Steele Playing the Game

By: tvnerdgirl


Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, nor am I making any sort of profit from them. Please don't sue.

Summary: Laura is nearly fatally wounded on a case, causing her to shut down emotionally. When she agrees to a case involving a romantic retreat that is not all it seems, Remington must find a way to reach her before her own demons completely destroy them both.

Author's Note: This story is NC-17 for mature content. Reviews are welcome and appreciated. You can send them to saracat72 @ hotmail.com (remove the spaces)

*****

She was frozen. Completely unable to move. Blood pounded in her ears and she was almost certain she could feel her heart hammering against the ribcage, as eager to run for it as she was. She had confronted criminals a million times before, put herself in countless dangerous situations and always come out on top.

Until today.

Today was different. Today, she found herself in an alley way facing a very desperate drug dealer holding a gun with no back up and no way out.

She had never suspected the case had involved drugs. She and Mr. Steele had thought they were investigating an art theft. It wasn’t until she arrived at the warehouse that she saw the cocaine being hidden in the art frames – and the man responsible for it.

Inwardly she berated herself for not waiting for Mr. Steele as Mildred had suggested. She had been so stupidly eager to solve the case without his help, that she had confronted the suspect – a man named Anthony Chase – without any kind of plan, or the agency gun. The warehouse where he had hidden the drugs was so isolated that nobody would hear her scream.

"Mr. Chase," she hated how tentative her voice sounded, how shaky and frightened. "You don’t have to do this. Turn yourself in, and I am sure the police will…"

"The police?" He gave a high pitched laugh and waved the gun wildly. Beads of sweat ran down her face. He was clearly unhinged and pushed past the point of rational thought. Anything could happen and out here, without anybody knowing where she was…

They might never find her body. Her mother would never know what had happened to her. Mr. Steele…

"You think you’re going to call the cops?" He was getting louder now and moving towards her. She backed up and felt the terrifying solidity of the concrete wall behind her. No escape.

"I think you have a lot of drugs in there," she told him, hoping like hell she sounded calm. A clear head was the only way through this. Well, a clear head and to lie through her teeth and hope he bought it. "I am not the only one who knows about this location. The police, and my colleagues are on their way."

"Then I guess I better scram," Chase said as he held the gun steadier and placed his finger on the trigger. Laura’s breath caught in her throat and she fought to keep from crying. The last thing she would do in her final moments would be to cry.

"They know your name!" She blurted, hoping to buy her some time. Time for what, she had no idea. She just knew she had to keep him talking and prey that Mr. Steele had the presence of mind to put the clues together when he arrived at the office and she wasn’t there. It was her only hope. "They know your name, and everything about this operation. The only hope you have Mr. Chase is if I put in a good word for you. Come quietly and I will tell them…"

"Oh sure, you’ll skip the part about the gun, huh?" He sounded angry now. Angry was marginally better than desperate, but not by much. "You’ll tell them I’ll never do it again? Is that it?"

"I…" she paused as a figure in the distance caught her eye.

Dark hair, dark suit, tall, slim…

It was Mr. Steele!

He was standing in the doorway, looking out into the alley. Whether he had seen her yet she wasn’t sure. She should have felt relieved – back-up was here. Instead, her fear only increased. If he had come here looking for her, it’s unlikely he would have brought the agency’s gun. He wouldn’t have expected to find her like this. Even less likely he would have called the police. He was no hope of rescue.

He was in just as much danger as she was.

"I’ll do whatever you say," she found herself saying, trying desperately to buy more time. Run, Mr. Steele! Go get someone – anyone! I’ll keep him talking. Do not come closer! Don’t try to help me!

"Yeah? Then turn around, close your eyes and prey lady, cause I aint got all day."

Chase moved forward and grabbed her by the shirt collar. The sudden contact caused Laura to cry out in surprise.

Chase spun her around to face the wall, but not before she noticed Steele racing towards her. She felt the coldness of the gun barrel against her head, and shut her eyes tightly unable to keep herself from whimpering.

What happened next was a complete blur. Bodies slammed against each other as she slid down to her knees. She could hear punches being thrown and grunts of the two men as they fought for control. She knew she should run, but her legs felt as though they were made of lead and her body refused to obey her mind’s commands.

He was yelling at her, but she couldn’t make out the words. If she had to guess, she would assume he was urging her to run but she had neither the presence of mind, nor the ability to do so.

A loud cracking noise pierced the air and she was suddenly thrown forward. Sharp, hot pain flooded her. She felt her face hit the pavement, another noise, warmth and then nothing at all.

****

Remington Steele was frozen. Completely unable to move. Even though the doctors had assured him that Laura would be OK, he couldn’t bring himself to step into that hospital room. He didn’t want to see her hooked up those machines. He didn’t want to see the overwhelming evidence of his failure.

He kept thinking if he had arrived earlier to the office she wouldn’t have been there alone. If he had brought the agency gun with him, he could have done something more. Chase had been arrested, but not before the damage had been done.

She had been shot twice – one in the arm, and one in the stomach. Neither wound had pierced any major organs, which was extremely lucky. She had lost a lot of blood, but for the most part was healing rather well. Mildred had been to see her, as had a cavalcade of family members and friends.

Even Murphy Michaels had taken time off from his agency in Denver to come visit and make sure she was OK – but not Steele.

He couldn’t understand it at all. Every single part of him wanted to gather her close and hold her. He wanted to kiss her and promise her that nothing would ever harm her again – but he couldn’t. He couldn’t move.

"Would you like some coffee, Mr. Steele?" One of the nurses – a lovely young woman named Cynthia – was staring at him with a concerned smile on her face. In another world, he would have mistaken her attentions with flirtation, but she had been there when Laura had been brought in and had seen the struggle he was going through. She never pushed, but he got the feeling she understood the battle he was fighting inside.

"Coffee would be wonderful," he said with a wan smile as he passed his hand over his eyes and tried to stifle a yawn. He hadn’t been sleeping the past two nights. Images of the fight and Laura being shot played through his head on repeat in excruciating detail. He woke up covered in sweat, desperately needing to touch her and prove she was OK.

Cynthia nodded and left. Steele’s mind returned to the nightmares of the past night and the urge to be with her seized him once more.

Just walk through the door, his inner voice prompted him. She’s wondering why you haven’t already.

He knew she would be wondering what was keeping him and he knew he couldn’t just afford to stand outside the door forever. She needed him, and he needed to see for himself that she was OK. He needed more than anything to touch her. He had never felt so frightened in his life and the depths of that fear terrified him. Having to face the possibility of a life without Laura Holt in it made him realize how much he cared for her.

If he hadn’t been sure before, he was now. So why couldn’t he tell her? What was he afraid of?

"Here’s your coffee," Cynthia said as she returned. She handed him a Styrofoam cup filled with the warm liquid and squeezed his arm.

"You must think I am an incredible coward," he commented. It was the first time he had acknowledged his fear of going inside out loud.

"I think you care for her a lot," Cynthia replied with a gentle smile. "And I know she is going to be OK. I think she would really appreciate seeing you here."

She was right of course. It was now or never. Laura had told him countless times that she needed proof that he was a man she could rely on to be there for her, and at the first test of that, he had failed. It would be easy enough to turn around and go home. It would be easy enough to wait until she was fully healed and pretend it never happened, but he knew that she might never forgive him.

He took a swallow of his coffee, looked over at Cynthia and grimaced.

"Once more into the breach."

****

She was dreaming again. No, not dreaming. She was having nightmares. She was in the alley way again, staring down the barrel of Chase’s gun, unable to move as he advanced on her.

She tried calling out, but the nightmare had stolen her voice. Frantically she struggled, trying desperately to move her legs, but without success.

He was going to kill her. He had tried before, but this time it felt real. This time, Mr. Steele was not going to show up in time to save her. She watched, terror stricken as he raised the gun, pointed the barrel at her head and fired.

Laura jolted awake with a cry of alarm, sweat pouring down her face, her fists clenched tightly around the hospital blankets.

It took a moment before her senses returned and coherency was restored. The lights were dim, but she knew she was in the hospital. The pain she felt reminded her of why and the soft breathing beside her told her that she wasn’t alone. The hand that reached out and took hers confirmed it and she turned to find herself staring into Mr. Steele’s concerned ice blue gaze.

"How long have you been here?" Her voice was uncharacteristically hoarse – as if she hadn’t spoken in days.

"An hour or so," Mr. Steele replied, also in hushed tones. "I didn’t want to wake you. You likely need your sleep."

"I was having a nightmare," Laura admitted. She wasn’t sure why, but the touch of his hand made it easier to admit that. She hadn’t been able to tell Mildred or her mother how frightened she had been and still was. She felt it necessary to put up a brave face for them – to act as if nothing phased her. But Mr. Steele had been there. He knew what had happened. He had put his life on the line. If anybody would understand, it was him.

"Chase?" He guessed. His thumb traced a small pattern over the top of her hand, gently caressing her fingers.

"I was back in that alley way," she told him. "He was holding the gun and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t call out and you…"

She stopped short before she completed the sentence. She didn’t want to tell him that the thing that had scared her the most was the fact that he wasn’t there. In real life, Mr. Steele had saved her but in her nightmare, she was all alone.

Mr. Steele, however, filled in the blanks for her.

"I wasn’t there." He squeezed her hand and stood up.

"It was just a dream," she said lamely. She didn’t want him to feel like she needed him, especially since she had woken up in the hospital alone. She didn’t know why he hadn’t been there when she had woken up, but she had felt his absence keenly like a wound that cut deeper than those she had already suffered. She wanted to ask him why, but was afraid of the answer.

Mr. Steele was pacing now, running his hands over what could only be 3 days worth of stubble. He seemed to be struggling, trying to find the right words to navigate the situation. Perhaps he hadn’t been there because her injuries had made him feel guilty. Perhaps it had been because he had nearly died himself. Laura wasn’t sure, but she also wasn’t sure how to ask.

Mr. Steele…"

"I’m sorry, Laura." He sat back down and took both of her hands in his. "I should have been by your side from the moment you woke up. I wanted to be. I stood outside this room for the past two days trying to work up the courage."

"I don’t understand," she said searching his gaze. He spoke with a different sort of intensity – an urgency she wasn’t used to hearing in his voice. "What were you afraid of?"

"I don’t know," he said with a short laugh. "Of seeing you like this, maybe. Of facing up to the fact that I failed you. Of losing you."

She wasn’t sure what to say to that. He seemed so open, so earnest and raw. She had been prepared for a lot of things when it came to Steele explaining his absence. She had expected him to show up with a million excuses, to bring lavish gifts, or to gloss over his absence all together, but she hadn’t expected this.

For the first time, she took in his appearance. Along with the days’ worth of growth on his face, he also had bags under his eyes, and the rumpled nature of his clothing confirmed his assertion that had indeed spent the last two days in the hospital. He looked beyond exhausted – wearied to his bones. She found herself wanting to comfort him, although she had idea why.

"You didn’t fail me, Mr. Steele," she found herself finally saying. "You saved my life. If you hadn’t been there…"

"If I hadn’t been there," Steele wrenched his hands from hers, clenched his teeth, and looked away. He seemed almost angry by Laura’s near verbal mention of what may have happened to her if he hadn’t intervened. Her turned back to face her, eyes glittering blue. "What the hell were you doing there by yourself anyway?"

The vehemence in his tone – almost a direct contrast to the tenderness he had displayed only seconds ago was startling.

"I was working on the case," she replied defensively.

He was right, of course. She should never have been there alone, but somehow admitting that was harder than going on the attack. Maybe it was because she was used to defending her actions against all who would say she couldn’t do it, but either way she would be damned if she let him criticise her –even if he had every right to.

Especially because he had every right to.

"It was damned stupid, and you know it." He glared at her. Both had their armor up. Anger was easier than truth and Laura was not ready for truth.

"It’s my job," she retorted, chin jutting out in stubborn defiance. "I’m a private investigator, remember?"

"You were also unarmed and you’re about 98 pounds soaking wet!" He threw back at her.

"So this is because I am a woman?" She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She was used to this sort of thing from the rest of the world, but not from him. Despite him assuming she was a secretary the first time they had met, Mr. Steele had not once given her cause to believe he thought any less of her capabilities because of her gender.

"Of course it isn’t, Laura don’t throw any of that sexist nonsense on me." He sounded exasperated, and desperate. "You could have been killed. I could have been killed!"

"I’m sorry I put you in danger," she said flatly. "You’re free to leave anytime." She knew she was being petty now. Mr. Steele had risked his life for her, but instead of acknowledging that he was right, all she could do was feel angry at him for pointing it out and guilty for not being able to properly thank him.

"That’s not what this is about, and you know it."

"Then what is it about?" She said tiredly. She was so exhausted, both from her injuries and arguing in circles. She didn’t want to deal with the issues that existed between them. If she were home, or in the office the sparring would come naturally. Here, injured and weak, it just took every ounce of energy from her.

Mr. Steele, it seemed, did not have that problem. He seemed more awake and alive than he had when she had first woken up. Gone was the sadness, replaced with worry, fear, and a healthy dose of anger.

"It’s about you!" He exclaimed, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "It’s about you and your bloody stubbornness. Your need to prove yourself better than everyone else all the time! It’s about me, having to watch the woman I love go off half cocked and nearly get her damn head blown off!"

He froze and the room became so silent you could hear a pin drop. An uneasy awkwardness settled over them as Laura attempted to process what he had just said to her.

She tried to meet his gaze, but he had become suddenly fascinated by the picture frame that hung directly above her bed. She was surprised to discover her heart beating twice as fast with…fear? Excitement? She wasn’t sure.

She swallowed heavily, her mind searching desperately for just the right words. She wanted to ask if he had meant what he had just said. She wanted to change the subject and talk about something else. She wanted to be angry at him for throwing her so off balance. Mostly though, she wanted to tell him she loved him in return. But she could say none of those things.

"I’m so sorry I worried you," was all she could manage. "I’m…I’m really tired. Perhaps we could do this later?"

"Of course," he replied brusquely – almost business-like.

"Go home," she told him. "Get a shower and some rest. I’m getting released tomorrow."

"Would you like me to pick you up?" He asked. He was finally looking at her, and the hopefulness in his eyes made her heart sink just a little. She wanted to go back to thirty seconds ago when the opportunity had been there to lay her feelings on the line, but the moment had passed and now they felt like strangers.

"Mildred is getting me," she replied apologetically. "I arranged it with her when I…when I woke up."

Because you weren’t here.

"Well," he said awkwardly. "I’ll see you later then."

He patted her shoulder gently, almost robotically and then turned to leave. Laura desperately wanted to call out for him, but her voice failed her. He walked slowly to the door, stopped and turned. Laura’s breath caught. He smiled softly, tenderly and spoke.

"I’m just glad you’re alright, Laura."

****

Laura had been shot on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. She had been released Saturday morning and was sent home to recover at home so the last thing that Remington had expected to see as he arrived at the office Monday morning was Laura’s coat on the rack and her door shut.

He looked at Mildred quizzically who sat at her desk. She shrugged helplessly.

"I tried to send her home, Chief, but she wouldn’t go."

"Not your fault Mildred," Steele replied with a sigh. "Our Miss Holt can be exceedingly stubborn when she wants to be."

"What do you think she’s doing in there?" Mildred wondered.

"With any luck, organizing her filing cabinet or doing her taxes," Steele said grimly. His heart felt heavy and he was trying desperately not to let Mildred see it. He had been going crazy in his apartment alone. All he could think about was how he had told her he loved her and how she had simply gone quiet and changed the subject.

He had always thought if he said those words to her, it would bring them closer – change their relationship permanently. For a while that thought had frightened him. After seeing her shot, all he could think about was pulling her close. All he could think about was how desperately he wanted to change their relationship. He wanted forever.

But it seemed as if she didn’t want the same. He had thought she did. She had hinted that she did, but when push had come to shove, it had been she who had retreated. Not knowing why had tormented him. Sitting in his living room watching old movie after old movie had only made things worse.

He had only come into the office this morning because he had assumed Laura wouldn’t be there. He thought that by immersing himself in boring, monotonous paper work or some light casework, he could forget the heartache that had settled within him. But she was here and he wasn’t sure how to handle that.

He wasn’t aware Mildred had been looking at him until she coughed discreetly and stood up.

"I uh need to go on a supply run," she told him, grabbing her coat. "I should be back in half an hour."

"Alright Mildred," he replied playing along with the ruse. "I’ll let Miss Holt know."

Mildred smiled reassuringly and left the office.

****

Laura looked up at him in surprise as he entered. As he suspected, she was in her office slowly sipping a cup of coffee and going over case files.

"Didn’t expect to see you here," he commented. He hoped he sounded casual, and not accusatory. The last thing he wanted was to put her on her guard.

"I could say the same for you," she returned, staring intently at her paperwork. "You’re not usually in before noon if you can help it."

So that’s how it is, he thought sadly. We’re back to playing the game.

He wondered if, knowing his past aversion to work, she had come in specifically to avoid him. It was a hurtful and troubling thought.

"I thought I would hold up the fort while you were home recovering. My name is on the letterhead after all."

"It is that," she said quietly.

"Laura," he said hesitantly, "can we talk? I mean really talk?"

She sighed deeply and pushed her hair back from her face – a gesture he had seen many times over the years indicating stress and nervousness. She was uncomfortable with the conversation and wanted out.

"I don’t think this is a good time," she said finally. "I have to catch up on so much paper work and we have a new client…"

"A new client?" He looked at her in surprise. When had she had time to line up another client? Had she told Mildred to schedule a meeting for immediately when she returned to avoid him? Was this a simple open and shut case, or something likely to put her in front of the barrel of another gun?

"Don’t start, Mr. Steele," she warned him as she gathered her papers and stood up. The look on his face must have betrayed his last thought. "I’m a private investigator and I am not going to pay rent for these offices by sitting at home watching soap operas. I need to be doing my job."

"Would never think of suggesting such a thing," Steele said in an attempt to prevent another argument. "I uh, don’t suppose this case is something simple…like a lost dog or cheating husband?"

The hopeful look on his face prompted another glare from Laura who thrust the casefile into his hand with some reluctance.

"Guess again," she said as she walked past him and into the office lobby. Steele had barely gotten a chance to look at the name on the casefile, when a man – presumably the client in question – walked in and shook Laura’s hand.

The man, introduced as Robert Stewart was tall, well groomed and appeared to be in his early to mid forties. Steele could tell by looking at him that he was a man of quality, taste and quite a bit of money judging by the expert tailoring of his suit. He hoped that whatever matter it was he had chosen to employ them on was something equally civilized.

He seemed pleased to see Steele and shook his hand enthusiastically.

"Mr. Steele, this is an extremely pleasant surprise! Your associate Miss Holt led me to believe you would be overseeing the case, but not directly involved."

Steele glanced over at Laura who looked slightly uncomfortable.

"Did she indeed? Well my associate can’t be expected to remember all the mundane details of my calendar. I am at your disposal, Mr. Stewart. What can the Remington Steele agent help you with?"

Steele led the man by the arm over to the chair normally reserved for clients and sat down, acutely aware of the glare Laura was likely sending his way. He probably shouldn’t have needled her the way he had just now, but he hadn’t seemed to be able to stop himself. The idea that Laura had actively gone out of her way to keep this case from him made him that much more determined to muscle his way in. If he got to annoy her in the process, well at least he was getting some kind of reaction from her, beyond deflection and changing the conversation.

Stewart, for his part did not seem to notice the tension between them.

"You see, Mr. Steele," Stewart began, "I am the owner of a luxury golf resort for couples. My clients are extremely high profile people who value their privacy. Along with our three golf courses, our couples can also enjoy our spa, dance hall, luxury indoor/outdoor pool and hot tub, kayaking, as well as bowling alley, tennis courts, and various other romantic activities."

"Sounds like paradise," Steele commented, wondering whether he had a case for them, or if he was trying to sell them a weekend package.

"It is," Stewart agreed, "and it’s not cheap. Our guests pay a small fortune to attend a weekend, stay for the week or sometimes even longer."

"So what can the Remington Steele Agency do for you?"

"In the past month, the resort has experienced several suspicious accidents," Laura told him, her tone now all business. He knew from that tone alone that getting her to talk about anything but the case today was going to be a waste of his breath. All he could do was go along with her and hope for an opening while they worked together. "Mr. Stewart has asked us to look into those accidents discreetly."

"So far nobody has gotten seriously hurt, you see." Stewart explained. "It started out as almost childish pranks. Guests finding shaving cream in the shampoo attachments in the shower, holes being dug in the ground on the golf green causing people to fall in – that sort of thing."

"And now it has escalated?" Steele guessed. Stewart nodded.

"Last weekend, we had a guest take out a kayak that had a hole in it. It sank and we were damn lucky he remembered to put their life jacket on, because he couldn’t swim." He ran a hand through his hair nervously. "We keep our equipment in pristine condition, Mr. Steele. We have a staff member do inventory and check on it every morning before a guest takes it out and then again at night when they return it. We keep it under lock and key. There was no hole in the kayak that morning. Somebody put it there."

