The warm sunrays of dawn had begun filtering through the window of Steve’s bedroom when a young woman stirred awake. She turned to her left and smiled at her winsome prince slumbering peacefully. She rolled over to kiss his cheek.
“Steve, honey,” she cooed seductively, her finger tickling the tip of his nose. “Time to wake up, Blue Eyes.”
Her loving touch met with a loud grumble. “Cut that out thirty-five,” Steve slurred, waving the hand away.
“Thirty-five? Honey, I’m only thirty.”
Her voice sliced through the thick mist, spurring his conscious mind to rouse from beneath the surface. He pried open his heavy eyelids and focused on the angelic face beaming down on him.
Steve’s eyes widened in shock. “Sharon, what,” he did a quick scan of the room to established his surroundings, “what are you doing here?”
“Where else would a wife be but beside her husband,” she chuckled as she leaned in to kiss him on the lips.
Steve pushed her off him and glaring at her, he grunted with disdain, “Married?”
“Don’t you remember? Last night? We flew down to Las Vegas with my brother Jerry to christen the opening of his new nightclub. Thereafter you asked my hand in marriage and I said yes. An hour later we were Mr. and Mrs. Steve Austin.” She hungrily plunged her mouth into his to claim his lips in a passionate kiss.
“Wait!” Steve pried his lips from hers and wiggled out from underneath her body lying on top of his. His head throbbed but it was nothing compared to his face, which flushed red beet with embarrassment at the realization he was standing stark naked. Quickly he twitched the bed sheet to wrap it around his waist. He heaved a shuddering breath and rubbed his hand across his forehead then down to his eyes, hoping to wipe out the remnants of this nightmare.
“Steve, what’s wrong?” asked the voluptuous blonde with a concerned frown.
“What’s wrong?” he scorned, boring a hole into her innocent-looking eyes. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. I have no recollection of a flight to Las Vegas, much less a wedding.”
“Well you were a bit out of it after your third glass of champagne at the restaurant but surely not enough to send you into a drunken stupor. You were lucid and standing upright when we flew down to Las Vegas. After a few dances you asked me to marry you.”
“And you said yes.”
“Well of course I said yes,” she replied indignantly. “I love you Steve. I was ecstatic when you asked me to be your wife.”
“But we’ve only known each other three months!”
“Well isn’t that’s long enough?” She shrugged with an innocent look.
“Not to me. And not like this. I never would have proposed in Las Vegas, let alone marry you on a whim.”
“I see.” She stoically stood from the bed, avoiding Steve’s stare as she put on her slippers and slipped on her peignoir. “I thought you loved me. I guess I was wrong.” She crossed to the bedroom door and looming under the doorway she turned to him with a glare. “I can’t believe you would use me for your own pleasure and then pretend nothing happened. Well something did happen, Steve. We consummated the marriage right here in this bed. You are my husband and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you go.” On that threatening note she turned on her heels and headed down to the kitchen, leaving a confounded Steve alone to digest it all. He flumped himself down on the bed and buried his head in his hands in utter despair.
He racked his muddled brain to summon any raw memory from last night’s flight to Las Vegas, but to no avail. His mind was in a clutter. He attributed this memory gap to a potent drug that he suspected Sharon must have slipped into his glass of wine. However the motive eluded him. What would she gain by becoming Mrs. Steve Austin other than being recognized as the wife of the famous astronaut? He had refrained from disclosing information about his undercover work at the OSI, though she knew he was involved in several scientific projects, but none of them classified top secrets. Could she have gained access to his personal file? Was she a spy for a foreign organization eager to get their hands on Rudy Wells’s proudest achievement?
He gathered up those plausible theories in his mental file as he made his way to the bathroom to jump in the shower. Under the warm running water, Steve let his mind wander to his first meeting with the blond bombshell in a restaurant. He smiled as he recalled the shy thirty-year-old blond whose eyes glinted with admiration at meeting her hero, and her darling embarrassing smile when she apologized for accidentally bumping into him. Her infectious laugh and fetching smile were two endearing attributes that prompted him to ask her out on a date.
