famous 'Who's on first?' routine if he wasn't careful. Mildred was being deliberately obtuse, which caused more suspicion than it relieved. What was Laura up to? Why had she gone to Ireland without him? They were a team, weren't they?
'Pardon me for asking,' he murmured, his voice dripping sarcasm, 'but what does Ireland have to do with a second rate jewel collection?'
'Oh, that's off.' Mildred said, guiding the big car onto the freeway. 'Murder takes precedence.'
'Murder? What murder?' Remington asked, slightly alarmed. 'Don't tell me someone was bumped off while I was enjoying the tender clutches of Nurse Ratched.'
'One Flew Over ' Remington stopped. Unbelievable as it may seem, this was no time for movie references. 'Oh, never mind. Just tell me who's been murdered.'
Remington's brows pulled together in a frown. 'Jane? Who's Jane?'
'That must have been some conk on the head.' Mildred murmured, sending him a sidelong glance. 'You've got to remember her. Mrs. Steele said that Mrs. Morgan had shown you a picture. In a locket.' She prompted when Remington continued to frown.
Oh, yes, the locket with the picture of the dead girl. He'd almost forgotten. Or at least he'd told himself he had.
'She died in an auto accident over thirty years ago. Why dig up that dinosaur?'
Mildred shrugged. 'The Duchess is a bit eccentric.'
'And I suppose she's promised Laura a hefty fee.' Remington muttered before saying irritably. 'Well, that's just peachy-keen, isn't it? She's off gallivanting all over Ireland while we're stuck in that witch's castle with a homicidal maniac.' There was a pause as the wind rushed past them and then he said with grumpy gratitude. 'At least I won't have to worry about her being pushed down any more stairs.'
Mildred shot him a glance, wondering if she ought to tell him that he was the target of those so-called accidents, not Laura. He would undoubtedly ask why someone would want to kill him and then a whole new can of worms would be opened up. Still he ought to be aware that his life was in jeopardy. It would make the job of keeping him safe a lot easier.
'That fall off your horse was no accident.' She said. 'Daniel found a steel burr under your horse's saddle.'
He nodded as if he'd been expecting such a thing. 'Of course. I told Laura it had to be an unusual circumstance. I do not fall off horses.'
'You know what that means, don't you?'
'Some lunatic is trying to kill us.'
Mildred started to correct him then decided to let him believe that both he and Laura were the targets of some madman. He'd be content that Laura was safe from the murderer's grasp while being conscious of his own danger.
'And with Laura in Ireland,' he continued, 'we'll have the opportunity to solve this thing before she gets back.'
Mildred's head spun in his direction. 'Come again?'
But he wasn't listening. He was nodding, rubbing his chin reflectively with his good hand. 'Maybe it's not such a bad thing that Laura's on a fool's errand for that old tabby.'
'What do you mean?' Mildred asked sharply. She didn't like the sound of this. If he decided to play detective, how in the world was she going to keep him alive while Mrs. Steele found the murderer?
For the first time that afternoon, a grin slid across Remington's face. 'I think it's time for a little breaking and entering, don't you?'
Mildred felt the icy fingers of alarm run up her spine. 'Breaking and entering? Why?'
'Someone's got to have the rifle that fired those bullets. Probably stashed under a bed or in a suitcase.' He warmed to his subject. 'It might even be disguised as an umbrella. I think I saw that in a movie once.'
'Don't you think we ought to wait for Mrs. Steele? She does have more experience in these things, you know.'
Remington shot her a dark look. 'Whose name is on that office door in London?'
'And what is my name?'
'Officially or unofficially?'
The look became darker. 'Quibbling doesn't become you, Mildred. Frankly, it's damned unattractive. Boorish to be exact.'
'Your name is Remington Steele.' Mildred admitted reluctantly.
'Then I don't see why I shouldn't have a go at finding out who's behind all these accidents.' He declared. 'We'll start with that windbag Hemingway. He's got the eyes for it.'
As Remington felt his spirits lifting, Mildred felt hers falling. Fine time for him to take up detecting again. It looked as though she'd have to draft Daniel into service. She'd need all the help she could get keeping the boss from pushing up daisies before Mrs. Steele brought home the goods that would prove him heir to Kilmorden.
'I appreciate you taking the time to see me.' Laura said.
'I'm not sure how I can help you.' Deirdre replied. 'It was such a long time ago, but I'll do my best.' She urged her butter-colored mare into a brisk trot. 'I hope you don't mind riding with me, Mrs. Steele. I have a very busy schedule, and this was the only time I could fit you in on such short notice.'
Laura tried not to wince as the chestnut gelding she was sitting on eagerly followed its companion. She would have preferred to be sauntering through a garden or taking tea in a drawing room, but she had soon realized that if she were going to get anywhere with Ms. Carson, it would have to be on top of a horse.
'I don't mind.' Laura lied, clutching at the reins.
'Do you like horses, Mrs. Steele?' Deirdre asked, sending her a sidelong look from beneath dark lashes.
'Not as much as my husband.'
'I thought so.' The woman said. 'You hold the reins like you're afraid of falling off.'
Laura gave a humorless, little laugh. 'I am sort of.'
'Well, you needn't worry.' Deirdre assured her. 'Kilkenny is a gentle boy.' She turned her own horse toward the open field. 'His mother was a famous racehorse, The Cork County Lass, won the Ascot Gold Cup three years in a row, but Kilkenny never had it in him.'
'You breed racehorses?' Laura asked.
Deirdre inclined her regal head. Although she was obviously horse mad, she looked the part of a princess, her riding clothes immaculate, every dark hair in place under her riding cap. 'We've bred champions at Ballyfeard Farms since the turn of the century. My great-great grandfather and his brother started the farm, and now my husband and I run it.'
'Your husband?' Laura echoed. 'I thought Carson was your maiden name.'
'It is.' Deirdre confirmed. 'Carson is well known in the British Isles for horse breeding so when I married I retained the name in order to reassure our clients that there would always be a Carson at Ballyfeard.' A shadow seemed to pass across her face. 'Unfortunately, Derek and I have been unable to have children so the name of Carson will die with me, I'm afraid.'
'I'm sorry.' Laura said quickly.
'These things happen. Such is life.' She said with a shrug before saying briskly. 'Now, what exactly did you want to speak to me about? You sounded very mysterious on the phone, but of course, I wasn't surprised. Everything about Jane's death was mysterious.'
'Why do you say that? I would have thought an auto accident a rather straight forward event.'
'It's not everyday that a car plunges off the side of a cliff, Mrs. Steele. Not even in Ireland.'
'Some of your roads are very narrow.' Laura pointed out, remembering her drive to Ballyfeard. There had been one section of road where she had clutched the steering wheel as tightly as she was now clutching the reins. 'If a flock of sheep or some other obstacle had taken her by surprise '
'That did occur to me, but there was no report of either. For all intents and purposes, she just plunged off the cliff for no apparent reason. Carrie suggested suicide, but I didn't believe it. Not Jane. She loved life too much.'
'Carrie?' Laura asked. 'Was Caroline Iverson in Ireland at the time?'
Deirdre nodded. 'She often visited. Much more so than Jane. If I remember correctly, her mother had just died, passed away after an extended illness. There were rumors that the old lady had been half mad so I could certainly understand Carrie's desire to get away from it all. She arrived a month or so before Jane's death.'
'Was she aware that Jane was in Ireland?'
'At first I thought so.' Deirdre said. 'I thought that Jane's parents had sent her to retrieve their daughter, but when the days went by without Carrie making any attempt to contact Jane or even mentioning her, I decided she was there for that relaxation she claimed. And then when I saw Carrie's reaction to the news of the accident, I was quite certain she had no idea Jane was in Ireland.'
'And how did she react?'
'She was shocked, of course. She'd been away for a few days, doing some hiking up north, and when she came back, I had the unfortunate task of telling her. She went as white as a sheet and nearly collapsed. She and Jane were quite close, more sisters than friends. It was only afterwards that she began suggesting that Jane might have committed suicide.'
'Did she give a reason for her theory?'
Deirdre shook her head. 'Not really but I got the impression that she felt it had something to do with that man.'
'Michael Connors.' Deirdre said with a wry twist of her lips. 'Surely you've heard about him.'
'I've heard about him.' Laura admitted. 'But it's the first time I've heard it suggested that Jane committed suicide because of him.'
Deirdre laughed. 'That was just Carrie's crazy idea. She was grasping at straws if you ask me. Like I said before, Jane loved life too much to kill herself, especially over a man. Besides, I saw the two of them together. They were very much in love. I can't imagine Connors doing anything that might have caused his Sinead to run her car off a cliff.'
'Sinead? Who's Sinead?'
'Sinead is Irish for Jane.' Deirdre explained. 'It's what Connors used to call her. The way he said it sent shivers down my spine. It was obvious to me that he adored her.'
'The Duchess was under the impression that Jane lied to them about visiting an old school friend.' Laura said. 'But it sounds as if she did spend some time with you.'
'Only a week.' Deirdre confirmed. 'I didn't even know she was coming. She just showed up on my doorstep one afternoon with a pile of suitcases, asking if she could stay for a few days. I said of course and even urged her to stay longer if she liked, but she said no, someone would be picking her up shortly. We had a lovely visit, and then he arrived.' Deirdre's face took on a wistful look. 'He drove a cream-colored Jaguar convertible, the car Jane went over the cliff in.'
'Can you describe him?'
'Dark and very handsome. Had a voice that could charm birds out of the trees. He made my Derek seem very mundane.'
That could be anyone, Laura thought. There were hundreds of men that fit that description. Her own husband, perhaps this man's son, would be a dead ringer for just such a person.
'You don't happen to have a photograph of him, do you?'
Deirdre's laughter tinkled once again, light and airy like faerie music. 'They didn't stay long enough for that. He stayed for tea, and then they were off.'
'Did Jane say where they were going?'
Here comes the tricky part, Laura thought, her fingers tightening on the reins. Kilkenny, noticing the increased pressure, tossed his dark head in protest, and Laura forced herself to relax before saying. 'Did you happen to notice anything different about Jane?'
Deirdre's head turned in her direction. 'Different? What do you mean by 'different'?'
Laura took a deep breath and said. 'We have reason to believe that Jane might have been pregnant during this time. Did you notice anything that might suggest a pregnancy?'
Rather than looking shocked as Laura had suspected Deirdre's expression turned thoughtful, almost speculative. 'Of course.' She murmured, nodding her head. 'That would explain it.'
'Everything.' Deirdre said. 'I sensed something odd about her. Of course, there were little physical changes from the last time I'd seen her, weight gain mostly, but there was an inner glow, a pleased contentment that I didn't understand. When I saw Connors, I thought it must be love. It never occurred to me that there could be more to it than that.' Suddenly her expression dimmed. 'I suppose the child died with her.'
'We have reason to believe that it didn't.' Laura said carefully, wondering how much she ought to share with this woman. 'That child is the reason I'm here.'
Remington removed his pick, looked at the door knob and then frowned. There was no way he could pick a lock with half of his hand in a cast. Damn! He turned to Mildred who was crowded up behind him, scanning the hallway nervously.
'You do it.' He said, handing her the pick.
'Pick the lock.'
