"Steele in the Beginning"
A thousand thanks to my muse, Xenos, who read every draft I sent, gave me awesome feedback, and MADE me keep in all the suggestiveness in the story (just kidding!). She's the one who asked me the dangerous question, "Do you write fanfic, too? I'd love to read your stuff if you do." My daughter Lynne also gave me lots of useful comments and caught all the jokes. Laura Brutus checked the French, and Zinger read the story too and gave valuable, helpful input. Many thanks to all! "SITB" is PG, unless you have an active imagination.
Permission to archive.
Laura Holt rushed into Remington Steele's office to catch the exchange between her newest client, Lester Giddons, and the renegade she thought had left town the day before. To her shock and pleasure, the new "he" was there, handling questions with grace and command. With delight, Laura stood by his side as his associate, trying not to beam *too* brightly. Mixed feelings churned inside of her.
After they dealt with Mr. Giddons, and started a case file for him, Laura excused herself from the charming mystery man, who was content to look at the "LA Times." She smiled thoughtfully at Bernice, closed her eyes, and leaned back against the door to "his" office.
Passion bubbled up in her as she thought of all the possibilities . . . of her work . . . of him.
Red-the color of his tie, the color of the door, the color of passion . . . of . . . of Murphy? He came charging out of his office like a bull, and there was no matador in sight.
"What the hell are we going to do now, Laura?" he whispered urgently, as he grabbed her hand and drew her into his office.
She sat down on the end of his desk, facing him. "We make a deal." She was calm and confident now, and able to contemplate at least the near future.
"Do you want this?"
"We have no choice at the moment. Up until now, things have been working like a charm. I can't believe it could just end like *that*," she snapped her fingers.
Was this gorgeous con man meant to be part of the charm now? She picked up a pencil and started playing with it.
Laura pointed out, "It's entirely my fault. I knew it was dangerous to invent a fraudulent head for our Agency. I couldn't help it, Murphy."
"But Laura, this guy is up to no good. I can smell it." He was pacing. "He'll burn us faster than if we just admit what we did and high tail it out of town."
"Wait, Murph. I have this gut instinct that we're all right . . . for now. Let's give him a chance, and talk to him about his future here." To buy a little camaraderie, she asked, "Want some coffee?" and then called out, "Bernice?"
"Laura, you're not going to give him the penthouse apartment?!" He set his coffee mug down and ran both hands through his sandy blond hair in despair.
"Murphy," she said, touching his shoulder, "we already have his name on the lease, and even though no one has ever seen him there, I don't want to change that, too. Don't hate me, but I've got to get going on some casework for Mr. Giddons. Would you take *him* over there later on? I don't want to see him gloat any more than you do."
Murphy shook his head side-to-side and smiled. He'd do anything for Laura.
"I know you're on edge about him, Murph, but I would just feel better if you take him." She realized she kept saying "him." What was she going to call him?
"OK, I'll do it. But I am not gonna like it."
"I understand." She stood up, came around behind him in his chair, and began to massage his shoulders, trying to help him relax, and maybe release some of his tension.
It was anything but relaxing for Murphy, who was already longing for the "good old days," before *him.* And he'd only just shown up. Damn! But Laura's magic was working on him.
She continued, "We spend all this money building a façade, and we've created a monst- . . . I mean, a monstrous-but not impossible-situation. We've yet to work out all the details. But I think we'll be fine if we keep up the illusion of a brilliant, cunning, handsome . . ."
"I get the picture, Laura."
"Sorry, Murph," she said, coming back down to earth. "But he does seem to fit the bill pretty well. He looks good in a tuxedo!"
"He looks *great* in a tuxedo," smiled Bernice, coming in to refresh their coffee.
"That does NOT make him anything more than a . . . a penguin to me!" Murphy fumed, and then pulled himself together for Laura's sake. He stood up. "OK, give me your keys, Laura."
