Well, I said it was you guys' fault for using the "s" word in a fanfic challenge. Somehow, I couldn't resist. I've also sent this one to the SteeleWatchers as the latest Christmas present/story, but whoever came up with the challenge is also partly to blame.
It's set after Season 5 and I hope there's enough of the "s" word to satisfy you evil people!
The argument started as soon as the door closed behind their client. That was nothing unusual. What was unusual was that the argument started with silence.
At least, silence on Mr. Steele's part. Laura was happy enough. She pulled a fresh file folder out from under her clipboard and started a new heading for their new client.
"I think this should go well," she said, "Dakota Max stores are flush with cash this year and there's only three in LA. And only one of those is in anything like a troubled area. In fact," she looked up at him cheerfully, "I might even call this one a piece of cake."
A noncommittal "hm" was the only response she drew. Her eyebrows arched. "You have concerns?" she asked.
"Oh, no," he said with an obvious drawl. "None whatsoever. Piece of cake. As you said. Open and shut, by the book. No trouble at all."
She sat back in her chair and eyed him warily. "All right. Out with it. You don't like this one. What's the problem? The legwork? The locations? The client?" She plucked a check from the stack of papers on her lap and waved it at him. "I know you're not objecting to the size of the retainer."
"No, the retainer is, as always, entirely acceptable. The locations aren't extraordinarily out of the way. I see no difficulties whatsoever. Piece of cake." He offered her a tight, insincere smile and she heard him mutter something under his breath.
"Shouldn't that be Christmas candy, not Christmas cake?" she said, letting him know he'd been heard. "Your objection is Christmas?"
"I have no objection to Christmas," he said, feigning total lack of understanding of her point. "It's a fine holiday, especially for high-end stores. Luckily for us. Or we might be without a client this year. Three days before the holiday." His gaze was level and unmoving from her face. "How could anyone object to late-night surveillance work for a high-end retail chain at the busiest shopping season of the year? It would be practically un-American. And with my immigration troubles, I'd never want to be called un-American, now would I?"
She set her jaw. "You haven't done your Christmas shopping again this year, have you? You're upset this is going to eat into your precious shopping time!"
He waved dismissively in the general direction of her jaw. "Not at all. My shopping is done. Wrapping, not so much, but I can carve out enough time between stakeouts and client reports to slap some tinsel and ribbon on what I have tucked away. And I'm sure we can drop gifts off for people on our way to and from work. Pop them right into mailboxes from the comfort of our own cars. No trouble at all. It's not as if we'd actually want to see anyone, wish them happy holidays. Business first. I understand completely. You're right, as always."
She slapped her clipboard impatiently against her own thighs, eyes rolling heavenward. "We have three full days to get through before Christmas Eve itself. With any luck, we'll be done and finished by then. If Mr. Marchant is right and stock is being moved out of the warehouse stores in the middle of the night, we'll nab someone the first or second night. I promise you, this won't cut into Christmas at all." She looked accusingly around his pristine office. "It's not like you've gone out of your way with all the holiday trimmings this year, anyway. I've got more natural Christmas spirit than you've ever had!" She tossed her hair to set her Christmas ornament earrings swinging a bit for effect. "And my gifts are already wrapped tight. All of them."
"I've never accused you of being inefficient, Laura," he said, moving the white poinsettia on his desk an inch or so to the left. "I'm sure everything is wrapped, stacked and neatly labeled." He smiled blandly. "In triplicate."
If her growl weren't emphatic enough, the slamming of their connecting office door behind her certainly was. Out in the reception area, Mildred smiled wistfully at the young woman she was training.
"It'll be o.k., Grace. These two are always testy after seeing a new client. Or around the holidays. Or on a day with a 'y' in it." Mildred shrugged. "It all works out in the end. You'll see." She patted the young woman's shoulder reassuringly. "Now, let me see you find the client mailing list on the hard drive again."
She thought she'd arrived at their first stakeout well ahead of him, but as she approached the loading dock, she saw him step lightly out of the shadows, smiling blandly. She wondered what connecting mall storefront he'd been dropped off behind. Nothing too far away, she guessed. The limo was nowhere in sight. Doubtless Fred was safely home with Mrs. Fred by now, sharing a glass of eggnog. She hefted the nylon backpack over her shoulder. His arms were glaringly free from all encumbrances.
"I hope you weren't waiting long," she said. "It gets nippy out here after dark."
"I've been in Los Angeles long enough to learn the weather's seasonal proclivities, however unseasonal they may be," he said tersely. "And, since this is an inside job, I thought the plan would be to keep an eye on the inside of the store." He reached out and snagged a strap, neatly pulling the backpack away from her and tucking it securely under one black-sleeved arm. "I've already reconnoitered and there's a good spot all picked out and waiting. Joining me, Mrs. Steele?"
"By all means, Mr. Steele," she said, her jaw setting into an all-too-familiar ache. "Lead on." She followed him through a metal employee entrance next to the loading dock, switching on her penlight and keeping its narrow beam aimed downward, as his was.
The employee-only area of the store was cramped except for the two large loading dock areas, side-by-side. Four one-man forklift trucks waited against one wall of the nearest loading dock, their keys neatly on a pegboard beside them. Four more were just rectangular shapes in the shadows of the farther loading dock. Their unseen keys no doubt graced a similarly-placed pegboard of their own. Just off the first loading dock area was a small hallway leading to two restrooms, two small locker rooms and one moderately-sized breakroom. Laura looked at the glow from the snack machines and microwave through the windows. She spared one longing glance at the stacking chairs and tables and resolutely followed her partner through the swinging double doors into the warehouse store proper.
Here their progress was slower as they both kept to the deeper shadows along the aisles. While the mall's normal security patrol might not be standing directly outside the complex's inside entrance to the warehouse store, ceiling-mounted security cameras were clearly visible through the main doorway, their working lights announcing that anyone at their proper post in the mall's security office would have a reasonable view of any regular camera sweep of what could be seen of the interior area.
The lines of cash registers waited under bright security lights near the outside store entrance, easily visible from the inside store entrance to their left. Stripped shadows lined the floor from the rolling security gates that closed the store itself off from the mall proper. Keeping his head down, Steele led them both away from the well lighted area, more toward the central aisle of the warehouse store itself.
A moment later, he had vanished, somewhere to his right. Laura blinked and approached the end of the aisle cautiously. Pausing, she heard a small hiss.
