VARIATION ON A STEELE
By: Susan Deborah Smith
Summary: Remington and Laura have a talk about “it.”
Disclaimer: This “Remington Steele” story is not-for-profit and is purely for entertainment purposes. The author and this site do not own the characters and are in no way affiliated with “Remington Steele,” the actors, their agents, the producers, MTM Productions, the NBC Television Network or any station or network carrying the show in syndication, or anyone in the industry.
The kiss was long and passionate, like so many others, and like so many others, it ended with Laura drawing away with finality.
"I have to go," she told him.
Remington knew the drill, but this time, he decided to press the point and pinned her against the cushions.
"It's late - "
"It's not," he said, "late. Just tell me why, okay? Why so far and no farther."
Laura hesitated; her eyes flicked away.
In a husky whisper, he asked, "Aren't you starving?"
He looked at her with meaningful longing.
With a short laugh, she answered, "Oh, give me a break!"
Then she shoved; he gave way, and she got off the couch and grabbed her coat. Remington reached out and took her by the wrist. He was strong; he could have held her, but when she tried to shake him off, he let her go.
"Just tell me why," he insisted.
"Forget it, all right?"
He jumped up to give chase, but instead stayed right where he was. "Laura!"
She stopped at the door and turned around, teeth clenched.
He spread his hands. "No challenge," he said. "No anger, no pressure, no judgment. Just tell me why."
Her eyes were almost wild. "Oh, you wouldn't understand!" She jerked the door open and slammed it behind her.
When he came out into the hall, he found her stabbing the button on the elevator.
"I won't understand?" he repeated. "Because I'm too dense? Or because you don't want me to understand? Maybe you don't want to take the time; you don't want to make the effort to explain it to me, eh?"
The elevator chimed; the doors opened. Laura stepped through them. Then she stepped back, bracing them open with her hands, bracing herself.
"It's too hard."
"Explaining," she said in a small voice.
"Ah." He considered this, then asked, "Why?"
She shook her head. "It's crazy."
"I doubt it."
She said nothing, then, just stood there, holding the elevator.
Remington took one, irrevocable step forward. "Did someone hurt you?" he asked.
He'd thought of this before, and more than once. Nothing else about Laura's life suggested it, but nothing else really explained her resistance, either.
The idea choked him, but he spat it out. "Did someone force you?"
She whirled; her eyes were bright and angry.
"Of course not!" she said.
The elevator left without her.
Relief washed over him, but still, nothing was resolved, not really. The very suggestion seemed hostile, and he felt like his concern was drowned in something else. A million miles stood between them, the gap widening every second unless he did something.
"Let's not stand out in the hall," he suggested. "Come back inside."
She thought this over. Then she walked past him, back into his apartment, and put down her coat.
"I'm sorry," he said, seeing how disturbed she was that he'd even imagined such a thing. "It was the only thing I could think of."
"That's not it. Not even close."
"Okay. I'm glad."
She smiled at this and brushed a bit of lint from his sleeve. He recognized the restoration of friendly intimacy.
When he reached for her, though, Laura backed away one inch. No further, and she stood her ground as he took a step that brought him very close to her. Their eyes locked, and he slipped a hand under her hair. Her lips parted, and he pulled her to him; he kissed her, and her kiss, as always, was long and deep, and again as always, she disengaged herself.
Frustrated, Remington stared at her.
She ran her tongue furtively over her lips. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I can't."
"Can't?" he repeated. Aware that his tone had become unfriendly, he rephrased the question. "Why not? Why can't you?"
Laura shrugged. "It's like people who can't get on a plane or an elevator, or can't dive headfirst into a pool. I just freeze and stop."
That's how he would have described it; at least she was aware of it herself.
"Can't with me?" he suggested. "Or can't with anybody?"
"Can't with you."
If he had expected anything, it wasn't this, but he'd asked, and she answered. He told himself he appreciated her honesty. He told himself this was a breakthrough of some kind. He told himself to take a big gulp of the drink he'd left on the table because at least it was something to do. Considering this, he sat down.
"Well," he said, to say something.
"I'm sorry," she told him. "That was the wrong thing to say."
