The Alternate Link of Steele 18
Date: Monday, December 11, 2000
By Adriana <>

Permission to archive granted, as always!

I'd like to thank Debra, my faithful (and long suffering) beta reader, for all the work she's put into this story. Her comments and imput are invaluable.

Ice Palace. Krashnovo Kursanta. 11:42 PM

The gunshot echoed for a long time, and not even the soft material of the rich curtains was able to silence the terror it caused. The acrid smell of the gunpowder, spreading gently through the room, tickled Laura's nostrils and upset her stomach. Her eyes flew instantly to her left, but her whole body was completely still. The gun was there, inches away from her, and the hand holding it was shaking violently.

She could feel the warmth emanating from the steel muzzle, but she couldn't hear anything; her ears were ringing in pain and her brain seemed unable to register any outside sounds. There was only the shrill, pounding noise that originated in her head and the frantic beating of her heart.

For the second time in less than five minutes, Laura had been reborn. She had been so close to dying that the prospect of nonexistence had seemed almost appealing. As a result, she now found herself treasuring life as she had never done before because it had been spared, not once but twice.

Suddenly, the weigh of the phone receiver she was still holding seemed too much for her and she let it drop to the floor. She heard the faint cry of Steele's voice on the other end, but was physically incapable of reacting. Then, feeling a warm, salty tear reach the corner of her mouth, she looked up and met Bulbakov's stare.

The Russian was standing very still, almost petrified. His arm was stretched towards Laura and every muscle in his body was as tense as a steel wire ready to snap. Noticing the firm grip he still had on the trigger of his gun, he was amazed that he had been able to deflect the route of the bullet at the last second.

There had been something in Laura's eyes, Bulbakov recalled, but it had not been fear or hatred. He wanted to think it had been forgiveness that had struck the fatal blow which had split his soul in half. Her dark eyes had painlessly murdered his earlier resolution, and he had surrendered to her strength.

Unable to bear the sight of her agony, Bulbakov lowered his eyes and concentrated instead on the phone. He leaned over beyond Laura's kneeling from and reached for the receiver. Looking at it, he wondered for an instant what to do next. Then lowering the gun, he finally regained his composure.


"Laura!" Steele cried into the receiver again.

All his senses became numb as oxygen failed to reach his lungs. His eyes shot from left to right and the world became blurry. He felt the surrounding walls closing around him as the rain dampened his hair and then ran freely over his brow. Then making a supreme, conscious effort, he finally managed to take in and let out a ragged breath.

"Oh, please, God! Let her be alright! Let her be alright," he said to himself, his ear glued to the receiver, his very life depending on the events going on in the room on the other end of the line.

"She's alright," a strangely hollow voice said over the phone. "She's fine. I haven't killed her."

It took Steele a few seconds to realize what the voice had said, but when he did, he felt a wave of relief wash over him. However, that feeling was quickly replaced by a more primal emotion-- blind, unadulterated rage.

"What have you done to her, you bastard!" he demanded.

"She's fine, Misha," Bulbakov repeated.

"Put her on the phone," Steele said immediately, trying not to loose control. "Right now."

Steele heard the silence as Bulbakov considered his request. Obviously, the Russian was having doubts.

"Put her through, damn you!" Steele insisted, determined not to give Bulbakov time to think too much.

There was again a silence on the line as the telephone obviously changed hands.

"Mr. Steele?" Laura said quietly, her words coming slowly as she struggled to force her brain to function again.

Steele said a silent prayer of thanks that she was alive and then asked, "Laura, luv, are you alright?"

Was she all right? she wondered.  It took her some time to find the word, but finally she replied, "Yes." Now that she was standing there hearing him speak her name, listening to him breathing on the other end of the line, feeling his nearness-- Yes, she was all right now.

Steele frowned, not thoroughly convinced. There were so many things he wanted to tell her, but at that moment his greatest urge was to hold her so nothing could harm her. He wanted to be strong for her, but he had been struck hard and his defenses were down.