Mildred grimaced. 'I'm still not too good at this, you know.'
'Practice makes perfect.' He told her.
'Must we?' She asked, sending him an imploring look that would have made any St. Bernard proud.
Remington was not in the mood to be swayed. 'How do you expect to be an investigator if you turn squeamish every time you have to do a little breaking and entering?'
'It's not that.' Mildred assured him.
'Then what is it?'
'I was supposed to be keeping you out of trouble. Mrs. Steele's orders.'
'I am not in any trouble.' Remington informed her stiffly. 'And what Mrs. Steele doesn't know won't hurt her. Besides, if she were so concerned about my safety, she would be here, not prancing all over Ireland like Glenda the Good Witch of the North.'
'Still sore about that, aren't you?' Mildred asked, carefully inserting the pick into the lock. She wiggled it experimentally.
'I am not sore.' Remington declared testily.
'You sound sore.'
'Just get on with it.'
The door slowly swung open.
'That's amazing.' Mildred breathed, stunned by the ease of her success. 'It usually takes me a good fifteen minutes back home.'
'That's because the ones back home are actually locked.'
Remington tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. He should have noticed that the door wasn't locked. It was unlike him to be so careless. That conk on the head must have done more damage than he'd thought. Liar, that insidious voice whispered. You know perfectly well that that knot on your head has nothing to do with it. You're careless because you're mind is on other things. Like what could be so bloody important for Laura to take off to Ireland without a word? Especially after he damn near killed himself falling off a horse.
Knowing the voice was right did nothing to improve his mood. He flung open the door to Wilcox and Aisling Fitzhugh's room and strode inside like an ancient Norman conqueror. Fortunately nobody, not even a Saxon, was in. They were all downstairs, listening to Wendy Gilchrist murder Chopin's Nocturne op. 66.
'What are we looking for?' Mildred whispered, crowding him again.
'Could you be a little more specific?'
'You search in here.' He told her, ignoring her question. 'I'll take the bedroom.'
The bedroom was not much different then his own. The furniture was dark and heavy and the walls covered in damask wallpaper. He headed for the armoire. Searching pockets with only one good hand was a challenge but not impossible for someone of his talents. Within minutes he had finished and was turning his attention to the dresser drawers. He was just sliding the last drawer shut when Mildred rushed into the room.
'They're coming.' She hissed. 'I can hear their voices in the hallway.'
Remington sent a quick glance around the room, calculating their chances of fitting into the armoire. Had it be Laura, he would have gone for it. Cuddling Laura was a treat while cuddling Mildred was to be avoided if at all possible. 'Under the bed.'
They dived for the floor.
'There's already someone under here.' Mildred exclaimed when her shoulder bumped into a pair of legs.
'I knew it.' Remington declared. 'There always has to be a dead body.'
'Hate to disappoint you, mate.' Wesley Fitzhugh's voice called out, muffled by the bedding. 'But this body ain't dead.'
'Thank Heaven for that.' Remington muttered as he and Mildred scrambled beneath the bed. 'I didn't fancy sharing with a corpse.'
The door of the bedroom opened and a pair of men's black dress shoes entered, followed by a pair of open-toed silver high heels. The open-toes headed for the armoire.
'I don't want to hear any more arguments, Aisling.' Wilcox's voice said. 'We're leaving tomorrow, and that's final.'
'But we can't leave without a reason.' Aisling protested. They could hear the sound of sliding hangers. 'Margaret has just begun inviting us to these little dos, and we can't antagonize her now.'
'Why not?' Wilcox demanded. 'I'm Duke of Kilmorden. I can do whatever I like. I don't take my orders from Margaret Fitzhugh.'
'Willie,' Aisling said soothingly, 'you're just being paranoid.'
'Paranoid?' Her husband exclaimed. 'I find rifle shells in my tweed jacket and you think I'm being paranoid?'
'You probably left them there yourself. You always wear that jacket to go hunting.'
'Exactly!' Wilcox said, pouncing on her observation. 'Which is why someone put them there knowing those bloody Americans would eventually come looking for them.'
Aisling laughed, a high-pitched sound that had both Remington and Wesley cringing beneath the bed. 'Now I know you're being paranoid. Molly and Johnny Brown are cattle people, darling, not detectives.'
'Then what's he and that secretary of his doing in the stable questioning the stable lad?' Wilcox demanded. The black shoes had begun to pace, back and forth, back and forth, coming dangerously close to the edge of the bed. 'He was suspicious before. Why else did he mention those rifle shells? And that blasted Iverson woman didn't help by pointing out that I've hunted snipe with a rifle. I was going to tell him about finding those shells, come clean so to speak, and then that horse went mad.' The shoes stopped. 'I saw that horse, Aisling. It wasn't natural. Horses don't go from being placid and calm to raving mad in a matter of minutes. Brown knows that, and that's why he was questioning the boy, wanting to know who'd been in the stable that morning. And guess what that brat told him? He'd said I'd been there. Me! I'm telling you, Aisling, someone is trying to kill the man and pin it on me.'
There was a heavy pause and then Aisling said. 'But that's ridiculous. Why would someone want to kill the man?'
'I don't know, but I'll wager it has something to do with that portrait.'
The open-toes suddenly surged forward, heading toward the door. 'I refuse to stand here and listen to this. I've got my wrap so let's get back to the music room before we're missed.'
The shoes whirled. 'Not another word. It's just a coincidence. There's no way an American can have anything to do with that portrait. And we know he's an American. Only an American could murder the English language so thoroughly. If I hear another 'reckon', I think I'll jump off the highest parapet of this castle.'
The open-toes stalked from the room. After a long minute or two, the black shoes followed, and the three eavesdroppers under the bed shimmied out.
Remington grimaced at the dust clinging to his shirt and pants. 'Remind me to talk to the Duchess about her housekeeping staff.'
'There are enough bunnies under there to fill a Playboy magazine.' Mildred agreed, brushing at her own clothing.
Wesley, not at all concerned about the state of housekeeping at Kilmorden Castle, let out a long, low whistle. 'Sounds like my dear brother is up to his neck in it. Imagine someone trying to frame the old boy.'
Remington shot him a look. 'You wouldn't happen to know who that someone might be, would you?'
'Your wife asked me something similar when I found her at the bottom of those stairs.' Wesley noted, eyes narrowing. 'Suspicious lot, aren't you?'
'And I suppose you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, eh?'
'Something like that.'
Remington had had enough. His head was aching, Laura was gone and he was covered in dust balls. A man could only take so much. He grabbed the young man by the neck of his shirt and flung him up against the wall, bracing the cast against the man's Adam apple. 'Ok, mate. Talk. What were you doing under that bed?'
'What happened to the good ole boy drawl?' Wesley asked, still defiant.
'Never mind my drawl.' Remington growled. 'Talk.'
The cast pressed hard.
'I was looking for something.' Wesley gasped.
'Money, jewels, anything of value.'
When Wesley hesitated, the cast pressed harder, cutting into his air supply.
'Because I'm skint.' Wesley finally admitted. 'And, Wilcox, damn his hide, controls the purse strings.'
Remington relaxed his grip. 'So you've taken up petty pilfering to augment your income.'
'Why not?' Wesley shot back, rubbing his neck. 'If Robin Hood can do it, why not Wes Fitzhugh? Everyone admire that bloke for liberating the rich of their wealth, didn't they? I'm just following in his footsteps.'
'I'll have to remember that one.' Remington said, turning away. 'The most original rationalization for stealing I've ever heard, and believe me, I've heard them all.' He glanced at Mildred. 'Come on, Mildred. I think we've found what we came looking for.'
'Hey,' Wesley said, hurrying after them, 'just one bloody minute. There were three of us under that bed.'
'So there was.' Remington agreed easily. 'I'm glad to see the English public schools are still performing their useful purpose. You can count.'
Wesley ignored his sarcasm. 'Turnabouts fair play where I come from. I've told you my reasons for being here, now you tell me yours.' He took a step backwards as Remington turned a pair of steely blue eyes on him. He unconsciously rubbed his neck. 'Who are you? And don't give me that good ole boy routine. You sounded more like a bloody Brit just now than a Yank.'
Remington calculated the risk of revealing their identity to this young man. In his experience, thieves could not be trusted, but in this case, they had information on the kid that might keep his mouth shut. If the Duchess and Fitzhugh found out who are nicking their valuables, the golden goose would be dead, and Robin Hood would have to find a new way of supporting all those pigeons.
'We're detectives.' He said, ignoring the startled look on Mildred's face. 'Your aunt hired us to keep an eye on the Kilmorden Collection.' He ran an eye over Wesley. 'Somehow she got the idea that someone might want to steal it.'
'My skills don't include safe cracking.'
'Maybe we can change that.'
'Boss,' Mildred interrupted, 'it's getting late. Don't you think we ought to be leaving before the others start returning to their rooms?'
'So what were you doing under that bed?' Wesley asked. 'The Kilmorden Collection isn't under there.'
'You heard your brother.' Remington said. 'Someone is trying to kill me. I'm hoping to thwart their plans. Strangely enough, I'm rather attached to living.'
'And you suspected Wilcox?'
'I suspect everyone, but your brother was certainly at the top of the list. Until now.'
Wesley frowned. 'You're just a dick from London. Why would someone want to bump you off?'
'Perhaps that question can be answered if you tell me what he meant by a portrait.'
'Not a clue, mate.' Wesley said with a shake of his head. 'The only portraits in this place are in the gallery.'
To Mildred's relief a sudden burst of laughter from outside the door stopped Wesley from answering. The other guests were returning to their rooms.
Laura stood outside the pub, a piece of paper clutched in one hand. She glanced at the paper and then back at the pub. Yep. There was no mistaking it. Murphy's. How comically appropriate. Somehow she didn't think Remington would see the humor in it. Shoving the paper into her pocket, she pushed open the emerald green door and stepped inside.
She was met with a wave of pipe smoke laced with the strong smell of Guinness. The interior was dark, and she stood for a few seconds, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Then she started forward. The low murmur of voices that had greeted her entrance dwindled as the occupants became aware of a stranger in their midst. Ignoring the stares, she walked up to the bar where a man was wiping glasses. He eyed her suspiciously.
'Are you Murphy?' Laura asked.
'Flanagan sent me.'
'Did he now?' The bartender said, raising a thick cooper-colored brow. 'And what would he be sending you to me for?'
'He said you'd know where I could find a man named Quinn.'
The man continued to eye her for another moment or two, as if determining where she was friend or foe, and then he gestured with his towel. 'Over there. In the corner.'
She headed for the corner indicated and found a man of indeterminate age sitting slouched over a mug of thick, dark liquid. His cap, which looked as though he used it to dig and carry peat, was pulled down low, obscuring his upper face. Only a jaw covered with gray stubble was visible.
'Quinn?' She asked. 'Dooley Quinn?'
'Who wants to know?' He growled.
Laura took that as an invitation to sit down. 'I'm Laura Steele, and Flanagan tells me that you were acquainted with Patrick O'Rourke.'
'Paddy's dead.' He said flatly.
'Yes, I know. I was there.'
That got his attention. The hat rose, revealing two hard, black eyes. 'Then what do you want from me?'