"No. No." Though his head whirled with the idea that Laura - his Laura! - could hop into the sack with anybody but him, he managed to muster up some façade of self-possession. "It's none of my business."
"I didn't mean it like that."
"How else could you? I mean, what else could you mean?"
"Didn't I tell you it was too hard to explain?"
"Yes, of course, but I didn't expect - " Feeling foolish, he turned away from her. What he didn't expect was that Laura Holt could somehow fill her evenings without Remington Steele. If there were a wall close by, he would have pounded his head against it.
Laura sat on the arm of the sofa and put her hand on his shoulder. He knew it was meant to comfort, as if he needed comforting. Her touch made her rejection unexpectedly a little easier to bear.
"It's not that I don't want to, Mr. Steele," she said.. "I do. You have no idea." Her hand tightened in a spasm, fingers digging into him. "You have no idea ... " Her hand unclenched; with a little pat, she smoothed his shirt. Then, into his silence, she added, "Obviously this isn't doing either of us any good."
She got up; he took a fistful of her shirt and hauled her back.
"Don't run away," he said. "If I have to bar the door, I will. I want you to stay here until we figure this out."
"Figure out what?"
He cast her words back at her. "You want me. I have no idea how much. But you won't do anything about it. You can't. Why can't you?"
She retreated behind a cool expression. "It's my problem, okay?"
"If it's a problem, let me help you solve it."
"That would be nice, wouldn't it? That would solve everything for everybody."
"That's not what I meant."
Remington gazed into her eyes. "Maybe it is," he agreed.
Laura looked away.
"What is it?" he demanded. "You like me, don't you? I'm attractive, aren't I? I mean, what the bloody hell is stopping you?"
She let her head fall back and studied the ceiling. Her hair spilled back from her shoulders, swirled with the sudden motion as she seemed to bring herself to attention.
"I care," she began, speaking slowly as if the words were new or unfamiliar. "I care very much about you."
"So do I," he replied. "Care. About you."
"I don't want to ruin what we already have."
"Our friendship. Our - business. Our relationship."
"And you think sex would ruin that."
"The only time it ruins things, Laura," he told her, "is on TV shows that don't know what they're doing."
"It can ruin all kinds of things."
"It can also make them better," he said. "Deepen friendship. Open new doors. It can just be - pleasure. For God's sake, do you think it's going to be bad?"
"No," she whispered. "But what about after?"
The least of anyone's worries, in his opinion. "What about it? Breakfast in bed, or sharing a nice hot bath ... "
"I mean after. Real life after. Work, and us, and - work," she concluded hopelessly.
The almost-least of their worries. "Laura, we're aren't a couple of drudges in some big company," he pointed out, "with co-workers chatting round the water cooler. The worst we could expect would be meaningful looks from Mildred. And we get those already."
"Turning that corner just makes things that much more complicated."
"We have to work together, every day - "
"But how is it different? As close as we are, right now, this minute, how will a few hours of pleasure make it more complicated than it is?"
She shook her head.
"Laura. Laura, I just don't get it. You're a smart, sexy woman. Your past isn't quite as cluttered as mine, but nearly. And now, we're about as close as two people can possibly be. What is it you're afraid of?"
Studying her hands, Laura appeared to give his question some thought. When she answered, she turned and looked him frankly in the eye.
"Of giving you the one part of me that isn't already yours."
"I've trashed the rest of it, then, have I?"
"No. Of course not."
"Wrecked a few cases. Shattered the bank balance." He reached for her hand. "Trampled your heart more than once."
She looked away again.
"But I haven't failed you always, have I? There's been a time or two when you could count on me. This is one of those times." Since she wouldn't grant him even that, he pointed out what seemed obvious to him. "It's not as if my heart hasn't taken a beating."
"Oh, when?" she snapped.
"On more than one occasion," he assured her.
"Oh, yes, Miss Holt. The number of times my hopes have been dashed is too numerous to count. The number of times I've thought this time, yes, this time she'll let me show her, this time I can finally prove to Laura how I really feel, and then bang! you're gone. You come on to me, and then you run. You don't wait to find out - "
"I do not run."