He was near an odd shape rising out of a slightly cleared area near the intersection of aisles. Before she could move to join him, he had pointed at his watch and held up his hand, fingers splayed. Five minutes, he warned her silently. Glancing up at the dark dome overhead, which concealed one of the store's internal security cameras, she consulted her own watch. When the minute hand had moved the necessary distance, she scurried to where he waited.
"Trust you to find the most comfortable stakeout point," she said softly as he held a flap open for her on the screened awning display set up around an octagonal picnic table.
"Well, it's safely under cover and you can't improve on the view," he noted, sitting on a section of bench and waving an arm at the four screened walls. Laura noted approvingly that, with no lights inside the solidly topped awning and ample security lighting outside, the mesh screens provided adequate cover for them, so long as they didn't move around too much. But the screens also provided reasonably good views of anything on all four sides of them within the store itself, at least anything that wasn't shielded from view by the tall shelves that were everywhere inside the store.
She glanced up at a metal catwalk along a small second-story row of offices, just above where the security gate descended on the mall interior proper. "Wouldn't we have a better view from up there? With all the tall shelving, I mean?"
"If we're stuck doing stakeouts past one or two nights, I'd say one of us might be well-off to try that, but for now, we'll be able to move more freely down here, if we need to move quickly," he told her, pulling a small nylon backpack of his own off the floor and onto the bench next to him.
She watched as he pulled a tall thermos and two plastic cups out and poured them each something warm from its depths. "Sorry," he said, handing her a mug, "couldn't manage marshmallows this time."
She smiled as the smell of hot cocoa wafted to her. "Trying for some proper Christmas spirit, I see," she said approvingly, pulling a small tin of homemade cookies from her own pack. As he took one from the tin, she reached out to turn a plastic snowman perched in the middle of the picnic table toward her. "This is festive, too," she noted.
"Trust me," he said dryly, "I had nothing to do with that bit of kitsch."
"You don't approve of holiday decorations?" she asked, trying for a light tone and missing the mark somewhat.
"I simply fail to see the point of using a veritable blizzard of plastic pellets to imply that Christmas in Los Angeles would be incomplete without snow. Every display has a heap of fake flakes dusting it. You practically need skis to get through the aisles of any store this time of year. And all this while the temperature has hovered near 70, at least during the daytime. It's honestly appalling."
"All because of a little fake snow?" she said, with a small smile.
"A little?" He scowled. "This could make the packing peanut industry fear for its livelihood. There's enough plastic pellets scattered around this store alone to cushion every pie crust in Christendom. You'd think the city had been dropped in Antarctica by mistake."
"What is it about Christmas in the City of Angels that gets your shorts in such a bunch? You've been this way since-" Though she'd been speaking quietly, he held up a hand to shush her and she stiffened into alert immediately.
From an aisle somewhere to their right came a faint ratcheting sound - a key sliding into a lock. Then the even smaller sound of rollers moving along tracks. A display case was being opened.
He was just ahead of her, out the flap and running nimbly down the aisle. But the two ski-masked men at the video game case in the toy area spotted them coming and the nearest whirled to grab the side of the shelving closest to them, tipping it before Laura could dodge out of the way. She found herself half-buried in a mound of plastic CD cases and the upper half of the shelf they'd been on.
When she climbed out from under everything, it was to see three dark forms hurtling down the aisle, headed toward the loading dock area. The two figures in the front wore ski masks, while the figure at the rear had a black stocking cap and patches of greasepaint dimming his high cheekbones. She darted after them, only a faint hope of coming anywhere near them. The two intruders were moving like speed skaters, but Mr. Steele's tall, athletic form was hot on their heels and moving gracefully down the aisle.
Which is what made it doubly shocking as she saw his long legs sweep out from under him, bringing him crashing down in an awkward and painful looking set of splits. She glanced down at him to make sure he was moving on his own before she stripped past him, but before she had made if fully down the short hallway of the employee area, she could hear the metal security door on the outside slamming shut. No way she'd catch up to them now. She paused in the doorway and looked around, but even the shadows in the parking lot seemed free of alien forms of any kind. A faint car engine receded in the distance, near the entrance to the highway.
By the time she'd made her way back to the swinging doors leading to the store proper, he was through them himself and moving quickly, if limpingly, toward the exit. He grabbed her arm as he passed her and turned her around to join him.
"We can't stay here now. Mall security will be interrogating us half the night if we stick around. Time to leave, Laura."
Once outside, she led him three storefronts down to where she'd stashed the Rabbit. He winced slightly as he swung himself into the passenger seat and she gave him a concerned glare. "What happened back there? I thought you had them."
He leaned back with a small sigh. "So did I, Laura, so did I. The plain fact is, I slipped."
"You slipped? You never slip. What did you slip on?"
His look was beyond expressive. It quelled everything else she wanted to say.
"I slipped," he said tersely, "on a pile of fake snow."
When she dropped him at his apartment that night, she'd been careful to tell him to sleep in the next day. She'd handle the client, he needed to be rested for their second stake-out. His agreement had been more grunts than actual words, but he'd kissed her goodnight, which allayed at least some of her fears.
She'd been careful to stop by the office before returning to her loft. As usual, there was no suspicious Immigration officer following her, but caution remained Laura Holt's watchword. It was easier to complete paperwork at her desk in any case. She even remembered to make an extra copy to leave on his desk, in case the client phoned him before she could meet with him.
The next morning's meeting with the client was held at his downtown corporate office and was neither short nor sweet. By the time she dragged herself back to their own agency, the morning was two-thirds gone and her Christmas spirit was appearing in the past tense only.
So was Mr. Steele, apparently. He was among the missing when she checked into the office. He had, she was told, come and gone, leaving word that they probably wouldn't meet up until that evening. He would, however, call her.
Feeling less than reassured, she settled down to a small mountain of paperwork and filing left over from earlier cases, along with calling back prospective clients and fielding two calls from her mother and sister over holiday plans.
It was in far less than a festive holiday mood that she left the office that evening and returned to her loft for a change of clothes and her equipment bag. The phone was ringing when she let herself in.
"Ah, Laura, there you are!" Somehow, the confident, ringing tone on the other end of the phone sent her teeth into another clench. "There's a slight change in plans, I'm afraid. Never mind the south central LA store for tonight. They aren't due for new merchandise until tomorrow. However, the North Hollywood branch looks more than promising, with a brand new shipment of the latest in personal computers, something called KayPro I believe, already on their shelves."
She absently rubbed at the beginnings of a headache. "That's an awfully big item to transport, especially if it's already set up inside the store itself," she pointed out.