'I was hoping you could answer a few questions about Mr. O'Rourke.'
He eyed her suspiciously. 'You a copper?'
'No, I'm a private investigator.'
From the sneer on Quinn's face it was obvious that private investigators rated no better than coppers in his opinion. 'Paddy's dead, and I'll be leaving him in the ground like the good Lord intended. What's done is done.'
Laura reached into her purse and pulled out a five pound note. 'Would this help jog your memory?'
'Dooley Quinn doesn't rat anyone out for a fiver.' Quinn declared.
'How about for ten?' Laura asked, slapping another five pound note on the table.
The man snorted and drained his mug.
Laura eyed him. Surely he had his price. The Dudley Do-Rights of the world didn't frequent pubs. 'What would it take for you to rat someone out, Mr. Quinn?'
A sly look slid across the man's grizzled face. 'I'm powerful thirsty.'
Four pints later she was finally making some headway. Copious amounts of alcohol had an amazing affect on Mr. Quinn. It had loosened his tongue to the extent that information was now pouring out of the man faster than water over Niagara Falls. Unfortunately none of that information pertained to O'Rourke. It centered on Quinn's rather colorful history as a forger and petty thief. Well, at least she was on the right track. She'd uncovered the criminal aspect of Remington's heritage.
'How long did you know Mr. O'Rourke?' She asked, taking advantage of a lull in the monologue as Quinn took a mouthful of Guinness.
He scratched his jaw. 'Let me see. I was in The Joy in '63 so that would make it about twenty odd years give or take.'
'The Joy? What's that?'
'Mountjoy.' Quinn supplied. At Laura's puzzled expression, he added. 'Mountjoy Gaol. Paddy and I were serving time. I was in for passing a few bad checks and Paddy was in for some kind of pyramid scheme.' He laughed. 'Paddy always did have big dreams. Too bad none of them worked out. After we got out, we stayed in touch, worked on a few jobs together.'
'Did O'Rourke ever show you a pocket watch?'
'Sure. Lots of time. Paddy always had a pocket watch on him. Very punctual fellow.'
'But this one was special.' Laura persisted. 'It had an inscription that read To: S.J From: K.L.'
Once again he scratched his jaw. 'Aye. I saw it. He carried it in his breast pocket, said he was keeping it for someone. He took it out because the one in his pants pocket had stopped running. That was the last and only time I saw it.'
'Did he say who'd given it to him?'
'Some bloke he'd met during the war.'
Laura felt a stir of anticipation. Finally, a lead. 'Did he mention a name?'
Quinn shook his head and took another pull on his whiskey.
'What about Michael Connors?' Laura prompted. 'Did he ever mention someone by that name?'
She'd been expecting another dead end and was pleasantly surprised when Quinn said. 'Sure. He talked about Mick lots of times.'
'Do you know where I can find Mr. Connors?'
'Where?' She asked eagerly.
'He's dead.' Quinn said. 'He died in the war.'
'But that's impossible.' Laura exclaimed. 'Are you sure?'
'Sure I'm sure.' Quinn retorted, looking slightly offended. 'Didn't Paddy be telling me all about how Mick died? Storming Gold Beach, he said. Had his head blown off by one of those German shells. Paddy and another mate saw it happen. He dropped right in front of them.'
Laura stared at Quinn, stunned. If Michael Connors died in 1944, then he couldn't be Remington's father, which meant the man that came to tea that day at Kilmorden had been an imposter. Somehow, despite her initial shock, she wasn't surprised. It was only fitting that the Duke of Deception should be conceived in deception.
Mildred was worried. The boss had retired to his room far too easily. She'd been expecting trouble, and he'd given her none. Strange for a man who'd been downright testy all afternoon. Was he plotting something, she asked herself. What a silly question! Of course, he was plotting something, and the longer she stood outside his door, staring at the raised panels, the more time he had to carry it out.
But what could she do? She was no match for a man of Mr. Steele's slippery abilities. Suddenly Laura's voice floated through her head. Ask Daniel to help you. Yes! That was the answer. Daniel had taught the boss everything he knew. Surely he'd be able to keep him outwitted and outsmarted until Mrs. Steele returned. Without further delay, she went in search of Daniel.
He greeted her warmly, holding the door of his room open for her to enter. 'Ah, Millie, what a pleasant surprise. I was just pouring myself a glass of port. Care to join me? Port tastes so much better when it's shared.'
'No thanks.' She was in no mood for social pleasantries. 'I need your help.'
Daniel's brows rose. 'I'm always at your service, my dear, but could you be more specific?'
'It's the boss.'
'Has there been another accident?'
She was surprised at the sharp, almost alarmed tone in Daniel's voice. She had never seen the man agitated. He had always been so smooth, so serenely confident of his surroundings and his ability to handle any curve balls. For the first time, she saw clearly how dear the boss was to the man.
'No,' she assured him, 'no accident.'
'Then what is it?'
'He's taken it into his head to try to find the person behind all these accidents.' She paused and then added with emphasis. 'Without Mrs. Steele.'
The tension seemed to drain out of Daniel and he returned to his port, picking up the bottle and splashing a healthy amount into the wineglass. 'The sleuthing bug has bitten again, eh?'
Mildred didn't even bother to answer his question. Instead she said. 'Tonight he found out about the portrait.'
Daniel set the bottle down. Carefully, Mildred noticed, much too carefully. 'And what portrait would that be?'
'I think you know.' She told him, playing a hunch. 'I think you know a great deal about what's going on. More than any of us.'
'I might.' Daniel agreed easily, settling himself in an armchair.
He's good, Mildred thought. Real good. He gave away only what he wanted to. Nothing, not even the flicker of an eyelash, told her what he might be thinking. He just looked at her over the rim of his wineglass, a faint smile on his lips.
'And I think you know what will happen if he sees that portrait. Are you willing to let that happen?'
'It appears I have no say in the matter, my dear. Forces beyond my control are steering Harry down an evitable path. All I can do is try to keep him safe during the journey.'
'Then help me keep him away from that portrait until Mrs. Steele gets back.'
'Is Linda gone? Where did she go?' His tone applied that her whereabouts were of no concern of his.
Finally something flickered across his face. Anger? Alarm?
'Meddlesome woman.' Daniel muttered into his wineglass. 'If it hadn't been for her, Harry would be safe and sound in London. If it hadn't been for her, he would have never gotten anywhere near Kilmorden Castle. She's ruined years of careful planning. Damn her.'
'There's no use crying over spilt milk.' Mildred declared stoutly. 'What's done is done. He's not in London. He's here, and we've got to keep him safe until she returns. Will you help me or not?'
There was a pause and then Daniel sighed. 'What do you want me to do?'
'Keep him from finding that portrait.'
'And how do we do that? We can't very well tie the boy up and stuff him in a closet for safekeeping.'
'One of us will have to be with him at all times. I left him in his room a few minutes ago, but I wouldn't put it past him to try to find that portrait tonight.'
Daniel got up. 'Leave it to me. He won't be going anywhere tonight.'
'What are you going to do?'
'Have you ever heard the expression 'turnabouts fair play'?
'Far too recently.'
Daniel smiled. 'Harry's about to get a taste of what Linda experienced in St. Moritz. Hand me that bottle of port, will you?'
The cottage was almost completely covered by ivy. Only the dormer windows and the chimney on the west end of the house were visible among the rampant greenery. Thus the name Ivy Cottage, Laura mused as she eased the rental car to a stop. Getting out, she hurried across the road and up a flagstone walkway lined with dark red flowers. Mums, she wondered as she rang the door bell.
The door was opened by a rosy-cheeked woman of about fifty-five. She looked at Laura questioningly. 'Can I help you?'
'I'm looking for a Mrs. Daly. The postal clerk in the village said I could find her here.'
'I'm Mrs. Daly.'
'He also told me that you were once known as Eileen Connors.'
'Aye, 'tis true.' The woman replied. 'I'm not a'hiding it. Everyone around these parts knows me name. I've lived at Ivy Cottage since I was a wee bairn.' She dimpled. 'Excepting for the time I lived with me dear, departed husband.'
'My name's Laura Steele,' Laura said, offering a smile, 'and I'm hoping you'll answer a few questions about your brother.'
'Blessed Mary, mother of God,' Eileen exclaimed, 'what in the world could you be wanting to know about Mick? He's been dead for over forty years. I thought all but me had forgotten him.'
'Perhaps if I could come in?' Laura suggested.
'Oh, yes, of course.' She murmured, stepping aside and gesturing her into a cozy, little entranceway. 'Where are me manners? I've just put the kettle on. Will you join me for a spot of tea?'
A few minutes later Laura was seated in a small parlor, a cup of tea in her hand. The first sip had been a bit of a shocker. Mrs. Daly apparently liked to lace her tea with a healthy bit of whiskey. Perhaps she and Mr. Quinn ought to be introduced, Laura had thought, struggling not to cough.
'Biscuit?' Eileen asked, holding out a plate.
Laura reached for the proffered cookie. She didn't want happening what had happened at Lady Hepplewhite's soiree. If she were to drink whiskey, she'd need something in her stomach to sop it up with.
'Now,' Eileen said, sitting back in her chair, 'why all this interest in Mickey?'
'I'm a private investigator.' Laura said. 'I've been hired to prove the paternity of a certain man.'
'And you think Mick's the father.'
She accepted it so easily that Laura began wondering what sort of rascal this 'Mick' had been. A lady's man obviously.
'At first, I did.' She admitted. 'But the man whose parentage is in question was born in 1953, making it impossible for your brother to have been the father.'
'Mores the pity.' Eileen sighed, taking a heavy gulp of her tea. 'I would've liked a nephew. 'Tis only meself these days. If Mickey's not the father, then why come to see me?'
'The man who is the father passed himself off as Michael Connors.'
'The cheek of the man!'
'Yes, quite a deceiver.' Laura agreed, thinking how ironic it was that the son should be so like the father when neither knew the other. 'I can only conclude that this man knew your brother and borrowed his identity. I thought that perhaps you, being his sister, might be able to tell me about his friends and acquaintances.'
The woman looked slightly overwhelmed. 'It's been over forty years, Mrs. Steele, and Mickey was such a popular boy, especially with the ladies. Handsome devil he was.' She nodded toward a collection of framed pictures on the fireplace mantel. 'That's him. The one in the uniform.'
Laura glanced in the direction indicated. A young man in army uniform smiled back at her. She could see why he would have been popular with the ladies. He was indeed handsome with thick, light-colored hair swept back from a high forehead and a devil-may-care smile that testified to a bold and adventuresome nature. She wasn't surprised that he was killed storming Gold Beach. This fellow would have been one of the first out of the boat.
'Do you have any other pictures?'
'Why, yes, boxes full. Mum loved taking photos.'
The thought of sorting through boxes full of pictures made Laura groan inwardly, but she had to suggest it. 'Perhaps if we looked through some of them, a few names will come back to you.'
An hour and a half and two teapots later Laura was regretting her suggestion. The Connors family collection was indeed vast. She'd seen Michael is a pram, Michael in his Christening gown, Michael crying his eyes out on a fat pony and Michael sitting in his first car. She'd listened to innumerable stories featuring Michael and his various chums, but she was no closer to finding the man who had stolen Michael's identity than she had been when she'd walked through the door.