"How far apart have these accidents been to one another?" Laura asked. "Have the same guests been there every time they occurred?"

"Yes," Stewart admitted. "Around this time of year we close the resort to the general public for two months while our most valued clients stay at the resort. I can send you information on all of them."

"Please do," Laura said. "You can send the information to Mildred. It should give us a place to start."

Mr. Stewart nodded, but the worry on his face was not lost on Steele.

"I presume that the reason you have come to us instead of going to the police has to do with the nature of your clientele, am I correct?"

"Like I said before, these are very wealthy and highly powerful people," Stewart said nervously. "We’re talking CEOS of fortune 500s, actors, musicians, politicians with deep pockets. One hint that they are being looked into, and I’ll be out of business. This is a closed retreat for a reason. What goes on here...."

"Say no more," Steele said knowingly. "What happens at the resort stays at the resort?"

"Something like that," Stewart replied.

"Do you think these incidents are focused on your guests, or the resort itself?" Laura wondered.

"I’m not sure Miss Holt," Mr. Stewart admitted, "but I would like the culprit found before anything more serious happens and I want to keep the police and press out of it if possible. Can you do that?"

"We’ll certainly do our best," Laura reassured him. "Discretion is Mr. Steele’s middle name."

"Absolutely," Steele agreed with a broad smile. "We will do whatever it takes."

"Excellent," Stewart said, relief in his tone. "I will put you two in the Honeymoon suite. You’ll have full run of the place, and I will tell the staff and guests that you are a wealthy business man from the UK on holiday with his wife."

"Honeymoon suite?" Laura said, suddenly resembling a deer caught in the headlights.

"Well yes," Mr. Stewart replied. "The best way for you two to get to the bottom of this is to come to the resort undercover. I thought you understood that was what I was asking you to do. I thought it would be tough without Mr. Steele, considering it’s a romantic resort and this is a very specific retreat. A different sort of lifestyle, if you will. With both of you on the case though, you’ll have full access to both the staff and other guests."

"Do you really think that’s wise?" Laura said, clearly looking for a way out of the situation. "That leaves Mildred with all the background checks and paperwork."

Steele, on the other hand was finally warming to the case. He hadn’t been keen on it at first, especially after what had happened with their last case, but this offered an opportunity to get Laura alone. He needed to find out where they stood after everything that had happened and what better place to do it than the honeymoon suite?

"I don’t think our Miss Krebbs will mind one bit," Steele assured her with a big smile. "She’s been chomping at the bit for more responsibility. We are yours Mr. Stewart. When shall we arrive?"

"I’ll have the suite ready for you this evening," Mr. Stewart replied, relief evident in his voice. He stood up and shook both their hands. "I can’t tell you how happy I am to know that you are on the case. Thank you."

"It’s our pleasure," Laura told him, but the tone in her voice suggested it was anything but. Steele had a feeling he hadn’t heard the last of it.

****

The honeymoon suite was beautiful. It had a large and luxuriant bed, a beautiful fireplace, and a Jacuzzi tub large enough to have its own zip code. None of it however was enough to lighten the foul mood Laura found herself in as a result of her conniving partner’s actions. She had deliberately taken the case and scheduled the appointment with the client early in the hopes that Mr. Steele would remain true to form and show up at the office around noon, if at all. Mondays were always iffy with him.

Instead he’d arrived nearly as early as she had and muscled his way in on her case. She’d had everything under control until he had gotten there and stuck his charming nose in.

He’d been nothing but pleasant on the drive up, causing Laura to become even more annoyed. The worst part was, she wasn’t even sure why. Normally when she found herself angry with Mr. Steele it was because he’d done something demonstrably bad. He’d overspent the agency’s checking account, or gotten caught up with an "old friend" in some less than legal activities.

This was different. This time Laura knew she was in the wrong.

Mr. Steele had said he loved her in the hospital. They were words she had thought she wanted to hear from him for a very long time. They were the words she had thought had been holding their relationship back from taking the next step. So why wasn’t she happy? Why hadn’t she said them back? Why was she avoiding him?

He had caught her so off guard in the hospital. Hearing him say he loved her was the last thing she had ever expected…she wasn’t prepared for it. What would happen if he said it again? How would she respond? Could she say it back? Would their relationship ever recover if she couldn’t?

He had been trying to talk about what happened in the hospital but Laura had kept putting him off, not wanting to deal with it. She wasn’t sure if it was because she was afraid he would take back what he said, or if it was because he might say it again. Either option was terrifying to her.

"…..certainly spared no expense," Mr. Steele was saying in reference to the room. Laura snapped back to reality and dropped her bags unceremoniously on the bed.

"I’m beat," she said, hoping to avoid another attempt at an awkward conversation. "I think I’m just going to turn in. We can start in the morning."

She didn’t give him much of a chance to answer as she retreated into the bathroom, changed into her pyjamas and brushed her teeth. When she emerged, she attempted to ignore his curious gaze as she pulled the covers back on the bed and climbed in. He still hadn’t moved.

"Is there a problem, Mr. Steele?" She asked innocently. She had been hoping to avoid the argument over who got the bed by simply just getting in it, but it appeared he had no plans to be equally as co-operative.

"You look comfortable," he observed. "I don’t suppose you would consider sharing that rather large bed. We are supposed to be a couple on a romantic holiday. Keeping up appearances and all that."

"I don’t think that would be a good idea," she replied as tactfully as she could. The prospect of that kind of intimacy was both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. "I don’t want to risk re opening my stitches."

She felt terrible using her injury as an excuse to keep him at bay, but wasn’t sure how to deal with the emotions that he was causing. She wanted to be close to him. She wanted to feel his arms around her, holding her and keeping her safe. She wanted to hear him say "I love you" again, without shouting or yelling. She wanted him to look her in the eyes when he said it and kiss her softly. She wanted him to make love to her.

What would happen if she let herself be honest with her own feelings? What would happen if she allowed herself to believe him?

Tonight wasn’t the time to find out. They would have this conversation at some point but not now and not on a case.

To his credit, Mr. Steele didn’t seem to be wounded by her rejection. Whether it was out of genuine concern for her stitches, or simple respect for her wishes she wasn’t sure. Either way, he accepted it without hesitation and grabbed some extra blankets that the hotel had stored in the linen closet.

She felt slightly guilty as she watched him make up what looked to be an incredibly uncomfortable couch to sleep on. Maybe she would give him the bed tomorrow night.

"We have a lot of work to do tomorrow," she said as he settled himself onto the couch. She felt desperate to re-establish the normalcy between them and banish the feelings of guilt and longing. "We need to meet as many of the other couples as possible and get a full list of names of suspects for Mildred to run her background check."

"There’s a luncheon scheduled for everyone in the main hallway," Steele replied, his tone now business as well. "We should be able to start there."

"Good," was all she could think to say as she awkwardly met his gaze. His tone may have been all business, but the look he was giving her was anything but. She blushed and looked away.

"Goodnight, Laura," he said softly.

****

The main ballroom for the luncheon was beautifully decorated and filled with a who’s who of important society. Steele was grateful he had gone and had himself fitted for a new suit just for the occasion. Laura had complained about the expense but he had reminded her of their need to look the part. He was supposed to be a wealthy businessman from England on holiday with his wife.

Laura, to that end had eventually given in and allowed Steele to choose a beautiful dress in a deep red – a colour he had always felt made her look absolutely stunning. He was pleased to see he was right as her entrance into the hall on his arm caused more than a few heads to turn. Her hair was brushed and left down, looking lush and silky against the fabric, and her make up – though subtle and understated – brought out the beauty in her eyes and her smile. Despite the fact that they were undercover as a married couple, Steele allowed himself a moment to get lost in that fantasy. What would it be like to have her on his arm for good? To see her smile at him on a regular basis the way she had so rarely done in the past in their more fleeting moments?

"You look a million miles away, Mr. Steele," Laura said under her breath as they made their way to their table which had their "married" names listed on it. "Want to come back to Earth?"

"My apologies," he said as they arrived at their table. "Just thinking of how beautiful you look."

Before she had a chance to reply, another couple arrived at their table. They were both elegantly dressed and looked to be in their mid 40s. Steele had a feeling he recognized the woman from somewhere, but couldn’t quite put his finger on where that was. The man immediately thrust his hand out to Steele by way of introduction.

"Roger Carson," he said, shaking Steele’s, then Laura’s hand rather vigorously. "I run a chain of upscale department stores in Canada. This is my better half, Yvonne."

"Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Carson," Steele replied.

"Roger, please."

"Roger," he corrected with a smile. Making eye contact with Yvonne Carson, he took her hand and gently kissed the top of it in greeting. He could sense, rather than see Laura rolling her eyes at the heavy charm he was heaping on, but he had always felt that the best way to get information out of people was to disarm them and make them feel flattered. Women were generally easier to do this with than men, and Steele was not unaware of the effect he had on many of them.

Eventually he let go of her hand and the four of them seated themselves in accordance with the name plates.

"My name is Douglas Quintain," Steele said, still puzzling over the familiarity of Yvonne Carson, "and this lovely creature is my wife, Betsy."

He could feel Laura’s glare on his back. They had agreed on a different name, but Steele couldn’t resist himself.

"And what do you do, if I may be so bold, Mr. Quintain?" Yvonne Carson purred with a sensuous curl of her lips. She was no slouch when it came to flirtation either, and despite her having a good ten years or more on him Steele found himself caught slightly off guard by her direct eye contact and deliberate bedroom eyes.

"Ahh, business acquisitions and mergers really," Steele said vaguely, not wanting to get into too many details that they couldn’t adequately explain. "Rather dry stuff. Wouldn’t want to bore you."

"Definitely wouldn’t want that," Laura agreed with a hint of sarcasm. He could tell she was distinctly not a fan of the sexual energy being passed between himself and Yvonne Carson. Her husband Roger on the other hand, was either completely oblivious to it or didn’t seem to mind. Either way, he found them both slightly intriguing.

They seemed oddly mismatched. Roger Carson was the very picture of a wealthy upscale department store magnate. The type of man who always organized his sock drawer, drove an expensive yet tasteful automobile and belonged to a fancy country club. All in all, a respectable, albeit slightly boring and predictable lifestyle.

Yvonne looked like the type of woman with more than a few sexy skeletons in the closet. The type of woman who would show up to the PTA in last night’s cocktail dress and attend an orgy in the evenings without blinking. Steele had known a few such women in his time. They were fast, high energy, and insatiable, but not generally the marrying kind – especially not to upper class business men who’s idea of excitement generally consisted of having two glasses of Scotch in the evening before bed.

"Correct me if I’m wrong," Yvonne said, flashing a smile in Laura’s direction, "but this is a closed retreat. I don’t think we have seen you here before. Is this your first year?"

"Yes," Laura replied plastering a smile on her face that Steele could only interpret as a warning and placing a possessive hand on his arm. "Dougie met the owner at a business meeting and he allowed us to come at the last minute. We’ve been looking for a romantic getaway and I’ve always wanted to learn to play golf."

"Golf is just one of the many ‘entertainments’ available," Yvonne said with a conspiratorial smile at Steele and a gentle touch to his hand. Roger still seemed unperturbed by this small intimacy, but Laura stiffened immediately. Steele knew if he didn’t ease up on the flirtation soon, his chances of having a meaningful conversation with Laura about their relationship would be out the window.

Thankfully they were saved by the arrival of the other couple who had yet to occupy their name plates. They were younger – early twenties and the complete opposite of Roger and Yvonne.

Adam and Casey Weston were newlyweds who had fortuitously come into a rather large inheritance courtesy of a wealthy Uncle who had passed a few years ago. They were the very picture of young and carefree and gave the impression to Steele that the money would get burned through rather quickly if they weren’t careful.

They both greeted Roger and Yvonne like old friends before making the requisite introductions to Steele and Laura. They too seemed surprised to see a ‘new’ couple amidst their closed retreat which made Steele wonder how difficult it would be to gain their confidence. Despite the clear differences between them, they all seemed a rather close knit group.

As lunch wore on, he noticed that Adam seemed to be taking a liking to Laura. Whether it was done out of flattery, or to gain information on the case, Laura allowed the flirtation and even seemed to encourage it. Despite the fact that he had done the same thing with Yvonne, Steele found himself annoyed with the attention she was paying the young man. He didn’t consider himself an overly jealous man, and yet every time she smiled at him, he fought the intense desire to punch him in the teeth.

When the waiters came around to serve the tea, Yvonne stood up and gently touched Laura’s arm.

"I’m going to powder my nose. Care to accompany me, Mrs. Quintain?"

If Laura was surprised at the invitation she didn’t show it. Smiling demurely, she nodded and headed for the ladies room.

"Fascinating woman, your wife," Steele said casually to Roger. "I can’t help shake the feeling that I’ve seen her somewhere."

"Feisty French Fillies," Roger replied.

"I beg your pardon?" Steele wasn’t sure he heard the man correctly.

"The adult film that my wife starred in," he clarified. "She only did the one, but it was fairly popular back in its day."

"’Feisty French Fillies’," Steele echoed. Suddenly the memory hit him and he felt himself blush. He wasn’t generally a watcher of pornography. That said, he was a man, and remembered back to a time when he was young and mostly hormones and had come across that particular film in Daniel’s private collection.

In his more formative years he nearly wore the tape out. He thought he had been discreet about it, but looking back, he was more than certain Daniel knew about it too.

His face flushed with embarrassment as the scenes Yvonne had been in filled his thoughts. His body reacted almost viscerally at the memory and he tried not to let Roger Carson see it.

"It’s alright," Roger said. "Yvonne is not ashamed of the film and neither am I."

"We’ve all seen it," Adam added with a shamelessness that only a young man in his mid twenties could have.

Despite his attempts to hide it, Steele couldn’t help but display surprise at Weston’s boldness. What was even more interesting was the look that passed between the young man and Roger Carson. There was more to this retreat than meets the eye. Before her could say anything in response, Roger leaned forward and lowered his voice.

"Mr. Stewart didn’t tell you why this is usually a closed retreat, did he?"

****

"Swingers?" Laura couldn’t keep the look of naked shock off her face. She had sensed something different about the Carsons and this retreat, but she hadn’t expected that.

Yvonne Carson smiled, nonplussed as she applied her lipstick in the mirror.

"It’s the reason this retreat is normally private. Not every couple participates every year, but they are all open of mind and closed of mouth. It’s necessary considering how many of us are in the public spotlight. The media would have a field day if they knew."

"So why tell me?" Laura asked, her composure returned. "Surely you knew right away that my husband and I had no idea."

"I did," Yvonne confirmed. She cast a sidelong glance at Laura as if trying to decide how much she wanted to say. "I’m not sure why Mr. Stewart added you both, but I have to assume it’s because he thought you would be a good fit. I take it you have never considered….erm, sharing?"

It was on the tip of Laura’s tongue to snap back the words absolutely not but she refrained, remembering her cover. If she and Mr. Steele were supposed to blend in at this retreat and figure out who was trying to sabotage it, then she had to make sure the others thought they belonged there. If that meant feigning an interest in partner swapping, then she would have to do so. It wasn’t as if Mr. Steele belonged to her anyway.

Still, the very idea of seeing him with someone else right in front of her bothered her in a way she couldn’t fully understand. She hadn’t allowed him to get close to her for the longest time, so it surprised her to realize how much of a claim she felt she had on him and his loyalty. She wanted him to want her, and only her. It’s why his flirting bothered her so much – even when in the best interests of a case.

"I’ve really never given it much thought," she finally admitted to Yvonne, hoping her voice stayed level. "But I admit that the idea is intriguing."

She smiled, hoping she had sounded believable.

"It doesn’t make you jealous?" Yvonne’s eyes twinkled as she spoke – almost as if she was teasing Laura. She knew Laura was uncomfortable and was provoking her to see whether she would react.

"My husband and I are both adults," Laura replied evenly. "I don’t own him. Frankly this might be refreshing. I’ve been feeling rather smothered by him lately."

She was surprised at how honest the last sentence was. She had been feeling smothered, but she hadn’t been able to figure out why. Even before the shooting, she had been wanting to pull away from him, scared of how close they had been getting.

It was almost as if the more Mr. Steele proved himself trustworthy, the more Laura wanted to keep her distance. She had no idea what she was afraid of. All she knew was that she needed space to figure it out. Maybe this would allow for that space.

Yvonne seemed to buy it for now. She snapped her lipstick case shut and nodded.

"It’s good that you came at the beginning of the week," she stated. "It will give you time to get to know everybody. We use the week and the activities as an excuse to mingle and flirt. At the end of the week we have a key party in one of the convention rooms. You don’t have to participate if you don’t want to. Everything is consensual here. We don’t force this lifestyle on anybody."

"And Mr. Carson doesn’t get jealous either?" Laura couldn’t resist asking. It was such a foreign concept to her and she found herself genuinely curious.

"Roger has seen me with other men before," Yvonne replied smoothly. "Intimately. So has your own husband, as a matter of fact."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Ask him about my film, Mrs. Quintain."

Yvonne winked and left Laura in the bathroom feeling rather conflicted.

****

"I have to say," Steele mused back in their room that evening, "this case has had a few unexpected twists, hasn’t it?"

"I’ll say," Laura said, annoyance clear in her voice. She hadn’t been too keen on learning how Steele recognized Yvonne Carson. He couldn’t blame her and he was more than a little embarrassed to have told her about it, even if he had been barely a teenager at the time. "Feisty French Fillies? Really?"

"I think we’re getting off point, Laura," he said, desperate to get away from that subject. "We have a case to solve. These accidents have been harmless so far, but who knows what could happen if they escalate?"

"You’re right," she agreed, her mouth set in a tight line. "We have to have a look at the boathouse that had the kayak in it and we need to question a few people discretely. I imagine there are going to be more than a few axes to grind at a place like this."

"Oh?" He said curiously. He had been trying to work out how she felt about the unorthodox nature of the retreat ever since they touched base after lunch but to say she was being tight lipped about her feelings was an understatement. Normally he would assume that she would be fundamentally against the concept of an open relationship, but lately her behavior had been so unpredictable that he no longer knew what she was thinking. Did she even want a relationship from him? And if she did, would she want to see other people as well?

He considered himself a liberal man by modern standards. He had been involved in more than a few loosely defined relationships and didn’t generally consider himself a man prone to jealousy.

Prior to Laura, women had always been distracting entertainments and little more. If a woman he was seeing was also seeing other men, he didn’t tend to ask questions. It was easier to cut them loose if they had other attachments.

But Laura was different. The thought of her with someone else filled him with an anger he couldn’t understand.

"You don’t think a retreat full of couples cheating on one another would cause a few resentments to spring up?" Laura said to him.

"Is it really cheating if they all agree to it?" He knew he was being pedantic, but he wasn’t sure what else to say.

"I think that if you really love someone, then you shouldn’t feel the need to attend a retreat like this." Laura said firmly, refusing to meet his eyes. "Nevertheless, we need to play along and act the part if we want to figure out who is carrying a grudge."

"Well luckily for us, Roger Carson invited us to go fishing with a few of the other couples tomorrow. Should give us the opportunity to get to know everyone else and to check out the shed that the kayak was in." Steele sat down next to her on the bed tentatively. He was hoping that his physical proximity to her would not cause her to move away as she had been doing the last couple of days.

"Good," she said, obviously unnerved by his sudden physical presence. There was an awkward silence in which Steele attempted to collect his thoughts.

"I know you don’t want to discuss what happened between us in the hospital," he finally said after a moment of thought. "And I can respect your wish for now, while we are on this case. But we need to address this at some point, Laura. We can’t keep pretending that nothing’s changed."

"And what has changed, Mr. Steele?" She asked, throat dry.

"You tell me," he spoke quietly and steadily, but his heart hammered in his ears. She was so close he could touch her if only he dared reach out. "I almost lost you on that last case. It nearly destroyed me seeing you in the hospital. I didn’t intend to tell you I loved you that day, but I don’t regret it, and I won’t take it back."

"I…I don’t know what you want me to say," Laura stammered clearly flustered by his blunt honesty and direct blue gaze. So many emotions warred within her. She had written his declaration off initially as a mistake made in the heat of the moment, but the look in his eyes right now told her he had never been more serious. She had never thought he would remind her of it, much less tell her he meant every word. Why wasn’t she throwing her arms around him? Why wasn’t she telling him she loved him back? Why was his nearness and the scent of his aftershave so terrifying?

After a pause that seemed to last forever, Mr. Steele stood up. His lack of proximity to her made her feel both relieved and extremely disappointed in ways she could not explain. He ran his hands through his lush black hair and pursed his lips, as if trying to find his next words.

He wanted to say the right thing – the exact thing that would unlock whatever fears she had so they could be together. He felt awake for the first time and more than painfully aware how close he had come to losing any chance at happiness. He had treated their relationship as a game, always believing he had time to spare, but now he knew how precarious life was. He didn’t want to waste a second of it.

After a long drawn out pause, Mr. Steele sighed. His shoulders slumped with pure weariness. He felt vulnerable and inexplicably sad.