Steve turned off the water and dried himself on a bath towel, his thoughts never leaving sight of the angel-faced blonde who had surprisingly become his wife. Although the operative within him urged him to stand on his guard, Steve would favour the voice of the man longing for a staid and simply family life spurring him into accepting his current situation.
He went down to the kitchen where he found Sharon sitting at the table quietly nibbling on her toast. “Anymore coffee?”
She motioned to the coffee pot and replied icily, “Help yourself.”
With restrained silence, Steve made his way to the counter without so much of a sidelong glance. He poured himself a cup and took a healthy gulp to perk up his courage.
“Steve, I’ve been thinking,” she spoke solemnly. “I’ll give you your annulment if that’s what you want...”
“I’d like to see the marriage certificate,” he cut off dryly.
“Sure.” She calmly roused out of the chair and walked to the living room to get her purse sitting on the couch. She picked it up and pulled out a folded document that she handed over to Steve. His eyes briefly roamed over the legal license before shooting straight to the bottom to read his signature on the dotted line. “Satisfied? That’s your signature, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is.” he heaved out in defeat. “I just don’t remember signing it.”
“I’ll get in touch with my lawyer and ask him to have the papers drawn up by tomorrow.” She turned to leave the room when she felt a grip on her arm. She stared at it impassively before her eyes travelled up the arm of her captor. “What more do you want?”
“Don’t. Let’s try to figure out where my head was last night before we do anything rash.”
“I thought your head was in the clouds, like mine was.”
“Maybe it was. Although I find it odd that I can’t recall a single detail.” she started to walk away when he tightened his grip on her arm, “but let’s try to jog my memory. I’m willing to take it one step at the time if you are?” he said with genuine affection and a lopsided grin that set her heart aflutter.
“I am. I most certainly am, Steve.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and placed a tender kiss on his lips. “I love you.”
Their gazes met in a soul-stirring moment that instantly stirred the passion within. They surrendered to the magnetism drawing their lips together in a sensual deep lingering kiss.
Although his heart spurred him to accept Sharon’s story without any reservation, Steve’s mind remained sceptical as to her integrity. Something was amiss and before he could allow himself to embrace her fully as his lawfully wedded wife, he needed to shed light on the memories apparently locked away in the dark recesses of his mind.
In early afternoon, Steve drove to the OSI with Sharon to meet with Oscar and Cassie for the mission briefing. By the same token he informed his stunned friends of his sudden nuptials without hinting that he had no clue as to the events that transpired the night before. His eyes may have belied his emotions to Oscar but not to Cassie who wore a concerned frown at Steve’s atypical nonchalance.
“Blue Eyes, congratulations!” Cassie affected with a contrived smile as she gave Steve a bear hug. She pulled away to shake Sharon’s hand. “You’ve caught yourself a wonderful human being.”
Sharon’s gazed up at Steve. “Don’t I know it?” She puckered her lips and reached up to give him a kiss.
“This is rather spur-of-the-moment?” Oscar remarked with a tinge of sarcasm.
“I know, Oscar. Sharon and I went down to Las Vegas last night to christen the opening of her brother’s new nightclub and I just…well… I just had to ask her to marry me.”
Oscar stole a covert glance at Cassie to gauge her reaction. She caught his stare, responding with a distrustful look. “I guess this calls for a celebration. How about dinner tonight? All four of us? My threat of course.”
“How about it, Steve?” Sharon asked with eager expectation. “Can we?”
Steve shrugged. “Can’t pass up on the boss’s generous offer. It isn’t everyday that he’s foots the bill,” Steve teased with a wink.
“It’s all settled then. Shall we say seven at Henri’s?”
Sharon turned to Steve to seek his approval before agreeing. “Well I guess I’ll leave you alone to talk business while I go do some shopping. You don’t mind, Honey?”
“Of course not. Have fun.”
“I will.” She raised her chin up to lay a quick kiss on Steve’s lips before crossing to the door where Oscar was standing, hand on the doorknob.
“I’ll walk you out.”
“No need. I think I can find my way down to the elevators myself.”
Oscar caught Cassie’s stern look urging him to insist. “My pleasure. Besides I need the exercise. I’ve been cooped up in that office all morning.” He nodded to Cassie in acknowledgement as he ushered Sharon out the door.