Stolen identity, she mused as Eileen went to retrieve yet another box of photographs. Like father, like son. Once again she was struck by how similar Remington was to his missing father. It was almost as if this mystery man hadn't really been a mystery after all. Remington walked in his footsteps so closely, so faithfully that one could almost believe he'd been trained by him personally. Laura suddenly sat bolt upright as a chill ran down her spine. It couldn't be could it?
'Here we are!' Eileen caroled, bustling into the room with another shoe box. 'These are Mickey's army photos. He used to send us several in each letter. I guess he inherited Mum's love of picture-taking.' She sat the box on the table and removed the lid. 'Ah, here we go. This is one of Mick in his uniform.'
Laura received the picture absently. It wasn't much different than the one on the mantel. In this one he was flanked by an older woman in a plaid coat and young girl of about twelve in a too big cardigan. Obviously 'Mum' and a younger Eileen.
'And here's a photo of his entire unit. It's so sad to think of how many of these boys didn't make it home.'
'Yes, very sad.' Laura agreed.
Her mind began to drift as Eileen sorted through more and more pictures. It returned to the idea that had so stunned her a moment before. It was impossible outrageous deplorable! What kind of father would do such a thing? Her mouth firmed. If anyone was capable of such duplicity, it would certainly be him.
'Oh, there's Paddy.' Eileen was saying, gazing at a black and white photo, a slight smile on her face. 'I had such a crush on him. I know he's doesn't hold a candle to Dan or Mick as far as looks go, but he was so nice to me when he came home with Mick on leave. He was so much easier to talk to than Dan. Really handsome men always make me nervous.'
'Let me see that.' Laura said sharply, reaching for the photo.
Mick was standing between two men. All three were in regulation khaki pants and undershirts, dog tags hung around their necks. The shorter, stockier of the two stood to Mick's left, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. His plain features pegged him as Paddy. Laura's eyes went to the other man. Dark, handsome and smiling a smile she was well familiar with.
'Who did you say this one was?'
'That's Dan. He and Paddy were Mick's best chums in the army. They went everywhere together, fought side by side.' Her face fell a little. 'It was Dan who wrote the letter to Mum telling us of Mick's death. We'd gotten the official notification from the government a week earlier, but his letter made it more personal. Mick wasn't just a number anymore. He was someone that his chums cared about. It made it a little easier, you know?'
Laura nodded and then asked. 'Do you happen to know his last name?'
Eileen screwed up her face in thought. 'Let me think.' The wait for her memory to sort and file and produce the right name seemed endless, but finally she brightened. 'Of course! How could I have forgotten? It was Chalmers. Dan Chalmers.'
Confessions of a Con Man
Laura sat on the hard plastic chair in the Shannon Airport, waiting impatiently for her flight to be called. Now that she knew the truth, her one thought was to return to England and confront that lowdown, conniving, yellow-bellied varmint. He'd know the truth all along yet he had remained silent, even after his son's life was in danger. No wonder he'd been so adamant that they should leave. He didn't want his cover blown.
But what could one expect from such a man, she asked herself scornfully. Any man that could weave such a tale deception around his own child she shook her head. The very thought made her head spin. Only Dan Chalmers could play the role of absent father and present father simultaneously.
Why? She'd been asking that question ever since she'd left Ivy Cottage. Why would Daniel feel the need to hide his identity from his own child? What purpose could it possibly serve? Wouldn't it have been better to let Harry assume his rightful place as the Duke of Kilmorden rather than live the life of a gentleman thief?
The loudspeaker blared, announcing her flight and she stoop up, slinging her purse over one shoulder. She'd be in Derbyshire by evening. As soon as she landed, she'd call Mildred and tell her to deliver Daniel to the local pub, hog-tied if necessary. When next she saw her husband, she'd have the truth, nothing but the truth, so help her God.
'That was Mrs. Steele.' Mildred said, lowering the phone. 'She wants you to meet her at the pub in town in half an hour. I'm to hog-tie you if necessary.' She glanced at Daniel. 'Sounds serious.'
'It is.' Daniel agreed.
He remained seated, one elegant leg crossed over the other. Mildred frowned. She really didn't know anything about hog-tying someone. She glanced at the Greek shepherdess sitting on the nearby table. Now conking someone on the head that she could do. Too bad she had the feeling that Mrs. Steele wanted the man conscious.
'Aren't you going to go?'
Daniel sighed. 'I suppose I must.'
'You sound as if you know what she wants.'
'And you're not looking forward to it?'
Once again he sighed, getting to his feet. 'When I was a little boy, my grandmother took me to Mass every Sunday and Confession every Saturday. As soon as I left her house, I never set foot in a church again. Do you know why?'
'Because I hated Confession.' He glanced at the door to the bedroom. 'What about Harry?'
'I'll keep an eye on him.' Mildred said, wondering what hating Confession had to do with anything. 'He was still out cold last time I looked.'
Daniel chuckled. 'He ought to be. I gave him a double dose.'
Remington groaned. His head felt like a drum that some deranged toddler was banging on. Bloody hell. Was his tenure in England always going to involve some sort of cranial discomfort? He ran a hand through hair and winced. Even his hair hurt. What in the hell had happened to him?
By sheer willpower, he sat up, wrestling with the sheets that had wrapped themselves around his chest like a boa constrictor. Free at last, he took a blurry survey of his surroundings. The ugly gold décor was unmistakable. He was in his own room. His headache eased a bit at the knowledge that he wasn't in some strange hotel in his jockey shorts, having signed away the agency again.
He closed his eyes and began sorting through the cobwebs clinging to his brain. Think, Harry, think. Ah, yes, it was coming back, fuzzy at first but slowly clearing. He'd just been ready to slip out for a whirlwind tour of the castle when Daniel had appeared carrying a decanter and two glasses. Ah, yes, the port. Daniel had offered him a glass. He'd declined, but Daniel had cajoled until he'd finally downed a glass just to get rid of the old boy. Shortly afterwards, everything had gone blank.
Remington's eyes popped open. Why that old he'd been slipped a mickey. There was no other explanation. The trick he'd used on Laura had been used on him. Was there no decency in the world? He flung back the covers and stood up and then abruptly sat down again as a wave of dizziness rolled over him. The next time he got up, he did so slowly and carefully.
His clothing was folded neatly over a gold armchair. He assumed that was the work of Daniel since he was pretty certain he'd been in no condition to perform the task himself. Big of him, he thought sourly.
Why would he do such a thing? The question plagued him as he pulled on the dark slacks and then the dark sweater. What had been the purpose of drugging him? He reached for the door to the sitting room and then stopped. Best not to walk back into the spider's parlor, my lad, he warned himself. Silently he eased the door open, putting his eye to the crack.
He could see the back of Mildred's head as she sat stiffly in an armchair. His lips firmed. He should have guessed that the efficient Ms. Krebs would be behind this. She'd known he was up to something last night and had called in reinforcements.
Quietly, he closed the door. That exit was guarded. His eyes roamed the room. There was always more than one way out.
Remington dropped lightly to the ground. The climb from the second floor window had been child's play for someone of his talents, and the rapidly approaching dusk, hastened along by dark clouds gathering on the horizon, had concealed him from the view of anyone who might have been walking in the garden. No doubt the sight of a man clinging to the side of the castle would have raised questions not to mention alarm.
Now, he thought, straightening up and surveying his surroundings, where would they keep the gallery in this pile of rocks? He struck off toward the main entrance. Perhaps that cadaver Jamison would be on duty and could direct him.
But he didn't have pin his hopes on the butler for he ran into Caroline Iverson a few feet from the stone entrance steps. She emerged from a clump of shrubs, carrying a rifle over one shoulder. He was rather surprised to see her in such an attitude since the Duchess had banned hunting for the duration of the house party.
'Oh, Brown,' she exclaimed, stepping backwards as if startled, 'I didn't see you there.'
Remington eyed the rifle. 'Been doing a little hunting, Ms. Iverson?'
Caroline glanced at the rifle. 'You mean this?'
'That's what one usually does with a rifle.'
'I've just been doing a bit of target practice around back.' She told him. 'Margaret didn't ban target practice, you know.' She looked him up and down. 'And what about you? Been doing a bit of creeping about in the bushes, eh? I'd heard that someone had been pitching woo with one of the gels from the village, but I thought it was that reprobate Wesley. You were the last one I would have suspected. I rather thought you were attached to that wife of yours.'
'I've not been 'pitching woo'.' Remington retorted icily. 'I'm looking for the gallery.'
'A bit off the beaten track, aren't you?'
'I wouldn't know since I don't know where the gallery is.' He said irritably. 'Perhaps you'd be so good as to direct me.'
She seemed to consider this for a moment or two, her eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and then she gave a decisive nod of her head. 'Be glad to, Mr. Brown. Follow me.'
The pub like most pubs was dim and a little too smoky for Laura's liking, but it was convenient and neutral. The perfect place for a confrontation. She stood on the threshold, absently brushing at the raindrops on her jacket while scanning the interior. She found what she was looking for in a corner booth, a glass of dark beer in front of him.
So far so good, she thought as she made her way through the tangle of tables and chairs. She had half expected him to be on a plane to Monte Carlo by now. Had the wily, old fox finally been run to ground?
'Ah, Linda,' Daniel murmured as she slid into the seat opposite, 'back from Ireland so soon?'
'I arrived back about two hours ago.'
'And I was the first person you wanted to see. I'm touched. Truly I am. What warrants this unusual request?'
'You know perfectly well.' Laura stated. 'Michael Connors.'
'Michael Connors.' Daniel said, lifting his glass and taking a sip of the dark liquid before saying. 'Seems I've heard that name before. He was from Ennis, wasn't he?'
'You should know since you spent four years with him in the 231st Infantry Brigade.' Laura leaned back against the booth's hard, green cushions. 'You know, I never even considered that you might have fought in WWII. You just don't seem the type somehow.'
'War doesn't make distinctions between 'types'. In those days if you were young and part of the British Empire, you fought.'
There was a bite to his voice that surprised her. Had she finally managed to ruffle that smooth surface of his? What a novel idea. She would have liked to take time and savor the moment, but there were more important things to discuss, things that had lain buried for years and needed to be dug up and exposed to the light of day.
'Did you become a thief and con man after the war or where you just born that way?' She asked, slightly amazed at her own boldness. She'd never been one to pussyfoot around a delicate subject, but it was almost as if she was trying to annoy him, to shatter that serene coolness.
He shrugged, offering her a smile that did not reached his eyes. 'I suppose it was always in my blood, but it wasn't until after the war that I, shall we say, discovered the full extent of my abilities. Paddy was indispensible in helping me meet my full potential. A man never had such a useful friend.'
'And was he the one that introduced you to Jane Fitzhugh?'
'Ah, so we finally get to the reason for this little tête à tête.' Daniel murmured. 'You restrained yourself beautifully, my dear. I'm suitably impressed. Been taking deportment lessons since being in London?'
'Just answer the question.'
'No,' Daniel said slowly and deliberately, 'Paddy did not introduce me to Miss Fitzhugh.'
'Then where did you meet her?'
He smiled. 'At Claridge's.'