"Ah, there's a spare set to the penthouse in my files under 'Rossmore.' Give him those. I'll hang on to these for now," she hedged, holding up a feminine-looking keychain. "It's so hard to get these darn keys off the ring, you know."
His tension returned.
As Murphy went to get the spare set, Bernice wondered aloud, "Mind if I borrow those sometime, Laura?"
Bernice's eyebrows went up as Laura looked like she'd just had the same thought. They grinned in conspiracy.
Murphy worked furiously through that day, hammering out a plan with Laura, who often went into the largest office to oversee the parade of people who streamed in. The staff ordered lunch from a deli, which went uneaten by both the men-one because his stomach was so tight, and the other because he was having such a marvelous time.
Laura ate ravenously and got to work again, while Bernice enjoyed her lunch at leisure.
The receptionist went back out to her desk, sat down and contemplated the fireworks that seemed to be sparking in all corners of their beautifully-appointed suite. Old and new clients, as well as reporters, had been filing in and out. The old clients were curious about the man who had solved their cases "in a purely advisory capacity." The new clients were mostly women, who had seen his dashing picture in the paper. The reporters wanted to see what Steele would do next to top the Royal Lavulite case. The longest day in Remington Steele Investigations' history was coming to an end.
Tension electrified the air again later that afternoon as she heard Murphy's voice behind his closed door.
"AND he gets the limo?"
Fortunately the reception area was empty of clients for the moment.
Life was going to be more troubling around here than before, Bernice thought. She knew whose fault that was. "And more exciting," she muttered to herself, amused.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much," she heard an accented voice. A few reporters exited Mr. Steele's office, nodding politely to Bernice as they chatted happily and folded up their notepads. They all seemed pleased finally to have met the now-famous Mr. Steele, and had actual photos of the illusive bachelor to archive. The apparent head of the Agency had charmed them all.
Bernice thought he was reveling a tad too much, stealing the limelight from her real boss. "Unidentified woman-ha!"
Then Murphy came out of his office, followed by Laura, her arm linked through his.
"Thanks for working out the plans for our new situation. I feel better about where we can head as an Agency with this. I owe you one, Murph."
"When do I collect?" He smiled weakly at her, and then looked at Bernice. "Would you call Fred and tell him we'll be right down?"
Laura turned to go back to her office, and nearly ran into Steele as he strode jauntily out of his red door to join the trio.
"I think that all went rather well." He stopped and studied his new co-workers. While working a con had brought him to them, their con was a lot classier than he was used to lately . . . not since some high-class heists with his friend Daniel. He'd have to win his way onto this sophisticated team, whose con game was no game. They had some kind of a bond. And he wasn't a part of it.
They were friends; he was an outsider, a foreigner. They were comfortable together; he was a disruptor. No, a usurper!
He'd been smart enough to discover their con, and now they needed him, if only *not* to reveal their deep, dark secret. That secret had been so easy to figure out, but what was to follow wouldn't be . . . if he stayed.
Would they take him in? Or would he have to "take them in"?
He knew already he'd love to take one of them in. It would be hard holding back on that impulse.
But talk about instincts. He put his feelers out, read the various tensions in the room in a split second, and relief flooded his body as he realized this threesome was going to give him a chance, and let him stay. "All for one, and one for . . . 'The Four Musketeers'. . . Richard Chamberlain, Raquel Welch, Michael York . . .Twentieth-Century Fox, 1974," he thought. How long it would work would be squarely up to him.
"Let's go. Fred's waiting with the limo downstairs," Murphy said, a bit testy. His instincts told him he could spoil this whole scenario right here and now, and send this charlatan packing. But Laura had always trusted him, and so it was squarely on his shoulders to be a man and support her decision.
"Thank you," Laura squeezed Murphy's hand, looking him squarely in the eye.
Murphy pulled open the glass door with a little more force than necessary, not looking back.