"Right now, I think it’s best we just get some sleep, eh Miss Holt?" He hoped his tone sounded lighthearted instead of tired. "We have a lot to do in the morning."

Laura opened her mouth to respond, but was unable to verbalize her thoughts. Mr. Steele nodded, as if confirming something in his mind and went into the bathroom to wash up before bed.

Laura watched him go, feeling a loss she couldn’t explain. She wanted to go after him, but her legs refused to move. Every instinct of her body demanded a comfort only he could give. She had been holding herself together thus far, but longed to break down and let go of the mask of strength she had been clinging to.

Ever since the shooting, she had been living in a prison of fear. She was terrified to sleep, terrified to go out alone and terrified that Anthony Chase was waiting for her, lurking around every corner. She was not used to this feeling. She had always prided herself on being fiercely independent.

She had taken this case partly in an attempt to prove that she could still do her job, could still be effective. She did it to prove to herself that she wasn’t afraid. But mostly, it was to prove that she didn’t need Mr. Steele. She needed to know that if he walked away tomorrow she would be OK. She thought it would be easy, but the nightmares had not gone away and she found herself on more than one occasion wishing that she could tell him how afraid she was.

She had never felt so raw and vulnerable in her entire life. It was like all the safety and self assurance that she had once thought she had had been blown away but Chase’s gun and all that was left was a quivering, quaking mass. Could Mr. Steele ever respect her if he saw that side of her? Could she ever respect herself if she allowed him to?

She needed to know that she was still the Laura Holt who once had the guts to open up a detective agency by herself. She needed to know that person wasn’t lost forever and if she allowed herself to lean on Mr. Steele the way she so desperately wanted to, she felt like she would never have that answer.

She sighed sadly, hating the fact that her aloof response to his earnest declaration had clearly hurt him, and laid down in bed. He had said they had a lot of work to do tomorrow and he wasn’t wrong. The conversation they needed to have could wait.

Tomorrow was another day.

****

But night was its own challenge. The nightmares that had plagued her ever since the shooting returned full force and deep in the recesses of her sleep cycle, Laura was helpless to fight back.

Once again she could feel Chase’s predatory advance in that alley way and the brick wall hard and unyielding against her back. There was nowhere to run and no way to escape. The barrel of the gun was a stark reminder that her life could be ended at the whim of a desperate man.

Grabbing her roughly, the gun flashed in front of her and she felt the full weight of his body, his breath in her ear.

"Go ahead," he growled, "scream."

And she did. For what it was worth she screamed until her lungs were hoarse. She flailed and thrashed, trying to free herself from his grasp, but his arms held firm. She was powerless against the cage that was his body. It closed around her with terrifying finality.

And suddenly those arms were no longer threatening, but comforting. Suddenly instead of pinning her, they held her and the body that pressed against her was warm and familiar.

The words being whispered in her ear were ones of love, spoken with gentle urgency in that soft lilted accent she knew so well. Slowly, consciousness came to her and she ceased to struggle, allowing the arms that held her to tighten around her and sobs to overtake her exhausted body.

"It’s OK," Mr. Steele whispered over and over again, almost rhythmically while she cried. "It’s OK. I’m here. You’re safe. I’m here."

She buried her face in his neck and allowed the salt of her tears to drench his skin. If he minded, he didn’t show it.

Fully awake, but still overcome by her nightmare, Laura was unable to stop the torrent of emotion that overtook her. She knew that sobbing into Mr. Steele’s shoulder opened a door she might not be able to close, but she couldn’t stop herself if she tried. He was strong, solid and oh-so-safe. He smelled of soap and toothpaste and in the depth of the darkest part of her mind, he was her refuge. He was safe harbour and she clung to him.

After what seemed an eternity, she felt his fingers below her chin. He tipped her face up to his and kissed her tears away with excruciating tenderness. He heart sped up as if on instinct at his nearness as his lips found their way to hers.

The kiss was meant to be gentle. It was meant to convey safety but instead unleashed a flood of adrenaline as her body responded almost of its own accord. Instead of pulling away, she pulled him closer, deepening the kiss.

She felt possessed and desperate. Simple comfort was not enough to banish the echo of the nightmare that remained. Chase was still there, haunting her every word and action. She wanted to lose herself completely in Steele’s arms. She wanted his body as close to hers as possible as if he could somehow shield her from the agony inside her.

To that end, she kissed him with all the longing she possessed and he responded in kind.

His arms that had held her in that tight, protective embrace now wound their way around her waist and instead of being engulfed by his body she was pressed against it. A soft moan escaped her lips as his mouth moved down her chin and neck trailing kisses as he went. She felt heat shoot throughout her body at the feel of his tongue mixed with the roughness of his stubble. He kissed his way around her collar bone and claimed her lips once more.

It was then she realized he wasn’t wearing a shirt and the feel of his bare skin against her body was almost more than she could handle. She clutched her hands against his back, needing him closer but not wanting to break contact.

He complied and pressed her down into the bed settling the weight of his body against hers. Her legs wrapped around him instinctively and she gasped with pleasure as his hands roamed eagerly over her upper body. Whatever mental faculties she still possessed cursed the pyjama top she was wearing as his hands gently grazed the fabric covering her breasts. He let out a low growl as she thrust her body up to meet his touch, desperately seeking more.

She could feel his arousal hard and insistent against her lower half despite their pyjama pants. She could feel his heat underneath the clothing and desperately ground herself against him as if willing the clothing to disappear.

Steele, for his own part felt as if he was drowning.

He had woken from a fitful sleep on the most uncomfortable couch in the world to the sound of Laura’s nightmare. Without thinking, he had moved to comfort her, wrapping his arms tightly around her as she fought her way back to consciousness.

Her cries of terror had torn at his heart and he desperately wished he could banish whatever demons haunted her. He had kissed her with no other intention than to re enforce to her that he was here and she was safe. Her response to his kiss was something he never could have predicted.

His body turned traitor, the moment their tongues met. He felt powerless against his reaction. Her hungry response to him, only seemed to further his own physical reaction. He wanted her more than he had ever wanted anything in his entire life. He had been with many women in his life, but never had he known desperation like this.

He found himself on top of her, pressing against her body as she wrapped her legs eagerly around him. His hands moved over her wanting to touch every part of her. He could feel her body soft and willing against his own and felt his breath come in short gasps.

He needed more contact. He needed to feel her naked and writhing underneath him. His mind conjured up all sorts of torturous images as her hands found their way to the waist band of his pyjama bottoms.

Her breath in between their kisses came in soft eager pants and her hands trembled as she fumbled with the drawstring.

"Remington."

Her voice was soft, almost inaudible but it was enough to pierce through the haze of passion and jolt him back to reality. As if a bucket of ice water had been poured over him, Remington wrenched himself free and stumbled backwards away from the bed, trying to catch his breath and bring his body back under control.

Laura sat up against the headboard and brought her knees to her chest, eyes wide and surprised. He wasn’t sure if she was shocked at his reaction or at her own response to him.

Before she could speak, he cut her off.

"I can’t," he said through ragged breaths. Inside his body was screaming at him, but his mind won out. "I can’t do this. This isn’t right."

"I…" she looked away from him, unable to meet his eyes. "I don’t understand. What’s wrong?"

Her face flushed hot with humiliation as the full realization of what happened hit her. Her own body hummed with the memory of his touch. She still wanted him, and that wanting twisted inside her.

"You’re upset. This is not the right moment, Laura and we both know it." He was trying his damnedest to say the right thing. Her entire body had gone rigid as she attempted to compose herself. Outwardly, she looked calm and placid, but her shaking hands gave her away and Steele knew that she was barely holding herself together.

He had been so wrapped up in his own fears after the shooting that he hadn’t realized how affected she had been by it. She was obviously lightyears away from being OK and Steele had no idea how to break through the walls she had put up.

He was pretty sure that the last thing that would help would be to sleep with her when she was at her most vulnerable. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to do so when her house blew up and he sure as hell wasn’t going to now. He only hoped Laura could see it the way he did, but he had a feeling her current embarrassment would overshadow any apology he might make.

"Look, Mr. Steele if you don’t want to be with me, then say so." She met his eyes now directly, hoping that her voice didn’t betray her hurt. "Don’t make excuses. I am not some fragile creature in danger of breaking."

"You know I don’t think of you like that," he said. He wanted to touch her, to hold her close and regain some of the intimacy they had just shared but she remained cold and aloof. "And I want to be with you more than I have ever wanted anything in my whole life. I told you how I felt and I meant every single word."

He didn’t need to elaborate. Twice now he had said he loved her and twice she hadn’t been able to verbalise a response. She suspected he wanted to say it now, but pride prevented him from making him that vulnerable a third time. Her own pride also stood in the way of the things she wanted to say to him. As always, Laura’s default response was to lash out with anger.

It was a response she had built through years of rejection and abandonment by the people closest to her.

"Yes, you told me. You love me?" She spat the word at him like a curse. "You have a funny way of showing it."

"Laura, please, I…"

"No, you were right before, Mr. Steele. This is not the right time. We have a case to focus on. Now if you don’t mind, I would like to get some sleep. We have a lot of work to do in the morning."

****

Outside the air was warm, but the breeze coming off the lake made it comfortable. Steele made his way down the darkened path towards the water without any real destination in mind. The atmosphere in the bedroom had been far too charged with tension and things unsaid for him to remain. Laura had made it clear that the conversation between them was over and further attempts to discuss things would be futile.

He sighed, as he felt his heartbeat start to slow down and his thoughts return to a more PG rating. He had let things go way too far and so he knew he had to shoulder some of the blame. He never should have kissed her, nor given in to the kiss given her emotional state. He didn’t think he would have had the presence of mind to stop until he had heard her say his name.

Remington.

Not his real name of course – neither of them knew that, but as close as they could get, and as intimate as they had ever gotten.

In all the time they had known each other, Steele didn’t think he had ever heard her refer to him as Remington. In jest, perhaps but otherwise Mr. Steele. Always Mr. Steele.

He had no idea what it meant, if anything but he did know that the Laura he had been kissing was going through too much for him to press their physical relationship any further. He wanted her too much to take that risk. The last thing he ever wanted was for her to see their lovemaking as a regret.

So he stopped. It took every ounce of willpower, but he had done it.

And now she hated him for it. He couldn’t get the look on her face out of his mind. Would he ever be able to break through her walls?

"Lover’s quarrel?"

He turned, surprised anybody had managed to sneak up behind without him hearing. It was Yvonne Carson.

"Mrs. Carson," he said, slipping mentally back into his ‘Douglas Quintain’ persona. "Just thought I would get some fresh air."

"Call me Yvonne, please." She said, with that knowing smile ever present on her lips. "Sounds like you don’t want to talk about it."

"Nothing to talk about," he said with a light shrug.

"I don’t believe you," she replied. "You have the look of a man relegated to the couch."

"Perhaps," he conceded. "But we will figure it out. We always do."

"Sometimes it helps to share," she offered, giving him a sidelong glance. "Unless sharing is the problem."

"It’s definitely not something we expected to encounter," he said honestly. Eager to switch the focus from himself, he turned his attention to her. "Tell me, how do you handle it? The jealousy, I mean? Does it really not bother you?"

"Can I tell you a secret, Mr. Quintain?" Yvonne took his silence as assent and leaned forward, all pretense and sexuality absent from her body language. "I look forward to this retreat. It gives me a break."

"How’s that?" His curiosity now went beyond that of the case itself.

"I love my husband," she said. "I do. But sometimes I don’t know if he really knows me. I have worked so hard to cultivate the image of the woman he wants me to be – sexy, exciting, free spirited. Sometimes it takes a toll. Instead of dressing up every night in naughty lingerie, I want to wear sweatpants and eat pizza, you know? He loves the fact that his wife was in an ‘adult’ film, but the woman in the film is a character. Sometimes I am not sure my husband knows the difference."

"And this retreat allows you to…"

"Lend him out," she said with a chuckle. "It gives me a break, and he gets to be known as the husband with the wife who lets him have ‘other experiences’. It’s a win-win."

"But doesn’t that mean you have to uh…" Steele trailed off, unsure of how to phrase what he wanted to say without sounding crude.

"Participate?" She finished for him, shaking her head. "Not so far. We have been coming here for five years now. Each time I have been paired off with a different men and I always develop a headache, stomach bug or some other reason that I need to just go to bed early. Given my status as an adult film star, none of them want to admit nothing happened so they keep up the pretense for me, and I get a night off. It might come back to bite me at some point, but it has worked so far. All the men brag about having spent the night with Yvonne Carson."

"A clever deception," Steele said, admiration in his voice. "How can you be sure I am going to keep it a secret?"

"Because I have a feeling that you know the importance of a secret, Mr. Quintain." She touched his arm softly as a gesture of companionship. "Plus, I thought maybe you might want a partner who wouldn’t pressure you to do anything you weren’t willing to. I get the feeling that unlike most men you only have your eye on one woman."

"Very astute," he replied with a sigh. "I’m not sure why we are here to be honest."

"Sometimes just realizing that is the first step," she said gently. "You do what works for you. Intimacy is not a one size fits all. Remember that."

****

Steele woke up the next morning to the smell of coffee and an extremely painful crick in his neck.

Laura was already seated at the small table in the dinette surrounded by folders. A quick glance at the clock told him it was just after 8AM. How long had she been awake for? She had appeared to be asleep when he had come back from his walk the night before. Had that been for appearances only? Had she slept at all?

"Coffee’s ready," she said without looking up from her work. Steele poured himself a cup, still trying to rid himself of the residual exhaustion. "Mildred stopped by this morning with some work ups on each of the guests as well as staff. I was just going through them now. There are a few questions we need to answer before we can narrow this case down."

"Such as?" Steele sat down at the table and took a sip of his coffee. A bit too strong for his liking, and he wondered how long it had been sitting there.

"We need to look at all the incidents so far and try to determine if they were targeting the retreat itself, or if they were after a guest. If we know that, then we can figure out the motive a lot easier."

"What was the name of the guest in the kayak?" Steele wondered. She still hadn’t looked up or met his eyes at all. He knew this tactic well. She would bury herself in her work and hide away from anything that challenged her emotionally. He sighed knowing that he would not be able to get anything out of her that wasn’t work related and decided to admit defeat for the time being. He would have other opportunities.

"Jonathon Walters," Laura said. "He owns a large chain of hotels in Europe. His wife is Andrea Walters. Looks like she married him for the money."

"What makes you say that?" Steele had barely gotten the words out of his mouth, when he saw the photograph of the couple in question. Immediately he understood how Laura had come to that particular assumption. "Ahh."

Jonathon Walters was at least two decades older than Andrea Walters. He was significantly overweight and balding. Andrea Walters was in her early twenties, with a body fit enough to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"If he was in fact the intended victim of the Kayak mishap, then she would make a very likely suspect," Steele mused, "especially if she stood to gain anything from his death."

"I had Mildred check into it already," Laura told him. Again, he wondered just how long she had been awake. "Should something tragic happen to Mr. Walters she would stand to inherit millions."

"Motive enough I should think for a young woman in an unhappy marriage."

"Let’s not come to any conclusions just yet, Mr. Steele." Laura admonished. "Both of them should be at the lake today for the fishing outing. Let’s get to know them and snoop around. See if any of the other guests had an axe to grind against Mr. Walters. We need to be sure."

"Not to worry, Miss Holt," he said with a confident smile. "We will get to the bottom of his quickly as possible."

And then maybe, just maybe, we can talk about what’s really important.

****

The only problem with using a fishing expedition as a means of investigation was having to actually go fishing. Steele didn’t think he had ever actually been fishing, much to Laura’s shock. She spent the walk over to the lake explaining how the rod worked and various types of bait while Steele attempted to think of ways with which he would find an excuse to just sit on the dock and watch.

"We need to actually get to know these people, specifically Jonathon Walters. You need to be in the boat with him." Laura explained with exaggerated patience. Sometimes she felt like a mother babysitting a petulant child.

"I don’t have to consume beer and burp a lot, do I?" Steele asked with mild distaste. "Your cinema portrays this activity as being rather stereotypically rugged."

"Maybe you shouldn’t have worn those expensive jeans then." She said with a raised eyebrow. Steele had insisted on being dressed for the occasion in blue jeans, running shoes and a light sweater to ward off the chill, however his version of dressing down cost the agency a small fortune.

Still, she couldn’t help but take a moment in the recesses of her mind to admire the snug fit of the jeans as well as the wind blown look of his hair. He so rarely dressed in casual clothing and when he did, it made him look more down to earth, not to mention sexy.

If she were to admit to herself, despite the humiliation of the night before, she couldn’t forget the way it had felt to be with him like that – even if only briefly. She had tried to go back to sleep, but the memory of his arms around her, his lips on hers and the scent of him refused to leave. Physically she had never felt so alive, but emotionally she felt as if a tornado had bulldozed its way through her psyche leaving almost nothing in its wake.

She still had no idea what had come over her. There was never any doubt that she wanted him – had always wanted him – but she had always managed to stay in control of her emotions until now. Allowing herself to get carried away in the moment was a great way to get hurt. Laura had learned that lesson all too well before.

And yet, when she thought back to the nightmare, it was hard not to turn to him for comfort – even in daylight. The memory of Chase stalking her and the terror and helplessness that came with it was not something she was used to. Most of the time she was able to push it out of her conscious mind as long as she was focused on something. That was one of the main reasons she had taken the case in the first place. She needed something, anything, to keep her hands from shaking and the panic at bay.

She wanted to hate him for seeing her so vulnerable, so she had lashed out. She knew it had been unfair, but she couldn’t help herself. She had revealed too much of herself already and she couldn’t bear for him to know how humiliated and crushed she had been when he pulled away from her. She had no idea how much she had needed him at that moment and she was furious at herself for allowing him to see it.

She had resolved after he left the room not to lose control like that in front of him again. She would prove to herself that she was still the capable and confident Laura Holt she had always been before she had been shot. She would not let fear get in the way of doing her job. And most importantly, she would not allow herself to rely on Mr. Steele or anybody else to get things done.

She could not get it out of her head that if Steele had not shown up that day, she would have been killed. She had relied on him far too much and it had almost cost her everything. She would not make that mistake again.

Reflexively, she touched her purse as if to reassure herself that the small agency gun they so often forgot was indeed still there. She hadn’t told Mr. Steele that she had brought it with her because she knew how he would react.

How could she possibly explain to him that she needed it there? If she had been carrying it in that alley way she would not have needed him to save her. She could have saved herself. She should have saved herself.

"Laura, please tell me that on top of all this you don’t expect me to buy my clothing at some place with the word ‘barn’ in the name," Mr. Steele was exclaimed in mock horror. Laura allowed her thoughts to come back to reality.

"Heaven forbid," she replied wryly.

They had reached the lake and she saw that there were several couples including the Carsons already there. She put on her best ‘Betsy Quintain’ face as Yvonne Carson waved at her. She approached them, finding it a lucky break that they were standing next to Jonathon and Andrea Walters. Yvonne made the appropriate introductions and Laura touched her purse gently one more time.

****

Andrea Walters was nothing like Laura thought she would be. She had expected a spoiled trophy wife, but instead found herself enjoying a delightful conversation with an intelligent and fascinating woman. They had a surprising amount in common – Laura’s cover notwithstanding.

The two of them had found a spot beneath a tree to set up camp with some of the other wives while the men went out on the water to fish. Laura listened peripherally to the conversations around her to try to pick up anything that might be useful to their case, but her prime focus was Andrea.

She was shocked to discover that despite her husband’s excessive wealth, she still worked a full time job as a teacher.

"I just couldn’t sit around the house all day," Andrea explained. "I can’t imagine not contributing in a marriage and my work gives me such purpose."

"Your husband doesn’t mind?" Mary Cartwright – a woman married to a wealthy senator asked.

"Even if he did, it wouldn’t change my mind," Andrea replied. "Jonathon and I don’t believe in controlling each other. We do what’s right for us. Marriage is about partnership, not possession. The moment you start thinking of the other person as someone who ‘belongs’ to you, the marriage is over."

"I must admit I do miss working," Casey Weston said. "At first it seemed great to inherit so much money, but after a while you get bored. Hell, the only reason we are here is because we got so bored with one another."

"Whose idea was it for you to come here?" Laura asked Andrea.

"Oh I know what you’re thinking, Mrs. Quintain," Andrea said with a wry smile. "Everyone thinks it when they look at Jonathon and I. We can’t all be married to a man who looks like Mr. Quintain. But I didn’t marry him for his money and while the rest of the world might not think much of him, I find him sexy as hell."

Laura felt her face flush warm with embarrassment. Andrea Walters seemed genuinely passionate about her love for her husband and Laura felt shallow for having assumed otherwise. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply…"

"Don’t worry about it," she said with a dismissive wave. "On the surface we are quite mismatched, but there’s more in common than people know."

"Now that, I understand," Laura said, glancing towards the water and smiling as she watched Mr. Steele attempt to cast his rod and fail miserably in the process. She laughed a little and cast a rueful glance at the other women. "We aren’t really fishing people."

"My Jonathon isn’t either," Andrea said. "He’s never been comfortable on the water. He can’t swim."