'Once again, I'm impressed. Your knowledge of London is astounding. And on such short acquaintance too.'
Laura ignored him. 'What were you doing at Claridge's?'
'What else?' He asked, lifting an eyebrow. 'Stealing jewels, of course. I'd managed to land a plum of a position at the front desk. It's so much easier to open a door with a key rather than a pick.'
'How convenient.' Laura muttered.
'Yes, it was, actually.' Daniel agreed. 'Unfortunately, I made a mistake. I let myself into the wrong room and was greeted with a pistol pointed straight at my heart. I don't know what took my breath away more, the gun or the face of the young woman holding it.' His expression turned wistful. 'She didn't scream and dissolve into hysterics like I was expecting. Rather she calmly asked me what I was doing in her room. I made up a story about being in the wrong room and started to leave. The sound of a pistol hammer being drawn back stopped me in my tracks. I turned around and found her staring at me with those beautiful blue eyes of hers. Then she smiled and said that there could only be two reasons that I'd be creeping around a bedroom at midnight. Either I had an assignation with a married woman or I was trying to steal something. She said if I didn't tell her she'd make my life very difficult with the hotel manager. An assignation was the less incriminating of the two so I went with it. Once again, she smiled and said 'liar'. Then she lowered the gun and told me that the Countess of Laverne was next door and she had a magnificent string of black pearls.' A smile spread across his face. 'I think that's the moment I fell in love with her.'
'A woman after your own heart.'
'And did you tell her your real name?'
'Jane knew the best and the worse of me, and she accepted it all without batting an eyelash. I think it actually intrigued her. I made those other twits she'd been romanced by seem very dull indeed. Her parents, on the other hand, viewed things very differently. She knew her father wouldn't believe that I was the son of a baron so she suggested that I borrow a more respectable identity. However, her father wasn't any more impressed by a grocer's son than he would have been by a thief. He ordered her not to see me, but by then, it was too late.'
'She was pregnant.'
Daniel nodded. 'We did the only thing we could do. We eloped.'
'Eloped?' Laura echoed. 'You mean you actually married her?'
'Come now, my dear, you saw those wedding rings in St. Moritz. You wore one on your finger for two weeks.' Daniel chided. 'Did you think I carried them around for just such an occasion?'
'I don't know what I thought.' Laura admitted.
'We were married in the parish church my grandmother forced me to go to as a child. Four months later Harry was born.'
'So his name is Harry?'
Daniel shook his head. 'His name is Michael Fitzhugh Chalmers. Jane thought we ought to thank Mick for the use of his name by naming our child after him. You'll find record of it in that same parish church.'
'Then why call him Harry?'
That sounded ominous so she pressed. 'Which were?'
There was a pause, a long pause, and she wondered whether he'd ever speak again. But finally he answered, and the voice that was usually so smooth sounded as rough as the Irish Sea she'd crossed to get there. 'The boy's life was in danger. Whoever killed his mother would have surely killed him as well. I wasn't going to let that happen.'
Laura blinked. She hadn't been expecting that. Jane had died in an auto accident. She'd confirmed that when she was in Ireland. The police and coroner reports had been pretty clear. Every piece of paper evidence agreed that it had been an accident. Yet here was Daniel basically agreeing with Margaret Fitzhugh. Did they know something she didn't?
'The police and coroner's reports were fairly conclusive.' She said carefully.
'Of course, they were.' Daniel agreed. 'Paddy and I made sure of that.'
'Are you saying that you and Paddy '
'Removed all evidence of foul play.' Daniel finished. 'He forged the documents, and I replaced the originals with the forgeries. The part about the brake line showing evidence of being cut was completely erased.'
'But why?' Laura exclaimed. 'Didn't you want your wife's murderer found?'
'Of course, I did,' Daniel snapped, 'but protecting Harry was more important. If Jane's parents had known that the brake line had been cut, they wouldn't have stopped until they knew everything, which meant they would have found out about the marriage and the child. They would have taken Harry away from me and placed him within easy access of the murderer.'
Laura eyed him. 'You seem to know who the murderer is.'
Once again Laura found herself asking the same question she'd asked the Duchess. 'Do you have any proof?'
'If I had, do you think I would have let that bastard go free all these years?' Daniel rasped. 'He wanted the Dukedom so badly that he killed Jane for it. Do you think he would have allowed her son to live, the heir to Kilmorden?' He shook his head. 'He killed my Sinead. He wasn't about to kill my son as well. So Paddy and I covered up the evidence and I took the boy and left for Dublin.'
Laura stared at him. This did not sound like the actions of an uncaring father. She had imagined him to be a heartless monster, a man who had left his son without a word, who had concealed his identity for some selfish reason, and yet and yet he'd gone to great lengths to protect the son he believed to be in mortal danger.
'Daniel, I'm confused.' She admitted. 'If you cared so much about your son's welfare, how did he end up on the streets of London picking pockets?'
'Sheer stupidity, my dear.' Daniel said with a weary sigh. 'Paddy was waiting for me in Dublin. He said there was a job in London that would set us up for life. Piece of cake, he'd said. I'd be gone no longer than a fortnight. I'm sorry to say I allowed him to persuade me. After all, I had a child to support. I needed money. So I placed Harry in the care of a cousin of mine who lived in Dublin and headed for London. To make a long story short, the job went south. I'd had a bad feeling about it from the beginning, but I was desperate. We got caught, and I ended up in prison. I wrote my cousin, asking her to look after the boy, promising her I'd be back for him. At first she wrote fairly regularly, but as time went on, her letters became fewer and fewer until they stopped coming altogether. I continued to write, pleading with her to tell me how Harry was, but she never wrote back. As soon as I was paroled, I went to Dublin, but by then Harry had disappeared. It took me years to find that boy.'
'Why didn't you tell him you were his father?'
'Two reasons. First, I still believed his life would be in danger if his mother's family ever learned of his existence. If he knew I was his father, he'd start asking questions, and believe it or not, I didn't want to lie to him about his mother. Her memory was and is too precious to me.'
'And the second?'
'It was obvious that the boy hated his father. Had he known who I was, he wouldn't have allowed me anywhere near him. As his friend and mentor I could look after the boy, teach him a useful trade and make sure he remained ignorant of his heritage.' He looked at her, his mouth twisting into a rueful smile. 'But unfortunately he met a lady detective who stole his heart while he was stealing her boss's identity. He became a famous detective and attracted the attention of the very person I had hoped to avoid. Margaret knew as soon as she saw him. And so did Wilcox. So did anyone who'd seen Richard's portrait. They're dead ringers.'
'So you think Wilcox is behind all these accidents?
Yes, Laura thought, who else?
'There you are, Mr. Brown.' Caroline said, making a sweeping gesture at the long hallway. 'The gallery. On these walls you'll find every dead Fitzhugh. Such a shame that you have to be dead before they hang your picture in here.'
But Remington wasn't listening. Even in the shadowy darkness, punctuated by occasional flashes of lightning, the portrait was clearly visible. It was that girl again, the one in Clementine Morgan's locket, only now she was older. He stared at her. There was something eerie about those eyes. It was like looking into he paused his own. Nonsense, he told himself, quickly moving away. More than one person had blue eyes.
He walked slowly down the hallway, stopping here and there and wondering which of these portraits Wilcox had been referring to. Other than the first painting, he could find nothing extraordinary about any of them. As the Iverson woman had said, they were just a bunch of dead Fitzhughs.
He was about ready to abandon his search when he saw it, a floor length portrait of a man in a red doublet, black hose and a fur-trimmed overgown. Something like a bolt of electricity shot through his body, paralyzing him. He stared at the man as thousands of chaotic emotions and questions tumbled through his mind.
'That's Richard Fitzhugh.' He heard Caroline say. Her voice sounded far away, distant, and he wondered whether he was going to do something embarrassing like faint. 'He's the one that started it all.' He took a few deep breaths and when she spoke again her voice was loud and clear to his ears. 'Uncanny resemblance, wouldn't you say?'
Remington found himself nodding. 'Yes.'
'That's how I knew.' She continued. 'That's how I knew you were her son.'
That got his attention, breaking the spell of the portrait, and he turned to her but stopped abruptly at the sight of a rifle pointed right at him. She held it was her waist, like an old-time gunslinger, and her homely face had changed somehow. It was tight, and there was a light in her eyes that made Remington take a step backwards.
'Stay right where you are, Mr. Steele.' She told him. 'I'd rather this looked like an accident, but I'm not opposed to shooting you right here. Either way you're dead. Just like your ancestors.'
The woman was mad, Remington decided. What in the world did she mean by calling these people his ancestors? And what's all this nonsense about being someone's son? His left hand was itching like mad, but he didn't dare put it in his pocket. The slightest movement might convince her to pull the trigger.
'You know who I am?'
She laughed. 'In more ways than one, but yes, I know you're Remington Steele, the detective. Mr. Hightower has an unfortunate tendency to leave his files unlocked. I found your folder very easily. You were brought here to provide security to the Kilmorden Collection, but that's not the real reason Margaret brought you here. Oh, no, she brought you here because of that portrait. She knows as well as I do.'
'That you're Jane's son.'
Remington felt like his head was going to explode. He couldn't quite take it all in. What was this crazy woman saying? He didn't have a mother or did he? He shot a look down the hallway.
'Yes, that's right.' Caroline said, seeing his glance. 'You're catching on fast.'
'Am I?' She asked. 'Look at that portrait. Do you think it's just a coincidence that you're the spitting image of Richard? Oh, no, Mr. Steele or whatever you call yourself, you've got Fitzhugh blood in your veins all right, and now you're going to have to die just like your mother.'
He still didn't believe her about the mother thing, but he couldn't stop him from asking the obvious question. 'Why?'
'Because the Fitzhughs destroyed my family, and now I'm going to destroy theirs.' She waved the rifle at him. 'Move.'
'Where are we going?'
'To your final resting place.'
Mildred was pretending to read a book when Laura and Daniel returned.
'Thank God!' She said, jumping to her feet. 'I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever come back.' She glanced at the window. 'There's a storm coming.'
'Where's Mr. Steele?' Laura asked.
She had the terrible feeling that something was not right. She'd felt it as soon as she and Daniel had gotten out of the car. There was an ominous quality about the place that had nothing to do with the approaching storm.
'In the bedroom.' Mildred said. 'Sleeping like a baby.'
Laura left Daniel with Mildred and charged over to the door, flinging it open. A gush of cool air hit her in the face. The window across the room was wide open, the curtain flapping in the breeze.
'He's gone.' She said flatly.
'Gone!' Mildred exclaimed, rushing forward. 'But that's impossible! I haven't left this room all night. He couldn't have gone out this way without me seeing him.'
'He didn't have to go out this way.' Laura said, walking over to the window and leaning out. 'He used the window.'
'But we're on the second floor!'
'He's a bloody cat burglar.' Laura snapped. 'Do you think the lack of an elevator would have stopped him?'
'But he was sleeping so soundly when I looked in on him.' Mildred protested.
'Now, now, Millie,' Daniel said, taking Mildred's hand in his and patting it soothingly, 'there's no need to get upset. We know where he went.'
Laura whirled on them. 'Where?'
'To the gallery, of course.'
'The gallery? Why would he be going there?'