"Thank you, Miss Holt," Steele said softly to Laura and nodded his head slightly. He stopped at the door, came back to Laura and took her hand. "I . . .um, I don't know how to . . ." He may have sounded a little humble, but he truly was just amazed at how things were unfolding.
Laura was direct. "We have a lot to talk about. But not now. Go home and I'll expect to see you at 9 a.m. sharp. We'll talk tomorrow. No more schmoozing until we're square on your responsibilities. Murphy will show you your new place. Good night." Did her voice really soften on those last words?
The sweet sound of that farewell made him wish he could hear those words from her under entirely different circumstances.
Funny, he'd rarely heard those words coming from a woman. Usually it was "good morning." Pleasant thoughts flooded his brain.
The drive to the Rossmore was unpleasant, mainly because the three occupants of the car were mentally at war. Fred was wondering how to pander to the unexpected new boss, but he found himself actually admiring this bold imposter. That wouldn't go over too well with Mr. Michaels, though.
Murphy was still calculating how the Agency could cut as many perks from the Steele budget as possible, at least to come out monetarily even. He was also worried about Laura's emotions. And therefore about his own. He cared for her, but this guy . . . he eyed the third man suspiciously.
Harry was feeling uneasy. He really didn't want anything to hold him down, to have anyone depend on him. A line from one of his favorite movies played in his head, "I wouldn't even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you'd played me for a sucker." Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, "The Maltese Falcon," Warner Brothers, 1941, he thought. This wasn't a movie, though.
How long would he stay? Of course, long enough to take as much as he could get his hands on, and maybe just short enough to track down the next big score. He didn't seriously owe these people anything. Best not to get in too deep. He had wanderlust in his veins that would kick in soon enough.
And then he reflected on a certain beautiful brunette, whose eyes sparkled when she was pleased, a small dimple appearing in her cheek. "O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek."
His mental smile reached his face, and Murphy sensed the mood change.
"Uh . . . Miss Holt wants me to convey the Agency's gratitude for your . . . uh . . . help." And then he rushed on, "Look, just try to understand we're all on edge. How do we know we can trust you?"
"You don't," Harry grimaced.
Silence reigned for a few more minutes.
"Mr. Michaels, I have never in my life remained anywhere for an extended period. I may revisit places, but I never stay. I'm the bloke who is in for the biggest prize, and then I steal away in the night."
As the limo with the license marked "R STEELE" pulled up and stopped at a lovely, towering apartment building, Harry said with a gleam in his eye, "Of course, I might enjoy being part of a prize-winning team."
On the elevator, Harry initiated the conversation. "So, Mr. Michaels, I've noticed you hover around Miss Holt quite a lot."
"I don't . . . hover," Murphy burst out, and then put on the brakes.
"Are you and she . . . an item?"
"We've worked together closely for a long time now."
So, no, said Harry to himself. He didn't know exactly why he was probing. Maybe just to needle Murphy a bit. He wasn't in any rush, but he felt a rush contemplating close work with Miss Holt himself.
As they stepped out of the elevator, Murphy led the way down the short corridor to Penthouse A. He unlocked the door and kept the keys. Harry noticed, but perhaps it was an unconscious act on Murphy's part. Perhaps not. Naturally the man was still holding back.
"So, here's the apartment," Murphy said, clenching his jaw, and putting his hands in his pockets. "You can look around, see if you have any questions. There's food in the refrigerator and cupboards. Personal supplies in the bathroom, new clothes in the bedroom-but you've already seen those."
Dammit! Murphy thought suddenly, as Steele headed for the kitchen. If only we had removed the tags from the suits at the hotel, scuffed the shoes even a little, squeezed a bit of toothpaste . . .
Now the Agency was being tagged, stepped on, and squeezed.
He and Laura were professionally-trained private investigators, and while they ran a successful Agency, and had made the superficial appearances of Mr. Steele here and there, no one had ever come close to suspecting the truth. And here they'd been caught by a common jewel thief.