"I’m surprised he is out there at all," Yvonne Carson remarked. Laura felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up as they steered towards the territory of the accident in the kayak.

"Yes," she said hoping she sounded casual. "I heard there was an accident. He fell in or something?"

"A hole in the boat," Andrea Walters confirmed. "Scared the life out of me. Thankfully he is OK. I don’t know what I would have done if something had happened to him. He hadn’t even planned on going out on the water that morning!"

"What changed his mind?" Laura asked.

"I’m afraid that’s my fault," Casey Weston said. "We had been talking at dinner about experiencing new things the night before. He said he had never been kayaking and I said he should try it. I suppose he took my advice."

"We were supposed to play golf that morning," Andrea confirmed, "but he had it in his head that he wanted to conquer his fear of the water. Oddly though I think it helped. He didn’t seem worried at all this morning."

"I guess I did him a favour then," Yvonne Carson said with a laugh.

"You? How so?" Laura wondered.

"By giving up my spot on the sign up sheet," Yvonne clarified. "I had signed it out that morning originally but he asked if he could take my place. I should have been in that boat."

*****

Mr. Steele was beyond relieved when they finally decided to call it a day and head back to the shore. He was abysmal as a fisherman and the mosquitos had become intolerable. What people saw in the great outdoors he would never understand.

He regrouped with Laura for a picnic with the other couples. After about half an hour of small talk they managed to find a spot alone behind a tree. Laura told him the information she had gathered from Andrea Walters and Yvonne Carson.

"So what does this mean?" Steele wondered. "Is there someone after Yvonne Carson? Or are they after the resort in general?"

"I’m not sure," Laura admitted. "I must admit this entire set up confuses and surprises me. Despite the nature of the retreat there didn’t seem to be many axes to grind, nor did there seem to be any jealous inclinations among them. They all seem so…normal."

"You and I both know that normal is highly subjective," Steele reminded her. "Do you think the kayak was just an accident? Do we even have a case here?"

Part of him hoped the answer was no. He desperately wanted to give up the façade of being the ‘Quintains’ and get to the bottom of what it meant to be Remington and Laura. He wanted some breathing space in which they could both figure out what they meant to one another, but he had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Laura, it seemed would rather wrap herself up in a case either real or imagined, then get to the heart of what was between them. It hurt more than a little but he wasn’t sure what he could do about it that wouldn’t driver her even further away.

"Even if the Kayak is coincidental, the other pranks and accidents were not," Laura reasoned.

"Shaving cream in the shower attachments though?" Steele said skeptically. "A prank war is hardly a reason to retain Remington Steele Investigations. We go down that road and we will find ourselves with Fraternity Houses as clients."

"Maybe so," Laura said with a sigh. "Maybe the pranks and the Kayak are unrelated. If that’s the case, that means Yvonne Carson was the target. It makes sense."

"How so?" Steele asked. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt oddly protective of Yvonne despite the fact that he knew not to form any kind of pre disposed ideas about the suspects of a case. Maybe it was the fact that she had chosen to confide her secret in him – which he hadn’t even told Laura about – but there seemed a kinship there that he couldn’t explain.

"Look at these women," Laura said with a sweep of her hand towards the wives milling about the picnic area. "Upper class wealthy, but not much else. Yvonne has that air of mystery and sex appeal, not to mention having starred in that film. I don’t care how comfortable they are in their marriages, it would make any woman jealous to see their man with a woman like that."

"Any woman?" Steele said with a raised eyebrow. He knew he shouldn’t poke the bear, but part of him couldn’t help himself. Laura very rarely exposed any sort of vulnerability. To hear her admit jealousy even peripherally was intriguing to him. It gave him hope that maybe, just maybe she cared as much for him as he did for her.

"If you want me to admit that a woman like Yvonne Carson has the power to make me jealous, then congratulations." Laura said in an icy tone. She was sitting a little straighter now and refused to make eye contact. Instead of feeling satisfied, Steele felt a bit deflated. "I know the type of women you like to date, Mr. Steele."

"With all due respect, Miss Holt, you don’t." He said softly. He wanted to say more, but just as he was about to, a cry of alarm tore across the grounds, causing them to both jump up. Laura was on her feet first, moving towards what turned out to be Senator Cartwright trapped under a fallen tentpole that had been holding up the outdoor canopy.

Though she made it there first, Steele, and the others wasted no time in getting together to pull the pole off of his foot.

"Is anybody here a doctor?" Laura was asking. One of the men stepped forward as she said this and identified himself as Dr. Carlos Sanchez from Arizona. Steele and Laura moved out of the way as he examined Mathew Cartwright’s food and eventually declared that it looked to be a sprain, but was hard to tell without X rays.

While some of the couples helped Mr. Cartwright to his room, Laura and Steele got a chance to example the tentpole. Laura had a good long look at it and confirmed what Steele had been fearing all along.

"This was tampered with. It was going to fall no matter what." She sighed. "We definitely have a case."

"Then I think we need to talk to our client," Steele suggested. "And we need to go back and over look our list of suspects. We have two incidents here but no motive. We need to find out what ties them together."

"I agree," Laura said. "There must be something we are missing. If it’s not the nature of the retreat, then what else could it be?"

As she spoke, Steele noticed that her purse had been dropped to the ground in the commotion to help Mr. Cartwright. Normally he wouldn’t take any notice of Laura’s purse, but this time something caught his eye and it sent a chill right through him. Inside her purse was the agency gun. A gun they almost never brought on assignment with them and which had (thankfully) rarely been used.

Suddenly, Steele was back in that alley way watching Anthony Chase advance on Laura, his gun pointed straight at her. He felt his arms and legs go numb as he remembered that feeling of utter helplessness. His throat went dry and his voice failed him. He was terrified and completely frozen.

"Mr. Steele?" Laura was speaking to him, her voice slightly concerned. "Are you OK?"

"Why?" Was all he could manage. "Why the hell do you have that gun?"

****

Laura was silent as they returned to their room, presumably because she didn’t want to answer his question about the gun.

Steele desperately wanted to say something to her, but couldn’t seem to find the words. His hands were shaking as they entered the room and he couldn’t stop the images of Laura being shot from racing through his mind.

He had blocked the existence of the agency gun from his mind. Despite his criminal history, Steele had no love for violence or the weapons that helped perpetuate violence. He had seen the damage they could do first hand and he had made a pact with himself never to resort to those measures.

He could count on one hand the number of times they had resorted to finding the agency gun on a case, and very very rarely did it ever come to the point where they needed to use it.

The mere thought of its presence caused him to break into a cold sweat. He had been so focused on trying to get Laura to talk to him, that he had pushed his own fears to the side. The gun had brought them roaring back with full force.

"I suppose we should be contacting our client," Laura was saying. "We need more information on this retreat. Especially since he wasn’t completely upfront with us in the first place about what goes on here."

"Laura…"

"Maybe Mildred can get in contact with him and we will meet him somewhere outside the retreat so as not to compromise our cover."

"Laura…"

"And we will need more detailed background checks on all the guests. Really get her to dig."

"Laura!" Steele’s voice came out much louder than he had intended and he realized with a start that he had been clenching his fists so hard his hands had started bleeding. He felt his heart racing as if he had just run a marathon and panicked in a way he didn’t understand.

"Mr. Steele, we have a case to work on," Laura said calmly. He noticed she hadn’t even looked at her handbag since they had gotten back. "We need to focus on that."

"The gun, Laura," he said as calmly as he could manage.

"What about it?" She asked, her chin thrust forward and the tone in her voice almost daring him to challenge her. It was obvious she was not going to back down.

"Why the bloody hell is that thing in your handbag?" He tried to control his temper, but every time he thought of the gun, he could feel the bile rise in his throat and a desperate need to throw the bag into the lake – gun and all.

"It belongs to the agency and we are on a case," she replied simply as if he were a small, particularly slow child.

Mr. Steele took a deep breath and tried to calm his racing mind. He hoped she didn’t notice the waver in his voice or the slight tremble in his hand. He needed her to trust him, to talk to him. She had gone through so much. He wanted her to know he would protect her from any threat they might face, but how could he do that if she insisted on carrying a weapon?

"We’re on a case all the time," he said quietly. "Half the time we don’t even know where that gun is."

"And in light of recent events, that seems awfully irresponsible don’t you think?" She sounded so casual. As if they were talking about the morning paper, or what they had for lunch. If it weren’t for the flicker of fear he saw in her eyes, he could almost convince himself that she was right.

But Laura Holt was not the type to carry a gun, and this was the closest she had come to mentioning the shooting out loud which told Steele that whatever she was dealing with, it went far deeper than a few nightmares. He could understand that. Watching her get shot in front of his eyes had shaken him to the very core. He could only imagine the toll it had taken on her.

"Recent events," he said, forcing the words out as the images flashed through his mind, "involved you getting shot by a gun very similar to that one. Do you really think we should be tempting fate by carrying one around?"

"I don’t think its any of your business," she replied shortly.

"The hell it isn’t!" Steele burst out. He winced as Laura jumped back slightly. His attempts at controlling his temper were failing. He felt as if he was fighting a losing battle against an unknown enemy. All he knew was that the presence of the gun made him terribly afraid. "This is our business! Or have you forgotten that I’m your partner?"

Laura turned on him, her calm demeanor replaced with a panicked gaze like a deer in headlights. She had been trying desperately to maintain her composure, but the verbal reminder of what happened stole any stability from her. Like a rug being pulled out, she felt like she had no foundation whatsoever.

"This is not your decision!" She cried. Her voice shook with repressed emotion. "I need this!"

"Why?"

"Because I was all alone!" The dam burst and tears came cascading down her cheeks. Without thinking, Steele pulled her close and pressed her against him as she cried.

His arms were strong and comforting, just as they had been the previous night when the nightmares had overcome her. She allowed herself to get lost in them, even though she had promised herself she wouldn’t. It never ceased to amaze her how easy it felt to be with him when she let her guard down and somehow that was even more terrifying than a man pointing a gun at her.

All the guilt came crashing down around him. He hadn’t been there. He hadn’t been there and now she didn’t trust him to be there in the future. Now, she carried a weapon because he had failed to keep her safe.

"I’m so sorry," he said, his voice choked with emotion. "I should have been there."

"Mr. Steele, this isn’t…."

"I should have been there and I wasn’t."

He pulled back from her and kissed her tears with such exquisite tenderness it made her heart ache. When his lips found hers, she didn’t pull away. She couldn’t pull away. Everything about him screamed safety and that was something she desperately needed.

But it couldn’t last forever. When he stepped back she steeled herself once more. It would be easy to let him take responsibility for what had happened, but it wouldn’t be right.

"It’s not about you," she said eventually after a moment of silence. "You did nothing wrong. When I got my private investigator’s license, so many people told me a woman couldn’t do it."

She took a deep breath and looked out the window, trying to form the thoughts in her mind in a way that made sense.

"They said I couldn’t, but I knew they were wrong. I was sure. I had so much confidence." She laughed softly. "Too much maybe. Over the years, that confidence was worn away. You know that I created the name Remington Steele because no one would hire me. I pretended it didn’t let it get to me, but how could it not? Every client I lost chipped away at my confidence just a little. My invention of a fake boss restored it for a time, but not for long. Every client that looked past me and asked for you, every newspaper headline that named me as ‘unknown woman’, every time I…"

She took a deep, shuddering breath. Steele wanted to reach out again and hold her but he didn’t. This was the first time she had truly opened up even a little since the shooting and he feared any movement of his might cause her to shut down.

"I have relied on you far more than I should have. If you asked me three years ago if I needed anyone else to solve a case, I would have said no." She smiled a bit ruefully at this admission.

"We are supposed to rely on each other," he said gently. "If we had gone to find Chase together…"

"Then we might both be dead." Laura finished flatly. "What happened was not your fault, but it was a wake up call. I need to know that I can do this on my own. I need to know that starting my own agency by myself so many years ago wasn’t a mistake. I had so much faith in myself. Chase’s gun took so much away from me. I can’t let him have that."

"Pushing me away is not going to make you strong, Laura," Steele said sadly. He gave a heavy sigh and ran a hand over his face. He couldn’t help the feeling that he was losing her. "Having a partner does not make you weak."

She looked away, unable to handle the sincerity and tenderness of his gaze. The naked emotion on display was too much for her. She felt like all her defenses had been stripped away and he had seen the frightened girl that lay beneath her façade. She wanted so desperately to believe him but the fear of that day was too powerful.

She felt torn between wanting to get as far away from him as possible, and wanting him to take her in his arms again and never let her go.

Steele could see her hesitation, but his own need for physical contact over rode any common sense that would have otherwise told him to back off. Once again her pulled her close and kissed her deeply with everything he had inside. When their eyes met again, he could see the genuine emotion in her gaze and it comforted him.

"Do you love me, Laura?" He had no idea what on earth had prompted him to voice the question he had been holding inside, but once said, he found he desperately needed an answer. To his immense relief, Laura stood up on her tiptoes and answered him with another long, soul searching kiss.

"I love you," she said softly, almost fearfully. She had never felt so exposed, but the look in his eyes told her she was safe and so she continued. "But I’m afraid to need you."

"I’m scared too," he admitted with a small laugh. "To need someone is terrifying. Do you think you could want me?" He reached out and cupped her face in his hands. "We can work from there."

"Wanting you," Laura whispered, "has never been a problem." She leaned her head against his shoulder and marveled at how solid he was. "For now, Mr. Steele I need you to let me figure this out."

****

The following day, Remington and Laura found themselves heading back to the offices of Remington Steele Investigations to meet with their client. It was a slow day at the retreat in terms of activities and so Laura felt it was the best time to get away without anybody noticing they were gone.

Remington had worried that Laura would pretend the previous night’s conversation hadn’t existed and the closeness they had regained would have vanished like so much smoke – especially since he had slept on the couch that night. She had yet another nightmare, but had tried to hide it, indicating she wasn’t prepared for any more physical intimacy.

It worried him, but he respected her wishes and held back. Despite the fact that she had admitted to loving him, he knew she wasn’t fully ready for anything more to happen between them. The gun still remained in her handbag and her own personal demons still haunted her.

Laura, for her part, was surprised at how comfortable she felt around Remington the next morning. She had worried that after confiding so much of her inner thoughts and fears, that things between them would feel different, but Remington seemed to be going out of his way not to press anything that had happened last night. He let her take the lead and she was grateful for that in ways she could not express.

Still, she couldn’t deny that a small part of her had wanted him to come to her again in the night after she had another nightmare. The memory of his body pressed against hers was ever present and she longed to take it further. Knowing he loved her only made it more tempting, but she knew that he had been right to refuse her the first time.

As embarrassing as his rejection had been, the timing definitely hadn’t been right and it was very likely that if they had slept together, she would have resented him and maybe even hated him for it. She knew she had to apologise for the way she had treated him afterwards, but had no idea how to bring it up. Pride was a terrible disease and Laura suffered from it more than most.

Mildred to her credit had done all the research Laura had asked of her, and Mr. Stewart was waiting in the office when Laura and Remington arrived.

"Mr. Steele," Stewart said, bypassing Laura and shaking Remington’s hand vigorously. "I heard there was another accident. I hope you are here to tell me you know who was responsible for it."

"Unfortunately, Mr. Stewart, we don’t have that information just yet," Laura said. Her tone was forceful, to remind the men that she was, in fact still in the room. "We needed to get a bit more information from you about your guests and about your staff."

"My staff?" Mr. Stewart seemed taken aback. "Surely you don’t think one of my employees could be responsible."

"At this point, it could be anybody," Remington said sounding smoothly confident. Laura never failed to marvel at how he could convince everyone around him – including her sometimes – that he was an expert in whatever it was he was talking about. It was what made him such a good con man, and also what made Laura so hesitant to trust him.

"Indeed, Mr. Stewart," Laura added, "especially given the nature of the retreat. Why didn’t you tell us about everything that goes on there?"

Stewart looked slightly ashamed at Laura’s hint towards the alternate nature of the retreat. It caused her to wonder if he too had participated in the activities from time to time.

"I didn’t think it was relevant, Miss Holt," he said, sounding mildly embarrassed. "And I did mention that the retreat has a need for discretion. I thought that would suffice. Do you think it is related?"

"I think it is highly likely," Remington said. "You have a retreat dedicated to spouses sleeping with other people and you don’t think you are going to see difficulties emerge between the participants?"

"You think this has to do with jealousy?" The incredulity in Stewart’s tone told Laura that Mr. Stewart was either a very good liar or the idea had honestly never occurred to him.

"I think that we need to re examine everyone at that retreat again, starting with your staff. If any of the staff members have an axe to grind, then jealousy might not be a factor, but we need to rule out everything."

"My staff, with the exception of the caretaker, have been with the retreat for twenty years or more," Stewart said with a shake of his head. "I honestly can’t see any of them having a grudge, but I will give you any information you need."

"The caretaker is new then?" Remington asked. Laura’s ears perked up at this as well. Why hadn’t they asked about him at the beginning of the case? Had she been too preoccupied about with her own problems that she hadn’t been fully concentrating on the case well enough to ask a simple routine question?

"George Marks," Mr. Stewart said with a nod. "He’s relatively new. Been here about five years. We hired him after our long time caretaker Carl Robson quit to deal with a family crisis. He had actually been with the retreat the longest. It was a shame to lose him. He had even lived on site to take care of any issues that came up. Marks is good, but you can’t buy that kind of loyalty these days."

"And he would have a key to the kayak shed as well as access to any tools?" Laura inquired. Stewart nodded.

"I really can’t see Marks being responsible, but you guys are the experts," Mr. Stewart admitted.

"Indeed we are," Remington said, as he stepped forward to shake Stewart’s hand. "Now we must get back, but please speak to Mildred and answer any further questions our Miss Krebs might have. We need those background reports on the guests as soon as possible."

****

The ride back to the retreat was spent in comfortable silence. Laura mulled over the information that Mr. Stewart had provided while trying to decide on their next steps.

"Penny for your thoughts, Miss Holt?" Remington’s voice was gentle and Laura allowed herself a small smile.

"Not sure they are worth that much, Mr. Steele," She admitted. "I can’t believe I forgot to inquire about the caretaker. Rookie mistake."

"I am going to propose a fairly radical concept," Remington said gently, taking her hand and giving it a small squeeze. "Why not try forgiving yourself. You aren’t required to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders at all times."

"Maybe not," she agreed with a sigh. "Let’s just concentrate on the case. We have a lot to do. I want to talk to both the caretaker and the couples again. I refuse to believe that this doesn’t have something to do with jealousy."

"We are just in time for lunch," Remington pointed out. "Most of the guests should be in the dining hall."

"Then let’s do lunch, Mr. Quintain!" Laura said, her tone one of renewed determination.

They walked into the hall just as the plates of food were being served. They didn’t have to wait long before Laura noticed Yvonne Carson wave them over to her table. She swallowed her own reservations about the woman and put on what she hoped was a welcoming smile as she and Mr. Steele made their way to the table.

She wasn’t sure what it was about Yvonne that put her off. Laura wasn’t a prude by any stretch of the imagination but something about the woman bothered her greatly.

Like their lunch before, they were also seated at the table with Adam and Casey Weston. Laura took note of where the Cartwrights were as well as the Andrea and Jonathon Walters for future reference.

"Ahh the beautiful Mrs. Quintain!" Adam Weston said with a flirtatious grin. "We were worried you weren’t coming. We haven’t seen you all morning!"

"I bet they spent the morning in bed," Yvonne speculated with a saucy wink in Mr. Steele’s direction. "Douglas looks like a man with some stamina."

Laura bristled at her words. Despite not being his actual name, she felt bothered by the first name familiarity that Yvonne displayed when she herself had yet to refer to him on first name terms.

"Is that true, Mr. Quintain?" Casey Weston asked with a shy smile.

Mr. Steele tugged at his tie in a gesture that told Laura he was distinctly uncomfortable. She could tell he was trying to walk a fine line between remaining friendly enough to get the information they needed, and not wanting to anger Laura.

Laura could feel a distinct sense of déjà vu. They had been here before at this table and Laura had allowed the jealousy to interfere with what needed to be done. She would not do so again.

Plastering a smile on her face that she desperately hoped did not look fake, she took Mr. Steele’s hand and kissed him on the cheek – a gesture that surprised him though he took great pains to hide it.

"Dougie is too much of a gentleman to give ALL the details," she said with an conspiratorial wink. "However, this morning’s events have left me ravenous. When is lunch being served?"

"Quintain, you animal!" Adam Weston said with an approving and lascivious grin. "You are a lucky man, sir."

"I uh, am indeed," Steele said. Laura hoped that she alone could hear the puzzlement in his voice. He clearly had no idea what had come over her. Before he could say any more, the food was delivered.

Conversation dwindled as they began to eat and Laura discovered to her surprise that she was quite ravenous. The others made small talk as she attempted to form in her head a way to try to pry more information from the couples at the table. Her opportunity came in the form of Adam Weston and his bad attempts to flirt with her.

"Looking forward to the party at the end of the week, Betsy?"