'To find a portrait.' Mildred said miserably.
Laura felt her temper flaring. 'I thought I told you to keep him away from that portrait until I came back.'
'Well, you're back, aren't you?'
'That's beside the point.' Laura said impatiently. She was in no mood to split hairs. 'How did he find out?'
'As soon as you left he got this great idea to find the person trying to kill him. He questioned that kid in the stable who said he'd only seen Wilcox on the day of the accident. Later that evening while everyone was downstairs, we searched Wilcox's room, but before we were done, he and his wife returned. Mr. Steele overheard Wilcox talking about the portrait. That's all it took. As soon as the Fitzhughs were gone, he asked Wesley '
'Wesley?' Laura interrupted. 'What did Wesley have to do with it?'
'He was under the bed with us.'
Laura was about to ask what they were all doing under a bed together but decided that she didn't want to go there. It would just confuse a story that was getting more and more confusing by the minute. 'And Wesley told him about the portrait.'
'Not quite.' Mildred said. 'He just told him where to find it.'
'Let's hope it's the only thing he finds.' Laura muttered, heading for the door.
'What do you mean?' Mildred asked, following her.
Laura stopped, turning to face her. 'I mean that if he finds the murderer before he finds the portrait, he may never know who he is.'
'Then we'd better go find him.'
'Yes, we'd better.' Laura turned back to the door again and then stopped again. 'Where's Daniel?'
Mildred shrugged. 'He must have slipped out while we were talking.'
'He always knows the perfect time to make an exit, doesn't he?'
Rather than taking the interior route to the gallery, they left the castle and approached the main wing from the outside in the vain hope that Remington might still be wandering about the gardens. The earlier rain had stopped, but there was the low rumble of thunder in the distance, and the wind had picked up, blowing Laura's hair around her head. Lightening suddenly flashed, and she heard Mildred let out a little gasp.
'What?' She asked.
'Up there.' Mildred said, pointing toward the castle's parapets. 'I thought I saw something.'
Laura peered through the darkness. She was about to tell Mildred that she must be seeing things when lightening flashed again. There, clearly silhouetted against the sky were two figures, one taller, one shorter. Laura had little doubt who at least one of those figures was. Why he was holding a conversation on the highest point of the castle, she couldn't guess, but whatever the reason, it spelled trouble.
Without a word, she began to run. There wasn't a minute to lose.
'That's far enough.' Caroline Iverson said.
Remington stopped. They were on the wall walk, the narrow passage behind the parapet of the castle. Wind whipped around them, tearing at their clothes, hair, anything it could get its hands on, and lightening flashed, glinting off steel in Iverson's hands and reminding him that there was a rifle trained on him.
The woman was mad, a certified lunatic, and his only hope was to play along with her, keep her talking until he could escape. He sent a quick glance over the parapet and grimaced. Even a man of his talents would find a climb from this height a bit daunting. One wrong move, one slip and he'd be a goner.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he asked, almost conversationally. 'Is there some reason you brought me up here? I'm sure it's a lovely view, magnificent no doubt, but it does rather lose its appeal in the dark.'
'You're going to jump.'
'Ah, I see.' He said, casting another glance over the side. 'Suicide, eh?'
'You're one smart egg, Mr. Steele. I almost regret having to kill you.'
'And if I don't want to cooperate?'
'I'll have to use this gun here to help you over the edge.'
'I was under the impression that you favored accidents. Won't a bullet hole be a bit ah inconvenient?'
'Possibly,' Caroline conceded, 'but I've taken care of that. The murder weapon will be found among Wilcox's belongings. And when they check the gun's registration and find his name, it'll be an open and shut case. He has the motive and the opportunity. Just like he did thirty three years ago.' She paused. 'Actually, I think I might prefer it that way. Then I would destroy the entire family, not just Jane's line.'
'Brilliant plan. Very effective.' Remington noted. 'But I'd like to make a request before you shoot me and toss my body over the parapet.'
'And what would that be?'
'Would you be so good to explain this compulsive dislike of the Fitzhugh family? I was under the impression that your family and theirs were very close.'
'That's the way it looks, doesn't it?' Caroline said. 'But I know the truth. Mum told me. Charles Fitzhugh ruined my father financially, and that's why Daddy put a noose around his neck and hung himself. Mum and I lived on Fitzhugh charity for years, and I had to scrape and bow and be suitably grateful for every little kindness Jane Fitzhugh showed me. I knew what everyone thought. She was the swan and I was the ugly duckling. I spent years watching her get everything I should have gotten if her father hadn't ruined mine, and I hated her for it. But I didn't think about righting wrongs until he came to tea.'
'He?' Remington echoed.
'Michael Connors.' Caroline intoned in a voice that sounded like a young girl's rather than a woman in her sixties. 'He was so handsome, and he treated me as though I was attractive and interesting. He didn't look though me like other men did. He actually talked to me. But he was hers.' Her voice turned harsh. 'So I followed her to Ireland. She thought nobody knew, but I knew. I'd overheard her talking with him. But, I couldn't follow her right away. No, I had Mum to look after. Poor mad Mum, it was a kindness I did by putting that pillow over her face while she slept, and when she was finally dead, I went to Ireland. Once there, I bided my time. Patience is a virtue. And when the time was right, I cut the brake line to that fancy car of his and then called her, asking her to meet me. It so was simple, so very simple.' There was a pause and Remington was sure he could hear her heavy breathing even above the howl of the wind. 'If I'd known she had had a brat during those months, I wouldn't have stopped there. I would have finished you off as well. Michael was very clever to hide you from me.'
Remington froze. He'd been slowly easing along the parapet, trying to put distance between him and Caroline Iverson, but her words stopped in his tracks. Why did this woman keep insisting that he was Jane Fitzhugh's son? He didn't have a mother, damn it! And if he did, she certainly wouldn't be the daughter of a Duke.
But what about that portrait, the insidious voice asked. It was like looking in a mirror. And that's girl's eyes so much like your own.
'You're wrong.' He rasped, staring into Caroline Iverson's mad face. 'I'm not Jane Fitzhugh's son. I'm I'm Remington Steele.'
You're lying again, Harry. You're not Remington Steele. You're a figment of Laura Holt's imagination.
Remington put his hands to his head. My God, was he going as mad as this woman? Who the hell was he?
The voice was a piece of sanity in the midst of madness. Both Remington and Caroline turned in its direction.
'Michael?' Caroline asked. Once again her voice sounded like a young girl's.
A figure detached itself from the shadows. 'Yes, Carrie, it's me, Michael.'
Lightening flashed, confirming what Remington already knew. The man claiming to be Michael was in fact Daniel Chalmers.
'It's been,' Caroline paused, 'years since I heard your voice.'
'Yet it seems like yesterday.' Daniel said above the rumble of thunder. 'Do you remember the last time we met? You were wearing a floppy blue hat with daisies around the crown.'
'You remember that?' Carrie's voice held a note of childlike wonder.
'Of course, I remember everything about you.'
Remington sensed rather than saw the shadow moving. Daniel was coming closer, approaching the woman with the gun like a person approaching an unpredictable dog. He knew he ought to slip into the shadows. It was obviously what Daniel had intended by distracting the woman, but he remained rooted to the place where he stood as questions whirled chaotically within his mind.
'But what about Jane?'
'I know.' Caroline declared. 'I killed her.'
The shadow faltered briefly, almost as though someone had punched it, before continuing its slow, steady progress. 'How clever of you.' Daniel said in a voice as rough as sandpaper. 'She'll never come between us again.'
'Do you mean that Michael?'
'Of course, I do.' He was close enough to touch her now. 'Give me the gun, Carrie. You don't need it any more. You've got me now.'
He extended a hand and for a moment Remington thought she'd give it to him, but then the sound of approaching footsteps broke the spell and she clutched the gun tighter.
'No!' She howled. 'You're lying!'
At that moment Laura and Mildred burst onto the scene, and Daniel, seeing that their arrival had momentarily drawn Caroline's attention, lunged forward, taking hold of the gun barrel. But Caroline was a strong woman, perhaps made even stronger by her madness, and she resisted.
The pair careened along the wall walk and eventually landed against the parapet where they continued to wrestle for possession of the gun. Daniel gave one last pull, which brought Caroline up against him. They stared into each other's eyes for a brief, tension filled moment before Daniel suddenly shoved with all his might, releasing his grip.
Caught off guard, Caroline stumbled backwards, still clutching the gun. She hit the parapet wall at the embrasure, the low segment in the altering high and low segments of the wall, and her momentum took her over the edge. Her scream was drowned out by a clap of thunder that seemed to shake the entire castle.
There was a second of paralyzed silence and then Daniel dropped to his knees, breathing hard, clutching at his chest.
'Daniel!' Remington rasped, rushing forward to fall to his knees beside the man.
A spasm of pain lanced across the older man's face. 'I'm sorry Harry only wanted you to be safe forgive me '
He crumpled forward.
Laura glanced at Mildred. 'Call an ambulance. Now.'
Without waiting to see if Mildred complied, she dropped to her knees beside Daniel's still form as the sky opened up, releasing a torrent of rain. She looked at Remington, his dark hair wet and plastered to his head, a shell-shocked expression on his face. Oh, no, you don't, she thought grimly, rolling Daniel onto his back and loosening his collar. You're not leaving me to explain all this! Damn you, Daniel, this is not the time to make an exit.
The graveyard was quiet as most graveyards are. Not a sound broke the frosty silence except for the crunch of dried leaves as Remington walked slowly up and down, stopping now and then to read the inscription on various headstones. In the distance a lone rook circled the castle turrets before alighting on the parapet with a throaty call.
My ancestors, Remington mused, staring down at a lichen-covered headstone with the name William Fitzhugh and the dates 1831 to 1893 etched into it. He still couldn't quite believe it, but the Duchess did, and apparently that was all that mattered. Within a few short weeks, he'd gone from being Remington Steele, a figment of Laura's imagination to being Michael Fitzhugh Chalmers, the very real Duke of Kilmorden.
And how do you feel about that, Harry? He'd been asking himself that question for the past few weeks, and he still didn't have an answer. After all, he'd gotten used to having no past and borrowing identities. He'd liked his life as Remington Steele, and he wasn't sure he wanted to play a new role, even if it was the one he'd been born to play. If he became Michael, then what happened to Remington? What happened to his heart trembled at the thought his life with Laura?
After all they weren't legally married any more thanks to his birth record being unearthed in a little parish church outside of Dingle. He must thank Mildred for that, he decided grimly before his mind raced back to the question at hand. Would Laura want to re-marry him? He certainly had more to offer than he had previously, but she'd never struck him as a woman who'd like playing the role of Grand Duchess for longer than the night as she had in St. Moritz. A woman like Laura needed something meaningful to do, and he didn't think hosting charity tea parties, no matter how worthy the cause, were her idea of meaningful.
He continued walking, leaving old Willie behind as his mind chewed over the question of his future. He knew Laura was worried about him. He knew Mildred was worried about him. They thought his daily walks in the Kilmorden cemetery unhealthy, and perhaps it was, but he felt compelled to return nonetheless. It drew him like a siren's song, especially the two graves at the far end, in the newer section of the graveyard.