Cassie folded her arms across her chest, patiently waiting for Steve to face her. She could sense him tense up at the silence that fell between them but nevertheless he wouldn’t unfasten his eyes off the floor. “I never knew you to be so impetuous.”
“Neither did I,” he admitted without disturbing his stoicism.
He let out a heavy sigh and with a rueful shake of the head, said, “I don’t know. I just don’t remember.”
“What?” She walked up to him, cocking her head sideways to meet his bemused expression. “What do you mean you don’t remember?”
“My mind’s in a clutter, Cassie. I had dinner with Sharon last night. I recalled bits of the conversation we had about her brother’s nightclub in Las Vegas and…”
“And what?” she egged on.
“And then nothing. She said I had three glasses of champagne that plunged me into a party mood. We flew down to Las Vegas on a whim for the opening of her brother’s nightclub, after which I apparently asked her to marry me and we did in a small chapel. Then we flew back to Washington in the wee morning hours and the next thing I knew I woke up in my own bed with her by my side.”
“Hold on a sec! Did she tell you all this?”
He nodded dejectedly.
“And you believed her?”
“Not at first. Then she showed me the marriage certificate with my signature on it.”
“Anyone could have guided your hand to sign.”
“I thought about that.” He closed his eyes, squishing the eyelids together to suppress the emotions threatening to burst forth.
“Want me to do a little investigating?” Cassie offered obligingly.
“For you Blue Eyes, anything. Besides I don’t trust that woman.”
“You’ve been distrustful of all my girlfriends,” Steve remarked with a hint of tease.
“Same as you have been with my boyfriends,” she retorted on a similar inflection.
“Yeah,” Steve mused with a thoughtful grin “I guess I’m very protective of you. You’re like my sister.” He slid his arm around her waist to give it a friendly squeeze.
“And you my brother.” She raised herself up to place a chaste kiss on his cheek. “You provide me with all documents, names, places and I shall look into it. If there’s something nasty in the woodshed I’ll dig it up.”
“Have you thought about what you’ll do should the marriage be valid?”
“I guess I’ll just have to make the best of it,” he said unconvincingly. “I love Sharon. We’ve been going steady for three months, but…”
“Not enough to marry her yet?”
Steve nodded. “Certainly not on a whim.”
“Everything alright?” Oscar asked with concern, instantly picking up on the gloomy expressions staring back at him.
“Yeah, everything’s just peachy.” Steve spoke sarcastically. So consumed by his anger was he that he didn’t notice Cassie shaking her head at Oscar cautioning him not to pursue the matter further.
“Well I’ll leave you two to your briefing,” Cassie said as she crossed to the door.
“I thought you were in on this assignment?” Steve queried.
“I am but Oscar already filled me in on all the details. It’s your turn. Oh and 34, I’ll be waiting for that info so I can get right on it.”
“I’ll try to drop by your apartment this evening.”
“Fine. Have fun you two,” she teased with a wave of the hand.
Oscar waited for Cassie to be out the door before turning to Steve with a quizzical expression. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing important. Just a little something Cassie and I are plotting.”
“huh uh. And you’re not going to tell me.”
“Nope!” Steve answered breezily as he took a seat in front of Oscar’s desk. “So what is this new assignment about?”
Oscar put his reading glasses on his nose and picked up a folder on his desk. “You are to ensure the President and the British Prime Minister’s safety at their meeting next week.”
“I never heard anything on the news about an upcoming meeting between the two leaders.”
“And you won’t either. The meeting will take place under the cloak of anonymity. The media hasn’t been informed.”
“Why all the secrecy?”
“Both leaders will be discussing the prospect of forming an alliance in the field of satellite telecommunication, which will open up new channels between the two countries. A Russian extremist group has designs against seeing that project materialized. They’re accusing the United States of having stolen their ideas and have issued serious threats against the British benefiting from it. If anyone is to profit from the alliance, it’s them. Under the circumstances they leaders have agreed to a covert meeting away from prying eyes and ears to conduct their order of business. Once the details are ironed out they will address the nation with their final decision.
“Where will they meet?”