"Standard loading docks, forklifts, one or two extra people, piece of cake. And the market in resold computers? Far hotter than downtown Los Angeles this afternoon, I promise you. Meet me near housewares in forty-five minutes. Standard streetwear, but tuck your 'activewear' in your purse. See you there!"
"Forty-five minutes!" she burst out. "They'll still be open for business!"
But the click from the receiver was not listening to her objections.
He was standing next to a display of omelet pans, looking vaguely pensive.
"They don't have it in your glove size?" she said archly, joining him.
"You can't seem to find the bloody things anymore without that damned Teflon coating," he grumped. "Nice of you to join me, Mrs. Steele."
"And with just forty-five minutes before they close for the night," she said lightly. "I guess we'll have to hurry, won't we?"
"Well, if we're being watched, at least we'll look like a typical young married couple, setting up housekeeping together," he said, his tone equally light, before deepening slightly. "Would that we were." He'd moved over to pick up a baking sheet, flipping it over before putting it back down. "It's like an epidemic of Teflonitis, under a burial mound of plastic snowflakes."
She nodded at a stack of pans just past where he was standing. "Those don't have Teflon," she noted.
He looked dismissively. "I've never liked that brand. Shoddy materials and inferior workmanship."
She sighed and fingered a bundt pan. "So what's the game plan, or do we have one?"
"I'm thinking a bit of window shopping and a last-minute crying need for a restroom."
"What makes you think it won't be checked?"
He glanced at the far corner where the public restroom was. "Oh, I'm sure that restroom is checked last thing every night. Just as I'm equally sure that the employee restrooms, 20 yards away, aren't checked at all." He smiled down at her and lofted a ceramic teapot. "Periwinkle blue or loden green, do you think?"
Although refusing to settle that particularly vexing question, she agreeably wandered through Housewares with him and even ventured into the Automotive section, due to its fortunate proximity to the employees' entrance. She was flipping through a rack of floor mats when a soft bell and a recorded announcement informed them that the store would be closing in 15 minutes and asked that they bring their final purchases to the registers.
They found it surprisingly easy to slip, unnoticed, though the double swinging doors of the employee area, which was laid out in exactly the same manner as last night's store. To be entirely safe, Laura found herself crouching on the seat of the second-to-last stall, bent over and breathing as lightly as possible.
As predicted, there was no check of any of the stalls in the employee area, though some were used as the last of the employees made ready to leave after what seemed an unconscionably long wait. Laura remained undisturbed and silently prayed that her erstwhile partner was the same.
She gave the final silence a good ten minutes to stretch itself out before stepping down from her perch and stretching her own cramped muscles. She quickly changed into a black shirt and dabbed her face with greasepaint before stuffing her work blouse into her bag.
"Thank God black goes with everything," she muttered, brushing a few bits of stray lint from her black jeans and slinging her bag over her shoulder. He was waiting for her just by the doors into the store area.
"So what do you think for tonight?" she asked lightly. "Up by those offices we saw before? They have the same set up here that they did there."
"I did notice that," he said. "Which is why I thought our set-up should remain the same as well, though I did convince the owner to have the awning display moved one aisle closer to the computer display."
He was through the double doors and moving swiftly through the shadows before she had a chance to ask him when he'd managed to talk to their client without her knowing about it. Fuming silently, she followed him.
The tent they slipped into had a square table inside, rather than an octagonal. There was a mound of plastic-pellet 'snow" on the table, on which the inevitable snowman rested.
"I hope you don't mind," he said, pulling out a thermos even larger than the one from last night. "I found a brand of hot chocolate mix with peppermint in it. Thought it might go well tonight."
"Sounds good," she told him, pulling out a small baggie. "I remembered the mini-marshmallows." As he took it from her, she pulled out another holiday-decorated tin. "I didn't bring cookies this time, though," she warned him. "I brought a treat that arrived even before Mother did."
"Your mother came late this year?" he asked as she began pulling open the lid.
"Came late? She hasn't arrived yet," she told him, laying the lid aside as he scattered small marshmallows in his cup. "She said she had more shopping to do and will be here tomorrow night and not a moment earlier. Frances is fit to be tied." She held out the tin invitingly. "Help yourself. It's Mother's specialty."
He looked suitably curious as he reached in and extracted a small sampling. When he did, his face broke into a broad smile.
"Divinity! Oh, my! This brings back some memories. Yes it does!"
She noticed an odd hint of moisture in the corner of his eyes. "Happy memories, I hope."
Seemingly lost in the moment, he turned the candy over in his hand a bit. "Oh my," he said softly. "What was that? Oh, yes, Laura, happy memories indeed. Wonderful memories, in fact."
"I'm glad to know there's a few of those," she said softly. "Anything you care to share?"
He took a small bite of the fudge in his hand and sighed happily. "Your mother makes excellent divinity, Laura. Excellent. I can't wait to thank her."
She passed him another piece and took one herself. "Mother's always made divinity. I could never get the knack, though, no matter how hard I tried."
He smiled at her. "If it's any consolation, neither could I. It's the one thing that's always defeated me." He popped the second piece in his mouth, chewing contentedly for a moment. "I must say, I've been looking forward to seeing your mother again. Your sister and her family, too. I know it's no treat for you, but I like your family. I hope that's not too annoying."
She looked down at her hands, which were fidgeting slightly, and smoothed them carefully. "No, actually. Especially at Christmas, I like people enjoying being with my family. And you know they like you. Frances says the kids are almost as excited by your upcoming visit on Christmas as Santa himself."
He looked a bit nonplussed at that. "I don't think I can compete with him, actually."
She laughed at him, gently. "I don't think you'll have to. Just be willing to horse around with them and they'll be happy little clams."
"I'm always willing to do that," he said, his face clearing. But he looked closer and took her chin gently in one hand. "Laura, is there something bothering you? I can see it in your eyes. Please?"
She shook her head, sighing softly. "It's nothing. I just dread the uproar, that's all. You know how mother can be and Frances, if anything, is likely to be worse."
"You mean about the wedding," he said, almost more softly than her sigh. "What are you planning to tell them, Laura?"
She squared her shoulders slightly. "There's nothing to tell them. They've read it in the papers. It's not a news flash. They've known for over a month now."
"Then why are you expecting an uproar?"
Her shoulders sagged. "Because there's nothing my mother and Frances love better than an 'intervention'. They'll consider it their duty to make me see reason and the absolute need for a do-over. Something more to their specifications. You know, like a big church wedding with tons of guests and all the attendant fuss and nonsense. And there's nothing they like better than to battle things like that out face to face. Phone and mail just won't do."