They drew him even now, and in a few more minutes, he was standing above the one belonging to his mother. How strange that still sounded, he mused as he stared at the name cut into the marble stone. Jane Harriet Fitzhugh Chalmers. The Duchess had had Chalmers added only a week ago. It still looked crisp and tidy next to the more weathered letters.
What had she been like? Clementine and his grandmother again the word sounded strange to him had been more than willing to supply him with information, but still the woman who had born him remained a mystery. He suspected she always would.
His eyes lifted and came to rest on the second grave. It was new, the dirt still broken and only beginning to show signs of settling. It looked out of place among the others, and perhaps it was. Nevertheless the Duchess had claimed it as their own, making a place for it among the Fitzhughs. Looking at it now, he could only feel an overwhelming sadness. The anger had vanished weeks before. Nothing could change the past. What was done was done. Only the present and the future mattered.
Men like us don't have pasts, Harry. We just have presents. Futures are for men who have put down roots. Futures are for men like Remington Steele.
Daniel's words flashed across his memory like a lightening bolt, illuminating the dark corners and crevices, making everything startling clear and he suddenly knew exactly what he wanted to do.
'You're worried about him, aren't you?'
Laura didn't even bother turning her head. She knew who it was.
'How many times is he going to look at it?' She asked, her eyes never leaving the figure of a man in the distance. He was just a smudge within the surrounding oak trees, but there was only one person spending so much time among the dead these days.
The Duchess joined her at the second floor drawing room window. 'As many times as it takes.'
'It's not,' Laura searched for the word, 'healthy to spend so much time in a cemetery.'
'I know one or two genealogists who would disagree with you.' The Duchess said with a smile. 'They claim that we can only know who we are by knowing who we came from. Don't worry, my dear. He'll come back to you.'
Laura glanced at her. She'd come to like and respect this old woman. Her earlier frostiness had melted away, leaving a woman with plenty of warmth in her heart for a long lost grandson and his well, what was she? His wife? Not really. She had married a man named Remington Steele. This man was someone named Michael Chalmers. Not that a name change made she love him any less, but she was rather confused about where she fit in his life now. Did Dukes marry commoners who made their living in murder and mayhem?
'Will he?' She asked, lifting a dark brow. 'I'm beginning to wonder about that. I've never seen him so distant.'
'Give him time.' The Duchess murmured, placing the hand with the blue diamond on Laura's arm. 'He loves you. That's not going to change, no matter what his name is.'
Laura watched the weak sunlight catch the hidden blue fire of the diamond. It seemed to mock her. Because of that stupid rock and its co-patriots in the safe, she'd brought Remington here against his will, putting into motion a sequence of events that now threatened everything they'd found together. No fee, no agency was worth that. Perhaps Daniel was right. She was a meddlesome woman.
'I hope you're right.'
'I am. You'll see.'
'I admire your optimism.'
The Duchess's smile widened. 'I assure you that it wasn't always so. When Jane died, I thought my world had ended. It was like the sun had been snuffed out and perhaps it was. Jane was such a sunny girl,' The Duchess sent her a sidelong glance, 'despite her predilection for con men and thieves. And then when Charles died a few years later, I just sort of curled up around myself. Rather like a hedgehog. I learned to lock the loneliness and sadness behind a door in my heart, but it was always there like unfinished business. And that's exactly what Jane's death was, unfinished business. I'd sensed there was more to the story than we'd been told. Now, finally, after all these years, it's finished, and I'm at peace.'
'Even after finding out that your daughter was murdered by someone you regarded as a friend, a part of the family?'
'Yes, even then.' The Duchess sighed, staring off into the direction that Laura had been staring earlier. 'Poor Caroline. I can only feel pity for her. All those years being poisoned by her mother's distorted version of the truth. Charles didn't set out to ruin Frederick deliberately. On the contrary, he sensed the investment they were involved in was unstable and informed Frederick that he was pulling out and advised him to do the same. I remember the anguish he felt when Frederick refused to heed his warning, and when Frederick hung himself, he felt it was his responsibility to take care of Anna and Caroline, seeing as how they were left penniless.' She frowned darkly. 'Selfish of Frederick to leave his wife and daughter like that, but he never was a strong man. I had suspected for a long time that Anna was not quite 'right', but I never dreamed that she had passed that madness onto Carrie. She seemed like such a normal child, a bit backwards but many young girls have been backwards without becoming killers.' She sighed once again. 'I did see a glimmer of it the day Michael, I mean, Daniel, came to tea, but I just put it down at calf love.'
'You mustn't blame yourself.' Laura said. 'We spent two weeks with her and didn't see anything amiss. She hid it very well.'
'Yes, she did.' The Duchess agreed. 'Nevertheless, I can't help but feel '
She was interrupted by a voice from the doorway. 'Margaret?'
The two women turned, startled by the newcomer. She'd been so engrossed in her conversation with the Duchess that Laura hadn't noticed Remington's departure from the cemetery. He now stood on the threshold of the drawing room, his hair wind-tossed, his eyes enigmatic. Her heart squeezed. How she longed for the days when he allowed her to see what he was thinking. Now he kept everything guarded.
'Could I speak with you?' His eyes flickered toward Laura. 'Alone?'
'Yes, of course.' The Duchess said, coming forward. 'Would my private study be acceptable? Ambrose is off on Sundays.'
'That would be fine.'
Laura watched as they departed and then turned abruptly back to the window, crossing her arms as though suddenly chilled. She could only guess at what he wanted to speak to his grandmother about. Whatever it was he'd made it perfectly clear that she wasn't invited. Was there anything else she needed to know but that? Turning on her heel, she left the room.
Remington left the Duchess's or rather his grandmother's study feeling much lighter in heart and spirit. It had gone better than he had expected. The old girl hadn't been upset at all. She wasn't nearly as toffee-nosed as he'd first thought. If he'd had to inherit a grandmother, he was rather relieved that it was someone so cooperative. Now if only Laura would follow the old girl's example.
He hurried to the drawing room, expecting to find Laura at the window, she'd spent a great deal of time looking out windows lately, but to his surprise and perhaps a tad bit of annoyance, she'd flown the coop. Typical of her, he thought as he retraced his steps. Now where the devil could she be? He was impatient to find her and did not relish a game of hide and seek in this great pile of rocks. Thank God they wouldn't be staying or he'd have to put a bell around her neck so he could locate her.
He found her in their bedroom. She was packing very industriously.
'Too bad you didn't show this sort of enthusiasm a few weeks ago.' He commented cheerfully. 'We might have avoided all this.'
Brown eyes sparked. 'So this is my fault, is it?'
Remington wisely remained silent and waited. She didn't disappoint him.
'Ok. You're right.' She said, flinging the fringed skirt into the suitcase. 'It's my fault. If I hadn't insisted we accept the case, we'd still be in London right now, doing something incredibly boring like following a randy old Earl around town.'
'Hardly boring.' Remington assured her. 'Randy old Earls seldom are.'
'That makes me feel so much better.'
She turned on her heel and stalked over to the dresser where she scooped out a pile of panties and bras. Remington forgot about randy old Earls and began thinking about randy husbands. It'd been what? Three or four weeks since he thought about Laura in a red teddy? If he needed any more evidence that he was back from the abyss and ready to return to life, the sight of Laura's underwear and what it did to his imagination was it.
He forced his mind back to the matter at hand. Laura's underwear would come later or rather it would come off later.
'If anyone is to blame for this, and I'm not saying there is, it's Lady Hepplewhite and her blasted soiree. Once the Duchess saw me, the die was cast. We would have come to this point whether you had accepted the case or not. It was kismet.'
She looked at him over the underwear. 'Kismet?'
'Kismet, Howard Keel, Ann Blyth, 1955, MGM, amusing little movie, but in this case, I'm referring to what the Turks call destiny.'
Her eyes widened. 'You haven't quoted a movie in weeks.'
'Haven't I?' Remington said. 'How odd. I must not have been myself.'
'And you are now?'
'And who exactly are you?'
There was a hesitant note in her voice that made him smile. It was so unusual to hear the confident Miss Holt unsure of anything.
'I'm Remington Steele, and I'd like to make it official.'
Her expression went from wary to suspicious in a matter of seconds. 'What do you mean 'official'?'
'I mean,' he emphasized, 'I want your permission to legally change my name to Remington Steele. Since you created him, you have owner rights.'
The underwear fluttered to the floor. 'You're kidding.'
'I assure you I'm perfectly serious.'
'But your name is Michael Chalmers. Mildred found the birth certificate. There's no need to steal an identity any more. You're,' she waved her arms helplessly, 'the Duke of Kilmorden. Why on earth would you want to give that up to become an insignificant,' she searched for a word and said the first thing that came to mind, 'dick?'
His smiled widened. She was rattled. Otherwise, she would have never used such a word to describe her profession. His use of it had always annoyed her. Amusing though it was to see her so flummoxed, it was time to put her mind at ease.
He reached out, taking her by the arms, drawing her closer so he could look down into her eyes. 'I might have been given the name Michael Chalmers at birth, but that's all it is. A name that happens to be connected to a title. Remington Steele, on the other hand, is a life, not a name. It's a life I want to continue. It's a life with a future. It's a life that you can share.'
Rather than dissolving into the sex kitten he'd been hoping for, she looked ready to use her claws on him. 'You don't think a commoner like me can be a proper Duchess?'
'I didn't say that '
'But I assure you, I can.' She declared. 'What about Jennie Jerome?'
Remington blinked. Who the hell was Jennie Jerome and what was she doing intruding on what he'd hoped to be a tender moment? 'Laura, I think you've misunderstood '
'She was an American and she married Lord Randolph Churchill and bore one of England's greatest statesmen. If she can do it,' she lifted her chin, 'so can I.'
'I'm sure you can.' Remington said, wondering how they'd gotten on the subject of the Churchills. She must have been reading books as well as staring out windows. 'If there's anything I've learned over the past five years, Laura Holt can do anything she set her mind to, but this isn't about you and whether or not you can be a proper Duchess. It's about me. I don't want to be a Duke, at least not for a very long time. And I've just made that very clear to the Duchess.'
That seemed to get her attention. 'How did she take it?'
'What does that mean?'
'It means that we've come to an agreement. She'll accept my change of name and the agency that goes with it if I'll accept the title, the castle, the house in Kent, a townhouse in London, various automobiles, a collection of Royal Doulton that's been in the family since 1815, and a racehorse named 'Double Indemnity'. I couldn't pass him up with a name like that. Bound to be a winner.' He paused for a moment, thinking. 'Did I forget anything? Ah, yes, she did mention something about an allowance in the range of 300,000 pounds a year. Not a bad exchange, eh?'
Laura stared at him. 'Is that all?'
'I suppose we'll have to take that collection of blue diamonds,' He said with the air of someone greatly put upon, 'but we all have to make sacrifices.'
'Big of you.'
'I thought so.' He agreed, pulling her close until there was only a breath between them. Placing one finger beneath her chin, he tilted her face upward, providing himself with an unrestricted view of dark brown eyes. 'So what do you say, love? May I have the honor of becoming Remington Steele on an official basis?'
'You realize, don't you, that as Michael Chalmers you could return to the United States?'