"I’m a little nervous about it," She said, hoping she sounded like a woman on the verge of joining the swinger’s lifestyle. "I have a bit of a jealous streak sometimes."

"You need to talk to the Mrs.," Adam suggested, gesturing to Casey Weston. "When we first started seeing each other, I couldn’t even look at another woman without her flying into a rage at me. I thought for sure the marriage wasn’t going to last."

"What changed?" Steele wondered, his attention fully on Adam Weston. Casey looked mildly uncomfortable with the conversation and Steele could tell she wanted to change the subject.

"I guess it was my inheritance," Adam said with a shrug. "She told me one day that life was too short and that we needed to have every experience we could. This is only our second year here, but I feel like I have a whole new marriage."

"Adam and I hadn’t been seeing each other for long before we got married," Casey clarified looking slightly embarrassed. "I guess I worried I had missed out on something. My life before that had been rather sheltered."

Steele opened his mouth to comment, when Yvonne suddenly gasped in fear and he watched as Roger Carson’s face swelled up and turned bright red.

Casey jumped back, startled. "What’s wrong with him?"

"Looks like an allergic reaction," Laura said grimly. She looked at Yvonne whose face had gone white as her husband began to choke. "Does he have any food allergies?"

"Pepper," she replied fearfully, "but we clarified that with the cook!"

"Mr. Weston, locate the doctor." Laura said standing up and moving the chairs out of the way. "Yvonne, help me lay him down. We need to make sure his clothing is loose so that he can breathe. Do you have any medication that he normally takes if he has a reaction?"

Yvonne Carson nodded, slightly reassured by Laura’s calm tone and seemingly confident manner.

"It’s in the room," she said as she grabbed her purse. "I’ll go get it."

As she left, Mr. Steele made sure everyone else had been cleared away from Mr. Carson while they waited for Adam Weston to retrieve the Doctor. Laura did her best to maintain calm, but her heart was racing.

When the Doctor finally arrived and they moved back she had a chance to look at Mr. Steele. She was reassured to find that he seemed to have the same suspicions she did. A look at Mr. Carson’s food confirmed it. Yvonne had said that they informed the cook about his allergies. Despite that, the dish was loaded with pepper.

"I think we have our third accident, Mr. Steele," she whispered to her partner.

****

Remington was relieved to hear later that afternoon that Roger Carson was going to be OK. He was spending a day in the hospital to rest up, but Laura’s quick thinking had prevented what could have been a very lethal dose of pepper having been added to his food.

Although he wasn’t supposed to rule anybody out at this point, something inside told him that Yvonne Carson was not the saboteur. The look of pure fear on her face had convinced him that she was not responsible for the attack on her husband. Laura, thankfully agreed with him.

That left a few of the other guests and the caretaker who they still hadn’t spoken to.

"So far, the only victims of the attacks have been the men," Laura pointed out. "If it is a jealous spouse that means either Mary Cartwright, Casey Weston, or Andrea Walters."

"Has Mildred gotten back to us on the deeper background checks that she was doing?" Steele asked. "Perhaps we could get her to focus on those suspects first."

"Good thinking, Mr. Steele," Laura said with a nod. "In the meantime we have about an hour or so before the dinner and dance this evening. I think we should use that time to speak to the caretaker, George Marks. Mr. Stewart said he was new."

"We should hurry then," Remington agreed. "He also said he doesn’t live on site, so he might not be here too much longer."

It didn’t take them long to find George Marks. Though he didn’t live at the retreat the way his predecessor did, his free time was spent in the cabin that was formerly occupied by Robson. When they arrived, Marks was taking a break and eating his lunch in front of a small television set.

The cabin still looked as if it were permanently lived in, and many things remained that clearly belonged to its previous owner. Laura noticed photographs, personal mementos and other odds and ends. She thought it strange that Robson wouldn’t have returned to gather these items especially as some of them looked to have personal significance.

George Marks opened the door, allowing them entry and Laura and Steele plastered on their best "Douglas and Betsy Quintain" smiles.

"What can I do for your folks?" Marks asked, clearly not used to guests approaching him during working hours.

"Allow me to introduce myself," Remington said, stepping forward and extending his hand. They had discussed strategy on the way over. Remington was to distract Marks by asking as many questions as he could about a DIY project he would claim to be working on, while Laura made the rounds and checked out the cabin for any clues. "Douglas Quintain. Mr. Stewart said you were the resident expert on home projects."

"I wouldn’t call myself an expert," Marks said, somewhat embarrassed by Steele’s enthusiasm.

"You fix everything here, though don’t you?" Laura did her best to sound vapid and clueless. It hadn’t taken her long to figure out that the dumber you sounded as a woman, the more information people tended to volunteer. "I mean, there are a TON of tools in here."

"Well, yes," Marks said with a chuckle. "I do maintain and repair all of the equipment as well as whatever odd jobs they need me to do. What can I help you with, Mr. Quintain?"

"It’s a beautiful cabin, Mr. Marks," Laura continued, pretending she hadn’t heard Marks’ question. "Did you decorate it yourself?"

She was making her way along the wall, looking at the various knick nacks and committing things to memory. She wished they had some kind of camera to take pictures with, but she would have to settle for remembering as much as they could for now. For some reason, she felt the key to the case lay in this cabin.

"I didn’t," Marks replied. "I only took over for the man who did. He used to live here."

"Are those his photographs then?" Steele asked, nodding to the photos that Laura was currently looking at. There were several family photos, indicating that the previous caretaker had been a proud family man.

Many of the photos featured Robson, a woman his age and a girl who looked to be about fifteen or sixteen. Laura assume the two women were his wife and daughter. It was the younger woman that caught her eye, but Laura couldn’t put her finger on it as to why. Something about her face was awfully familiar.

"Yes, he left in a hurry from what I understand," Marks was saying. "A bit of a family scandal though most of it is second hand rumor and gossip."

"I do love a bit of gossip," Laura said touching the caretaker’s arm in a way that was meant to indicate a slight flirtation.

"Well I don’t know much, little lady," he said with a slightly flustered laugh. "All’s, I heard was that Robson had an affair with one of the guests here. No idea which one of the wives it was. Could have been all of ‘em considering what goes on here. It broke up his marriage from what I understand and the daughter had a mental breakdown and ended up in an institution. I guess he left shortly after that to try to help her."

"The break up of the family unit is a terrible thing," Mr. Steele said clicking his tongue in false sympathy. Laura was still staring at the photograph of Robson and his family, trying to figure out where she had seen the younger girl before.

"I suppose," Marks said with a shrug. "I’m a bachelor myself, Mr. Quintain."

"Tell me, Mr. Marks," Steele said, eyes roaming over the various tools in the cabin. Any one of these could have easily been used to cut the hole in the boat or the tentpole. "If I wanted to come here and borrow a tool after hours, would that be possible?"

"‘Fraid not, Mr. Quintain," Marks said apologetically. "I clock out at 6PM sharp."

"And you’re the only one with a key?" He asked.

"Far as I know," Marks replied. "Robson only left the one key. Now what was the project you needed help with?"

"Oh, honey would you look at the time?" Laura exclaimed with false shock. "The dinner and dance are starting soon and I need to put my face on."

"Oh my, yes," Steele said feigning urgency and an apologetic look at Mr. Marks. "Women and their beauty regimes. Must go. I’ll have to pick your brain a bit later."

"You know where to find me," Marks said with a shrug as Steele and Laura exited the cabin.

On their way back to their room, Laura mulled over the information that Mr. Marks had provided. Steele looked like he was considering something as well.

"He certainly had the opportunity," Steele acknowledged as they arrived at their room, "but I am stuck on a motive. What possible reason could he have to want to harm any of the guests?"

"No idea," Laura mused, "but Mildred still hasn’t gotten back to us with her extended background checks. I have to admit that I am far more curious about Mr. Robson."

"The former caretaker?" Steele asked, surprised. "He’s been gone for five years. And Mr. Marks said there was only the one key."

"A key that Mr. Robson left him. A key which he could have easily copied if he wanted to," Laura pointed out.

"Maybe so," Steele agreed, "but what possible reason could he have had? And wouldn’t someone have seen him on the grounds?"

"I know, I know," Laura admitted. "It makes no sense." She could feel her frustration mounting. She used to be so confident in her instincts, but lately it felt like she had no idea what she was doing. She felt like an apprentice again, fresh and unsure of her own abilities. Something inside told her that the former caretaker was connected to this, but she had no idea how or in what context.

"Let’s take a break, shall we?" Remington suggested. He could tell that the fact that they hadn’t solved the case yet was eating away at Laura. "There is a dinner and dance this evening and we should make an appearance."

He went over to the closet, opened it, and to Laura’s surprise she saw a rather risqué evening gown that hadn’t been there before.

"Where on earth did this dress come from?" She asked, failing to hide the surprise from her voice.

"I sent Mildred shopping," Remington said, admiration in his tone as he stared at the gown. "And I have to admit, I rather like her style."

"I can’t wear this," Laura said, fingering the silky fabric of the deep blue and rather tight backless number. In another lifetime, that dress might have been Laura Holt, but now….

Steele, however, pretended not to hear her. He had already pulled it out and was laying it on the bed.

"Now, Laura," he was saying, "I promised to give you space, and space you shall have. But we do still have a case to solve and to do so we must blend in with the rest of the guests. Since these people are all involved in what can only be termed an ‘alternate’ lifestyle, I think its time we ramped up our efforts to look the part as well. After all, the innocent fresh faced Betsy Quintain can only go so far. We need to gain their confidence."

"I really don’t know," Laura said, still staring at the dress in trepidation. For some reason that she couldn’t verbalise the thought of wearing something so deliberately sexual around him after everything else seemed to be playing with fire.

Remington could see the slight shiver of nervousness that played over her features. It gave him hope that her hesitation was due to the fact that she was just as attracted to him as he was to her. He would keep his promise to her and not push, but that didn’t stop him from wanting her and the addition of the dress had been a welcome surprise that had sent his blood pumping. It had certainly not been what he had asked Mildred to buy for her, and yet Mildred always seemed to have different ideas.

Reaching out, he took her by the arm and pulled her closer, but not close enough to cause her to pull away. He met her eyes and couldn’t help brush a stray hair away from her face.

"It will look beautiful on you," he insisted softly.

"Alright," she said, her eyes never breaking contact with his. "For the good of the case."

****

"Laura, if you don’t come out of there soon, we are going to miss the dance entirely," Steele called, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. She had gone into the bathroom to change almost thirty minutes ago and had yet to come back out. For the life of him, Steele couldn’t understand why it took women so long to get ready. Surely make up could not be that complicated, could it? Especially since Laura didn’t tend to wear an awful lot of the stuff. Just enough to enhance her already beautiful features but not too much as to seem tacky or cheap.

Steele had already gotten dressed and run a comb through his naturally thick dark hair. There wasn’t much else that he needed to do, except impatiently wait for the woman on the other end of that door – something he seemed to do an awful lot.

Laura stared at her reflection in the mirror in wonder and a bit of fear. The dress sensuously flattered every curve and part of her body that she usually kept hidden. It accentuated features she didn’t even realize she had. An objective person would tell her she looked incredible and yet she couldn’t help but feel exposed and vulnerable – a feeling she had been having difficulty shaking since the shooting.

It didn’t help that she could feel the stitches on her wound through the light silky fabric. Prior to those stitches being there, Laura would not have thought twice about wearing whatever took her fancy. Though she tended to favour conservative business attire for the office, she had been known to indulge in an outfit or two that was meant to turn heads. It was one of the things that Wilson had loved – and hated – about her. Steele didn’t see much of "that Laura", but every now and then she would show up for dinner in something that pushed the envelope just a bit to see his reaction.

But that was a different Laura Holt. That was the confident and strong woman she had been. Amazing how two small pieces of metal shot from a gun, could shatter the fabric of her identity so completely.

Another irritated knock on the door from Steele shook her from her thoughts. He was right. If they didn’t head down to the main banquet hall soon they would miss everything. She took a deep, steadying breath and opened the door.

As she stepped out, Steele felt his breath catch in his throat. To say she looked beautiful did not do her justice. The dress was provocative, but classy at the same time. It showed off the contours of her body in a way that made his pulse quicken. He found himself breathless as he watched the fabric cling to her every movement. He sent a silent plea to the rest of his body to behave itself.

Her face however, betrayed the insecurity she clearly felt. Steele had to admit to feeling bewildered at her hesitation. He knew that Laura had a bit of a wild side she did her best to keep hidden. Every now and then he had seen it emerge and usually in the form of an outfit or an action designed to throw him off his game.

"You look stunning," he said to her when he finally found his voice. "Really, and truly."

"I’m still not sure," she said, nervously. He watched as her hand absently drifted to the side of her body where she had been shot and her hesitation was instantly clear. He stepped forward and took her hands into his, squeezing them in reassurance.

"Nobody will see your stitches, Laura," he said softly, "but even if they did, they are nothing to be ashamed of. This was something that happened to you. It does not define you. Please tell me you know that."

Laura swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat at his words. Somehow he was able to see right into the heart of her fear and tell her exactly what she needed. There were times – like now – when she felt like he was the only man to truly understand her and that was terrifying in and of itself.

"I’m working on it," she finally said hoarsely. She gave him a grateful peck on the cheek and he stepped back.

"Shall we, Mrs. Quintain?" He said, with a sweep of his hand towards the door. She nodded and was about to pass him when impulsiveness seized her.

She stood on her tip toes and brought his face towards hers for a soft, yet tantalizing kiss.

The feeling of Laura’s lips against hers, along with her body pressed against him in such an alluring dress was almost too much for Steele. On a normal day he would do his best to avoid making his arousal too obvious for dignity’s sake if nothing else, but the fact that she had asked him for space only made it more important to keep his body’s response to her as hidden as he could.

He broke the kiss gently and stepped back, searching her gaze for some kind of indication as to why she had done that.

"At the risk of starting another fight," he said, choosing his words very carefully, "this is probably not the right time."

"Not for Remington and Laura," she agreed, with a tentative smile, "but for Doug and Betsy Quintain, this might be just want the doctor ordered."

"I don’t follow," he said, thoroughly confused.

"Look, I know we have a lot to work through," she told him with a heavy sigh. "And after this case I think some real soul searching may be needed, but right now…right now I just want to be a woman going to a dance with a man she cares about. I want to put everything on pause and not be Laura Holt for a while. Surely you can understand how that feels."

"Always," he said gently. "So you propose that just for this evening…"

"We embrace our cover as a married couple and enjoy each other. No strings attached." She held out her hand, and Steele took it, still unsure but willing to go ahead with the game if only because it meant being able to be close to her.

"And at midnight we turn back into pumpkins, I presume?"

"Something like that," she replied. "Are you game?"

At the back of his mind was the nagging reminder that the gun was still in her purse and the issues between them were far from resolved.

She must have sensed his trepidation because as she shrugged her wrap over her shoulders, she briefly squeezed his hand.

"I’m leaving it behind for tonight," she assured him. "Shall we?"

****

The dance was already in full swing when they arrived. Despite the busy din of it all, Laura predictably turned more than a few heads as she entered the room arm in arm with Remington.

While most of the stares she drew came from the male contingent in the room, she also had more than a few of the wives watch her in frank admiration. Steele wondered if Laura was even half as aware as he was of her effect on people.

Yvonne Carson was the first to approach them. Laura was surprised to see she was wearing a fairly conservative gown which only made her feel even more self conscious.

"Betsy, darling, you look absolutely incredible!" Laura was surprised to note the apparent genuine sincerity in the woman’s voice. She wanted to dislike this woman, but was finding it harder and harder to as the case went on.

"As do you, Mrs. Carson," Remington said pulling her hand towards his and kissing it with a flourish.

"You’re an accomplished liar, Mr. Quintain," Yvonne said with a rueful grin. "I just didn’t have it in me to put in much of an effort tonight. I didn’t even want to come, but Roger insisted. He said I needed to have some fun after everything that had happened."

"He’s probably right," Laura said sympathetically. "How is he?"

"Recovering," Yvonne replied, still visibly shaken up. "Thank you so much for your clear headedness, Betsy. You probably saved his life."

"I very much doubt that," Laura said, feeling slightly embarrassed. "Tell me, Yvonne, is there anybody here who might hold a grudge against Roger?"

"You don’t think it was on purpose, do you?" The naked shock in her tone sounded genuine. Whoever the would-be killer was, they were still under the radar as far as the guests were concerned.

"I’m not an expert," Laura said with what she hoped was a fairly convincing shrug, "I just think it odd that the cook would make a mistake that serious."

"Nobody would want to hurt Roger as far as I know," Yvonne said thoughtfully. "I know this must seem a strange thing to say under the circumstances, but I consider these people good friends."

"Have you known them all very long?" Steele asked.

"To varying degrees," Yvonne replied. She nodded towards a table at the far end. "I can’t imagine anybody wanting to do something like that deliberately."

"Don’t worry, Yvonne, I’m sure I was mistaken," Laura said with a dismissive wave. "I read too many true crime novels and sometimes my imagination gets the better of me."

"Would you care to dance?" Steele asked holding out a hand, which Yvonne Carson took gratefully. Laura watched as they glided onto the dance floor with surprisingly little jealously. She wasn’t sure if it was her commitment to be Betsy Quinain for the night or the conversation she’d had earlier with Mr. Steele but her earlier feelings of animosity towards Yvonne Carson had completely evaporated.

She made her way to the bar, and bought a drink while Steele and Yvonne danced. She was halfway through her glass of wine when she noticed Adam Weston approaching her. It was clear by the way he walked that he was already a few glasses ahead of her.

"You look good enough to eat," he slurred. His movements were sloppy and Laura sighed inwardly. There was nothing worse than fending off an enamored drunk.

She nodded stiffly at Adam Weston, hoping he would take the hint. Her hopes were in vain as he made a grab for her hand and said, "lesss dance!"

"I think you’ve danced enough," Casey Weston said as she approached her husband and took the glass from his hand.

Adam mumbled something that sounded like an apology and wandered back towards the bar. Casey sighed heavily and shot Laura an apologetic glance.

"Men!" She exclaimed in exasperation. "It doesn’t matter how much money they have or how much breeding, they are all animals at the core."

"Pretty cynical attitude for someone so young," Laura commented.

"Realistic," Casey said bitterly. "Can I be honest with you? I didn’t want to come to this retreat. Do you think I like seeing my husband chase anything with boobs?"

"So why are you here?" Laura wondered. Something about Casey Weston was different tonight. Her perpetual perkiness had evaporated leaving in its wake a very angry young woman. She looked different as well though for the life of her, Laura couldn’t put her finger on what had changed.

"Making the best of a bad situation, I guess." Casey said with a sigh. "The way I figure it, if he’s gonna cheat, you might as well supervise him while he gets it out of his system. At least this way I don’t have to worry about him going behind my back." She took a swig of her glass of wine and smiled at Laura.

"Listen to me, going on and on. I should go get him to bed. Have a good night, Mrs. Quintain."

Laura watched as she left, puzzled by the exchange, when all of a sudden she felt a warm hand on her shoulder.

"I believe you owe me a dance," Steele whispered. The soft lilting accent against her ear sent shivers down her spine.

Remington took the glass of wine from her hand, and led her out to the dance floor. She settled into his arms almost immediately as they began to sway gently to the music. Steele marveled at the way they seemed to fit together so incredibly well. Her body pressed against his felt incredibly right. He allowed himself to breathe in the sent of her and to fully enjoy the softness of her curves moving so perfectly to the music.

Laura was also allowing herself to fully enjoy the moment. His arms were strong and he smelled of fresh aftershave. She loved the solidness of his chest against her body and the way he held her. She leaned her head against him and smiled as he shifted his body, trying to keep her from noticing just how aroused he was.

She appreciated the effort, but it never fooled her. Secretly, she loved knowing she had that kind of effect on him. It was a complete turn on for her to feel him pressed against her like that – wanting her, but restrained by his respect for her boundaries.

Tonight though, under the guise of Betsy Quintain she felt compelled to test those boundaries, so when he leaned down and pulled her into a deep, sensual kiss, she didn’t pull away.

Instead, she deepened it, running her hands down his chest and around to his back. She felt their tongues mingle delicately but in a way that set her heart rate soaring. His breathing was just as short as hers, and she could tell the kiss was having the same effect on him as it was on her.

Inwardly, she cursed the public nature of the kiss. She wanted to take it further – wanted to feel his skin against hers. She desperately wanted to reach down and take him in hand without the barrier of clothing between them.

When they finally pulled apart, Laura realized that the music had been over for several moments and most of the hall was looking at them. Steele cleared his throat, slightly embarrassed by the public attention.

"That was…" Remington trailed off, at a loss for words. "I can’t remember the last time we kissed like that."

"No strings this evening, remember?" Laura said, suggestively running her hands down his chest. "I just want to enjoy being with you." She leaned in and trailed gentle kisses down his neck. He shuddered against her with pleasure.

"Laura, you keep that up in public and I won’t be held accountable for my actions," he warned.