"Well, it isn't happening, is it?" he said calmly, sipping his hot chocolate. "No do-overs, no fuss. The wedding is done and it's not happening again. Especially not in a church with a real minister and a real license and relax, Laura. I'm not going to let your family trap you into a real wedding. It's one day, Christmas day. I'll be right there to protect you from your family. It'll be fine. You'll see."
She shook her head again, a bit ruefully this time. "Oh, I'm sure I'll survive even my mother this year. And it won't be too bad. It never is on Christmas. That's the one day of the year I can count on even my family acting like human beings."
Her head suddenly snapped to attention, and his did as well.
"That sounds very much like a one-man forklift, doesn't it?" he said softly.
"More than one, I'd say," she responded. "Best case scenario, Mr. Steele?"
"That I don't do a bad remake of a Sonja Henie movie," he said grimly. "I'm going to the loading dock. Watch my back, Mrs. Steele."
She slipped quietly through the flap he held for her and followed him as silently as possible down the aisle toward the swinging doors. The two loading trucks were two aisles to their right, and apparently safely out of sight of the camera outside in the mall area.
Laura paused the employee break room, peering inside. Looking at his rapidly departing back, she hissed quickly for his attention. Once he paused to look back, she pointed into the room and mimed the shape of a phone receiver against her ear, while mouthing "police" at him.
He smiled grimly and nodded, then turned back in the direction he'd been heading. As silently as possible she slipped through the breakroom door and approached the wall phone near the snack machines. Lifting the receiver, she dialed quickly and crouched down in an attempt to not be seen by anyone passing by the window in the top half of the door.
"Hello," she hissed.
"Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?"
"There's a robbery being committed at the North Hollywood branch of Dakota Max right now!" she said softly. "They're trying to remove large amounts of stock, in the form of personal computers, using-"
"Ma-am," the voice said, sounding annoyed, "you need to speak up. I can't understand you. What is your emergency?"
She took a firmer grip on the receiver. "Dakota Max. The store in North Hollywood. A robbery is in progress-"
"Ma-am, you're going to need to speak up. This is a police emergency line. What is your emergency?"
The sound of forklifts moving through the swinging double doors, on their way to the loading dock reached her. Mr. Steele and his unwatched back were out there alone.
"Dammit!" she exploded. "Dakota Max! North Hollywood. Robbery in progress. NOW!" She slammed down the phone and bolted for the door. The masked forklift drivers in front of her never saw her, but barreled through the end of the hallway and onto the storeroom area.
Following them, she saw ahead of her the loading dock on the right hand side open wide, with a truck of some sort backed up to it. One masked man was spread-eagled on his back on the floor and it seemed Mr. Steele was laying a partner of his down as well. But the men on the forklifts themselves still represented a danger both to herself and Mr. Steele. She looked quickly around. The only thing remotely free to use was a stack of cardboard boxes near her. The one on top, which came most easily to hand, was open, with its flaps up.
It was surprisingly light and she flung it as hard as she could in the general direction of the first forklift, the one nearest the dock itself. But the box missed its mark, hitting a pillar along the far side of the open loading dock and bouncing to the floor between the small truck and the open bay door it was headed for.
The forklift suddenly veered sharply left, striking the pillar on the side and tipping over, spilling its load of computer equipment. The second forklift driver tried to stop, but struck the first truck, remaining upright, but embedding the front of its loader arms in the window of its fallen companion and spilling its own load.
A single masked man leaped behind the wheel of the truck and the engine revved. Laura broke in the direction of the dock, but her waist was grabbed and she was pulled back toward her partner.
"Relax, Laura. Listen."
As she caught her breath, she heard the sirens wailing from the direction of the highway entrance. The masked man who'd been driving the second forklift tried to climb out and make a break for it, but as she watched, he took two steps and slid gracelessly to the floor, sprawled helplessly as the revolving squad car lights came into view.
"Excellent work, Laura," he enthused. "Most excellent. In fact, I think I could even get behind tacky commercial holiday decorations after this!"
She leaned forward and then spotted what had spilled from the box and tripped up the man sprawled at their feet, as well as the forklifts that he and his accomplices had been driving a small spill of tiny plastic pellets. Fake snow.
"Well, God bless us," she muttered as he pulled her into a tighter embrace.
"Every one," he said softly.
She and Mildred were in his office the next afternoon. He was finishing a small mountain of paperwork that each was handing him when Grace nervously announced their new arrival.
"Show him in, Grace," he said into his intercom, cheerfully laying aside the papers he was signing.
"You're entirely too happy about the interruption," Laura managed to mutter, before Alex Marchant entered with a wide smile and a gaily wrapped box in hand.
"Ah, Mr. Marchant," he said, springing to his feet with a broad smile. He stepped around the desk. "Can I take your coat for you?"
But their client waved them off cheerfully. "Oh, I can't stay long. I wanted to make sure you had your check, of course." Marchant reached into his inside coat pocket and withdrew a check, which he handed, not to Mr. Steele, but to Laura. "I believe in giving things to those who know how to manage them," he said with a smile. "And you, my dear, seem more than competent."
She smiled. "I'm glad you think so, sir. We've been working on the final copy of your case file. It should be ready to give you by later this afternoon or tomorrow morning. And this," she looked at the check, "should really go to financial whiz of our organization, our partner, Mildred Krebs." She handed the check to Mildred, who took it with a faint blush.
"Quite right, darling," he told her, smiling at Mildred before turning back to Marchant. "It was Mildred, you see, who tracked down where the goods were to be sold after they'd been removed from your stores. I understand the police have rounded up all the players, even those who weren't present at the store last night."
"Oh, I've seen the police report and I'm more than satisfied with this agency's work," Marchant said. "You kept our stock safe and our holiday sales going strong. I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever and I'd be happy to recommend the Remington Steele Agency to everyone I know."
"Well, we certainly appreciate that, sir," he said, leaning against the edge of his own desk. "But you could have mailed in the check and saved yourself the trip."
Their client laughed. "Oh, I didn't come all the way out here just to give you a check. You see, I went to our Hollywood store today, to see how things were and make sure the stock was undamaged, which it was, thankfully. But I did find some things left behind by someone who isn't one of my regular employees. And, being detectives, I thought you could possibly see that these items were returned to their rightful owners."
He handed the large, gift-wrapped package to Mr. Steele. "Inside you'll find two nylon backpacks with some rather unusual items contained within, which need not be mentioned. Also you'll find a rather large thermos of what must be some not-quite hot chocolate that smells faintly of mint. And a largish tin of what seems to be some excellent looking divinity fudge. And I wish you all the merriest of Christmases!"