"Something happens. Something always happens. It's too late, or we're conveniently interrupted, or some bloody thing stops you cold in your tracks. Make up your mind, why can't you!"
She stood up, but she didn't go anywhere. He reached up a hand to her, and as she stood, irresolute, she took it. Then she sat down again, clutching it in hers.
"Everything would change."
His heart leapt. As long as she stayed, as long as they were talking, they could still come to some understanding.
"And that's bad?" That didn't sound right. "I mean - " He scrambled to make her understand. "That's progress. Progress in our relationship, which, may I remind you, is something you're always going on about."
"Progress in one direction. Not in another."
"We'll never know, one way or the other, unless - "
"Unless we do it your way."
"We've tried yours. Haven't we? Over and over and over again, talking and teasing. What do you say we give mine a go?"
"What if - it doesn't work?"
That had never occurred to him. "What if the world comes to an end tomorrow?" he countered. "You can't live like that."
"I have so far."
"I suppose you're proud of that."
"I suppose you think I need a doctor," she snapped.
Actually, he hadn't thought of that. Did her mentioning it suggest that she did?
"I think," he began carefully, "you've got yourself so wound up in this idea of yours that you can't find your way out again." He sat back, to make his case. "Think about it! We've been together four years. Been through countless harrowing experiences. Had lots of good times, lots of fun. We've built up a history together. How could anything ruin that?"
Frowning, she shook her head. "It's too complicated."
"I think it's simple. I know what you're really afraid of, Laura," he announced. "Put it out in the daylight, and compare it with reality."
She sat silently beside him, twisting her hands in her lap.
"All right, then. You won't. I will. You think I've stayed around because the chase intrigues me. End of chase, end of Remington Steele."
"Maybe," she admitted. "Maybe not."
"Of course not," he told her. "Because the chase began to bore me a long time ago. The chase, Laura, not the object. It's been hard, it's been difficult, you give me endless amounts of encouragement that lead nowhere, but I keep going, slogging knee deep through whatever stupid, emotional - "
She sprang to her feet.
This time he didn't try to stop her; he just shouted at her as she moved away.
" - that's right, stupid emotional problems you have - "
"Who are you calling stupid?"
" - to try to help you, because I care about you, Laura!"
"If you want to help me so much, then why are you - "
"Damn it, Laura, I love you!"
"Don't yell at me!" she exclaimed.
Remington put his hands in his pockets. She hadn't even heard him. He could tell from the expression on her face. It wasn't worth repeating, not at this point. Somehow, she was too overwrought to hear anything but her own argument.
"If you think - if you really think I'll slip away, be gone before morning or whatever, then stay here. Stay with me here. I'm certainly not going to leave my home just to -- "
"You did once."
"You're footloose, Mr. Steele," she told him. She came forward, challenging. "There's nothing here you can't leave behind."
"Not true, but now here's another thing!" he exclaimed. "Say my name, why can't you?"
"I don't know your name."
"You most certainly do. You gave it to me. Just say it. Spit it out."
Laura stared at him, silent, her hands clenched into fists.
Tired, frustrated, and most of all pitying her, Remington wrapped his arms around her. She was stiff and cold in his embrace, and then she was limp and nerveless; he almost had to hold her up.
An idea struck him. Taking advantage - not unfair advantage, he thought, none of this was fair - of this passivity, Remington took her by the hand and dragged her toward the bedroom.
"All right," he said, letting go. "Take off your blouse."
"Mr. Steele - "
He undid one cuff, then the other, for her. "Go ahead," he told her. "Take it off."
After a moment's confused hesitation, her hands went to the first button, and she looked down to watch her fingers at work. Remington put his cufflinks on the dresser and rolled up his sleeves.
"All right, now, then," he said, seeing that she had finished. As if it were a coat, he took hold of the blouse and moved behind her as she slipped out of it. He laid it aside and unhooked her bra.
"Mr. Steele - "
"If you want me to stop," he said, "say stop. Stop, I understand. Mr. Steele - that's just part of my name."
"Stop," she said. "Please."
"As you wish," he agreed, hooking it back up again. "It's easier without it, but we'll make do, eh?"