"I thought he had shot you," he explained fearfully. "I thought I'd never see you again, and I..."

"She's fine, old friend," Bulbakov said into the phone, surprising Steele. "And it's up to you to see that she remains that way."

Steele's eyes narrowed to dark blue slits as his vision began to clear. He focused them of the tall buildings of the city skyline, desperately trying to think of a way to bend the will of the man who at the moment was only a voice.

"Drop the game, Kira. Daniel told me about you, and unless you let us go, the KBG will learn what I know in no time," Steele warned.

"So Laura tells me," the Russian replied with a trait of defeat in his mellow voice. "But what keeps me from killing her, and then chasing you and Daniel down?"

"The fact that your life as you know it will be over if you do," Steele replied dangerously.

"Is that so?" Bulbakov replied, looking at Laura with newfound confidence. It was funny how talking to Misha brought his sporting instincts back to life so easily. He was feeling more and more up to the game with every second that passed.

Laura held his gaze, unafraid. He had an almost friendly smile on his face, and there was something in his eyes that told her he wasn't going to harm her. She wasn't even afraid when he pointed the gun and motioned for her to sit down in the armchair on the far side of the room.

It was then that Steele noticed the rain falling on his face, and was he grateful for its cleansing effect. Mopping his brow with his sleeve, he was suddenly overtaken by the realization that Bulbakov was sounding confident again. An electric jolt of alarm sent a cold wave through his entire body and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up.

"If you so much touch a hair on her head, Kira, you will beg that the KGB finds you before I do, mate," he warned the Russian icily.

Bulbakov smiled, fully aware that his old friend was serious. Looking at Laura, he cocked his head to the side and tried to assess the situation more accurately. Would a man like Misha risk it all just to save her? *Hell, yes!* the Russian decided as he watched Laura's eyes sparkle with an alluring mix of challenge and pity. Without question, she was completely worth it.

"I want the original bookmark," he said on a whim, just to keep the ball rolling.

There was a silence on the line.

"That is not negotiable," Steele replied, making up his mind. The bookmark was Felicia's only chance for survival, and he had promised himself he would make sure she was safe.

"Why not?" Bulbakov wanted to know. "You don't care about this lovely lady here as much as you claim you do?"

Laura watched the Russian as he smiled at her, toying with them both and enjoying it immensely. Her blood began to boil.

"I no longer have it," Steele said simply. "Now stop playing, Kira. You don't need that bookmark anymore than you need Laura or me. You already have what you wanted; now leave us alone!"

Bulbakov laughed. He had enjoyed the game as long as it had lasted, but it was time now to let it go. Fair was fair.

He directed an amused look to Laura and then lowered the gun. "He really does love you, you know," Bulbakov told her.

Laura rose from her seat, walking slowly towards him, gauging his reaction. He seemed relaxed as he allowed her to come closer. But when he held his gun in the air and aimed it high in warning, she stopped and waited.

Bulbakov kept his eyes on her as he spoke into the phone. "How do I know you will keep your word, Misha?" he asked, finally letting his true fears show.

"Why would he betray you?" Laura asked.

Bulbakov looked at her for a moment, hurt displayed all over his face. "For the same reasons Daniel Chalmers did," he replied. Then speaking into the phone again, he asked, "Wouldn't you, old friend?"

"Just keep away from those I love," Steele replied, his voice dangerously low. "You do that, and you have nothing to worry about."

"Liar," Bulbakov said, his voice carrying the sadness of a lost friendship.

There was an awkward silence.

"Daniel never threatened you, Kira," Laura said.

"He said he'd never tell anyone!" Bulbakov exploded, his finger gripping the trigger again. "Not anyone!"

Steele heard the edge in his old friend's voice. "Listen to me, Kira," he said soothingly, speaking as gently as he could manage. "I'll never say a word. You have to trust me."