"Promises, promises," she murmured, pulling him in again for another deeply arousing kiss. Steele couldn’t remember the last time he had been so completely turned on by anyone. He was afraid to move lest the entire dance hall see just want Laura had done to him. Thankfully, they were still pressed together in a way that hid the obvious physical signs and Laura seemed to have no intention of showing him any mercy.

"As much as I enjoy what you are doing," he said between soft, tantalizing kisses, "I think we should maybe take a walk in the fresh air. Cool off?"

"Embarrassed?" She asked with a wicked smile.

"Well, everyone is looking at us," Steele admitted. He had never been one for public displays of affection.

"All right," she agreed, "let’s go for a walk."

"Uh, in a moment," Steele said, holding her still before she could head towards the door. "I just need some time to….collect myself."

****

The fresh air and quiet of the night was enough to cause things to cool down between Laura and Steele. As they walked towards the lake, she could feel her old inhibitions returning as well as all the issues that remained unsettled between them. As much as she desperately wanted to go back to the room and finish what they had started on the dance floor, she also knew that no strings eventually meant nothing to hold you back when you fell.

Steele could sense a shift in Laura as they walked towards the water. He’d had a feeling that given time to collect herself, Laura would back off, and truthfully he was glad to have been right. As much as he wanted her, he also wanted to sort things out between them first.

Tentatively, he reached out and took her hand in his. He was surprised and grateful that she didn’t pull away. When they reached the water, they sat down on a bench, still holding hands in companionable silence until Laura finally spoke.

"Looks like Cinderella left the ball," she said with a sigh.

"It’s not so bad," Steele said gently. "I enjoyed the adventurous Betsy Quintain, but I prefer Laura Holt. I would rather try to work things out with her."

"I’ve made a real mess of things, haven’t I?" She said with a shake of her head. "I don’t even know where to begin"

"Why don’t we begin with the agency gun?" He suggested softly. He didn’t want to fight with her, but he had never felt such a strong aversion to a firearm as he did after watching her get shot by one. It took everything he had not to run back to the room, get the gun and throw it into the lake never to be seen again. The fact that she felt she needed it, frightened him on a level he couldn’t understand.

"I don’t know," she said with a shake of her head. "It’s such a lovely evening. Do we really want to ruin it?"

"It’s the elephant in the room," he replied, "and will remain so until we talk about it."

"I told you already," she said, standing up and kicking a rock towards the lake. It hit the water softly and sank without a sound. "I need my confidence back. I need to feel like I can handle things on my own – that I am still the private detective I once was."

"And that gun helps you do that?" Steele asked, no recriminations or accusations in his voice – just a desperate need to understand.

"I don’t know," she replied honestly. There was a hint of helplessness in her tone that she hated. "I wanted it to. I thought if I carried it in my purse, I wouldn’t be afraid anymore." She swallowed the lump in her throat that threatened to betray her.

Steele watched on the bench as she fought off tears. He wanted to go to her, but felt it best to stay seated for now. Being close to her would only complicate things.

"I’ve been living in fear since the shooting," she confessed so quietly he could barely hear her despite the stillness of the water. "The nightmares, the flashbacks…I’m terrified and I don’t know why. We’ve been shot at before. Many times! So why am I so scared all of a sudden? I’ve never felt this helpless before."

"Being shot at is one thing," Steele said, his voice hoarse and unsure. "But to actually be shot…well I can’t pretend to understand what that’s like. But I know what it was like to watch it happen. I can understand feeling helpless and terrified. Lord knows, I can understand the nightmares. Every time I see him point that gun at you in my mind…"

He broke off, unable to continue as the memory overtook him. Standing up, he went to her and placed his arms lightly around her, giving her the opportunity to retreat if she wanted. She didn’t and it heartened him.

"I almost lost you," he said, giving himself up to complete honesty for the first time in his life. "In an instant, I thought you had been taken from me. I don’t know what I would have done if that had been the case. I don’t know how I would have coped. If he had killed you, Laura, it would have ended me and that is more frightening than any gunman."

"So many times I have wanted to hear you say something just like that," Laura said, shivering in his arms though the air was warm and the night tranquil. "I thought it would immediately fix everything between us."

"And why doesn’t it?"

"I don’t know," she admitted. "Maybe because I am afraid you are only saying these things because you almost lost me and as soon as that fear fades, so will your verbal declarations. I don’t know what I would do then. I think it might destroy me."

"You’re damn right I said those things because I almost lost you," Steele said fiercely, "but my feelings are not going to fade. Not one day from now, a month from now, or for the rest of my life. I love you. I will love you for as long as I live and I am content to spend that time and more, if I must, convincing you. So much of my life has been impermanent that I thought we had all the time in the world to figure things out. Then in a second I almost lost everything. I realized that I can’t afford to be afraid anymore. That fear already cost us a great deal of time. I will not let it cost us a lifetime."

"Do you really mean that?" Laura asked, her heart hammering in her chest. He sounded sincere. Hell, he sounded so very genuine it made her ache. This was what she had wanted for so long. It was everything she had ever needed from him. He was putting everything on the line. Could she do the same?

"With every fibre of my body," he said, as he bent down and kissed her roughly. She responded in kind running her hands through his hair and holding him as if she would never let go. When she finally did, she had to take a step back to collect herself.

She wanted to do so many things all at once. She wanted to stay in his arms, and cry into his shoulder. She wanted to tear his clothes off and make love to him by the lake. She wanted to go back to the room and fall asleep in his arms. She wanted to be by herself. She had never felt so internally confused in her life.

"Laura?" Steele’s voice was hesitant and gentle. She looked at him and smiled a wan, tired smile.

"I don’t know what to say," she admitted. "You’ve offered me everything and I want to take it. I want to stop holding back. I don’t want to lose any more time either."

"Then what’s stopping us?" He asked.

"Me," she replied with a short laugh, "as always."

Reaching out, she took his hand and guided it towards her wound. Lightly, his hands grazed her stitches.

"There’s a hole inside me," she told him. "One I don’t know if I can ever fill. I feel like half a person now, and I don’t know if that fear is ever going to leave."

She sighed and felt his hand settle gently, but firmly on her abdomen.

"The gun didn’t make me feel safe. To be honest, I was planning on bringing it back to the office tomorrow. I don’t like it anymore than you do. I just want to stop being so damn scared."

"I’m scared too," he admitted. "It’s a dangerous thing you do for a living and part of me wants to get down on my knees and beg you to quit. Hell, I might, if I thought it would actually work. But I know it won’t. You were born for this. You are smart, and brilliant, and strong. You’re the most incredible person I have ever met. I can’t give you your confidence back, but I can tell you that it will come in time. In the meantime, all I can offer is my own belief in you. Let yourself lean on me now until you can stand on your own."

He kissed her lightly on the forehead and pulled her towards him for a gentle hug. She clutched him closely and finally allowed herself to fully let go of all the fear and anxiety she had been holding on to.

He was right. This was something that would take time. She wasn’t immediately going to be OK and if he was able to accept that, then maybe they might just make it. For the first time, she felt as if she could handle whatever came her way as long as he was by her side.

And he would be.

She was surprised to realize that even though her own self confidence was a work in progress, she no longer feared losing him.

"I told you once in Acapulco that I was afraid of being consumed by you," she said after a long pause. "I think what I was really afraid of, was letting myself need somebody else. After Wilson left, I decided the only person I could truly trust was myself. And for a long time that was enough. Now I am not sure I can trust myself, but I do feel like I can trust you. I don’t feel consumed. I feel…safe."

"What are you saying?"

"I’m saying I love you," she said with a shuddering sigh. "I’m saying I want you. I trust you. I need you."

She reached out to him and took his hand. Together, they began walking back to the hotel room, neither speaking a word, lest the spell be broken.

When they arrived, Laura paused outside the door.

"I’ll call Mildred tomorrow and give her the agency gun," she finally said. He nodded.

"When we catch this person, whoever it is, we do it together. We are a team. I can’t watch you get hurt like that again," Steele said with quietly. "Promise me."

"I promise," she replied, opening the door and entering the room. He followed behind and began to ready himself for bed.

It had been an exhausting night for both of them and Steele was torn between his desire to maintain the intimacy between them, and his need for sleep. Hearing her say she loved him and needed him completed him in a way he had never thought possible. And though he couldn’t wait to go to bed with her, he knew that there was no rush. She wasn’t going anywhere and neither was he. Satisfied with that thought, he began to ready the couch for the night. As comfortable as he was with his decision, he knew he wouldn’t be able to resist her if they slept in the same bed.

She watched him, preparing to sleep on the couch and found herself unable to comprehend the sudden aching need that overcame her. She had been holding back her own desire for him for so long, she wasn’t sure she had the strength or the will to continue to do so. She wanted him more than she had ever wanted anyone and there didn’t seem much point in waiting. It was obvious he was still respecting her boundaries and that if anything were to happen between them, she would have to make the first move.

She took a tentative step toward him and placed a hand on his chest. He looked at her in surprise, and then she watched as his eyes darkened with a need that matched her own. Without words being spoken she knew he sensed that she wanted him.

"Remington," she said, her voice steady and determined. "Make love to me."

****

Whatever self restraint he had managed to muster had flown out the window the moment he had heard her say his name. Desperately, he captured her mouth in his and pulled her against his own body. He tried to slow his racing pulse, but the sensuality of her kiss and the way her body felt against his was almost too much.

"Are you sure?" He hadn’t wanted to ask, lest she change her mind, but he felt he needed to hear her say it again. He wanted to be sure that this wasn’t a result of her trauma, but rather of genuine desire for him.

"I’ve never been more sure," she replied, taking his hand and pressing it against her chest so that he could feel just how fast her heart was beating. He needed no further encouragement, nor did she. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close for another deep kiss.

He felt like a nervous teenager again as he ran his hands along her collar bone and over her breasts. He had never gotten this far with Laura, and the knowledge that he could touch her and she wouldn’t pull away was incredibly freeing and slightly frightening. He had never doubted his performance as a lover before, but now he found himself worried he might disappoint her in some way. They had both wanted this for so long.

But there was nothing disappointing for Laura when it came to Steele’s kiss or his touch. She felt her body respond with traitorous pleasure as he touched her and felt a heat develop between her legs that threatened to consume her. His tongue teased her lightly causing her to tremble with need and her hands wandered his body, finally able to touch him in the way she had always wanted.

With shaking hands, she found herself tugging at his dress shirt. He had already removed his suit jacket and tie when preparing himself for bed and the top three buttons of the shirt had been undone leaving a tantalizing peak at his bare chest. As she undid each button, that view only became more and more real. He removed the shirt and Laura’s breath caught in her throat as she took him in.

He was an incredible specimen of a man. Tall, and lithe, but defined in a way that made her heart skip a beat. His chest was incredible to look at, covered lightly with hair but not overwhelmingly so. It rose and fell with his heavy breathing suggesting that he was far more turned on than he had lead her to believe. Her eyes followed the trail of chest hair down to the belt of his pants where she noticed the rather unmistakable bulge in his trousers. Whatever pains he had gone to in the past to hide his reaction to her, had vanished and the visible evidence of their kiss was an immense turn on.

Steele had never felt so exposed and vulnerable as he did standing in front of Laura at that moment. She had seen him without a shirt on many times, but never in the heat of a moment like this, and never secure in the knowledge that they were about to become far more intimate. He watched her eyes widen as she took him in and grit his teeth at the torturous pleasure of his own untended to erection. She had clearly noticed how hard he was – it was difficult not to. He felt himself strain uncomfortably against the fabric of his boxer briefs. Part of him wanted to rip his pants off and bury himself inside of her as quickly as possible but the cooler part of his brain prevailed.

He wanted this to be perfect for both of them and was surprised at his own inability to control himself. He was an experienced man and a good lover. He had never felt himself this affected by a woman before. No matter how aroused he was, he always managed to maintain some control. That control was now gone, and Laura hadn’t even removed a single item of clothing yet!

That was a situation he needed to remedy before his own body turned against him. Running his fingers lightly down her neck and shoulders, he took the straps of her dress and gently removed them. He did so slowly so as to give her the opportunity to object, but the desire in her eyes urged him on.

The dress fell to her feet with a soft plop, and he was shocked (although really he shouldn’t have been given how tight the dress was) to see she was not wearing a bra, or underwear.

He took a moment, allowing himself to drink in the sight of her standing naked before him. It was something he had pictured after many a frustrating evening with her and the reality did not disappoint. Her body was lean but curved in just the right places. Her breasts were small, but perfectly sized for his hands. She had a small amount of perfectly groomed pubic hair that he longed to bury himself in. She was lightly freckled and impossibly beautiful. So beautiful, he found himself frozen with wonder as he stared at her.

Laura, however, was growing more insecure with every moment that he looked at her and did not react. She knew she was a relatively attractive woman, but she also knew that her body was not the type that a man like Steele normally went for. Her breasts were small and she did not go to the gym as often as many other women did, not to mention her stitches. She wasn’t even sure why they made her so self conscious. Perhaps it was because they felt like a physical manifestation of her internal damage. If he could see just how broken she felt, inside and out, could he still love her?

"I know I’m not what you’re used to…" she finally said, breaking the silence between them.

"Perfect," Steele replied. His voice was hoarse with passion, "absolutely perfect." As if sensing her fear, he reached out and ran his hands over the wound with exquisite tenderness. She shivered under his touch.

"Scars fade, Laura," he whispered, his voice gruff with emotion and longing. "You’re beautiful to me. That will never change."

The breathlessness in his voice caused the heat between her legs to grow until she was impossibly wet. She ached for him to touch her. To that end, she stepped forward and their tongues met again and she desperately fumbled with the belt of his trousers. Her naked body was pressed against him, and she wanted to feel the full warmth of his skin against hers.

His pants fell to the floor and as she removed his underwear, Steele came up for air, panting. He stepped back, attempting coherence. As much as he wanted her, he also didn’t want to become a father and it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t brought any condoms with him.

"Is something wrong?" She asked, worried that he had suddenly pulled away. "You’re not changing your mind, are you?"

"Laura look at me," he said softly, "I’ve never wanted anybody the way I want you, but uh….I didn’t bring any…protection."

Relief spread over her face as she realized his dilemma. She reached up and kissed him deeply.

"I’m on the pill."

"Thank God," he growled. He grabbed her and pulled her against his body. His erection pressed urgently against her belly button and his hands massaged her breasts almost desperately.

The feeling of his hardness against her made her wetter than she ever imagined. Her knees felt week as he kissed her neck and down her body to her breasts. She wasn’t sure she would be able to support herself much longer so she backed up and sat down on the bed. He sank to his knees and her legs opened for him as if instinctively.

Remington didn’t skip a beat. He moved in between her legs and continued his explorations with his hands as he licked, flicked and lightly bit her nipples.

She moaned loudly and spread her legs further, her head tilted back in exquisite agony at the sensations he was causing. His fingers found their way into her incredibly tight, wet folds and he found her g spot.

She arched her hips in pleasure and Steele felt the urge to taste her. He removed his fingers and licked her juices. Using his hands, he gently spread her legs even wider. She obliged, allowing him access to the center of her. His tongue was incredible. He knew exactly how to lick her and Laura found her hips moving to his ministrations. The pressure was mounting and Laura could not hold back her cries of pleasure. He pushed his tongue in and out of her, until she finally let out a deep, satisfied cry and felt her body clench.

Pulling back, he claimed her once more in a deep, sensuous kiss.

Never in her wildest dreams did she think a man could bring her to orgasm twice in one night, but the moment their tongues touched, she felt her arousal renew itself full tilt. She wanted him inside her more than she had ever wanted anything, but she also wanted to torture him the way he had tortured her.

Pulling back from his kiss she pointed at the bed. Surprisingly, he obeyed and sat down. This time it was Laura who sank down onto her knees and took his erection into her mouth. He was dripping with need. The moment her lips touched him, she watched his eyes roll back in his head and a deep groan of pleasure escape his lips. His breathing was ragged and she could tell she only had a few moments with which she could do this.

This wasn’t normally an act Laura particularly enjoyed, but this time was different. This time she was with someone she truly loved – something she thought she had experienced before, but realized now had been an illusion. It was incredible to see the effect she had on him, not to mention the feeling of being in control of his pleasure. He was always so confident, so self assured, but right now he was completely at her mercy and she was loving it.

As much as she wanted to bring him to completion in her mouth, she also desperately wanted to feel him inside her. She wasn’t sure if she should keep going, or stop. It was Steele who made that decision for her.

"Laura if you keep that up…" he panted, unable to complete the sentence. He couldn’t believe the effect she had on him. All of his experience as a lover was undone by this small, freckled woman.

She took pity on him and stood up, allowing him to regain his wits. When he did so, he stared at her in awe and wonder. He had spent so much time imagining what it would be like to make love to her, but the reality was nothing like what he had pictured. She was wild and uninhibited. He had never expected her to be so bold, so giving and open. All of his pervious sexual experiences had centred around ensuring his partner was satisfied – something he was more than happy to do. His own sexual pleasure tended to take a backseat most times and though he enjoyed himself, it had always felt a bit one sided.

With Laura though, he truly felt as if they were partners. She wanted to please him as much as he wanted to please her and that was the most erotic thing he had ever experienced. To see how much she loved to be with him and wanted him was incredible.

Sitting back on the bed, he watched as she climbed up beside him and kissed him softly.

"Laura," he said as they broke the kiss, "I need to be inside you…please."

With anybody else, he would have felt as if he were begging, but with Laura, he knew she needed this as much as he did. He watched her eyes darken, as she climbed on top of him and sank herself down onto him.

They were still at first, allowing the two of them to get used to this feeling of being joined together. It took a moment or so to adjust to his girth. It had been so long since she had been with a man, that she needed time. Her arousal built once more as she felt him fill her.

"Are you OK, love?" he whispered, not wanting to hurt her, but desperately feeling a need to move. "Does it feel…?"

"So good," she moaned. "Please…"

She wasn’t sure what she was asking him for, only that the feeling that having him inside her was creating was mounting. He filled her in ways she had never experienced with anyone else and she let out a cry of pleasure as he began to rock inside her.

She had never been a fan of being on top, but watching his face as she rode him was a heady experience and she was loving it. She looked down, fascinated by the sight of her sinking down on top of him over and over again. The thrusts were slow and sensual at first, but quickly became more and more frantic. The two of them were whispering desperate words of love and encouragement.

Steele was almost at the edge of his sanity as he watched her on top of him, head back and biting her lip slightly in pleasure.

"More," she plead breathlessly, "I need…harder. Please, Remington, I need…"

That was all it took. He lifted her off him and flipped them over, positioned himself above her and sank himself down back inside her with a deep, satisfied groan. She opened herself up to him, desperately arching against him. Furiously he began to pump himself inside her over and over again until he felt her entire body go rigid and then spasm around his erection. He lost control then with a groan and emptied himself into her, clutching her close as the pleasure overtook them both.

****

The sound of birds chirping outside the window and the sunlight flooding the room roused Laura to wakefulness. Pressed up against her, legs entwined and arms wrapped tightly around her, Remington slept soundly. Laura smiled as the memory of the night before returned to her full force. Every kiss, every sigh and touch lingered in her memory as did the feel of waking up next to him, skin to skin in perfect intimacy.

This was new. Not the waking up with a man part – she had lived with Wilson, after all – but the part in which she woke up next to him with his naked body wrapped around hers. In previous relationships she had always put her pyjamas back on after making love – as did her partner. It had never been a conscious choice. It had just seemed like the thing to do. In retrospect, she realized it was a sign she never felt fully comfortable with these men which was probably why the relationships didn’t last.

But with Remington, she felt she had already bared every part of her body, heart and soul. She hadn’t given a single thought to the fact that they had both drifted off into sleep afterwards without any need to cover themselves. She had thought about what it would be like to be with him that way so many times, but never in her wildest dreams did she expect it to be like that.

He had been so very warm, and gentle. He had seen all of her fears and insecurities and kissed each and every one of them away. She had expected passion from him, but never had she thought he would be capable of so much tenderness.

Slowly, so as not to wake him, she rolled around to face him. It was hard to believe it had taken them this long to get to this place, and yet now that they had, it was beyond worth it. He looked so innocent lying there, and yet Laura knew that his past still held so many secrets. The only difference now though was that she knew they would uncover them together, which for her was enough.

The clock on the wall told her that as much as she wanted to stay there in his arms for the rest of the day, they had more pressing concerns. With a regretful sigh, she gently kissed the tip of his nose and attempted to slip out from beneath his arms without waking him.

She was unsuccessful in her endeavor, as the moment she attempted to move away from him, his arms tightened around her and his eyes popped open. He smiled, but did not release her.

"You’re not going anywhere, Laura," he said in a soft sleepy voice. Before she could respond, he kissed her deeply. Too taken by surprise to be worried about morning breath or any other insecurities, she returned his kiss only to find herself awake, naked and very aroused. Steele’s own morning arousal pressed against her gently, but without any real urgency. Time was on their side now and they both intended to make the most of it.

The case however, still needed to be solved and that wouldn’t happen if they stayed in bed all day.