He brushed off Laura's offer of coffee, shook hands all around and departed. Mildred waved the check she held in their general direction. "I'll go make sure this gets where it needs to be," she told them and vanished into the outer office.
When Laura turned to look again, she found Mr. Steele pulling the top off the tin of divinity and smiling wistfully at the contents. He held the open tin out to her as she moved closer. She pulled out a piece and looked at it for a moment.
"You said these were 'happy memories' for you," she said softly, as if they were still on stake-out. "But you never did say what those happy memories were. Can't you?"
He sagged, but the wistful smile was still there. "I just wasn't sure "
"Wasn't sure of what?"
He looked up at her, slightly sheepish. "I wasn't sure you'd understand, I suppose."
He laughed softly again and pulled a piece of divinity out of the tin. "Daniel used to make divinity fudge. Every year. But it was that first year I remember."
She moved closer to lean against the desk next to him. He continued to look down at the tin still in his hands.
"It was still fairly soon after we'd met, you see. I liked Daniel, but I couldn't quite let go of all I'd known before him. I had a few mates, Chalky and another lad, named Noah. There was a fellow we called Long John, after Long John Silver because one of his eyes was no good, all milky-white. They weren't much, but they were the ones I called friends. The ones who'd kept my back during those early years. Almost as bad off as I was, though they had families to go home to. Still, they were my mates and I got off to see them as often as I could."
He shook the tin gently, setting the remaining fudge pieces moving. "But it was awkward, you see. All of a sudden, I had things. Things the others didn't. A warm coat, gloves, hat, scarf. Thing was, I didn't have anything to give them and showing up all warm and toasty, when what they had was just rags it wasn't right. It didn't seem right to me, anyway. So I found a hiding place, near our flat, and stowed my nicer things away when I'd go to visit. Just wear my sweater and whatever I had under that."
"Daniel didn't know about it, of course, but he somehow knew I wasn't dressing right for the weather and he kept after me about it. Of course I didn't listen. I was twelve and bloody invulnerable, at least in my own mind. So I kept it up, as often as I could get away, that is."
Sighing, he set the tin down and wrapped his hands around one of his knees, which he propped up on the edge of the desk he was leaning on.
"We had a job planned, a big one. Bigger than any I'd heard of until then, at least. Daniel was enthusiastic about it. Kept telling me how we were going to take the profits and go to France. I'd never been there at that point, but Daniel kept talking it up. The Riviera. The Champs de Elyse. All sorts of places. I don't know. But he was sure we would make a huge haul and be on easy street. At least for awhile."
"Our partners on the job, the Major and a chap named Scoby, were in on it, too. We worked on it, planned it out, even rehearsed our parts. When I think back on how complex and exotic it all seemed, I could laugh. It was probably simplicity itself. But it hinged on something terribly important. Dead silence. That's all we needed. My entire part in the escapade relied solely on my own ability to keep quiet and carry a few bags. That's all. No matter how big a deal I thought it was, that's really all I had to do. Simplicity itself."
He laughed then, softly. "That is, until my twelve-year-old invulnerability met up with a raging head cold and a bout of bronchitis, brought on by running around with no coat or hat during the colder part of December. I managed to hide it from Daniel and the others at first, which was the biggest mistake of the whole escapade, as it turned out. Because silence and sneezing are mutually exclusive and as bad as I was, there was no way to maintain silence. No way at all, as it turned out."
"Because of me," he said with a regretful sigh, "we had to abandon the whole thing, right in the middle, and run like hell. If we hadn't, it would have been prison, or worse, for sure. As it was, it was no bloody picnic."
"We had to hide, stay low. Daniel took me with him and found a flat that same morning. It wasn't as bad as Brixton, but it wasn't Hyde Park, either. A one-room walk-up with a hot plate and a meter on the heat. And nowhere to keep our things. So Scoby and the Major were dispatched to box up our belongings and find storage for them. Daniel had his hands full with me, as it turned out."
"I ended up in bed with a raging fever. Daniel kept a kettle on the boil on the hot plate all day. Somewhere he found a square piece of flannel and kept rubbing this smelly bit of grease all over my chest, then laying the flannel over it. More of the grease went in the boiling kettle. Anytime the kettle wasn't on, he had soup cooking, which he poured down me by the bowlful. Where he got it, I have no idea."
"I also have no idea where he found the money to keep feeding the meter for the heat. But feed it he did. And despite the room being as warm as anyone could wish, he was constantly fussing, making sure my blankets were on tight, making sure I was covered. That whole day, after we took it on the run the night before, that's all he seemed to do. I'd fall asleep and wake up and there he'd be, fussing over me or the kettle or the soup. All day long, it seemed. I was feeling a bit better by that night, stayed awake for awhile. That's when he pulled out the fudge for the first time. Told me it was a Christmas tradition and I had to have some. Could, in fact, have as much as I wanted."
"He'd found the ingredients somehow and managed to make it in a pot on top of a hot plate. The man was flat amazing in ways, Laura. Sometimes I wish you'd gotten to know him better. The Major and Scoby showed up that evening and even brought ham and beans for dinner. Nobody ragged on me for blowing the job, everyone seemed just fine about it. Laughing like nothing was wrong at all. I could barely take it in. They and Daniel had a bit of a party, telling stories and jokes, even singing Christmas carols. Daniel had something of a voice, but Scoby and the Major? You missed nothing there, I'm afraid. Good chaps, but tone-deaf, the pair of them."
"After they left, Daniel made a pot of hot chocolate he'd gotten from somewhere and fixed us both a cup. Then he made doubly sure that I was wrapped up tightly in my blankets and he went over to the window. I'll never forget it. I've seen him do it countless times since. It was something he did every Christmas Eve, but this was the first time I'd ever seen it."
His eyes were as far away as his smile, his body perfectly still, lost in the memory. "He opened the window and stood there for the longest time, just waiting. Outside, I could hear car horns, people laughing, normal night sounds of the city. And then, suddenly, he turned to me, held up one finger and said, 'Listen', and I did."
"From one street away, it started. Bells. A few at first, then more. Finally a full carillon from a church he'd known about. I'll never forget. It was Adeste Fideles. I don't think I'd ever seen a smile quite like the one on Daniel's face that night. He stood there, in the window, listening to the bells until they finally faded away in the night. Then he closed the window and drew the shade."