He pulled a pillow out from under the bedspread and put it on the middle of the bed. Laura watched, watched him, turned her head as he went into the bathroom. She didn't move to get her shirt, didn't turn to go; it was as if he'd entranced her.
He came out with a big towel, which he spread over the quilt, covering the pillow and most of everything else.
Turning his sleeves up one more time, he gestured. "Lie down," he said. "Go ahead. It's all right. Just lie down."
She hesitated, then did as he asked.
"Like that," he added encouragingly. "Make yourself comfortable." He pulled off her shoes, and they fell, first one, then the other, with a soft thump on the carpet.
She put her arms around the pillow and hugged it to her. Her face buried in the plush towel, she couldn't see him. This was either good - she trusted him, or bad - if she didn't look at him, she could make him go away in her mind. He preferred to think it was a positive step.
Laura took a deep breath. She could hear the echo of her heartbeat through her bones; it was too hard and too fast, and she tried to calm herself down. There was nothing to worry about; nothing to be afraid of; no reason to feel so panicked. If she wanted to leave; she could just go. Simple.
Did she really think he'd try to stop her? Not likely. Not the Steele she knew. She could leave any time. She could get up right now. Thinking it over, she decided she would get up and go. She was tired of arguing anyway. She could never make him understand; they just went round and round.
He was right, absolutely right. She had nothing but stupid emotional problems - how else to describe how much she wanted him, and how she was always somehow blocked against him at the critical moment? - and she knew she should just go home and run her business and forget about everything else.
Yes, she thought. I'll leave. Right now.
The bed shifted, something cold dripped on her back, and she jerked and opened her eyes.
Steele sat next to her, putting the cap on a bottle of lotion. Then he reached forward and moved her hair off her neck. With delicate fingers, he swirled the lotion around for a minute.
"Let me make this suggestion one more time," he said. He snapped the band of her bra. "This is in the way. I can work around it, but ... "
So this was his plan: a massage, everything chaste, just give her a chance to feel his hands on her bare skin. Probably he thought a little taste of that and her resistance would just melt away. No, that was unfair. He was really very considerate. Considerate, kind, attractive ...
She reached around awkwardly to work the hook. Steele pulled the straps down her arms; she raised herself slightly to pull it off altogether. Taking possession of the bra, he shot it across the room like a slingshot.
"Sorry," he said. "Don't know what came over me."
Laura rewarded him with a weak smile and turned her face away. It occurred to her again that it was all pointless; it was nice of him to try; he was wonderful to be so patient, but ...
He knelt beside her. When she opened her eyes, she found she could watch him in the mirrored closet door. Slowly, and with much concentration, he squeezed and kneaded the tense muscles in her neck and back and shoulders. He ran his fingers teasingly over her ribs, but with some kind of restraint he never touched her breasts, never came close. She began to feel relaxed and dreamy, to wish he'd suggest she undress a little more, to think it might be possible that this time -
Sit up, she told herself. Just sit up, Laura, and grab him.
She sat up, fast, and Remington thought she was pushing him away. He moved aside, and when she reached for him, he wasn't there, and she fell forward, off the bed, cracking her head on the dresser as she went down.
For a moment, he was afraid - of something.
Then, "Ow!" she exclaimed, her hand going to her head.
At least she wasn't dead. In a flash he was on his knees, making soothing noises, parting her hair carefully, looking for blood. She began to shake, and he thought it was a convulsion. He actually had the phone in his hand when he realized she was laughing, or crying, or something, and not having a seizure.
"Oh, my God," she moaned, using his shoulder as leverage to raise herself to her feet. She sat down again on the bed, rubbing her hair and then looking at her fingers. Obviously she, too, expected blood.
"Oh, my God," she repeated. "Does it get any worse than this?"
He put the phone back. "It could," he said cautiously. "It won't, but it could."
He shrugged. "You could be married. Your husband could come in with a gun."
"Has that happened?"
"Once or twice."
She considered this, then shook her head. "This is worse."
Remington looked at her. Either she was cold, or she was aroused. He tended to think cold and went to fetch her blouse.