Stupid! They could have been exposed by the hotel maid, for that matter. Why hadn't they taken the few minutes to make the ruse seem real?
So here they were, stuck with this Humphrey Bogart fanatic with the fancy accent.
Harry came out of the kitchen with a disappointed look on his face. "Can you tell me if I'll be getting some sort of . . . budget, or a . . . paycheck, so that I can stock a few more items?"
"How much?" Murphy was calculating.
"Oh, say, a thousand, perhaps?"
"Ah, well, there's a wine rack in there begging to be filled, and while this place is very nicely decorated-I assume Miss Holt arranged that . . ."
"Long before you showed up."
"I find it rather . . . sterile." And sterile is *not* my style for this stopover. He almost itched to get his fingerprints all over a petite . . .
"Just how long are you planning to stay?" Murphy interrupted his sensuous thoughts.
"I think you're gonna have to commit to more than that before Laura will give you one more cent." Murphy's eyes widened. "What am I saying? I don't even want you to stay."
"Apparently, Mr. Michaels. But you are presently stuck with me, so let's at least agree to a transition period of say, a month. Either I work well with you-all of you, I mean-or you paint me quietly out of the picture." And have your invisible Mr. Steele back, always unavailable or out of town, he mused.
With a big sigh-of exasperation or relief, Harry couldn't tell which-Murphy said, "I'll talk to Laura. But in the meantime, make a detailed list of what you need, and find out the prices yourself. All of this subject to Laura's approval, of course."
Anxious to get her approval, Harry agreed, "Of course." And then he continued, "Now on to the bedroom."
Murphy stopped him. "I've gotta go."
"Here." Murphy dropped the keys reluctantly into Harry's open right hand. Harry pocketed them, and held out his hand again politely to his seeming opponent.
"I know, mate, you'd rather be locking me in a jail cell and throwing away the keys, than depositing me in Mr. Steele's penthouse."
Murphy looked down and couldn't help but smile. "You got that right."
"But if I promise I won't do anything to hurt the Agency, would you just hold your guard dogs at bay? You can keep your guard up, mind you, just give me a little bit of space."
"Sure." He shook Harry's hand and then was out the door, realizing ironically how much space Steele had just gotten. Stolen, actually.
Ah . . . the bedroom. A man's bedroom is his castle. Truly, everything was carefully adorned. He hoped Laura had had a hand in all this, though it had a masculine feel.
Never one to write things down, he sat on the bed, piled the pillows at his back, kicked off his shoes, and started enumerating his wants. Not his needs.
Wine . . . Dom Pérignon, 1976 . . . how about some movie posters for the walls . . . houseplants . . . try to find Grey Flannel cologne and . . . Laura.
He awoke later, still fully clothed and . . . what had he been thinking of when he drifted off to sleep? Mmm . . . Laura. Delicious chocolate-brown eyes. He loved melting chocolate.
Even though it was 1 a.m., he undressed and showered, walked naked to the dresser and put on silk pajama bottoms that he hoped Laura had purchased. He chuckled as he removed an inspection sticker-never worn, of course.
It was 1 a.m., and Laura was finally relaxed enough to go to sleep. Her mind had refused to shut down, with all that was happening. Earlier in the evening, she had made some more notes of things to go over tomorrow. Then she heated some cocoa, and continued reading the book she had started a while back: "The Constant Image" by Marcia Davenport.
The constant image running through her head, as she drifted off to sleep, was that of a stunning male with startling blue eyes. They were like pools of deep water, and she loved swimming.
The shower had relaxed him and he turned off the lights, crawled under the covers, ready to sleep again, when a shot of adrenaline hit.
"Need to be at the Agency by . . . 9 o'clock in the morning?" Harry groaned. Looking over at the alarm clock, he wondered, Do they have wake-up calls here?
Lights back on, he figured out how to set the alarm, checked the time on his watch to make sure he was in the right time zone, and fell back again into bed.