"I can't; I can't trust anyone," Bulbakov replied. His spirit broken, he suddenly felt like a lonely child surrounded by hostiles.

He jumped at the touch of a small hand on his shoulder. As he looked up into Laura tender eyes, his own emerald ones flickered. When had she come so close?

"There's no reason for us to hurt you, Kira" Laura said, looking him straight in the eye, trying to get the message through. "Just let us go, and we'll stay away."

"Just like that, right?" he said with a bitter laugh.

Laura nodded.

Bulbakov held her gaze for a while, lost in a maze of hurt pain as he fought his own demons.

"What about Daniel?" he asked Steele. After all, Daniel had already betrayed him once. Would he betray him yet again? "Will you see to it that he keeps quiet?"

"I don't order Daniel around, Kira," Steele replied. "But he won't do anything as long as we are safe."

"Of course he would never allow anything to happen to *his boy,* would he?" Bulbakov said, his voice bearing all the irony he could muster.

How silly of him to think he could ever compete with Daniel's son -- even if Misha didn't know it, he had always had the upper hand as far as Daniel was concerned. It would be sweet revenge to blurt it out right then and there-- *Daniel's your father, and he's been keeping it from you for over twenty years, while I have known about it for as long as I have known him.*

Yes, it'd be a good payback, but it would be incredibly silly, too. That knowledge alone, Bulbakov realized, would ensure Daniel's silence. He'd see to it that his mentor got the message straight this time-- another careless word about him or his past, and the old man would pay dearly.

"I think your request will be more than enough," the Russian said matter of factly.

"Very well; as you wish," Steele agreed, knowing if was futile to maintain the conversation any longer. "We will be leaving the country tomorrow at 10 AM, and I don't want to see the KGB there. I want our passports back and I want clearance for Laura, myself, and our friends-- in writing."

Bulbakov chuckled; the matyerybyets had a lot of guts. "Anything else?" he asked.

"I want to speak with Laura again," Steele replied, some of his confidence back.

 "Certainly," Bulbakov replied, feeling a little like his old self. He then turned towards Laura, offering her the phone. "For you, my dear. I believe the gentleman wishes a word with you."

 Laura eyed the Russian carefully and took the receiver from him. Any hesitations she had about trusting him, however, vanished as she heard him replace the safety catch on his gun. She kept a vigilant gaze on him as he went over to the armchair where she had been sitting and lit a cigar.

 He lifted his hand in mock salute to her and then closed his tired eyes. Laura shook her head in disbelief, wondering what the hell was going on. She decided, however, that it was better to ask a reliable source, and turned her attention to the man on the line.

 "Mr. Steele?"

 "Laura, I'll be there in twenty minutes."

 "Wait, I-"

 Steele didn't hear. "We leave tomorrow at ten; I've arranged a plane for the four of us and..."

 "Wait!" she said pointedly. "I don't think that's a good idea."

 "What?" he replied, not believing his ears. "You don't want to leave?"

 "Not that!" she exclaimed. Then lowering her voice to a quiet whisper, she added. "I don't think it's wise for you come here. It'll be better if I join you tomorrow."

 "I won't leave you there alone, Laura," he replied stubbornly. He needed to be near her, to hold her close in his arms. "I'm on my way."

 "No!" she pleaded. The last thing she wanted was for them to be trapped again, but unfortunately, she couldn't explain her reasons without the risk being overheard. She just hoped he'd trust her. "Please don't come!"

 Hearing her words, Steele finally realized the only way of keeping their leverage with Bulbakov was for one of them to be safely away from his clutches. But that was going to prove incredibly difficult to do, however; he hated the idea of leaving Laura another minute alone with Kira.

 "But, Laura, it's too dangerous!" he protested in vain as an inner battle between his mind and his heart shook him to the core.

 The despair in his voice filled her heart with angst. "It's the only way," she told him tenderly.

