Part 10 - Broken Things
"Laura Holt calling for Mildred Krebbs," announced the nasal voice of the international operator. "Will you accept the charges?"
"Of course!" Mildred exclaimed. "Miss Holt! Hello! How are you and the boss? Is Paris wonderful? Tell me all about it! Not that I mind, Miss Holt, but why are you calling collect?"
"Mildred, slow down!" Laura urged, overwhelmed at the barrage of questions. "Yes, Mr. Steele and I are fine, but we're not in Paris anymore. We've hit a bit of a snag which is why I'm calling collect. I'll have to fill you in on all the details later. Right now, I'm just calling to check in."
"Oh." Mildred sounded glum. Laura knew that the older woman's head had been full of dreams for the two of them. "Well," Mildred said, adopting a more chipper tone, "my tour group white water rafted down the Colorado River! Miss Holt, it was so exciting! You should have been there!"
Laura laughed. "Next time, Mildred," she said, "next time." She hesitated, weighing her decision once again. The thing was that Laura had to tell someone; she felt close to bursting. Mildred was a more ideal candidate than Laura's mother or sister.
Absorbed in thought, Laura missed most of what Mildred had said. She tuned in to hear only the very end. "We're heading to Lake Powell next-bungee jumping from Rainbow Bridge!" Mildred concluded.
"What?" Laura felt her jaw drop.
"Ha ha! Got you, Miss Holt! Come on, honey; I can tell when someone isn't listening to me! Tell me what's going on, okay?"
Grinning, Laura shook her head. "Mildred, I have something important to tell you, but I'm counting on your being able to keep a secret."
"Oh! You can count on me, Miss Holt! Go ahead. Give! My lips are sealed!"
Laura could barely contain herself. She gripped the phone and curled her toes, allowing the suspense to build before making the announcement. "Mr. Steele proposed! We're getting married!"
Mildred let loose a whoop that raised the roof, and the two women engaged in a happy dance, partnered perfectly in spite of the fact that they were more than six thousand miles apart.
Laura went on to describe the proposal to Mildred in a vivid play-by-play description that left the older woman alternately sighing and crooning. It was immensely satisfying for Laura who so seldom had the opportunity to engage in girl talk with someone she trusted.
"We agreed that we're not actually getting married in Marseille," Laura felt compelled to add. "We're in a hurry."
"Oooh, Miss Holt, that's okay," Mildred said with a dreamy sigh. "You and the boss are perfect together. I'm so happy for the two of you!"
"Thank you, Mildred."
"Frankly, it's about time that Mr. Steele made an honest woman of you!" Mildred exclaimed.
"Agreed." Laura snickered. "Especially since my attempts to make an honest man out of him are only partially successful."
Following her conversation with Mildred, Laura went to take a quick shower. She figured she had just enough time before Harry returned. He had already been absent about an hour, having gone down to the docks to arrange for their passage on a ship bound for Greece.
The bathroom consisted of a small vanity and sink, a toilet and a shower stall. There was a lighting fixture mounted to the wall above the mirror. One of the two yellowed bulbs was burned out; the other flickered intermittently like a bug zapper on a summer night.
Laura turned on the water and allowed it to run while she stripped out of her old clothes and added them to the growing collection of laundry stuffed into her duffel. She and Harry were going to have to make the time to find a laundromat, or she was going to run out of stuff to wear!
The water temperature never rose above tepid. With a grimace, Laura climbed into the stall and endured a short, barely warm shower. She washed her hair with one of the little bottles of shampoo that the hotel provided and used a cheap conditioner that was guaranteed to leave her naturally curly hair snarled.
Laura shut off the water and wrapped herself in one of the small rough white bath towels. She heard movement in the other room announcing Harry's return while she was brushing her teeth. It was going to make for a bit of awkwardness considering that her clean clothes were laid out on the bed.
She spit and rinsed. "Harry, did you manage to find us a ship?" she called out. There was no answer; he must not have heard her.
Laura cracked the bathroom door and began to detangle her hair with a comb. "Harry?"
The bathroom door slammed open, and a stranger stepped into the bathroom, standing behind her. Laura faced him in the mirror. He had a Mediterranean complexion, black hair and black eyes. He stood five feet eight inches, weighed perhaps one hundred sixty-five pounds-factors that she calculated with lightening speed. He held a garrote between his hands-a piece of wire ligature about eighteen inches in length strung between two handles.
He came at her fast, stepping up to pin her against the vanity, bringing the garrote over her head. Laura ducked and failed to escape. She threw up her left hand and caught the thick wire against her palm, preventing it from cutting into her throat. Blood gushed from her hand, coating the wire and making it slicker.
They struggled in silence, grunting and gasping in exertion. Laura had no idea exactly how much time passed, but it felt like forever; she knew that she was in real trouble when her vision began to dim. The garrote was closing on the sides of her throat, restricting her airflow.
Her towel had been secured with the corner tucked inside the edge beneath her upper arm. It came free, leaving her naked and exposed beneath the man's violating gaze.
Her assailant sneered and transferred both halves of the garrote to his right hand. With his left, he reached between them. Laura felt his hand groping her backside, loosening the fly of his pants.
Laura snarled and twisted in order to grab hold of his left shoulder with her right hand. She bent forward and used leverage to throw him over her shoulder. The garrote loosened, and abruptly, she was free, gasping for breath.