I've got a regular job like a regular bloke? he thought, his mind racing.
He rubbed his eyes. Sleeplessness forced him out into the living room. There had been no sleeping pills in the bathroom, no wine in the wine rack. Hmm, what's on the telly?
He found the remote and switched it on, flipped channels, and delight spread across his face. "I've got cable!"
Harry hadn't heard the alarm in the bedroom go off, but the insistent telephone ringing did wake him up. Disoriented for a second, he answered the phone, "Yes?"
"Good morning!" said a cheerful voice at the other end. Those were surely the words he longed to hear from her. He smiled to himself and lay back again.
She continued, "I wondered if Murphy had left you with any of our phone numbers to call, so I decided to call you myself. Did you sleep OK?" For her, it was a polite question. For him, that was yet another line he'd love to hear from her, but in much closer proximity.
He sat up. "Yes, thank you. Very well." Not the truth, but life was full of little white lies, eh?
"Fred is on his way with some breakfast, so expect him to be there shortly. After this, you can call him yourself. See you soon at the Agency. Bye."
Harry sank back, but just for a minute. He had managed to sleep the rest of the night on the sofa, which was comfortable enough, but with no covers, his feet were cold. Best get up and get going, he thought.
A second shower, and he was feeling more at home. New underwear stuck in his crotch. "Must buy bigger. Size matters." The rest of Steele's wardrobe, though, was perfect. How ironic that everything fit him to a T. Now if he could only feel that perfect fit at work. At work?! What was happening to him?
The doorbell rang, and Fred came in with a bag from McDonald's, set in a cardboard tray with two drinks.
"Orange juice or coffee?"
"Given a choice, coffee, I suppose. What's in the bag?"
"Egg McMuffin and hash browns."
"Mc . . . Muffin?" He looked in the bag. "Uh . . . no thanks, Fred. Have a seat and you eat it, OK?" Give me bangers and mashers any day, he thought.
Harry took the plastic lid off the coffee, drank a hot sip and frowned. He headed back into the bedroom. "I'll be just a minute."
Fred sat on the sofa, which looked like it had been slept on, the way the sofa pillows were flattened. His duties were going to increase with the new Mr. Steele, and that would mean his paycheck would be bigger too. He ate the Egg McMuffin and grinned, "I'm going to like this."
A few days later, Bernice contemplated how much her workload had increased. Mr. Steele had faithfully shown up for work, albeit a little late each day, and he had listened to both Murphy's and Laura's suggestions for his new position as the titular head of Remington Steele Investigations.
As far as remembering her last name . . . forget it. Plus, she'd had to greet more clients, type and file more cases, answer more phone calls (occasionally with the impulse to say 'Miss Wolfe speaking'), with no time for the occasional extra long lunch with girlfriends.
She even brought him tea around three o'clock. For some reason she'd thought it was supposed to be tea at five. Hmm . . . he had explained something about low tea and high tea. She rolled her eyes.
Filing her nails at work? Not since their resident front man had become a front page man.
Well, maybe things would settle down again.
"I don't think I'm gonna like this."
Laura looked puzzled. "Have you been able to find out *anything* more about him, Murph?"
"Dead ends. I can only hope that law enforcement world wide can some day invent a faster system for identifying international criminals. We'll just have to wait and see if anything comes through from our contacts."
"It's strange. We've got enough cases right now, we'll have to start turning clients down, or hire more detectives. Who'd have thought he'd have this effect?" she observed.
"Why don't we make the head of the Agency earn his keep?" Murphy proposed.
"You make him sound like an animal," Laura frowned.
"Well, we *could* train him, Murph."
"Still no comment." Then he smiled, "Actually, now you're making him sound like an animal."
"No comment," she was purring inside.
"I have to admit, the added revenue he's generating in case load is offsetting his expensive tastes."
"Then we keep him?"
"Only if I get to pick out the cage," Murphy was satisfied.