 "I'll ask him to let you go now... Put him through," Steele said as a last resource.

 Laura looked at Bulbakov, sitting a few feet away, his eyes closed and his hand around the holster of his gun. It was best, she decided, to leave him undisturbed.

 "I'll see you tomorrow," she replied bravely. "Tomorrow."

 Steele sighed deeply, giving in to her logical reasoning and putting his fears aside.

 "Tomorrow," he finally agreed, a small smile creeping onto his lips. "You've got a date, Miss Holt."

 Laura smiled as well, but didn't reply, as it was proving very difficult to let the conversation end.

 "And don't you dare stand me up, you hear?" he teased, his levity barely hiding his real concern.

 "I'd never dream of it, Mr. Steele," she replied.


 "Sweet dreams," she said.

 "I won't get a wink," he answered truthfully. "I'll be thinking of you all night."

 "Me, too," Laura replied.

 She smiled to herself, but lowered her voice as Bulbakov opened his eyes and stared at her lazily. Stirring like a cat, he got up and began to walk towards her.

 "I hope that's not a complaint, Miss Holt," Steele retorted.

 "It's not," Laura said absentmindedly, her attention now focused on the Russian. "I have to go. See you tomorrow," she said pointedly for Bulbakov's benefit.

 The Russian merely smiled and offered his elbow, motioning for her to accompany him into the dinning room.

 "Be careful, luv," Steele said, sensing the danger.

 "You, too," Laura replied. "Goodnight."

 "Goodnight," Steele said into the line that was already dead. Then, after a few seconds of dreadful, poignant silence, he hung up.

 **************           **************************             *****************

Saint Petersburg Police HQ.  11:52 PM

Feodor looked at his wristwatch and yawned; he hated the night shift, but it paid better.  Nights were rarely quiet and that was a good thing, because it kept him from falling asleep on his desk. Tonight, however, the place was quiet as a churchyard. Where was everyone?

He could see the light coming from Sergeant Grechko's desk. That was unusual, as he didn't stay late very often. Feodor sat up straight as he saw the sergeant approaching him, glass of vodka in hand.

Greachko rested his hands on Feodor's desk, looking at the computer screen that blinked with its usual green fluorescence. He poured a shot of vodka to the officer in front of the machine and raised his own glass in a toast.

"Za, Vashe, Zdorovye," Feodor said - Money, Work and Love -

Grechko eyed him tiredly and nodded in agreement. Evidently the sergeant wasn't in a good mood, Feodor thought as he quickly emptied his glass in one gulp.

"Anything yet?" Grechko asked in Russian.

Feodor shook his head in denial; the computer was fast, but not a miracle maker. Where was he supposed to find information about American citizens? Private detective agencies? Clients? Background checks? What had gotten into Grechko tonight, anyway?

"Let me know as soon as something comes up," Grechko said, as he walked back to his desk.

Suddenly the computer came back to life and Feodor beamed, hitting the PRINT key. Before he could say a word, Grechko was back at his side.

"Here it is-- Remington Steele Investigations. It seems the agency closed a few weeks ago." Feodor said, his words falling on deaf ears.

Grechko's eyes were glued to the image forming on the white sheet of paper coming out of the printer. His gaze traveled between the dotted lines and the blinking green letters on the screen. Laura Holt...Murphy Michaels...Mildred Krebs... All of them had worked at one time for Remington Steele.

Grechko tore the paper from the printer and stared at the face for a split second. Mikhail Alexandrovich Novikov was smiling a confident, nonchalant smile, mocking him from the flat surface of a photograph.  So his eyes had not deceived him, he realized; he had seen Novikov a few days ago. And in the very building he was working in!

"Four nationals leaving, one embassy guy." Grechko muttered, his anger building steadily with each second that passed. "Steven, you matyerybyetes, I'll get you for this!" he exclaimed as he stormed out.