Oscar handed the open folder to Steve. “There,” he pointed to a photograph of a sizeable mansion. “It’s a remote villa in Oakdale. The property is government owned. Security will be limited to avoid arousing suspicious. That’s where you and Cassie come in. You, her and about ten other officers will be affected common ordinary jobs in the mansion, ranging from butlers, to servants, cleaning ladies, cooks, gardeners, chauffeurs so on so you won’t look conspicuous.
“When will that be?”
“A week from Sunday.”
“I was told a week.” Steve shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Something wrong?”
“You might say that. What about Sharon? I mean what do I tell her? We just got married. She might get suspicious if I leave on a long stretch. I told her I worked at the OSI as a computer technician. It’s basically a nine-to-five job with the occasional overtime. When we were dating I could invent an excuse to explain why I couldn’t invite her out, that to disguise the fact that I was out on missions. But now that we’re married, I suspect she’ll be watching my every move”
“Yeah I see how that could be a problem,” Oscar sighed heavily before taking a seat behind his desk. “We’ll have to think of something.”
“Until then, what do I do?”
“You and Cassandra have an appointment to meet with Chief of Security General Morrow in his office tomorrow at nine. He’ll brief you on the procedures that will be undertaken at the mansion for the duration of the leaders’ stay.” Oscar scribbled down the address on a piece of paper that he handed over to Steve. “Here’s the office number, east wing.”
Steve stood from his chair to take the paper and glanced at it. “I’ll be there. Anything else?”
“No.” With a broad smirk on his face, Oscar laced his fingers in the back of head and leaned against his chair. “Until you leave enjoy your honeymoon,” Oscar teased with an elfish wink.
“Thanks. I will,” Steve said gloomily before exiting the office, leaving Oscar to suspect his friend might have contracted a marriage of convenience rather than one of love.”
Early in the evening Steve dropped by Cassie’s apartment with all the information he deemed necessary for her to conduct her small investigation.
“Blue Eyes, come on in,” she bad him enter with a beaming smile.
“Thanks. I’d ask you to stay for dinner only I have a feeling the Mrs. might not take too kindly to that.”
“Possibly. I fibbed about having to drop by documents at a co-worker’s house. I didn’t say which one.”
“Is she the jealous type?”
“I don’t think so; otherwise I would have ditched her long ago. But I didn’t want to arouse suspicion.”
“Good thinking.” She motioned to the small briefcase in his hand. “Is that it?”
“Yeah.” He handed her over the case, “It’s all in there; marriage certificate, addresses, names, my alleged whereabouts.”
Cassie cringed at the marriage license. “That’s your signature alright.” Steve sighed heavily and flumped himself down on the sofa. Cassie gently perched herself on the arm without lifting her eyes off the paper. “It may be your signature but…”
“The handwriting is peculiar.”
She scooted over to Steve’s side to show him the glaring dissimilarity. “It’s a tad crooked. It’s leaning to the right,” she observed.
Steve drew closer to the signature to concur with Cassie’s observation. “In all likelihood someone was guiding my hand. I just don’t remember signing it.” He let out a heavy-laden sigh and sank deeper into the couch. ”I’m raking my brain as to what could be the motive?” he pondered, bringing his clenched fist over his mouth. “And what if I really did propose to her; that she’s telling the truth about everything that happened? I mean why would she lie?”
“I’m guessing there could be an hidden agenda. Do you recall having discussed any of your missions with Sharon?”
Steve vehemently shook his head. “Never. She thinks I’m a computer technician who occasionally lends a hand with scientific projects.”
“Perhaps you could have unwittingly divulged some details in your sleep.”
“Now that is impossible since her and I have never slept together.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to pry in your love life.”
“I know you didn’t,” he reassured her with hand on her arm. “Besides you and I have no secrets from each other.”
“I say we stop losing ourselves in conjectures for now and wait until I finish conducting my investigation.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Steve stood and walked to the door.
Cassie followed, placing her hand on his shoulder to will his eyes to hers. “Don’t despair. We’ll get to the bottom of this. You know me. I won’t rest until I get the truth.”
Steve strained a grateful smile and enlaced her in his arms. “I know you will,” he sighed, giving her a few friendly taps on the back and a kiss on the cheek before pulling away. “I appreciate your help, 35.”