Murphy had been out working on a case, while Laura oversaw business from the Agency, and did what she could, making phone calls and meeting with clients-by Mr. Steele's side, of course.
"But, Bernice," pleaded Laura at the end of the day, grabbing her purse and coat as a sign of getting ready to leave, "you promised you'd be free tonight to go see the penthouse with me."
"Oh, Laura, I didn't really think it would be a problem." She checked the piles on the reception's desk, and stacked some papers. Bernice leaned a little in Laura's direction. "I actually thought you'd like to be alone with him."
Partially sitting on the front desk, Laura speculated, "I don't know why I'm so reluctant." She pinched the bridge of her nose, then rubbed her forehead.
"I'm sorry, but my friend Debbie wants to go to this new jazz club. She's gotten me hooked on the sound of sexy saxophones. Yum."
"You prefer hearing jazz to helping me?"
"Depending on which kind of jazz you mean . . . probably. Hey, Laura, I'm letting you have some jazz of your own. Besides, you'll be fine. More than fine." She winked at her boss.
Laura gave up the verbal sparring and put her coat on over her smart outfit: a white silk blouse and tan suit complementing her coloring. She turned and caught Mr. Steele, just coming out of his office, impeccably dressed in a grey suit and light blue shirt, cheerfully straightening his tie. "Ready for the Grand Tour, Miss Holt? Miss Wolfe?"
Laura's smile was a bit frozen, though inside, her heart was pounding plenty of blood through her system. Bernice begged off quickly, "Something came up for me, but Laura is dying to see it!" And all Laura could think was, But I didn't want to go there alone . . . with him . . . not yet. Too soon!
Laura steeled herself to face up to the consequences of her taking in this con man. She had given her all to start her own Agency, and she was not going to just let it go down in flames.
She put on her mental armor and thought, "I don't think I'm going to like this!"
Now playing the part of a gentleman in this new life, Mr. Steele displayed a natural elegance and waited to accompany both ladies out the door to Suite 1157. He touched the small of Laura's back as they exited.
"I think you're going to like this."
On the drive to the apartment, Laura noticed how easily Mr. Steele and Fred chatted. Good, it kept her from having to think of things to say to him. He had been sincerely trying, like an earnest schoolboy, to listen and learn. But the grown man himself made her think thoughts that were unacceptable this early in their relationship.
What relationship?! Settle down, girl. Just because he touched your back, shooting electrical shocks up and down your spine doesn't mean . . . She stared out the car window to slow her heart rate.
Harry was aware of Laura's reluctance to engage in conversation, and he was truly enjoying having Fred to talk with. He wanted Laura to relax, so he decided not to worry. There was time, and now opportunity.
Harry felt a pleasant sense of ownership as he unlocked the door to the penthouse. His place.
"The Grand Tour, eh? Welcome, welcome! What do you think?" He helped her take off her coat, and she put her purse on the sofa.
Laura was impressed with the visible improvements he had made. The green houseplants and ficus certainly made the place look more lived in. Also, the apartment had taken on a much more masculine aura.
"Shall we start with the kitchen? I want to put something on ice."
Laura's eyebrows went up. She followed him, noticing the partially-filled wine rack and the new gourmet pans and utensils. She had a hard time not acting like Murphy, and figuring how much all this had cost. She had approved part of Mr. Steele's shopping list, but figured he might have spent some of his own money to get all this.
Harry set a bottle of Dom Pérignon in the ice bucket, and already had three glasses out on the countertop. He put one away with a twinkle in his eye. But he was disappointed that Laura wasn't more vocal about what she was seeing. He was beginning to understand that Laura could be pretty circumspect before committing to anything.
Out in the living area, Laura took a closer look at the movie posters, which had replaced the generic art that had been there previously. She remembered how much he loved Humphrey Bogart. Enough to have 5 false passports in his characters' names, she recalled. She recognized the names of most of the movies, and had even seen two of them: "Casablanca" and "The Thin Man."