Feodor blinked twice and stared at the computer again. Not seeing anything particularly interesting in the face of the man on the screen, he helped himself to another shot of vodka.

***********         **********************          *****************

Some people say the sound of the rain is soothing, like the roar of the waves crashing on the reefs or the wind blowing through the high branches of the trees. However, none of the people inside the Ice Palace seemed to find it relaxing, not even as the lights died in each room and silence descended upon its inhabitants, voluntary and involuntary alike.

Nature's lullaby also failed to soothe the resident of the topmost room of the Helsinki Hotel, who found himself fighting a losing battle against worry and panic. He had not even bother to turn off the lights, knowing that sleep was destined to allude him that night.

It wasn't any different for the two guests in the American Consulate whose minds and expectations focused of the hours to come. Or to the Russian Police officer who, after brooding over his problem at his flat for hours, had decided to sort things out in the morning.

Thousands of miles and several countries away, the pilot and crew of the chartered plane said a prayer of thanks for the handsome fee they had been paid advance and went about their jobs with professional zeal. They had a tight schedule ahead if they wanted to arrive at their dreaded destination on time.

Sluggish hours dragged by painfully and dawn suddenly arrived without warning. The transition from bleak overcast skies to bluish pale, timid light was barely noticeable. During the night the clouds had retreated to an inconspicuous corner of the Saint Petersburg skies, but the imperative sunbeams slashed them with violence and pride.

Light first reached the rooftops, awaking the birds that had chosen to perch in gutters and the high branches of the sodden trees that continued to drip on the streets. It then flooded the clean, soaked walls and reflected on naked windowpanes. Finally, it started to warm the pavement.

A new day had begun.

**************         *************************        ***************

Pulkova 2 Airport. 9:54 AM

Agent Steven Donaldson scanned his surroundings with trained expertise; pleased the place was busy, but orderly. Few people were leaving, and the ones arriving were being thoroughly checked. Everyone walked purposefully, making no stops at the podarkis, not even for a drink or a smoke. As he took a cigarette out of the pack, he noticed it was his last one; he lit it nonetheless, and puffed the gentle smoke blissfully.

Everybody seemed excessively tense, but maybe that was only his subjective impression. There were no signs of the KGB or the police, and that in itself was a good omen. Strangely enough, neither Michaels nor the older woman seemed overly anxious. They were calmly sitting on the waiting lounge sipping coffee that he had bought for them.

Murphy looked at the CIA agent and he envied him for a moment. Donaldson, after all, had no idea what it was like to have his friends at risk. He hadn't been questioned by the police and dragged from one place to the next with no clue as to why. He hadn't been forced to protect people he hated because that someone was holding in his hands the lives of people he loved. Yes, Donaldson had it easy.

"What time is it?" Murphy asked Mildred.

The portly woman looked at her wristwatch and was relieved that her hand wasn't shaking. Her heart, however, was beating fast inside her chest. She hoped they'd be on their way soon, but there was no way of telling how things were going to turn out just yet.

"Nine fifty-eight. Still two minutes to go," she replied, her eyes joining Murphy's at the gates.


"Have you seen the plane?" Mildred asked, not daring to look at the runway.

"I think there's a small one over there," Murphy replied, glancing towards a small aircraft that looked quite ready for take off. "It doesn't look like a regular plane, so it could be our ride."

Mildred looked towards the airplane, noticing that the engines were off as it was being refueled. She then returned her gaze to the gates hoping to see Laura coming through. The familiar face that greeted her from the distance, however, was that of the shrewd con man she wasn't eager to see at all.

Murphy was on his feet in a flash, but Steele's blue icy gaze made him freeze. Knowing it would be best if they didn't attract unnecessary attention, Murphy merely held the other man's stare. His whole being wanted to demand where the hell Laura was, but he forced himself to appear calm.