“Anytime, 34,” she replied obligingly with a wink. “I’ll try to book a seat on a flight to Vegas tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime act normal. You don’t want to arouse Sharon’s suspicion. I’ll see you at the morning briefing.” She opened the door and with a heavy heart, watched him walk down the corridor to the elevator with ponderous steps and shoulders sagging.
The briefing with General Morrow over, Steve drove Cassie to the airport, wishing her a safe and fruitful trip. She left him with a promise to go to extreme, leaving no stone unturned to unravel the mystery. With one last peck on the cheek and she was off to the destination.
No sooner had she settled in her Hotel room that Cassie went on her hunt, dropping by the Twinkle Star Chapel to converse with Reverend Chadwick whom Steve was told married the couple.
“Reverend Chadwick?” Cassie asked the man in cloth, busy arranging flowers for tonight’s wedding ceremony. He turned to her.
“I’m Reverend Chadwick.”
“How do you do. My name is Cassandra Miller.”
“A friend of the bride or the bridegroom?”
“Huh…” Cassie paused to decipher the meaning of his question before it dawned on her that he was alluding to tonight’s guests of honour. “Neither. I’m here regarding a friend’s wedding you performed two nights ago.” She produced a wallet-sized picture of Steve from her purse. “Do you recognize this man?”
“Yes, of course. That’s Mister Austin. I remember him. He married a lovely blonde.”
“That’s him. Did he appear sober and sound of mind to you when he delivered his vows?”
The man shot her an inquisitive look. “Yes. He might have been a little spaced out but I’ve often seen the look to know that it’s just nervousness. Why do you ask?”
“Mister Austin has no recollection of ever being in this chapel. He can’t recall his own wedding, which you will agree is very disturbing.”
“Definitely so,” he chuckled. “But I can assure you he was here with his bride and best man. He did say ‘I do’ and signed the marriage certificate. He even signed the register.”
“May I see it?”
“Certainly.” The Reverend walked over to his pulpit to retrieve the open book that he handed over to Cassie. “At the bottom of the page,” he indicated with his index finger.
Cassie frowned at the slanted handwriting. “Says here the best man was Jerry Eads.”
“The bride’s brother I believe.”
“Everything appears to be in order. I take it this marriage is binding and the certificate valid?”
“Naturally. I asked my clerk to deliver a copy to the registry office.”
“And where might that be?”
“The address is seven twenty-five Gold Nugget Avenue. A few miles south from here.”
“Thank you for your time, reverend,” she said with a shake of the hand.
She turned to exit the chapel, stopping briefly to glance back at the man of cloth who promptly returned to his chore. She eyed him distrustfully as she listened to the dictates of her conscience advising her against taking his words for granted.
Once everything checked out as legal and valid at the registry office, Cassie drove to the Starlight Nightclub to speak with its owner, Sharon’s brother. In search of Jerry, she scanned the room crawling with waiters, busy dressing up the tables. Spotting the tow-headed man at the bar, she glanced down at the photograph in her hand for positive identification before walking up to him.
“Excuse me. I’m looking for Jerry Eads?”
“You found him. And may I say I’m glad you did,” he purred seductively, after noting the absence of a wedding ring on Cassie’s finger.
“My name is Cassandra Miller. I’m a friend of Steve Austin. I understand he is your brother-in-law?” She asked rather sarcastically.
“As of two nights ago. He’s a great guy. My sister’s lucky to have found him.”
“So she said,” she remarked snidely. “I would like to know what happened that night after your dinner at the restaurant in Washington.”
“Didn’t your friend tell you?”
“I would like to hear it in your own words,” she replied icily.
“Well I invited Sharon and her beau out to a dinner celebration in honor of the opening of my new nightclub. We had a few drinks of champagne then we all flew down to Las Vegas to attend the christening. We continued the celebration inside. The couple danced most of the night and later Steve popped the question. Right away we sought a small chapel so they could be married. Then they flew back to Washington.”
“Overall that describes what I was told. There’s only one thing wrong. Steve doesn’t remember any of it.”