'I'd rather wait for that miracle you're so sure of. Makes things much more exciting.'
'Then in that case,' Laura said, her voice becoming husky with emotion, 'it would be my pleasure to grant you permission.'
'Splendid. I'll get the efficient Ms. Krebs on it first thing in the morning.' His eyes dropped to his wife's lips. 'This calls for a celebration, wouldn't you say, Mrs. Steele?'
'What did you have in mind, Mr. Steele?'
He brushed his lips against hers, a feather light touch. 'A little bit of this,' the hand that wasn't holding her chin slid beneath her sweater and came to rest against one breast, 'and quite a lot of that as well as,' his head lifted and he looked down at her with an expression of sultry expectation, 'a red teddy?'
A slow smile touched Laura's mouth. 'Far be it for a mere commoner to deny a Duke anything he wants.' She detached herself from his arms, reached down and retrieved the teddy in question. 'I'll be right with you, Your Grace.'
There were definitely some advantages to being a Duke, Remington decided as he waited for his heart beat and breathing to return to normal an hour or so later. With supreme effort, he lifted himself off his wife's warm, damp body. She murmured a protest, but he quickly gathered her against his side once he was settled atop the ugly, gold coverlet. He ought to cover them, but the cool castle drafts felt good against his hot skin.
'Ah, Laura?' He said when he could talk without panting.
'There was one other stipulation the Duchess put on her cooperation.'
'What's that?' Laura asked, her voice slurred slightly with the approach of sleep.
'She wants us to get married again.'
Brown eyes popped open. 'Married? Again? Why?'
'I suspect the old girl wants to show us off. You know how grandmothers are.'
'You're quite the expert for someone who didn't have a grandmother until a few weeks ago.'
'I'm a fast learner.' He waited for a moment, expecting a comment and when he didn't get one, he continued. 'Besides, what would it hurt to humor the old girl? She's in the twilight of her life, and there is a little issue of the legality of our first marriage. Mildred fudged more than my name. She listed my place of birth as Glocca Morra.'
'Glocca Morra doesn't exist. It was the invention of a songwriter's overactive imagination.'
'Hmm, I see what you mean.' Laura said somewhat grudgingly. 'Ok. We'll get married again. Just a small wedding in the garden, something intimate with just a '
'Few hundred guests.'
Laura shot upwards, providing Remington with an excellent view of freckled breasts. He loved the way they bounced. 'A few hundred guests!'
'Comparatively speaking that's quite intimate.'
'Compared to what? Princess Di's?'
'Dukes have a responsibility to society, Laura.'
'I'm sure she won't mind if you invite your mother and sister.' He added. 'I imagine that being invited to the wedding of a Duke would go a long way in soothing ruffles feathers.'
Laura frowned. 'I was rather hoping to keep your elevation in rank a secret from them.'
'To spare the members of mother's bridge club and Francis' PTA group.'
'Well, love, we all have to make sacrifices.'
She sat for a few moments, plucking resentfully at the coverlet, before suddenly sending him a suspicious look. 'Is that all the stipulations? Or do we have to give her our firstborn as well?'
'She didn't mention children, but I don't imagine she'd be too upset if you presented her with a Kilmorden heir within the next couple years.'
'I'll see what I can do.' Laura said sarcastically.
Remington sobered. 'Is marrying me again such a chore, Laura, love?'
She looked at him, and there was a softness in her expression that wasn't there a moment ago. 'I'd marry you hundred times if you asked me.' She leaned forward, dropping a kiss on his lips, before sitting back on her heels with a sigh. 'I guess being a Duchess is harder than I thought.'
'Good thing you have experience, eh?'
She suddenly smiled. 'Yes. Good thing.'
Remington stood in front of the floor length mirror, staring at himself critically. Even to his way of thinking he was overdressed. The wedding clothes of a Duke were ostentatious and uncomfortable. He tugged at the starched collar.
'Stop fidgeting, my boy.' Daniel said from his chair beside the mirror. 'You looked magnificent. Archduke Ferdinand never looked as good.'
'I feel like an organ grinder's monkey.' Remington muttered, glaring at the purple sash that spanned his chest from shoulder to waist. 'Either that or an ambassador.'
Daniel chuckled. It was good to hear the old man laugh again, Remington thought. It'd been touch and go there for a while. If Laura hadn't administered CPR until the ambulance arrived, there'd have been a third grave in the Kilmorden cemetery. Nevertheless, it'd been a long recovery, all winter actually, but now here he was, looking nearly like his old self. He wasn't completely the same for now he carried the walking stick out of need rather than show.
'Better get used to it, my boy. You're a Duke now.'
'Only when I'm here. In London I'm just Remington Steele.'
'Ah, yes, Millie tells me that the agency has really taken off this winter. I wish I'd been there to see it, but,' he shrugged, 'Margaret insisted I recuperate En Provence. It was very public spirited of her to pay for my convalescence.'
'Did the doctor recommend frequent trips to Monte Carlo as well?'
'He said to resume my normal activities.'
'Damn!' Remington growled as the white rose bud he'd been working into his lapel broke. 'That's the fourth rose this morning.'
'You should have let that valet chap do it.'
'I can dress myself.' Remington retorted.
Daniel eyed him silently for a moment or two and then got up, plucking another rose from the vase on the table. 'What's wrong with you, Harry?' He asked, tucking the rose with expert skill through the lapel hole. 'You've been acting like a cat on a hot tin roof all morning. It's not like you haven't married the chit before. Don't tell me you're getting cold feet after what? A year or so of marriage to her?'
'I'm not getting cold feet.'
'I'm glad to hear it because I won't have you leaving that divine creature at the altar.'
'When did you become Laura Holt's Lord Protector?'
'When she saved my life.'
'Does that mean there won't be any more Broom Hilda comments?'
Daniel smiled, showing straight, white teeth. 'I wouldn't go as far that. Besides, she enjoys our little skirmishes. Keeps her on her toes.' He took a step back, eyed his handiwork, and then said. 'So what's bothering you?'
Remington pulled on a pair of white gloves, gave himself one more glance in the mirror and then sighed. 'This just isn't how Laura and I do things.'
'Get married, solve cases, live.' Remington said in obvious frustration. 'Everything's too perfect, too normal. Do you know that all winter we didn't find one dead body in a closet or under a bed or tumbling down an airport carousel? Laura was right. Following randy, old Earls around is a dead bore. And now my wedding's going to be a dead bore as well. We'll walk down the aisle in front of a few hundred people with pipe organ booming, say our vows, walk back up the aisle and then eat a wedding cake chocked full of nasty little things called currants before being pelted by rice. What's happened to us?'
'Respectability, my boy.' Daniel declared. 'It kills all spontaneity. I tried to save you from it, but alas, as soon as you stepped into the old Duke's shoes, it began twisting itself around you like poison ivy. But,' he said with renewed optimism, 'you needn't give in to it. There are ways to eradicate it.'
'How?' Remington asked eagerly.
'Mmm, let's see.' Daniel made a show of thinking hard before saying cheerfully. 'Why not elope?'
'Elope?' Remington echoed. 'But there's a church full of guests waiting for us.'
'There it is again.' Daniel said, shaking his head sadly. 'Respectability. A truly disrespectable person wouldn't worry about their guests. They'd seize the moment. Carpe diem!'
Carpe diem, Remington repeated to himself, rolling the phrase over and over in his head. How did Laura feel about carpe diem?
Laura stared at her reflection in the floor length mirror. She looked like a fairy tale princess. Her dress had been modeled after the one worn by Queen Elizabeth II on her marriage to Prince Phillip. It was everything a wedding dress ought to be, everything she'd dreamed of as a little girl yet she couldn't stop thinking about the modest dress she'd worn at her wedding in St. Moritz, and how minutes before they'd been riding a horse willy-nilly through the Landrieu World Cup Polo on Snow. There'd been no chase this time around. Just typical wedding day preparations.
'Oh, you look beautiful.' Mildred sighed, plucking at the floor length veil. 'Your mother and sister will be so proud.'
'Where are they?' Laura asked.
'They left for the church about fifteen minutes ago.'
'And the Duchess?'
'She's with Ambrose going over last minute details.'
Laura glanced at the door. It'd be so easy to slip away without anyone knowing. What are you thinking, she asked herself. You're not thinking about leaving Remington at the altar, are you? No, of course not. Yet there was no denying the strong urge she felt to head for the hills. Not because she didn't want to marry Remington but rather in an attempt to get away from the suffocating presence of what? Respectability?
'I'll just go get your bouquet.' Mildred said, leaving the room.
This just wasn't how she and Remington did things. Their life together had always been one screwball adventure after another, liberally sprinkled with danger and romance. That hadn't changed when they got married in St. Moritz as witnessed by their adventure on the rooftops of Venice, but since becoming the Duke and Duchess of Kilmorden? Well, life had become respectable.
A sudden rapping at the window broken into her thoughts. She shot a quick glance at the door leading to the antechamber where Mildred was oohing and ahhing over her bouquet before hurrying over to the window. Flinging open the sash, she looked out. Remington was standing in the yew bushes, looking up at her.
'What are you doing in the bushes?' She hissed. 'You and Daniel should have been at the church thirty minutes ago.'
'I've come to ask you to elope.'
'What?' She exclaimed. 'Are you crazy?'
'Very likely but I'm asking you all the same. Will you elope with me?'
'But there's a church full of guests waiting for us.'
'I've already tried that excuse.'
'Look, Laura, walking down an aisle in front of a few hundred guests tarted up like Ken and Barbie dolls just isn't us. We may be the Duke and Duchess of Kilmorden now, but let's not let respectability change us into something we no longer recognize. I liked Remington and Laura Steele just the way they were. Dead bodies and all. So what do you say? Will the intrepid Mrs. Steele join me in another adventure?'
It was crazy, she told herself, sheer lunacy. But, damn it, that was their life, wasn't it?
Wrapping her veil around her arm several times, she slung one leg over the window and then the other. Remington's arms were waiting for her, and in that moment, she knew that, for them, this was the right thing to do. Hand in hand they ran across the lawn.
Margaret Fitzhugh, Dowager Duchess of Kilmorden, watched the limo speed out of the driveway, a slight smile on her lips. Ambrose, however, found nothing amusing about a runaway groom and bride.
'I'll send Hanson and Byers after them immediately.' He stated, picking up the phone to buzz the footmen.
'That won't be necessary.'
He gaped at her. 'Not necessary? But what about all our guests?'
'We'll simply tell them the truth.' The Duchess said with a serenity that Ambrose found mystifying. 'The Duke and Duchess of Kilmorden have eloped. We'll apologize most sincerely and then invite them back to the castle for champagne and wedding cake. The women will swoon over the romance of it all, and the men will forget their inconvenience in an excellent year of Dom Perignon.'
'This is highly irregular, Your Grace.' Ambrose said stiffly.
'Yes, it is,' the Duchess agreed, 'but I think you'll find that the new Duke and Duchess are that kind of people.'
'And that doesn't bother you?'
The Duchess's smile widened, becoming almost Remington-esque. 'I wouldn't have it any other way.'
THE END...THUS CONCLUDES MY FORAY INTO RS FAN FICTION. HOPE YOU ENJOYED READING. ~ Samantha Knight