Two pairs of eyes followed the impeccably dressed, dark haired man all the way into the main lounge. He was wearing a light summer suit, the crease of his trousers so straight it seemed it had just been picked up from the cleaners.  His only luggage consisted of a brown leather briefcase with a security lock, one he could easily pick if the needed arose. If it hadn't been for the tired expression on his handsome features, no one could have guessed he had been through a rough night.

A sideways glance towards Donaldson told Murphy that the agent had not yet noticed Steele's arrival.

"Steele," Murphy said, greeting him. Then with a hiss as he asked, "Where is she?"

A flash of panic flickered in Steele's eyes, but he did his to disguise it. He looked at his watch - one minute to ten. She would arrive soon, he assured himself; she simply had to. He then met Mildred's eyes and didn't quite like what he saw there - fear, distrust and pain. Turning his gaze away from her, he decided it was safer to face those sentiments in the hazel eyes where their appearance had been expected.

Murphy glared back.

"I expect her to arrive at ten," Steele replied honestly.

"I thought you were together!" Murphy insisted. He then grabbed Steele by the lapels of his immaculate suit, lowering his voice to a harsh, deadly whisper. "You were supposed to be taking care of her!"

Mildred reached towards Murphy, pulling him back. She understood what the young man was feeling-- she wanted to wring Steele's neck as well-- but this wasn't leading them anywhere.

"Easy, Murphy; I bet that's a tailored suit you are ruining," she said archly.

Steele winced. It *was* a tailored suit.

"Where is Miss Holt, buster?" Mildred asked her former boss in a no nonsense tone of voice. "We've had enough of your games. Now spill it!"

Steele sighed and looked towards the gates, saying, "Would I be here meeting with you if she wasn't coming, Mildred? Do you really think I've taken a leave of my senses?"

Mildred doubted that.

Murphy, however, wasn't in a guessing mood. "So where the hell is she, *mate*?" he asked, his patience wearing thin.

"I had to leave her alone last night in order to insure that we could leave together now," Steele tried to explain. "She was supposed to be here at ten."

"I hope you are aware that what you're saying makes absolutely no sense," Mildred said.

Steele sighed. It was difficult enough for *him* to understand the logic of what had happened the night before, let alone explain it to others.

"Listen," he began. "I'm not trying to..."

"Remington Steele, right?" Donaldson asked as he approached the trio and offered his hand to Steele.

Since no one had seen him approaching, he had had the opportunity to assess the situation briefly. It seemed obvious to him that both Michaels and Miss Krebs hated their boss' guts-- and that was bad news. And to make matters worse, the Holt woman wasn't there yet.

Donaldson smiled at his new acquaintance and shook Steele's hand. His firm handshake pleased him; it denoted confidence, and that was always a good sign.

Steele smiled back; he could spot a CIA agent a hundred miles away. With incredible ease, he fell back into the role he had abandoned so long ago. He slipped into it like a pair of old, worn in shoes and realized with some discomfort that they still fit him perfectly.

His beaming smile never wavered as he greeted the agent. "Yes, I'm Remington Steele. I'm delighted to meet you, Agent."

"Donaldson, Agent Steven Donaldson," the agent replied. "I've heard a lot about you, Mr. Steele."

"Oh, have you?" Steele asked amiably, directing a quick, worried glance towards his former secretary. "All good things, I trust?"

"According to her, you're just too good to be true," Donaldson replied looking at Mildred with a smile on his gaunt face.

Steele chucked, his eyes never wavering as he put an affectionate arm around Mildred's shoulders. "Yes, that's our Miss Krebs. Always ready to sing my praises," he said, purposely avoiding the woman's glare.

The agent nodded as his eyes searched the detective's face trying to discover what he was hiding beneath his charming smile and polite tones. There was something not quite right about him, Donaldson decided. He could spot a liar a hundred miles away.

Donaldson looked at Mildred, who smiled for his benefit, and then at Michaels. The blonde detective was frowning, his eyes still on the gates outside.