"Are you sure your involvement at the Agency isn't some sort of fantasy of playing Sam Spade?"
"Laura, I'm hurt. I assure you, I never confuse the fantasies of 'reel life' with real life."
"Saisir la balle au bond!"
He was impressed. "Translation: to be sharp-witted in verbal exchanges. Trés bien, Mademoiselle."
"Touché!" she parried, her dimple showing.
He was enjoying this thrust in their conversation, and led her next to the bedroom. He started to loosen his tie. She stopped.
"Do you mind if I take off my jacket and tie?"
"Go right ahead. It's your . . . p-place," she stuttered.
She *was* curious about how the bedroom might have changed. Before "him," it was just a room, a staging area. Now she wanted to see what overtones his sleeping there had added. She took a big breath as she recalled having purchased the underwear, pajamas, and other personal items in the bathroom. Now *he* was using them.
She had followed him behind the sofa, heading in the direction of the bedroom, and as he laid his coat and tie down, she didn't see him reach for a small bag. He hesitated. She paused. She heard the sound of a zipper and froze.
"I have something for you, Laura."
As he turned around, he had the distinct impression she had glanced at his crotch before she noticed the neat pile of receipts in his hand. Embarrassment spread from her face down to her freckled chest as she accepted the receipts. He had to turn away and straighten an already-level framed movie poster to stop from having a belly laugh, or wondering how far the red had spread on her body. He didn't want to embarrass her further.
Flustered, she tried to focus on the receipts, her mind numb. She scratched an imaginary itch behind her ear, and as soon as she could, she glanced over at the bag he held in his hand-a bank deposit bag that said, "Barclays Bank."
"Oh, this! I picked it up as a souvenir once. Keep all kinds of things in it." Kept the money too, that was first in it, he remembered. A tidy little sum, but it had supported him for a year, more or less.
"Who *are* you?" Laura had wanted to ask this question probably every day for the past week. The open-hearted look on her face, her searching eyes, her lilting voice-all indicated she was ready to believe in him. He did not turn his piercing blue eyes away. The moment was all-encompassing; he was melting and she was swimming.
But ironically he didn't know the
answer himself. And so he looked down and said,
"Do you remember Charles Dickens' story 'Oliver Twist'?"
She nodded. He moved to the sofa and indicated for her to sit as well.
"Well, let's just say I'm the Artful Dodger, a street urchin, all grown up." Well, mostly.
"Your accent-it's not British or South African . . ."
He spread his arms wide. "Irish, with a touch of all the world: the Continent, Hong Kong, Cairo, Macao, Morocco, Mexico City, Acapulco."
She nearly choked when he mentioned Acapulco. She recovered and cleared her throat.
"Well, do you really have a brother?" Laura recalled his lie about revenging a brother's death in tracking down the seekers of the Royal Lavulite.
"Ah! I have brothers the world over. A few father figures, even mother figures here and there." And plenty of women. Although the last was unspoken, when he glanced at Laura, she turned and absentmindedly fluffed a flattened pillow, as if she could read his thoughts.
"So, you really are a mystery man." She tried to absorb this idea, but it still nagged at her that he knew a lot more than he was sharing. Her forehead crinkled. Well, maybe in time he'd open up. So what if he had a checkered past? People change. She relaxed again and smiled, hugging the pillow.
People never change, Harry was thinking. They always want more from you than you can give.
He asked, "Would you like some wine?"
"Yes, I'll have a little." She laid the pillow aside.
He stood and went to the kitchen, bringing out the chilled wine and two glasses. He opened the bottle and poured.
"What shall we drink to?"
"To changes," she proposed warmly. "Good changes."
"And to taking chances," he added, clinking his glass lightly to hers. A perfect ring sounded momentarily in the air.
"You make it sound like an adventure," she said, looking up at him and laughing.
"Isn't it?" Harry set his glass down and took Laura's as well. He took her hand and drew her up into his arms.