"I'm all right," she said, putting one arm through the sleeve as he held it.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," she told him. "Falling half naked out of bed is nothing to me."
She was making a little joke. He touched her throat, a caress, then looked into one eye, and then the other. He tilted her face so the light shone on her more strongly, and she blinked against his fingers as he held the lids apart. The soft brown eyes reacted as they should, and she looked all right. Maybe she wasn't hurt. Thank God she wasn't hurt!
"I'll get you some water," he said.
She could hear him putting ice in the glass. Then there was a long silence. She would have heard the door shut if he had gone; she knew that. She knew that it was beneath her to even think it, wrong even, to think it, to think that he would leave, especially like this, especially after taking such care.
Getting up, she found herself not dizzy and went out to the kitchen in her stocking feet.
Steele was drinking her glass of water. He looked up, startled, his expression unreadable, as she came in.
"Worse than worse?" she suggested. "Ruined everything, and we didn't even get that far?"
"No," he said.
"That doesn't usually happen."
His eyes narrowed as he looked at her. "Are you all right?"
"Fine. Feeling foolish. Feeling like if it's not one self-fulfilling prophecy, it's another."
"I'm sorry," he said.
Laura dismissed this with the merest gesture. "I fell off the bed by myself, Mr. Steele."
"I'm sorry," he said again. He leaned with both hands on the counter and appeared to study the tile. "I had no right to push you that hard, no right to say - "
"You did," she replied, "have the right. As a friend."
He looked up at her, brow furrowed. "I'm not sure I did it as a friend."
"I am," she told him. "I'm sure."
Pulling up the ends of her blouse, she tied them in a knot, a fashion she'd worn in college. Stirred to action, Steele took another glass out of the cupboard and filled it with ice and water. Their fingers touched as he handed it over.
"You are so beautiful," he sighed.
No one hated to hear that. Laura went up on tiptoe to kiss him. "Thank you," she said.
"No." She shook her head. "Thank you for being the nicest man who's ever come into my life. Not to mention the best looking, but that's something else."
He smiled at this, then turned and took an ice pack out of the freezer. "Let's see if we can keep the swelling down with this, eh?"
She followed him into the bedroom, where he rearranged the towel and the pillows. When she was comfortable, and had the icepack adjusted where it would do the most good, he tossed an afghan over her to keep her warm. She waited for something else to happen, and nothing did.
Opening her eyes, she peered from beneath the bag of ice and saw him wavering in the doorway.
"Don't go," she said. "Unless you have something you have to do."
Steele shrugged. "Just - " He glanced away and then back again. "No. Nothing, really."
Her eyes shut, Laura patted the bed. Her heart was pounding until he stretched out beside her; then she could breathe.
"What time is it?" asked Laura.
He'd been dozing; he jerked awake.
"Quarter past twelve," Remington answered.
"Still early," she suggested. "Tomorrow's Saturday. I mean, it's Saturday now."
With a smile, he took her hand and squeezed it between both of his. "What would you think of me, if I took advantage of someone with a concussion?"
"This is a goose egg, not a concussion."
"The principle's the same. You're hurt. Dazed, with a head injury. Only someone totally lacking in decency would - "
He stopped talking because she was laughing at his expression of honor and chivalry.
Offended, he said, "What?"
Dropping the ice pack beside the bed, Laura pushed herself up on one elbow. "I guess I'm totally lacking in decency, then. Ethics, at least."
"I don't follow."
"In Ireland," she said, "when you had amnesia, I came about as close as ... Well. I guess that would have been taking advantage."
"What? You mean in the hayloft? Where they were hiding Xanadu?"
"In the hayloft. In Ireland. And you with amnesia and the totally wrong idea about us."
"As I recall, I had the totally right idea about us."
"I suppose." Her cheeks were flushed as she reminisced. "The hay. The handcuffs. The Mr. Steele genuinely without a past. It was quite a seductive situation."
"And that damned horse spoiled everything?"
"That and your watch."
"Broke the spell. Totally."
"And you could have done it then, because I'd forgotten I was me?"
She lay down again and stared at the ceiling, and he was aware that somehow she was now nestled against him. He slipped an arm around her shoulders.