"Daniel was never a churchgoing type, but he told me that listening to the bells last thing on Christmas Eve or first thing on Christmas morning was what he waited for, all year. It meant Christmas to him. And then he tucked me in once more, told me to get some sleep and then went to bed himself."
His leg slipped down to join its mate on the floor, but his hands stayed clasped in his lap. "I know it seems strange, but that was the best Christmas I'd ever had in my life." He gave her a shy, sideways look. "To this day, in fact. My best Christmas ever. There was no sparkling tree or lavish gifts, but it was honestly the first time I felt, I don't know, important to someone else. That I mattered somehow. Not because of what I could offer, just because, well, just because I was. Divinity fudge, church bells, fussing over blankets, that God-awful chest rub. I'd never felt so safe or cared for in my entire life."
"You might not understand, Laura, but Christmas became the best part of the year for me. Something I waited for, anticipated. No matter where I was, I almost always managed to spend the holidays with Daniel. And if I couldn't be with him, I'd make sure to call. While the bells were pealing. So we both could listen together. Somehow, it still seems strange. This will be the first year there won't be even a phone call. Daniel, the Major, even Scoby's gone now."
He looked at her and smiled. "But there will be Christmas and somewhere there will be bells and, thanks to you and your mother, I've even got my hands on some divinity fudge. So life, and the simple memory of being so important to someone else, lives on. And that's a good thing, in my book. A very good thing, indeed."
She reached up and gently kissed him on the side of his forehead. "I'd say that's exactly what it is, Mr. Steele."
Oddly enough, it was Laura who was late the next day. The annual office Christmas party was already under way when she finally showed up, fluttering though some lame excuse about last minute Christmas shopping. She evaded his questions while darting among their guests, office neighbors, former clients, a few friends.
From time to time he'd shoot her curious, even wary glances, but she fielded them, as she was doing everything else, from a distance and danced on, just out of reach. Finally, six o'clock revealed itself and the last of their guests said goodnight and then even Mildred and Grace said their holiday farewells and headed out, Grace for her mother's home and Mildred for the airport to join her sister and nephew for a brief, but well-deserved vacation.
When Laura came back from walking them to the elevator it was to find him collecting paper cups, paper plates and scraps of paper from here and there, sweeping them all into the small trash can he held in one hand.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, hands flinging open in dismay.
He glanced up at her. "Cleaning up a bit. I never knew it disturbed you to that extent, though. Trying to horde all the fun for yourself?"
"We'll be late!" she cried and grabbed his arm. "Come on!"
"Laura, for heaven's sake," he protested as she rushed him into the elevator, but she paid him no heed, merely nodded at the other passengers and wished them Merry Christmas as the doors opened on the ground floor. There was a cab at the curb and before he could say anything, she rushed him into that as well.
She gave the cab driver the name of a private airstrip and leaned back with a sigh of relief. But his scowl only deepened. "Would you mind," he said icily, "telling me what the bloody rush is all about? Where are we going?"
"We have a plane to catch, Mr. Steele, and we simply cannot afford to be late."
"A plane?" he said, disbelievingly. "At 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve? We're catching a plane?"
"That's right," she said calmly. "Although we're not due there until about twenty after, I think. I had to allow for traffic."
"And we're due at your sister's in Tarzana for Christmas luncheon at noon tomorrow. If Frances was fit to be tied over your mother's late arrival, I shudder to think what she'll have to say about ours."
She refused to rise to the bait. "We'll make it to Tarzana in plenty of time, Mr. Steele. You worry too much."
And that was all she had to say for the rest of the car ride.
At the airport, she paid off the cabbie and hustled him into the waiting plane, still with no explanations. Takeoff was smooth, uneventful, and without any announcement of landing coordinates. Once again, Laura settled back in her seat with a contented sigh.
He studied her coolly for several long moments. Finally she favored him with a questioning glance.
He cleared his throat. "You don't seem particularly interested in enlightening me as to our destination," he said. "But would I be amiss in assuming that's why you decided to wear your 'working clothes' today, of all days?"
She gave him what seemed to be a legitimately blank stare. "My working clothes?" He offered her a small smile and ran a descriptive finger around the collar of his own shirt.
She looked down, puzzled, and pulled out the collar of the black turtleneck sweater she was wearing under her red, cowl-necked pullover. "You mean my turtleneck?" Her smile was positively gleeful. "Simply for warmth, Mr. Steele. Nothing better in late December than a layered look, I always say."
She ran a hand across her black wool stirrup pants. "Comfort and warmth are a must this time of year. And you must admit, black does go with everything." She gave him an appraising look, top to bottom and then undid her seatbelt and reached underneath the seat in front of her, pulling out a nylon backpack and handing it to him.
"Speaking of clothing, I think you need something other than that three piece suit to wear. There's a restroom in back. You should change on the plane. It'll save us time later. And that would be a good thing at this point, believe me."
He gave her an arched eyebrow. "Really?"
"Mm-hm! And hurry. Our flight is almost half over as it is!"
He glared at her wordlessly and took the backpack. Stepping over her legs into the aisle, he turned in the direction she had indicated. Before he reached the curtains separating their seats from the back area, she called back over her shoulder, lightly, "Be sure to put it all on, Mr. Steele. Comfort and warmth, remember. Comfort and warmth!"
There was a certain snap to the sound of the curtains being swept back which brought a fresh smile to her face.
When he reappeared it was only with a more puzzled look on his face. He slid into a seat across the aisle from her and regarded her warily.
"Something wrong, Mr. Steele?" she said with a soft smile. "We'll be landing in five minutes."
"If basic black goes with everything," he said quietly. "What is it I'm supposed to go with?" He pulled the collar of his own turtleneck out of the top of his heavy coat. The deep blue clashed with the soft black of his down jacket.
"Well," she said, "with your eyes, blue is always a good choice. But it seemed warm, which was the most important thing and it was on top in your drawer when I was packing the bag."
"Fasten up, folks, we'll be landing in a few minutes," their pilot called out from in front of them and Laura happily snapped her seatbelt in place. She heard his belt snap, but when she turned to look, his puzzled gaze was still on her.
And that was where it remained. She could feel it, hot on her back, as she slipped down the stairs to the tarmac below. But he followed her wordlessly into the waiting car and closed the door.
As they settled down, he looked through his window at the land around them. "I see what you meant about the need for warmth," he said.
"Mm-hmm," she said happily. "And not a fake flake to be seen out there." The car pulled out onto a public road, its wheels crunching through the snow that lay across nearly everything.
"Somehow, I always forget that California even has mountains," he told her.