“That’s odd,” Jerry scoffed, “though not surprising. He was rather giddy if you know what I mean? He may have had too much to drink.”
“I’ve known Steve Austin for two years and never in that time has he gotten drunk to the point of making an ass of himself. He knows when to quit. Unless someone forced liquor down his throat or maybe,” she took one step up to him with a scorching glare, “drugged him?”
“That’s ridiculous. And may I say I resent your implying tone Miss Miller,” he retorted scathingly, returning her scowl.
“Who says it was, Mister Eads?” she countered.
“Why would we do that? My sister wasn’t desperate to marry him.”
“Funny but Steve said the same about himself.”
“Look,” Jerry sighed in annoyance, “what more can I say? The man had a few drinks in him, that’s all. I’m sorry he doesn’t remember. That can happen after going on a binge. I trust you checked with the Reverend who married them?”
“What more proof do you want? Now if you don’t mind I’m very busy.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you. That was not my intention, I assure you. I merely want to shed some light on a sombre affair. I will not bother again. Goodbye.” On that stinging tone she turned on her heels and head toward the exit.
Jerry waited until she was out of sight before making his way to his office. He closed the door and sat behind his desk to dial his boss’s number. “Yeah. It’s me. We’ve got trouble,” he warned, speaking with a Russian accent. “One of Austin’s close friends was just here asking questions about the wedding. Her name is Cassandra Miller. She’s doggedly intent on finding out the truth. What should we do?”
“Let her be,” came the Russian voice on the other end. “She can’t prove anything for now. She’s been assigned with Austin on the security team. It might sound the alarm if we were to do away with her now and we certainly don’t need them to change their schedule. Thus far everything’s proceeding according to plan.”
“What about the others? They might talk?”
“Not with the hefty sum of money they received to keep their mouths shut. Besides they’re aware that if they do, they’ll end up with a bullet in the head. They were warned not to double cross us.”
“It appears they’re heeding the warning. I thought everything was settled with Austin?”
“It will be before the meeting with the two leaders. Trust me. You stand by for further instructions.”
The next day, Steve drove to Dulles Airport to meet with Cassie’s plane, anxious to hear the report of her findings. Spotting her exiting the sliding doors, he quickly stepped out of the car to go meet her halfway. “Welcome back, 35.” he greeted with a hug and was slightly disturbed when she didn’t return his affection. “Here let me take that from you.” He relieved her of her suitcase and with one hand on the small of her back, led her to the car. “So, what did you find out?” He opened the car door and assisted her into the passenger seat. He was gripped with an icy clutch of dread the moment his eyes met hers. “That bad?”
She strained a half-hearted smile.” I’ll fill you in on our way.”
Steve closed her door and went to take his seat behind the wheel. Turning on the ignition he cast her a wary glance before driving away.
“So, what’s the verdict?”
“I checked everything, met with everyone on your list and I even dropped by the registry office to verify if there was a copy of the marriage certificate on file.”
“I’m sorry Blue Eyes. It’s all legal and binding,” she said dejectedly, steeling herself for Steve’s reaction, which only came in the form of a heavy-laden sigh.
“Then I guess I’m married for better of for worse.”
“Listen I could delve deeper, question the people that were guests at the nightclub that night and see if they…”
“Don’t bother,” he interrupted. “I thought about it long and hard last night and couldn’t come up with a single reason why Sharon would elaborate a stratagem just to become my wife. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Perhaps you’re right.”
“Maybe I did propose on a whim and was too drunk to remember. It never happened before but I guess there’s a first time for everything?” he joshed, flashing her his trademark lopsided grin.
“You do love her, don’t you?”
A thoughtful smile crossed Steve’s lips at the question. “Yeah. Yeah I do,” he mused. “She’s a very generous warm soul and don’t see anyway she could be involved in anything shady.”
Cassie leaned in and placed a friendly hand on Steve’s arm. “I am very happy for you, Blue Eyes. There’s your chance at a staid family life.”
“Does this mean you approve of Sharon?”
“Maybe,” she affected with a sulk and a hint of tease about her voice. “She’ll have to prove herself worthy to you before I can fully accept her.”
Steve chuckled at Cassie’s humour. “I love you, 35.”