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Then that would have been taking advantage," he declared. "Mind you, I'm not complaining. Someone otherwise as noble as yourself wouldn't be human without these little lapses. Oh, yes. I would have forgiven you."
"Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn't have held it against you, Laura. In fact, I might have found it therapeutic. The shock of finally, actually - "
While he yammered on, Laura sat up slowly. Equally slowly, she leaned forward and began to untie his shoes.
She pulled them off and his socks as well.
"What are you doing?"
Lying back again, she replied, "A naked man with his shoes and socks still on just isn't attractive, no matter who he is. I'm not taking any chances."
Naked. She was imagining him naked. While they were in the same room. "Ah," he said, stupidly, his breath suddenly choked off by lust. He cleared his throat. "You're feeling all right, then?"
"That's the point I've been trying to make, yes."
He mulled this over. He was convinced that if he could just show her how wonderful it could be, and how everything would be the same after - only better - she'd be all right. They seemed to be at least traveling together in that direction. Since he'd broken down the wall she'd put up between them, some of it, at least, he didn't want to give her a reason to brick it up again. He had to be sure she was ready.
"None the worse for wear?"
"Hard headed. You've always said so."
"Because I'm not in such a rush - That is, now that I understand, we can - " He turned to look her in the eye and found it impossible not to lean down for a kiss. " - take it slowly. Take all the time you need."
"Please," she whispered, deftly working the buckle on his belt. "Now. While I - Now," she repeated urgently.
He kissed her again, then pulled away and lay beside her, searching her eyes. One thing became clear: She was ready now, at last, ready to seize a moment that if left alone might disappear into the maelstrom of the panic that plagued her. Many times in his life, he'd seen what happened when a situation went on too long and nerve failed; it could be impossible to get it back again. They'd made too much progress to throw it away and start over.
He never took his eyes off her. Laura was convinced he never blinked. It was as if he thought he could draw the pleasure out of her, create the shattering climax by the power of his gaze alone. She found it more than a little disconcerting. The first time with anyone was always a bit awkward, but this was something she hadn't expected. When she turned to watch them in the mirror, he looked with her; his blue eyes met hers in the glass.
It was unnerving, painful almost, to be watched, to be seen at every moment, every stage. There was an extremeness to this intimacy. Steele would not let her forget that he was present with her, fully engaged with her and her pleasure, that they were together.
That complete presence wasn't anything she'd cared about for the last four years, nor had she granted it to anybody. How many times had she closed her eyes and imagined some nice, sincere fellow was Mr. Steele? Or maybe not so nice, not so sincere, just good looking. Closed her eyes and imagined, knowing that whoever was with her was probably imagining, too. Now she had the real thing, and it was too intimate. He could look down into the center of herself; now, finally, he had everything, knew everything about her.
It didn't occur to Laura that she now had this much more of him.
She closed her eyes, to break the spell, but his presence, with her, within her, made her want to check if he were still watching, and when she opened her eyes, he smiled at her. It was hypnotic; after that, she couldn't look away.
"Will you just," she gasped, when he had brought her once again to the brink and let her once again slide back, "just let me get there ... "
"Oh, yes," he murmured in reply, but he didn't quite oblige.
He wasn't clumsy; he wasn't selfish. She knew from the look in his eyes - those eyes that never left her face - that he was acting with careful deliberation. It was a teasing form of torture, to see how long he could keep her there, how long it could last.
"Please," she whispered.
At this, he gave her a little bit more, just enough to put her over the top, and then a little more, and a little more, and then Laura lost count.
He expected to awake with her beside him, and when she wasn't there, it came to him that he'd failed her. He'd misread her desire, moved too fast, scared her off. Somehow, when he wasn't looking, she'd gathered up her things and -
Then he saw that those were her clothes, strewn across the floor, as well as his own.
He heard clanking in the kitchen, and realized with a start that she was making breakfast. Hoping he was still in time to stop her, he pulled on the bottom half of his pajamas and rushed to the rescue.
Yes, there she was, in his bathrobe, in his kitchen, cooking.
"It's all right, Laura," he said, grabbing a dripping fork out of her hand. "I'll handle that."