She studied his face. "I need to know a lot more about you if I'm going to entrust the Agency's reputation to you."
"Please trust me, Laura," he practically hummed.
"Can't you tell me even a little of the truth? It's not like I'm going to turn you in. You are a part of my Agency now, and I like things to be neat and organized. On the surface, you're fitting right in as the man I envisioned as my . . . Mr. Steele." Her heart was pounding.
"And I hope to live up to that ideal, Laura."
She was holding him off, but it was hard. "Why the complete secrecy about your past? Are you really that notorious?"
"No more talking." As their kiss deepened, his hand started to go lower on her back.
Swimming again . . . the memory of water, and she knew how to stroke . . . butterfly . . . then butterflies . . . in her stomach . . . the mantra, Too much . . . too soon . . . And that *was* the problem: she thought too much-and stiffened and stepped away from him.
She put her hand on his chest as she struggled to breathe again. "Don't think you can start . . . running things, now, uh, Mr . . . uh, Mr. Steele." She had nearly drowned. Deep down, she did not want him to be in charge of her work, but she wouldn't mind . . . ha! *getting* a charge from this man. That was different altogether.
"Call me Remington." His blue eyes blazed as he took her hand and enfolded her again.
"I will not."
"It's my name now, isn't it?" His eyebrows rose.
"Well, I feel all right calling you Mr. Steele, but somehow it feels funny calling you 'Remington.' It's the brand name of a typewriter," she laughed, reestablishing some distance and her composure. He was enchanted with the sound.
He affirmed, "I knew someone named Remington. It's a perfectly respectable name."
She had started to sink down on the sofa again, but paused. "It's *not* your real name . . . Is it?" She started to squirm inside with the eerie possibility. "It *can't* be!"
Harry grew quiet and reflective. He sat down by her side and spoke very slowly. "'Who are you really?' says Rick Blaine in *Casablanca,*. . . Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman . . . Warner Brothers, 1942, 'And what were you before? What did you do, and what did you think?'"
He had a far-away look in his eyes. "And then Ilsa, whom he loves passionately, replies desperately, 'We said *no questions.*'"
Harry smiled ironically at Laura, hoping she would understand. "And Rick says, 'Here's looking at you, kid.'"
Laura smiled thoughtfully. "I guess I have been laying on the interrogation rather thick. I'm sorry."
"No, Laura, if I were in your shoes . . ." he shrugged and felt her dilemma. To lighten the mood, he continued, "But I did go to school once upon a time with a boy named Rayne, whose two brothers were Rhys and Remington." He played it again, "Now, Laura, say my name."
"All right. Remington." Matter of fact. Not the way he wanted to hear his new name spoken.
"Ask me to stay, and then say my name."
She didn't want to play. "This is ridiculous! We've already agreed to support you in the lifestyle that my Mr. Steele has been accustomed to. You're all set. Isn't that enough incentive?"
"Please? We both know I'm just having a little sport with you here. I'm flirting a bit because I find you lovely, and smart," he touched her hair, "and in need of . . ."
Putting her hand over his lips, her eyes shining, she laughed and teased in a sexy voice, "Mr. Steele."
He was always a catch-and-release kind of a guy, but he was feeling a tug of his own . . . was it on his heart? He thought for a minute, wondering about this beautiful and intelligent woman, whose life he had just upset and invaded, and who had just graciously and generously given him a new identity, and quite a comfortable life to go with it. It was the best setup he had ever had.
"I'm going to like this."
Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" provided the line: "O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek."
For Xenos, I wanted to add to the *charge* Laura would get: "Give me a full battery charge, rev my engine, fill my tank, and a complete lube job, puleeeeeze!" Hehe!
Stephanie Zimbalist's aunt is Marcia Davenport, the author of "The Constant Image" and a still-revered biography of Mozart.
Many readers have also noted the titles of Stephanie's plays: "Tea at Five" and "The Memory of Water."
Thanks for reading!