"I learned to ski near here," she told him. "I was still in grade school and my mother took me and taught me how to snowplow. She loved it. My father wasn't much on winter sports, but Mother was a natural snow bunny. I always thought it was one of the reasons she moved back east after I graduated from college."
"Maybe I should have gotten Abigail new skis for Christmas instead of the fondue pot," he said. "Is that where we're headed? The ski slopes of death? Or at least a case of vertical corporate larceny?"
"We're heading for a spot much closer than the ski resort. You'll see."
And once again, that was the last she had to say until the car came to a stop. It was a reasonably short trip and when she led him from the car, it was near the entrance to a park area. She led him along a swept path that led to the top of a series of small hills, leading down into a far lower slope, an ideal sledding area. But the area was deserted and a sign nearby informed them that supervised sledding ended at 6 p.m. until the day after Christmas.
At the top of the hill that the path ended on, a young man waited for them near a large fir tree. Laura strode up to him with a broad smile.
"Mrs. Steele?" he said, straightening. "Glad you made it." He pulled a large, mostly flat object away from the tree and held it out to her. "Here you go. I'll be back in an hour to an hour-and-a-half. You two enjoy yourself. Try not to break any bones, though. There's nobody on duty tonight."
Waving briefly at Mr. Steele, the young man disappeared down the path they'd come from.
"Laura?" he stared at his companion. She was smiling still, and holding a large, fast-looking toboggan.
"I know I promised you a Flexible Flyer last year, but this is what they had for rent. Care to join me on the hill, Mr. Steele?"
His smile finally matched hers. "I'd like that, Mrs. Steele. Oh, I'd like that very much!"
For the next hour, they both had more snow than either had dreamt of. The toboggan was as fast as it looked and even the spills they took occasionally were minimal. Their laughter rang off the small hills around them and the night air was bright with the glow from their faces.
Coming back up to the top of the hill, dragging the toboggan behind, Laura was faintly out of breath. He paused beside her. "Getting tired, darling?"
"Oh, not tired," she said, smiling. "Not really." But she looked at her watch.
"Another run, then?" he said, curious about her hesitancy. Her head was held high and moving gently from side to side.
"It's just that I think yes." She held up one finger. "Wait. Listen!"
She stood still, next to him, while they waited in the still, cold silence. And then, faintly, from somewhere beyond the sledding hills came the sound. The sound of a bell pealing faintly. And then another. And another. The clear strains of O Little Town of Bethlehem floated to them on the night air.
As the last notes faded away, she felt his hand close over hers. She leaned her head on his down-covered shoulder.
"I don't know about you, Mrs. Steele, but I think this day has been absolute perfection."
"Very nearly, Mr. Steele," she said, straightening and moving slightly away from him. "Very nearly."
"Where on earth is the church I wonder?" he said, peering out over the trees in the lower area of the park.
"In a little neighborhood just past the far end of the sledding park," she said to him, her voice curiously muffled. "I called this afternoon and found out that their carol schedule and our sledding trip coincided perfectly."
He smiled and began to turn toward her. "Well, aren't
He shook off the fistful of snow that had smacked him and his roar was filled with glee. "Oh, Laura, you will regret that maneuver, I assure you! Because this fight is on!"
When the young man who'd met them there originally came back it was to find them cheerfully covering each other with large gobs of white, powdery snow.
"Cease fire!" he yelled as a snowball flew past his head. "Cease fire! Friendly forces on the move! Cease fire!"
Still laughing, they straightened up and waited while he closed the remaining distance and then turned the toboggan over to him and headed down the path where their return ride waited for them.
In the car on the way to the airstrip, she was using the end of her scarf to dab the last bits of snow from the inside of his collar. "I was wondering, did Daniel ever figure out how you'd caught whatever it was you had that first Christmas?"
He paused in the midst of using his own scarf to soak up the snow caught in her hair. "Oh Daniel was usually brighter than I gave him credit for being. It seems that Chalky, Noah and Long John found unexplained gifts left on their doorstep that Christmas. Hats, coats and gloves for all. No need to leave mine behind when I visited anymore. Solved that problem quite neatly."
"And kept three more boys warm all winter long." She chuckled. "You were right, of course."
He looked down at her. "About what?"
"I really should have gotten to know him better."
His hug was warmer than either of their scarves.
There was a large thermos of hot chocolate waiting for them on the plane ride home. Another cab was waiting for them when they landed. When the cab stopped at the Rossmore Arms, she slid out of the seat ahead of him and was handing the driver his fee and a tip by the time he'd reached the pavement beside her.
"Did you remember the backpack?" she said, straightening.
He hefted it to show her. "All nice and safe. But shouldn't you have hung onto the cab?" he said, watching its taillights vanish around a corner.
"It would be silly to go all the way back to my apartment, just to come all the way back here in the morning. After all, we need a relatively early start to get to Tarzana on time tomorrow." She slipped one arm inside the curve of his arm. "I think this is a much more sensible plan, don't you?"
His smile was eloquent. "I don't know about sensible, but certainly better, darling." But he paused under the awning to the front door. "Wait a moment, Laura. How were you planning to get to your sister's? Fred is certainly not going to be available on Christmas day. The Auburn, last I saw it, was in pieces in a small shopping bag and your car is parked back at the office."
"No it's not," she said, leading him into the building and toward the elevators. "I left it in the parking lot downstairs when I was here earlier and took a cab back to the office. This," she told him as the elevator doors closed behind them, "seems to be my day for cab rides."
"That's right," he said thoughtfully. "You spent almost the entire day pawing through my drawers looking for winterwear."
"I did not spend the entire day pawing through your drawers! I was getting last-minute Christmas things done!"
"Last minute Christmas things?" he said as the elevator spit them out down the hall from his apartment. "I thought you had everything neatly wrapped and ready to go."
"Well, not quite. There were a few more things that needed to be taken care of. But I got the biggest part of it wrapped and moved over here this afternoon. You'll see," she told him, then put her hand over his as he went to turn on the light in his front hallway. "But in the morning. For tonight, I think I'd rather go straight to bed." She wrapped both arms around his neck. "Directly, straight to bed," she murmured. "Do not pass Go, do not collect-" The rest was muffled by his own lips on hers.
Her first thought on opening her eyes the next morning was the realization that it was Christmas morning! Then she turned over and realized he wasn't in bed next to her. She sat up and looked around. Except for small mounds of tangled clothing scattered haphazardly around the floor on three sides of the bed, there was no sign of him. Wondering how late he'd let her sleep she flipped back the covers.