"As much as I don’t want to get up, we have work to do." Laura reminded him sadly. Again she tried to wiggle out of his grasp, but his arms held steady.

"If you think after four years of trying to get you here, I am going to let you get away this easily then you must still be dreaming." His voice was a gentle murmur as he trailed kisses from her forehead to her chin. Laura sighed and gave herself over to the sensations he was creating for a few moments before resolutely (and reluctantly), sitting up.

"You know we have a case to solve, Mr. Steele," she reminded him, her tone a bit firmer perhaps to convince herself as well as him.

Remington noticed the change in name – a subtle reminder that ‘work Laura’ was in control, despite his best efforts.

"‘Mr. Steele’ is a bit formal considering where we are right now, don’t you think?" He tried not to let the hurt in his voice show. They had come so far and he feared the intimacy might have been too much for Laura. She tended to retreat when things became too real.

"What do you mean?"

"Last night you called me Remington." He ran his hand slowly down her shoulder as he spoke and pulled her close once more. "You’ve only ever called me that one other time. Two nights ago when we ahhh…"

He trailed off, unsure of how to phrase what he wanted to say.

"When I had that nightmare," Laura said, filling in the blanks. "You were there to comfort me. It went a bit too far and you pulled away."

"Laura, I…"

"It’s OK, I understand," she said. "We’re past all that now."

"So why…"

"Am I using the name ‘Mr. Steele’ again?" She said with a shake of her head. "I don’t know. Habit, I guess? Does it really bother you?"

"It feels…less intimate," he admitted. "I know it’s not my real name, but it’s the closest thing I have at this point. All this time I’ve been searching, trying to find out who I am. I realize now, I needn’t have bothered. You didn’t create me, you found me. When you said my name last night…when you asked me to make love to you, it was like coming home."

"I…I didn’t realize it meant so much to you," Laura said, feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of his gaze and the nearness of his body. She wondered if his heart would ever slow down when he was near and secretly hoped it wouldn’t.

"Neither did I," he said with a wry smile.

"I’d like to call you Remington," she said, quietly, almost shyly. "But it feels wrong while we are on a case. I feel like if we don’t at least try to separate our work life and private life it will become a mess for the agency. We’ve always been close, but this is new territory."

"So ‘Mr. Steele’ at the office and ‘Remington’ when we’re alone?" He found that he didn’t mind the compromise at all, which surprised him.

"I think so," she agreed. Then, before she could exit the bed as she had intended, Steele pulled her close and pinned her back down on the bed. Their lips met in an eager and almost desperate kiss. It took every ounce of willpower for Laura to pull away from him, but she knew there was work to be done.

"You’re determined to drive me crazy, aren’t you?" Steele said with a rueful smile.

"You know I would like nothing better than to stay in this bed with you," Laura told him, "but we are not on vacation. Last night was beyond perfect. We will get a chance to repeat it. I promise."

"I’m glad you feel that way," Remington replied, realizing that for the first time in his life he felt slightly worried about his own performance. With other women he’d been fairly confident, but with Laura he felt so much more vulnerable. Hearing her verbalize that she had enjoyed it was immensely reassuring. "I know it’s been a while…for both of us. I wasn’t sure I would measure up."

"Are you kidding?" She laughed softly. "I haven’t slept that well since…" She trailed off realizing she could pin point the exact last day she had had a good night’s sleep.

"What is it?" He asked, noticing her facial features darken and a shadow pass over her. As quickly as it had come, it was gone, replaced by a smile.

"Nightmares," she said quietly, toying with the bed spread. "I’ve been having them ever since the shooting. Not last night though. Thank you." Leaning in, they shared one last agonizingly perfect kiss before Laura stood up, and left the bed.

Steele watched her stride over to the bathroom, trying to control his own body’s reaction. A beautiful, confident, naked Laura Holt in the morning was proving more difficult for him to handle than he realized. Easy old boy, he told himself, once this case is solved, she won’t leave your bed for a solid week.

With that thought to comfort him, he got out of bed and padded into the bathroom where Laura stood, brushing her teeth. She seemed surprised to see him approach her from behind, but said nothing as he put his arms around her and watched as she finished brushing. Gently, he kissed her neck, enjoying the feeling of his own naked body pressed against hers as well as the reactions on her face. He could see she wanted to respond but remained determined to get her mind back on the case at hand.

"You’re making this quite difficult, you know," she said, somewhat breathlessly as his hands roamed freely down her body. "I need to have a shower."

"An excellent idea," he agreed with a lascivious smile.

"You are incorrigible!" she exclaimed, as she turned, and wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders, allowing him access to her lips, her neck and once more, her breasts. She could feel her own arousal acutely, and her ability to resist him melted away like snow.

She heard him turn the water on and somehow found herself in the shower with him, water cascading over their bodies. Parts of her were already sopping wet as he found out with his own explorations.

She let out a moan of pure pleasure as his fingers worked in and out of her.

He was hard as a rock again, and although he had wanted to take his time and leisurely explore their bodies, he had a feeling that today would not be that day. He wondered if it would ever feel less urgent with Laura, or if his own body would demand her as much as it was right now.

Watching her respond to him the way she did, head back, water cascading off her body, nipples erect, legs open and the core of her so very wet as she whimpered her pleasure assured him he would never stop wanting her.

Unable to handle it any longer, he lifted her up and positioned his erection where he wanted it most. Luckily, this shower had a ledge on the wall that he was able to lean her against as entered her. A groan escaped him as he felt her close around him in a feeling of exquisite pleasure.

His thrusts were slow at first, then almost frantic as she cried out in pleasure over and over again. He braced himself against the wall of the shower, afraid at any moment his legs would give way. She whispered desperate words of encouragement as she wrapped her legs around him and he felt her body clench against him as she came, her nails gripping into his back so hard it hurt.

That was all it took to push him over the edge as well as he spent himself inside her with one final thrust.

****

"Now we really do need to get to work," Laura said, after they had gotten themselves out of the shower and dried off. She tried to sound as if she was annoyed by his distractions, but the truth was she was loving every moment of it. It felt so natural to be with him, without barriers or restraint. She wondered how she was able to fight it for so long.

Steele was determined not to make things easy on her either. This newfound physical intimacy was hard won and he was going to make the most of it every chance he got. He watched with hungry eyes as she changed into her clothing for the day and made sure she could see him as he did the same. He pulled her into his arms at any opportunity, kissing her as deeply as he could as if to remind her of the feeling they created when they were together.

She was unlikely to ever forget. Being with him was the most exhilarating feeling in her life. So much so, that it took every last ounce of effort to reign in her own desires and to redirect her focus back to the case.

Steele, with great reluctance, got dressed as well and checked his watch. He was stunned to see that not only had they missed breakfast, but were well on the way to missing lunch as well. A rumble in Laura’s stomach told her the very same thing, causing them to share a slightly guilty look.

"Might I suggest we attempt to get to the dinning hall before it closes?" Steele suggested. "The day seems to have gotten away from us."

"I can’t imagine why that is," Laura teased with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Grabbing his tie, she pulled him close and gave him a tantalizing kiss. "It was worth it."

"More than worth it," Steele said, his voice husky. Placing both hands around her face, he kissed her soundly in return before stepping back and readjusting his tie. Laura fixed her hair and took one last look in the mirror before heading over to the night stand to grab her purse.

Something inside the purse must have caught her eye because she froze mid stride as she headed back towards him.

"What is it?" Steele asked, worried about the sudden look of fear on her face.

She met his eyes and tried to control the shakiness in her voice.

"The agency gun is gone."

"Gone?" Steele echoed, his brain not processing what she had just told him. "What do you mean it’s gone?"

"I mean it’s gone," she repeated, eyes wide. "I left it here last night. Whoever we are after must have seen it earlier in my purse, waited for me to leave and…"

"Taken it," Steele said flatly. He felt like a weight had settled in his chest and a feeling of numbness come over him. "That means whoever is responsible for these accidents now has our gun."

"And if they got it from my purse, there’s a good chance they saw my private investigator’s ID as well," Laura added, inwardly cursing herself for her mistake. "Which means they very likely know who we are."

"The accidents have only been increasing in intensity." Steele said quietly. "What started out as mere pranks has been escalating with each incident. We have been lucky so far no one has been hurt. If they have our gun…"

"Then the next victim won’t be so lucky." Laura finished grimly. She began pacing, trying to control the fear shooting through her, and slow down her racing heart. The idea that someone had a gun and knew their identity filled her with a dread she didn’t think possible.

Steele noticed her distress and tried to calm his own fears for the sake of his partner. He knew the trauma she had been through and he was sorely tempted to tell Laura the case wasn’t worth it and that they should just go home, but the Laura he knew would never agree to that. The agency gun was their responsibility. They couldn’t allow someone to get hurt with that weapon.

He crossed the room and pulled her swiftly into his arms, placing a protective hand against the back of her head and kissing her softly on her forehead.

"We’ll find the gun, Laura," he said gently, "no one will get hurt, I promise."

"First thing’s first," she said pulling away and attempting to put her own fears on the backburner. This was her survival strategy whenever things became too intense and she needed to be able to function. The only way to do that was to ignore the fear and work the case. "We need to go the agency, touch base with Mildred, and report the gun stolen. We also need any and all information she has found on the women at this retreat and the caretaker. We need to shut this down before it goes any further."

"We will," he assured her, "but promise me that you will not try to do it without me. We’re a team, remember? I can’t see you get hurt again."

"I promise," she replied, giving him a gentle kiss on the lips. "We are a team."

****

The drive back to the agency was a quiet one with both Laura and Steele lost in their own thoughts and fears.

The memory of Chase’s gun pointed at in Laura’s face was ever present, causing her to drive with an almost singular focus. If she allowed that memory to over take her, she would become nothing more than a shaking ball of fear and although she was no longer afraid of Mr. Steele seeing that vulnerability in her, there were more lives at stake than just hers.

She was furious with herself for allowing her own trauma to cloud her judgement and bring the gun along. She had wanted so very desperately to feel safe again that she had trusted that safety to an object of destruction, rather than trust in herself. She knew now that whatever she had gone through, the gun had not been the answer. It had taken Steele’s own special brand of persistence, but she finally realized that shutting herself off from him only made things worse. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but one that Laura desperately hoped did not end up costing someone their life.

If whoever was responsible for the accidents actually used that gun on one of the guests, Laura would never forgive herself.

Steele could see how far into her own head Laura was, and longed to say something reassuring, but his own fears stood in the way. He knew she would be beating herself up for allowing the gun to be taken and if something were to happen with it, he knew she would assume responsibility for that as well.

What really gnawed at him though was the knowledge that someone was out there with a weapon and Laura’s identity. They still were not any closer to finding out who was responsible and if Laura was right and the accidents escalated, this person may very well go after Laura first.

That thought alone filled him with dread. He clenched his jaw tightly, trying to control the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. Images of watching her fall to the ground, her blood spilling onto the pavement overwhelmed him. He had thought that consummating the relationship would help to quell his fear of losing her, but he found it had the opposite effect.

The thought of losing her now, was more terrifying than any feeling he had ever known. He was used to people leaving him. His whole life had been a series of people coming and going and never once did he allow himself to get too attached. Women were diversions, instead of companions and although he had an intense loyalty towards his friends and allies, he had always been the one to walk away first.

Now the thought of being alone, of waking up every morning and not seeing her deep laughing brown eyes made his body go cold. He felt an anger he couldn’t explain beneath the surface of his usual icy calm façade. He had no idea if he was angry at Laura for bringing the gun in the first place, himself for not getting rid of it when he had the chance, or at the culprit who now had it in their possession. Either way, he feared what might happen if they didn’t shut this person down – and soon.

Mildred was surprised to see the two of them arrive at the office without warning. Generally when they were undercover on a case, they tended to communicate by phone rather than in person so as not to jeopardize their cover. On this case, however, they had returned to the office twice and the second time, Mildred could feel the tension in the room as if it were a physical entity.

Laura went straight to the phone without saying hello, and began dialing furiously. Mildred shot Mr. Steele a curious look. He too wore an expression that Mildred had rarely seen. His blue eyes were darkened with anger and what she could only assume was fear. But fear of what? What could have happened to make the boss – a man usually known for his icy calm – so frightened?

The phone call Laura was making helped Mildred put the pieces together and without being asked, she rushed to her desk to get them the information she knew they wanted.

The moment Laura hung up the phone, she found Mildred thrusting a manila folder into her hands.

"The background work ups on all the wives and the caretaker," Mildred said before either of them could ask.

"Anything unusual?" Steele asked as he thumbed through the files.

"Most of this is pretty standard stuff," Mildred said, somewhat apologetically. "Except for two of the wives – Yvonne Carson and Casey Weston."

"What about them?" Laura asked.

"Well apparently in her youth, Yvonne starred in an…erm, adult film called…"

"Feisty French Fillies," Laura said, cutting her off. "What about Casey Weston?"

Mildred’s shoulders dropped slightly and Laura instantly felt guilty for being so abrupt with Mildred.

"Well Casey Weston and Adam Weston haven’t been married long. Before she married Adam Weston, she spent some time in a psychiatric facility. She had a bit of a breakdown as a teenager. Family stuff."

Laura’s ears perked up at that information and she quickly grabbed the file folder from Remington. The photo in the folder was of Casey Weston as a teenager. Her hair was in a pony tail and the face staring out at her looked chillingly familiar.

Suddenly it all made sense. Mentally she kicked herself for not realizing it the previous night when she had seen Casey Weston at the dance. She’d had her hair up then as well and something about that had not sat right with Laura, though at the time she couldn’t figure out why.

She was so lost in her own thoughts that she barely noticed as Remington pulled her close, wrapping his arm around her.

"What is it, Laura?" He asked. She handed him the file folder.

"Look at her last name," Laura said as he slowly flipped through it.

"I don’t understand," he said, not bothering to hide his confusion, "we already know her last name is Weston."

"No, her maiden name," Laura clarified. She pointed to the spot on the page that contained the information in question. "Does that sound familiar?"

"Robson…" Steele said the name out loud. "Where have I heard that?"

"It’s the last name of the previous caretaker." She replied. "Do you remember what the current caretaker said about why he left?"

"He had an affair with one of the guests," Steele replied as the memory came back to him. "Broke up his family…his daughter had a mental breakdown and ended up in an institution."

Suddenly the penny dropped. Steele looked at Laura, eyes wide with understanding.

"Casey must have gotten out of the institution and married Adam Weston," Laura said filling in the blanks. "I saw her photo in the caretaker’s cabin. It was of her as a teenager. Something about it didn’t sit right, but I couldn’t place it because her hair was up and she was much younger. Last night she had her hair up as well."

"If she had a mental breakdown over her father’s affair, then coming back to the retreat would only serve to make that mental illness worse." Steele surmised softly. "It might not have even been intentional. Maybe she went there to try to face what happened. Maybe she thought she was cured."

"It started out small," Laura added, pacing the room. "Childish pranks. Maybe she was reverting back to that angry teenage girl, trying to get revenge on the place that supposedly ruined her family. Instead of making her better, each prank made it worse – made her want to lash out further. Who knows how far she will go if she doesn’t get the help she needs?"

"Do you think her husband knows?" Steele wondered.

"Her husband!" Laura exclaimed loudly, eyes wide. "Last night he was pretty drunk. He made a rather sloppy pass at me and Casey was…different. She was angry and bitter. It could be that she is directing her anger towards her father at the men who come to this retreat. Maybe she sees them as the enemy for repeating the infidelity that destroyed her family. If that’s the case, her husband could be the next victim."

"We need to get back there," Steele said.

"Should I call the police, boss?" Mildred asked.

"Good idea," Steele agreed grimly.

"Not yet, Mildred," Laura said with a shake of her head.

"But Miss Holt," Mildred protested, "if this girl is as unstable as you say she is…"

"The client asked us to keep this low profile," Laura reminded them, trying to sound far calmer than she felt. "So far nobody has been killed. If we can get to her in time, perhaps we can reason with her."

"The woman spent a number of years in a psychiatric hospital!" Steele replied, voice rising despite his own efforts to maintain his composure. "We know she’s unstable. Hell, she almost killed Roger Carson. She knows who we are and she has our gun! After everything that’s happened are you honestly telling me you are willing to risk your life because of the client’s wish to keep his little ‘pleasure playground’ a secret?"

"This is what we do!" Laura exclaimed, eyes glittering with anger. "This is the Remington Steele agency’s mandate. If we go running off to the police against a client’s wishes every time someone threatens us, we won’t have any clients left!"

"Be reasonable," he pleaded, hating the tone of desperation in his voice. He watched as Mildred left to ‘do some paperwork’ in Laura’s office. It was a thin excuse to give them their privacy, but he appreciated it all the same. "This woman knows who we are and she has our gun. She has already shown a willingness to kill."

"She knows who I am," Laura said, pacing the room. Her voice sounded confident on the surface, but he could see her hands shake, giving away her own fear. "Not ‘us’. There’s a good chance she might not even have looked through my purse. Either way, as a woman I might be able to get through to her – talk some sense into her. So far, every attempt has been made to look like an accident. She hasn’t actually attacked anyone yet."

"Laura, stop," he said, grabbing her by the shoulders and forcing her to meet his eyes. She did so with that defiance and spirit he knew only too well. He was surprised to realize that this was the first time since the shooting that Laura seemed back to her old self and while it heartened him to see her confidence return, he wished like hell it wasn’t at this moment when he was trying desperately to stop her from walking into an ambush and getting shot again.

His heart was racing and he felt his body break out in a cold sweat at the idea of watching her put herself into that kind of danger again. He wanted to tie her up and refuse to let her leave the office. He wanted to get down on his knees and beg her to stay. He wanted to do whatever it takes to keep her safe. He felt weak and powerless and he hated that feeling more than anything.

"I’m not going to stop doing my job," she said evenly refusing to break eye contact. She would not back down. "If this is what you want from me…"

"Damn it, I want you to see reason!" Steele exclaimed. His eyes were wild and his voice trembled in a way that he couldn’t hide. "You don’t have anything to prove here, don’t you see that?"

"Is that what you think I’m trying to do?" She exclaimed, wrenching herself away from him in anger. There was hurt in her voice as well and he hated himself for causing it. "This has nothing to do with proving myself. I’m done with that!"

"Then what is it?" He shot back. "Are you so eager to get yourself shot again? I can’t go through that again. I can’t do it. Not after everything. Not after last night. Please. I can’t lose you."

His shoulders slumped and he allowed the weariness that he felt in his heart to enter his voice. He didn’t care that he was begging. He didn’t care that she could see him fighting back the emotions that threatened to overtake him. The only thing he cared about was this stubborn, beautiful woman who stood in front of him. The thought of losing her was more than he could handle.

She felt her heart soften at the expression on his face. He had told her he loved her and she had believed him. He had shown her he loved her last night in every touch, sigh and kiss. But she hadn’t realized the true depth of his feelings until now. Standing before her, he was a bundle of raw emotion. Normally a man not prone to emotional outbursts, there was no mistaking the naked fear on his face or the tremor in his voice. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him so frightened.

She reached out and tenderly ran her hand down the side of his face. When she reached his chin, she pulled him close and their lips met in a soft, gentle kiss.

"I love you, Remington," she whispered. "I’m not going anywhere. I want to be with you more than anything but I also need to do my job and this is the only way I know how to do it. You know as well as I do that if I hadn’t been shot, you wouldn’t even have considered calling the police on this one."

"Laura, please," his voice was husky and his blue eyes dark with emotion.

"We’re a team, remember?" Laura said gently. "I’m not going in on this alone. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I need you. I need my partner. And I’m beginning to understand that it’s OK. The last thing I want to do is come into contact with another bullet."

"Will you at least compromise?" Remington asked her, reveling in the feel of her body pressed against his and her hands against his chest.

"How?"

"We give Mildred a time frame," he said, "if she doesn’t hear from us within that time frame she calls the police. I imagine you want to try to get her to return to the psychiatric facility instead of jail?"

"Part of me feels sorry for her," Laura admitted with a nod. "I understand what it’s like to have your family fall apart. I’d rather she gets the help she needs."

"That might not be possible," Remington told her, "you know that right? She might be beyond our help."

"I know," she replied, "but I’d like to try."

****

With the plan in place, Laura and Steele headed back to the retreat. It would be dinner time when they returned, and after dinner was the night in which the couples were supposed to gather for the ‘big swap’.

Laura worried that this aspect of the evening’s activities might aggravate an already unstable Casey Weston, pushing her closer to doing something she couldn’t come back from. She instructed Fred to push the speed limit the entire way there in the hopes that they would be able to stop her before it was too late.

She knew Steele was unhappy with the arrangement. If he’d had his way, they would have the police barge into the retreat and arrest her on the spot. Deep down Laura wanted to do that too, but she knew that if she gave into that option out of fear, she would never be the private investigator she once was. Already Chase’s gun had taken so much from her. She would not let it take her ability to do her job. Sometimes that job was dangerous, and she could accept that danger as long as she had Remington by her side.