"I thought I'd make us breakfast," she said brightly. "Scrambled eggs. Sausage. The works!"
"Excellent thought. Really. Lovely thought. The very menu I'd devised myself. But - "
"I don't know where you keep the coffee," she was saying, "but I did find the tea. Which would you like? Earl Grey, English breakfast, Irish breakfast. Mmmm. Irish breakfast," she repeated, putting a salacious spin on the phrase.
"Laura - "
"Want me to choose?"
"Laura!" He switched off the flame under each pan, and turned to face her.
"You don't have to try so hard."
"To be cheery. To be normal. It's all right."
"You don't like me in the morning?"
"Of course I do." He kissed her and found himself justified. "Very much. But I'd like you to relax."
If it were possible, she tensed up even more. Her knuckles were white as she clutched the box of tea. "I just wanted - "
"I know. I know." He put a hand on her chest, the other against her back and pressed. "Relax," he said. "Breathe. Come on. Deep breath. There we go."
She took a breath, as if startled to find she could do it. Some of the fierce brightness went out of her eyes, to be replaced by a kind of bewilderment. He could see she was balanced on a knife edge; the situation could still go either way unless he took quick action.
He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her; then, smiling down, he moved his hands through her hair and found the lump. His long fingers worked over it, tenderly assessing the damage.
"Hurt?" he asked.
"No." Then she winced. "Except - when you do that."
"At least that's a normal reaction."
Another misstep. He felt her tense up again, felt the muscles coil, felt a door slam shut. She was right; this was complicated.
Laura frowned and turned away. Her shoulders hunched as she hugged herself, which was something he should be doing. He wrapped his arms around her from behind.
"That was part of the problem," she was saying. "What do I say the next morning?"
"Good morning," he suggested.
"And what do I say in the office on Monday. What - "
" - do I say the next day, and the next day and the next ... "
Remington took her by the shoulders and turned her around, tipping her chin up to make her look at him. "Good morning," he repeated deliberately, "is what you say. Today, and in the office on Monday: Good morning. The next day: Good morning. And so on. It's easy, Laura," he said with a wink. "You'll get the hang of it."
He went back to the stove. Fortunately, she hadn't gotten too far along in her preparations and the breakfast situation was still retrievable. As he worked, she suddenly lifted herself lightly to sit on the counter.
When he looked up, she said, "Good morning."
"He in?" asked Laura, breezing in on Monday morning.
Mildred looked up from her accounts. "Bright and early."
Laura headed that way, then made an abrupt left turn into her own office. She put down her purse and hung up her hat and sat down in her chair. There was still some paperwork left to do on the Dominguez case, she decided, that just couldn't wait.
The latch clicked on the connecting door, but she didn't look up.
"Good morning," he said.
With a deep breath, she looked up, smiling. "Good morning," she replied. Suddenly she was obliged to look for something way in the back of a drawer.
"Lovely day," he went on.
There was a long pause while she rummaged in the desk. Then he said, "I called you yesterday."
"I know. I called you back. You weren't home."
"I was home," he replied. "But it takes more than one ring to get to the phone."
She felt her cheeks grow hot. Looking up again, she said, "I told you this would be hard."
He leaned easily in the doorway and took a sip of coffee. "It's only as difficult as you make it, Laura."
"Mr. Steele - "
"So formal," he chided. He smiled at her over the rim of the cup. "Remington will do."
"Mr. Steele," she repeated. "This is business and - "
Mildred came in, then, with Laura's coffee, and looked from one to the other. "Am I interrupting?"
"Yes," Steele answered.
"No," said Laura.
"Right," Mildred agreed, backing out and closing the door again.
"You know where I am," Steele told her.
A client arrived for an appointment, and they met with her and took notes and outlined a plan of action. There wasn't much to it; Mildred and her computer tracked down most of the information, the news was given, the client was satisfied and paid the fee.
All in a day's work for Remington Steele. He sat at his desk and finished the paper. Then he sat at his desk and sketched idly on a notepad. Then he got up and adjusted some of the pictures on the wall. Then he sat down again and put his feet up. He thought he heard a knock at the door.
"Yes, Mildred," he called.