"Ah-ah!" His voice came from the doorway. She looked over to see him wending his way toward her, a full breakfast tray in his hands. "Put that back or this will be all over us both!"
Smoothing the covers, she patted the spot next to her. "Only if you agree to join me. Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas," he said, smiling at her as he placed the tray across her thighs and climbed onto the bed next to her.
"Coffee and sweet rolls!" she said happily.
"The orange-flavored ones you like so much," he said, tipping cream from a small pot into his own cup. "I'd have gone to town with bacon and eggs and the works, but I didn't want to spoil our lunch before we get to your sister's. I understand arriving without sufficient appetite is a legal offense in Tarzana."
"Well it is in Frances' eyes, and Mother's," she agreed, biting down on a roll. "And the penalty really is a fate worse than death. You're honestly looking forward to going to my sister's for Christmas, aren't you?"
"At the risk of sounding sappy, the idea of a Christmas spent in the bosom of your family appeals to me, strongly."
"Well, I can't say you're wrong there," she told him. "The one time I truly enjoy spending time with my own family is at Christmas. We all seem to get along so well at this time of year. No fights, no sniping. It's a good time. You soak up all the family you want. I don't blame you a bit."
"Thank you, darling. I doubt I'll enjoy it half so much as I enjoyed last night with you, though."
"Which part did you enjoy most, the first part, or the, ah, later parts?"
"I take the Fifth," he said, swallowing the last of his own roll and scooting quickly away from her. "Here, give me the tray." She followed him out of the bedroom as he made his way into the livingroom and set the tray down on the coffee table.
"I know you said you had some last-minute things to get ready, Laura, but I hope your nieces and nephew appreciate their aunt this year. This pile is for them, I hope," he said looking around at multiple piles of boxes, all wrapped and piled everywhere, under the tree, along the walls, around the fireplace. "You really were busy yesterday, it seems. Problem is, I couldn't find gift tags on anything. At least, not anything I could get to. How on earth do you plan to sort this out when we get to Donald and Frances' house?"
"Oh, there's no need," she told him glibly. "The gifts I'm taking are all out in the trunk of the Rabbit. Everything in here is staying here. It seemed silly to bother putting tags on everything, really. These are all your gifts."
"All my gifts?" he said, stunned, staring around at the mountain of gaily wrapped boxes. "Laura, don't misunderstand, but you may have taken Christmas a wee bit too far this year."
"Really?" she looked around a bit nervously. "Because, now that everything's really here, I kind of hope not."
Leaning over, she plucked a flat white box with a big blue bow off the top of the central pile. "Here, start with this one, please."
As she handed it to him, he was holding out a box to her. "Um, this might not stack up against the wealth you seem to have left for me, but here. I thought you should have something special today."
"Oh my," she said, taking it from him. "This feels heavy." She went around to sit on the couch carefully unwrapping the box. "Candy?" she said with a delighted smile, opening the lid. He watched her with an expectant smile.
"Parlays! Oh my God! Where on earth did you find Parlays? They don't even make these anymore!" She looked at him with astonishment.
He exhaled happily. "I hoped you'd be pleased. I have a friend, a natural-born candymaker, who moved to the States from England several years back. I helped her get started, in Vermont, actually. She's doing quite well. When I told her about your favorite treat, she looked up the bloody things, learned how to make them and did me up a special order. That's the original recipe, as far as we can tell. I hope they're all right. I know you said they were your favorite."
"Oh, I don't believe it! I haven't had Parlays in years! You angel, you!" Laura fished out one of the treats and popped it in her mouth, chewing happily. "Mmmm these are perfect! Exactly the way I remember! Your friend is a candy-making goddess!"
"I'm so glad you like them," he said. Mouth full of candy, with a small piece of nut and nougat caught in the corner, Laura nodded at him.
"Now open yours!" she ordered.
He hefted the box experimentally and gave it a shake. "Light, but it has a fascinating rattle to it." He quickly stripped off the wrapping paper and pulled the top off the dress shirt box inside. And his face went slack.
"Ah, just what I needed," he said, pulling out a plastic triangle with a hook on one end. "Clothes hangers." He stared into the box. "Can't have too many clothes hangers. That's what I always say."
"Oh, trust me, you'll need all the clothes hangers you can get your hands on," she told him, and then handed him another box, from a stack off to her right. "Here, try this one next."
"Bit heavier, this one," he muttered, peeling off the paper and opening the deeper, square box. Reaching inside, he pulled out a metal teapot by its handle. "Ah, Laura, it's perfect. A bit like yours, in fact. You have a yellow metal teapot, too, don't you?" He looked it over appraisingly. "Quite like yours, really. It even has some of the same nicks on it. Splendid. It'll remind me of you every time I use it." He placed it back into the box. "Thank you, darling. Really."
She sighed in frustration. "Oh, for heaven's sake. Wait a minute." She waded into the stack, finally pulling out a tall, rectangular upright box and shaking it. There was no sound. "Try this one. It might make things a bit more understandable."
Looking a bit warier now, he pulled off the wrapping paper. The tall cardboard box was stamped with a popular laundry detergent. Pulling back the folded top, he reached in and peeled back a layer of tissue paper from something vaguely woolen.
Pulling the garment open at the shoulders, his look deepened into total confusion. "A ski sweater? Um, Laura, I hate to say it, but I don't think this is my size at all." Laying the sweater to one side, he pulled out another item from the box. Another woolen sweater, this one with a snowman motif
"Laura, isn't this the sweater your mother gave you last Christmas?" he said, now thoroughly puzzled. A third sweater followed the first two. "And this one, you wore this at last year's office Christmas party, the one with those bogus Santas. Laura, what on earth is all this? I don't understand."
"You're not expected to wear them, darling. Just make room for them." She smiled at him. "Now, here's the deal. I'll get rid of anything you really think I need, but if I get rid of stuff, you have to get rid of your stuff too. We'll have to make room, to make it all fit, so it only seems fair that if I have to give up some things, you have to give up a few things too. At any rate, you really will need more hangers. I mean, if I'm moving in, that is. If you still want me to."
His face was totally slack with shock. "If you're moving in if I want Laura!"
His triumphal shout could be heard, she realized, all over the building. He dropped her sweaters and seized her, pulling her off her feet, lifting her high and swinging her around in a dizzying arc, over and over, raining kisses on anything he could reach and laughing like a total lunatic. Boxes flew as her feet swept across them. It was quite some time before her feet touched anything solid at all.
And despite anything that either had ever said about the matter, this really was the very best of all possible Christmases. Ever.