It was surprising for her to realize just how reassuring his presence was. She had spent so much time trying to prove to the world she didn’t need anybody that she had crafted a very lonely and very difficult life for herself. She understood now that needing someone did not make her weaker and that doing so was a risk. It would always be a risk. There was no perfect relationship, no guarantee of forever. She just had to trust that he felt the way he said he did and hope that they could figure things out together.

That was the best anybody could hope for really. In some ways, accepting that was far more frightening than a crazy woman with a gun could ever be.

When they arrived back at the retreat, they found the Westons were not in the dining hall. Laura knew they had only a brief amount of time before Mildred called the police as per their agreement so they wasted no time in beginning their search.

Neither Adam, nor Casey were anywhere to be found. The lake, their room, the bowling alley, and golf course were all empty.

"The others will be gathering in the dance hall to ahh…make their selections for the evening," Steele reminded her. "Shall we check there?"

It was a reasonable enough assumption, but they were not to be found there either and nobody seemed to have seen them that day.

Laura checked her watch, feeling her own frustration and fear mounting. Were they too late? Would Laura’s stubbornness prove to be the death of Adam Weston?

"What time do you have?" Steele wondered, watching her carefully.

"Seven ‘o clock," she replied, throwing her hands in the air. "Where could they be?"

"Didn’t George Marks say he clocks out at six?"

"Of course!" Laura said, snapping her fingers, "Her father’s old cabin! Let’s hope we’re not too late!"

Steele had to rush to catch up with her as Laura raced towards the previous caretaker’s cabin. When they arrived, they entered slowly, unsure of what they might find.

They were relieved to see Adam Weston was alive. He was tied to a chair and unconscious but the rise and fall of his chest told Laura he was relatively unscathed. Steele searched the cabin, but saw no signs of Casey Weston until the door shut behind them.

Cold fear shot through them as she spoke.

"I was waiting for you two to join us." Her voice was as cheerful and perky as ever, but her eyes were unnaturally bright. She held the agency gun in front of her, pointing it at the two of them, but her hands shook ever so slightly. Laura could see she was holding onto her own sanity by a mere thread. They would have to tread very carefully now.

She was surprised to find, that unlike when she had confronted Anthony Chase, she did not feel frozen with terror. All of her nightmares in which she hadn’t been able to think, react, or move were distant memories and although she was certainly frightened, the presence of the man beside her allowed her to think clearly instead of panicking.

"We’re here, Casey," Laura said gently, hoping she sounded friendly and approachable. "Why don’t you put the gun down so we can talk?"

Steele watched as Casey Weston aimed the gun towards Laura as she spoke. Every fiber of his being urged him to throw himself at her, to wrench the gun from her grasp, but he knew that kind of action could get them all killed. Even though every one of his worst fears was playing out in front of him, he would not let any of them come true. He would protect Laura, even if it meant giving up his own life in the process.

"Why should I?" Casey asked, suddenly angry. "You both lied to me! You’re private investigators, not a couple on vacation!"

"Yes, we are," Steele told her, voice as calm as he could manage. "But we are here to help. Don’t you want some help?"

"I’ve had all the ‘help’ I need, thanks," Casey spat. The gun quivered in her hands and Steele felt his heart freeze. She turned slightly and aimed it at him.

"Listen to me," Laura said softly. "Is your husband alright?"

"For now," Casey said with a curt nod towards the unconscious Adam Weston.

"You haven’t hurt anybody yet," Laura continued. She took a small step forward. "We can make sure you get the treatment you need. Don’t do anything you can’t come back from."

"Listen to her, Casey," Steele said, jaw clenched as he tried to keep the red hot anger from spilling over. The gun was still trained on him. He wanted to keep her focused on him so that Laura could get closer. She took another step. "Killing someone is not something you can undo."

"Why shouldn’t I?" She asked with a slightly unhinged laugh. The gun remained fixed on Steele, as Laura edged closer. "One less man to lie and cheat on his wife. All of the women here should thank me! All you men do is lie. You ruin families and people’s lives! You’re no different, Douglas Quintaine…Remington Steele…whoever you are. How many times have you been unfaithful, huh? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t shoot you too!"

"Casey, please!" Laura said sharply, her voice high pitched with fear and adrenaline. She stepped forward once more a little faster than she meant to, but the gun pointed at Mr. Steele and Casey’s threats filled her with terror. If this is what he had felt when she had been at Chase’s mercy it was no wonder he was so frightened of losing her. "Please don’t hurt him. Look, I get it. I understand how you feel. My father left when I was sixteen years old. Don’t you think I was angry? But you can’t go through life blaming all men for one man’s failings. Mr. Steele hasn’t done anything to hurt you."

"Mr. Steele is a man," Casey said bitterly. "All men cheat. Are you sleeping with him, Miss Holt? Is that why you’re defending him? I’d save your breath."

"I may be a lot of things," Steele said, his eyes fixed on the crazed woman in front of him. "And I have made many mistakes, but I would never hurt someone I love, and I love Laura. She and I are partners in every way and I assure you, I would never even consider being unfaithful. Not every man is going to let you down. If you get the help you need, you would see that."

"Casey, what is your plan here?" Laura asked, once again having moved closer. She was almost within arm’s reach of the young woman which made him determined to keep her attention fixed on him. He knew Laura’s plan would be to get as close as she could to get the gun. She was likely hoping Casey would give it to her willingly but he knew she would take it by force if necessary. If he was able to keep it pointed at him, then he was the one who would get hurt and not Laura if she pulled the trigger. He couldn’t bear to let anything happen to her a second time. "What is it you want? Are you going to commit murder right in front of us? Are you going to kill us too? There’s no way you will walk away from this. The gun has been reported stolen and the police know you have it. They will be waiting for you. You can spend the rest of your life in a jail cell, or you can get the help you need. Which will it be?"

"I can’t just let them get away with it," Casey repeated, her voice beginning to waver. It was clear that her resolve had begun to falter and Laura used that to her advantage.

"It’s not up to you to decide that," Laura told her. "I know how hard it is. I know how it feels to think you can’t trust anyone, but you will never be happy that way."

"You really think you can trust him?" Casey asked, the anger leaving her and her arm dropping ever so slightly.

"With all my heart, I’m going to try." Laura replied honestly. "I have to believe it’s possible." She took one more step towards the woman.

"I…I don’t know what to do," Casey admitted. Tears rolled down her cheeks freely and Steele actually found himself feeling sorry for her despite everything she had put them through. The look on Laura’s face was one of empathy and compassion.

"I could have taken that gun by now," Laura told her gently as she held out her hand. "I would rather you give it to me."

Slowly, Casey Weston reached out and placed the gun in Laura’s hand. Steele felt an enormous weight lift from his shoulders as Casey slumped to the floor, head in her hands, her shoulders quaking with sobs.

"Will they put me back in the hospital?" She asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

"Probably," Laura replied, sitting down beside her and placing her arm around her.

"I’m tired," she confessed through her tears. "I just want to rest."

Behind them, Adam Weston began to stir. Laura stood up and untied him. Steele stepped forward and helped Casey Weston to her feet.

"Come on," he said with gentle gruffness as the young woman clung to him. "We’ll get you somewhere quiet, eh? It’s going to be alright."

"Did you mean what you said?" She asked as they left the cabin and headed towards the parking lot where the limo waited. Steele would call Mildred on the car phone and give her the all clear and from there they would get Casey Weston secured and arrange the help she so desperately needed. She was looking at Steele imploringly. "About Miss Holt? About being faithful? Did you mean that? Or were you just saying it to get me to put down the gun?"

"I meant it," Steele said, his voice rough with suppressed emotion. It had been a long, terrifying day. He just wanted to go somewhere quiet with Laura and lose himself in her over and over. He was beyond exhausted.

As Casey got into the limo, a small hopeful smile on her face and he found he genuinely wanted her to find some kind of peace.

"Perhaps you would like Miss Holt and I to come visit you in the hospital," he found himself saying to both his and Laura’s complete surprise.

"I…I would like that very much," Casey replied quietly. "Thank you."

****

"I can’t thank you enough," Robert Stewart said, shaking Remington’s hand profusely. It was well after midnight and both she and Steele were thoroughly exhausted. Once Casey had been delivered to the proper authorities, the two of them had returned to the retreat to inform Adam Weston of what had become of his wife, gather their belongings and phone their client.

The other couples had likely chosen their partners for the evening’s activities and were far too engaged in themselves to wonder what happened to Betsy and Douglas Quintaine.

Of course, despite the fact that solving the case had been a team effort, once again Steele took all the credit in the eyes of the client and Laura stood beside him like a forgotten piece of luggage. Tonight though, it didn’t bother her as much as it normally did.

Her confidence returned, she was happy to let him take the bows, wanting only to be back in his arms and away from the rest of the world. The adrenaline had long worn off, and the full reality of what could have happened was starting to set in.

"It was our pleasure," Steele said with a smooth smile. "We’ll send you the bill in the morning. If you don’t mind, we are rather tired."

"You’re welcome to stay another night in the suite," Stewart offered. "If you wish to avoid the travel that is."

"We appreciate the offer, Mr. Stewart," Laura replied, trying to suppress a yawn, "but the nature of the festivities are not to our liking if you understand me. We would rather just go home and get some rest."

"I completely understand," Stewart said, shaking their hands once more. "And if you ever need a private getaway, there will always be a room for you here. This retreat is all about discretion."

He winked at them both before walking away.

"Are we that obvious?" She wondered as his figure retreated into the distance.

"Well you weren’t subtle," a familiar voice said from a few feet away. Laura looked up, surprised to see Yvonne Carson walking towards them. If she had been there the whole time, she would know who they really were and why they had been there. She supposed it didn’t really matter now. The threat was neutralized after all. "So you’re detectives, huh? I thought you looked familiar."

"My photo does end up in the paper from time to time," Steele acknowledged with a small smile.

"Aren’t you participating in the uh…"

"No," Yvonne said cutting Laura off, "it’s really only my husband who does. I generally make my excuses and take a walk, however this week we have both decided not to participate. After nearly losing him, we both just wanted to take some time for ourselves. I’m sure you can understand that."

"I don’t know what you mean," Laura said, though she knew by Yvonne’s expression that her bluff had been called already. "Mr. Steele and I just work together."

"I don’t believe that for a second," Yvonne said with a laugh. Then, as if realizing she had over stepped, the put up an apologetic hand. "I’m sorry, it’s none of my business. It was truly lovely to meet you both. Remember what I said, Mr. Steele."

They both watched as her figure retreated into the darkness. Wordlessly, Remington put his arm around Laura and led her towards the limo. They were both so exhausted they could barely hold themselves upright as they walked.

Once in the limo and on the way home, Laura looked at Steele curiously.

"What did Yvonne Carson mean back there?" She asked. "What did she say to you?"

"We have a conversation by the lake the night you and I fought," Steele told her quietly. "She reminded me that intimacy is not a one size fits all and everyone needs to take their own path. She was right, too."

"Funny," Laura said suppressing a yawn, "I thought that a place like this would be full of broken marriages and angry spouses. With the exception of Casey Weston though, these people are relatively normal. I guess not everybody does relationships the same way."

"Thank heavens," Steele replied with a soft kiss on her forehead. She nestled closer to him. "If they did, you and I might not have made it this far."

"Are you saying you want to become swingers?" Laura teased.

"Not in a million years," he murmured. "Now that I have you, there is no way I plan to share you."

"We’re within the city limits," Fred informed them as they passed the welcome sign for Los Angeles. "Whose apartment would you like me to go to first?"

"Mine, Fred," Steele said as he squeezed Laura’s shoulder. "Just mine."

****

Laura couldn’t remember Mr. Steele’s flat ever being so inviting. The moment they were inside the bedroom, she laid down on the bed and sighed gratefully. She closed her eyes and allowed the stress to melt away as she listened to Mr. Steele tinker around in the living room. She had almost drifted off, but Remington’s hand on her shoulder woke her.

"Don’t you think you would be more comfortable in some pyjamas, Laura?" He asked.

"Too tired," she mumbled. She sat herself up on the bed reluctantly and shed herself of her jacket and shoes. Steele had already removed his shirt and the sight of him topless was enough to wake her from her drowsy state.

My God, he’s perfect, she thought.

He sat down on the bed beside her. His nearness and the scent of him almost drove her crazy. In her mind, she wanted to do so many things to him, but her body was too exhausted to follow up on them. She settled for a deep, tantalizing kiss as she allowed him to slowly remove her shirt.

"I almost lost you tonight," She murmured as his fingers grazed softly over her ribcage. She felt a shiver of pleasure run through her body at his gentle touch. Reaching out, she placed a hand on his bare chest, as if to reaffirm to herself that he was indeed sitting in front of her. Images of Casey Weston pointing the gun at him flashed through her mind. Is this what he had felt like watching her confront Chase?

"I knew you had the situation well in hand," Steele replied, placing short, tender kisses over her eyes, her nose, lips and chin. She leaned into him, eyes closed, enjoying the sensation.

"You always have so much faith in me," she said in between kisses. Her tone was awed, as if she hadn’t realized before just how much he had always believed in her. "What if she’d shot you?"

"You can never truly predict a person’s actions," Steele said, acknowledging the danger they had faced that evening, "but I’m bloody glad she didn’t." He reached out and brushed a stray hair from her face.

"I’ve always had faith in you," he said. Laura found herself speechless at the depth of love she could see in his eyes. Had he always looked at her that way? And if he had, how could she not have noticed it before? Why had it taken her so long to see just how much he cared? "You are the most incredible woman I have ever met. Intelligent, brave, and so very strong."

"I haven’t been brave for a while," she admitted with a deep sigh. "Or strong. Tonight, when I saw her point that gun at you, I thought of everything I could lose. It terrified me."

She pulled back for a moment and looked down at her hands. He stroked her shoulder gently, waiting for her to speak.

"I’m sorry," she said finally. "I hadn’t truly understood what it felt like for you to see me get hurt. Tonight I got a taste of it, and I…"

She trailed off as his kiss claimed her. Their tongues met and Laura felt all the emotions of from the day bubble over inside her. Her exhaustion gone, she now felt an almost urgent need to touch him, to physically confirm that he was alive and not going anywhere.

Standing up, she shed herself of her pants and bra until she wore nothing but her underwear.

He watched her remove each item of clothing, his eyes darkening with desire. Even in a simple white bra and cotton underwear she was the sexiest woman he had ever seen. Once the bra had been removed, his own arousal became almost painful.

"My pyjamas are buried in my suitcase," Laura told him, her voice husky. "I’m far too tired to get them."

"I don’t see why either of us needs to be encumbered with excess clothing," Steele reasoned. He stood up and allowed her to undo his belt and his trousers. They fell softly to the floor. He felt his jaw clench as she slowly removed his boxer briefs. Allowing him to do the same, they soon stood before each other completely naked.

She fell into his arms almost immediately and he marveled at how perfectly they seemed to fit together. He claimed her lips eagerly. The emotions of the day over took them both and for a while they stood there, content to be in each other’s arms, skin to skin and safe once more.

His kisses which started out gentle and loving turned hungry and desperate. His body was taught with tension and his arousal pressed firmly against her. She thought she had nothing left to give that night but here, in his arms, with his body so firm and unyielding, she realized she needed something from him.

Images of the gun pointed at him flashed through her mind once more, and with the strangled cry, she pulled him down on, top of her.

"I need you," she whispered, as the heat of his body caused her own to respond. "I need you inside me. I need to feel you…"

He entered her immediately, understanding the need they both felt to be joined. She was already impossibly wet for him which only heightened his own desire. She moaned as he filled her, and clutched his back, pulling him close, wanting him a way she had never felt before. Their eyes met and she saw the same heat mirrored in his.

Through deep, laboured breaths, he held her gaze. As his hips began to move, she moved with him, rising to meet his thrusts, but never breaking eye contact. He moved slowly at first, then as he felt her tug on his back, faster. She watched her bite her lip and whimper as her pleasure mounted and he felt overcome with love for her.

She could feel the tension mounting as he entered her over and over again. She had never felt so connected to someone before, so utterly and completely vulnerable yet safe at the same time. His eyes were as blue as she had ever seen them, deep and dark with the haze of passion. She could tell he was almost at the brink and she herself felt she couldn’t last much longer.

"I love you," he murmured raggedly as his control slipped further and further.

"I love you," she ground out before her entire body exploded with pleasure. She uttered a cry of surprise as she clenched around him while her body wove out wave after wave of ecstasy. Within seconds she felt his entire body go rigid and a soft groan escape his lips as he came inside her.

****

Remington was surprised the following morning when he woke up alone. Despite the fact that he was used to waking up without her, he felt a keen emptiness when he reached across for her and found her absent.

The scent of coffee and the sound of bacon sizzling confirmed to his senses that she was still in the flat. He sat up, surprised by the fact that Laura seemed to be cooking him breakfast. For all her other talents, he was the one who generally cooked the meals. She had a tendency to burn toast.

Eager to see it before he believed it, he threw on a pair of checkered pyjama pants and padded his way into the kitchen just in time to hear the sound of multiple pots and pans hitting the floor with an immense crash and Laura cursing over the din.

Amid the chaos, she looked up, only to see a sleepy eyed Mr. Steele watching her, amusement in his eyes. His hair was tousled and his pyjama pants hung low on him causing her to stare just slightly longer than was necessary. Would she ever get over how handsome he was?

"Really, Laura," he was saying, his eyes twinkling with merriment, "you kiss your mother with that mouth?"

She stood up and kicked one of the pans that was in her way, blowing a strand of hair away from her face in frustration.

"The bacon is ruined," she said in exasperation. He noticed that the bacon in question had ended up on the floor along with the pots and pans. "I was trying to surprise you."

"You surprise me every second of every day," he told her warmly. Taking her in, he saw she had thrown on one of his dress shirts – a look he had always found incredibly sexy. Her hair fell in soft waves around her shoulders and absent make up or any other embellishments he found she had never looked more beautiful to him. "But why don’t you leave the cooking to me, hmm?"

She moved out of the way, obliging happily and busied herself getting the coffee, while Mr. Steele went to work fixing what remained of breakfast.

"I guess I’ll never make a good housewife," she said ruefully as he popped some toast in the toaster. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, wondering if they were about to have the discussion about their future that he had been planning in his head ever since he met her.

"I don’t imagine you would be happy as one," he told her, turning the burner back on and cracking some eggs into the pan. "Your independence is one of the things I admire most about you."

"Then you don’t want to…" she trailed off, unsure of how to broach the subject. She had never planned on getting married, but she hadn’t ruled it out either, especially if she found the right man. While she was sure Mr. Steele was in fact that man, she had no idea if he even wanted marriage, nor for that matter, if she did if it meant giving up her independence. Her attempt at breakfast was her way of testing out the waters of domesticity and while she was certain she would never be good at making the meals or other household chores of that nature, she also knew that he was excellent at it.

"Laura, I told you the other night I want to spend my life with you," he said as he stepped away from the oven. Kneeling down in front of where she sat in the chair, he took her face in his hands and kissed her gently. "I meant every word. Whatever form that takes is good enough for me."

"Are we talking about marriage?" She asked, voicing the word even when she promised herself she wouldn’t.

"I’m not ruling it out," he replied, his blue eyes searching her own. "And I get the feeling neither are you. I also don’t think either of us is ready to make that kind of decision."

"I don’t know what you would expect of me," she said honestly. "I might not be a traditional wife."

"I bloody hope not," he said with a soft chuckle, "I’d never survive it."

She laughed and swatted him on the arm as he stood back up to tend to breakfast. She watched him, content for once with their decision not to make any commitments. She suspected they both liked where they were at right here, right now and neither wanted to do or say anything to disturb that. Still, there was one aspect of things that niggled at her.

"I uh…" she paused, again unsure of how to say what she wanted. "I want to explore this. Take it further. I’m happy not to make any major decisions right now, but…"

"What is it?" He asked as he arranged the eggs and toast on a plate and sat down beside her.

"I want to wake up with you. I want to go to bed with you. And yet, the thought of leaving my loft, of the life I’ve built…"

"Ahh," he said, understanding in his tone. He reached out, took her hand and squeezed it in a gesture of reassurance. "I want nothing more than to go to sleep with you every night and wake up to you every morning…sans the breakfast attempts of course. But we might not be there just yet. So maybe you would settle for a compromise?"

"What kind of compromise?" She asked, ignoring the jab at her cooking. He kissed her lightly on the lips and handed her a fork.

"A few nights a week, your place or mine, we make it a point not to say good night. When we both feel we are ready, we re-evaluate the situation in a way that suits us both. Does that sound agreeable?"

Laura looked at him, taking in every feature of his perfect face and allowed herself to fully appreciate just how much she loved him. Here was this man who had wanted her for so very long, and not only was he not pushing for more, he was allowing her to set the pace, fully respectful of her boundaries and insecurities. She didn’t think she would ever meet another man like him.

She reached out her hand and slowly traced a finger down the side of his cheek before pulling him close in a long, loving kiss.

"I think it sounds perfect," she replied softly. He smiled back and took a bite of his breakfast.

"And the game continues."

****

The End

 


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