Since there was no answer, he went to check. The front office was deserted. It was after five, and Mildred had left for the day. He heard the knock again and realized it came from the door connecting his office to Laura's.
The door was locked. "Laura?" he said.
"Why've you locked the door?"
"Just listen to me."
"Will you listen to me?"
"Through the door?" When she didn't answer, he said, "Yes, all right."
"I'm sorry," she told him, "if I hurt you."
"When I said - that it was easier for me to - " There was a long hesitation from the other side of the door. " - that it was easier for me to sleep with somebody else."
"Your life's your own, Laura." He waited for some confirmation that she had heard him. "Look, open the door. Laura?"
Finally, she did. She hung onto the knob, as if ready to slam it shut again.
"I'm sorry," she said again.
Remington shook his head.
"I've been - hurt," she told him, " - maybe once too often, and it doesn't - "
While she struggled with the words, he disengaged her hand from the door.
" - it doesn't occur to me that maybe I hurt - other people."
She looked up at him; she hadn't looked at him before, hadn't met his eyes.
It would have been easy to say he wasn't hurt. That's the way it had gone with them, pretending that everything was okay, pretending it didn't matter, maintaining dignity at the expense of honesty.
Not always. No, there'd been breakthroughs here and there, but often, when it mattered, they'd tended to get behind a barricade of not caring, out of habit, in self-defense, who could tell?
It was on his tongue to say it, to say he wasn't hurt, to say something flip. An old habit, one he decided to break.
"Stabbed through the heart," he confessed.
She couldn't have it both ways: wanting him to care, but wanting this revelation to pass over him like a single cloud on an otherwise sunny day, absolving her, but she tried.
"It's not like you've been waiting around - "
"No," he agreed. "I'm human. So are you. Did either of us really think we were going to sit around this office with our hands folded, for years, until we sorted this out?"
It was a pretty fantasy, but Laura walked at least a little closer to the line of reality than he did. Her illusions, it seemed, were only mildly shattered.
"I didn't mean to throw it at you."
"I asked for it."
"I didn't mean for any of it to happen that way."
He thought of her, sitting behind the locked door, whispering through the keyhole. Laura Holt, who couldn't bear to be wrong. "And you didn't want to tell me this to my face?"
"I didn't want to hurt you," she repeated. "I didn't want to see that I'd hurt you, more than I already have."
"It hurts," he admitted, "to love someone, and not be able to show her - at least, not the way I know how."
At the word, her eyes flicked up at him.
"It was easier," she told him, "not to care. When I care too much, something happens and - "
"So these romances of yours - "
"No, of course not." He was getting a clear picture.
"You're my Remington Steele," she told him, straightening his lapels. "But you're also somebody's Harry, and somebody else's Michael, and somebody else's - "
"No." He shook his head. "Only your Remington Steele."
As she looked up at him, the pulse hammered in her throat. He moved a lock of hair behind her ear.
"It's not like I went from here every night straight to a bar - "
"Laura - "
"But sometimes - "
He didn't have to hear it. He would have done anything not to hear it, except she had to tell him, and he owed it to her to listen.
" - I knew I wanted so much from you - maybe more than you could give - that it was easier to take less from someone else, than to have to accept it from someone I - " Her voice dropped, and she turned away.
Remington took a step that brought him close against her.
"Laura, I've always - no." Putting his hands lightly on her shoulders, he reconsidered. "Not at the beginning, but lately - for a long time now - I've thought that if I could win your heart, the rest would follow. That's not been the way it's usually gone for me, but it was worth a try. It was worth hanging on - by my fingernails sometimes - because somehow I thought the reward - "
She turned round sharply.
" - would be more than just a night with you." He gazed into her eyes. "I know you're worried about the business. About the future. You know my motto - "
"Let tomorrow take care of itself?"
He smiled. "We've been in so deep for so long, maybe this could be like a life raft for us - something to hold on to that's real."
"I'm in over my head already," she told him.
With delicate fingers, he pushed her collar open and kissed her shoulder, then her throat, then just by her ear. He felt her shiver under his hands. "Let me hold you up," he suggested. "I promise I won't let you go."