"I thought Miss Holt and you were coming together, Mr. Steele," Donaldson said, earning himself a troubled look from the others.

"Yes," Steele agreed good-naturedly. "That seems to be the consensus, doesn't it?"

"But she's not here," Donaldson provided.

"You're very perceptive, Agent Donaldson," Steele observed. Then smiling, he added, "But she'll be arriving shortly, I assure you."

"She'd better be. I think your plane is already fueled up," Donaldson informed him. "But before you go, however, I would like us to settle a date for a meeting in the U.S."

"A meeting?" Steele repeated.

"There are a few things we need to discuss," the agent explained, a polite yet insistent smile on his face.

"Such as?"

"Such as why and how you entered this country without a visit through customs, or without a proper visa or propkus," Donaldson countered.

If Donaldson hadn't been as experienced at dealing with shady characters and getting the truth out of the most qualified spies in the field, he would have missed the look that crossed Steele's eyes as he was thrown off balance for a fragment of a second.

"Indeed, Agent Donaldson," Steele replied as he quickly recovered. "I'd be happy to meet you at any time you find convenient, as soon as we go back home."

Donaldson was about to reply when Mildred touched his arm. "What it is, Miss Krebs?" he demanded with a frown.

Mildred nodded her head towards a lonely man in an old gray suit with a paper bag in his hand. As soon as he felt eyes on him, however, he turned on his heels and walked past them hurriedly.

"Nechevo," he said to no one in particular as he disappeared into a corridor.

Donaldson looked at Mildred angrily for interrupting, but she refused to apologize. There had been something wrong about that man; she was sure of it. She and Murphy exchanged worried looks, but neither said a word-- until they saw the deep frown in Steele's face.

"What did he say?" Murphy demanded.

"Nothing," Steele replied automatically.

"He said *something*, Steele!" Murphy insisted.

Receiving no response, he turned towards Donaldson, whose eyebrows were also knitted together in a concerned frown.

"Yes, Murphy," Steele said, his patience and his coolness almost unnerving. "He said 'Nothing', or 'Clear'-- or whatever you want to call it. It's radio operator slang-- military radio operator slang, to be precise."

"KGB?" Donaldson asked.

"Not likely, but possible," Steele said.

"Dammit, Steele, you said you were going to take care of them!" Murphy exploded.

The look Steele gave him was enough to keep most people quiet for at least a prudent half hour. As he clenched his teeth and covered the distance between him and the American, it was obvious that both men knew they were at the end of their ropes.

"I'm doing my bloody best, Murphy," Steele said angrily as he fought to keep himself in check. "It would help, however, if you refrained yourself from criticizing my every move."

Murphy shook his head and cracked an unbelieving smile as he felt his own temper rise. He still couldn't fathom why Laura had chosen to stand by the guy all these years, or why she was standing by him now. But whether he understood it or not, he realized deep down that everything about this entire Russian fiasco was related to Laura's feelings for Steele.

Indeed, life was terribly unfair.

"Your best is just not good enough for Laura, Steele," Murphy said evenly. "It never was, and it never will be."

Steele had heard Murphy's statement one time too many. Overwhelmed with frustration and anger, his breath came in short, quick gasps and his heart refused to beat at a normal rate. His fists were clutched so tightly that he could almost feel his own nails cutting through the flesh. As the blonde detective's eyes defiantly bored into his soul, Steele couldn't help but to notice how the dark slate of the iris had totally devoured the pupil.

*Icy calm, mate; icy calm. That's Laura's best friend standing before you,* Steele reminded himself as his head began to clear.

"I never claimed that I was," he finally admitted. "But that's not..."

Before Steele could elaborate further, however, Mildred jumped in. She didn't say a word; she just stood between them with her eyes fixed on the lounge gates. As both men followed her gaze, the sight that greeted them allowed them to finally breath normally.

There stood Laura, looking more beautiful than ever.

End of Part 18.
To Part 19.
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