Her attacker landed half on the vanity, his back across the faucet and sink, his torso tipping toward the floor. His feet kicked upward and connected with the mirror, and it broke. Glass flew everywhere.
Laura bolted for the outer room; the man rolled off the vanity and grabbed for her. He seized her ankle, and they both went down hard on the broken glass. The fall left Laura momentarily stunned, and her attacker tried to mount her again from behind. The tile was cold and wet beneath her bare body.
Her gaze fell on a six-inch glass shard lying about a foot from her face. She felt his hands on her backside and felt him working his pants again. Grasping, she seized the shard of the mirror, unaware of how the edges sliced open her palm and fingers.
Twisting, she thrust the makeshift dagger into his face. It penetrated his eye socket, slicing the gelatinous orb open. Blood spilled out and he screamed, reeling away from her.
"Laura!" Harry appeared shouting her name. Laura collided with him on her way out of the bathroom; he was blocking her only route of escape. For a couple of seconds, she attacked him blindly, pounding her small fists against his chest; he held her with tight hands on her upper arms.
His expression was one of shock as he stared past her into the bathroom at her injured assailant. Pitiful wails rose up from the man who clawed at his face.
When Harry looked back, his face was set in granite. His jaw muscles were rigidly clenched, and Laura had never seen a colder, more violent light in his beautiful blue eyes.
Harry turned, picking her up and setting her down within the safety of the bedroom. He released her and Laura scrambled to the bed. Without a word, he disappeared into the bathroom; a few seconds later the animal-like sounds ceased.
Harry returned and closed the bathroom door behind him. Laura saw him shove the blood-covered garrote into his coat pocket. He ran to her. Laura stared at him with unblinking eyes. A part of her mind was functioning rationally, interpreting and processing information. He had killed for her. The thought disturbed her more for what it would do to Harry's sensitive soul than any real regret for the loss of a despicable human life.
"Laura, we need to get you dressed and out of here," he said, and it was a command. In shock, she nodded and obeyed. Harry helped her dress, putting on the clothes that she had laid out on the bed. He shoved her lacerated feet into shoes. Laura did not feel the pain; she felt nothing. Adrenaline, endorphins, whatever it was that carried people through catastrophes had her firmly in its grip.
Harry grabbed both their duffels and led her to the door. Together, they ran.
Their hotel room was on the second story; the walkways were outside with stairs leading down to the parking lot. They had almost made it to the stairs when Harry spotted three men on the landing, coming up. He grabbed Laura's shoulders and spun her around. Laura heard shouts coming from the men who were most likely her attacker's companions.
"This way! Run!" They reversed course and flew down the walkway, descending a different flight of stairs at a breakneck pace. Harry kept Laura in front of him which worried her but only distantly. She was not in the best mental place; it was easier to allow him to make the decisions.
Harry directed them toward the water and Laura ran, pouring her entire being into her stride as she did when she ran for fun or exercise. The whole world dropped away, taking her cares and concerns with it.
They reached the docks and sped past fishermen, sailors and dockworkers. The harbor was full of freighters and sailing vessels, and after a while, Laura had no idea where they were going or where they had been. All she knew was that they were still being chased.
At Harry's urging, Laura turned left, heading down a pier that took them toward the ocean. Midway down, he grabbed Laura's arm and yanked her aside, secreting them behind a large pallet of crates. For a second Laura resisted him, an intense need to continue running driving her.
"Shh, trust me." Harry pulled Laura to him, holding her tight. Their chests heaved together as they sought to catch their breath. Their pursuers were drawing inevitably closer-and Laura had no idea why they had stopped to hide.
In the distance she heard an animal keening-a high-pitched eerie sound that made her wish someone would put the poor creature out of its misery.
"Laura, hush, please. Hush, love, or they're going to find us," Harry pleaded, rocking her back and forth. He sounded close to tears.
Laura twitched and startled with self-realization. Was that God-awful sound coming from her?
A man appeared around the corner of the crates, confronting Harry. He was small and quick, speaking to him in rapid Greek. Laura received the impression of distinguished authority; the little man had a commanding air about him.
Harry replied in Greek, and while Laura did not understand a word that was said, she recognized the sound of pleading. It was unfathomable; she had never heard Harry beg to anyone before. He might cajole, wheedle, seduce or persuade, but he had too much pride to beg.
Laura leveraged herself away from Harry's chest in order to get a better look at the spry Greek man. He stared at her and she gazed back, unaware of how horrid she looked with sopping wet hair, bloody hands and clothes and vacant eyes.
A discordance of voices shouting announced the arrival of their pursuers. Laura and Harry both reacted with obvious fear, tensing visibly. Harry offered a rapid explanation and gave a broad wave of his hand in the direction of the men. The spry Greek man bestowed one final penetrating look upon the pair hiding next to his ship and then turned and left them.
Laura heard the men's raised voices conversing in French. She suffered in terrified silence, the same as Harry, only without the benefit of being able to understand what was said. It was only when she felt Harry breathe again that she relaxed her death grip upon him.
"Oh, thank God, he sent them away," Harry told her, perhaps belatedly realizing that the entire conversation had been incomprehensible to her.
The Greek man returned, and Harry delivered profuse thanks in Greek before switching to English. "Laura, this is Captain Gabris. We're sailing with him to Mykonos."
Turning her head to the side, Captain Gabris was the last thing Laura saw before her consciousness blacked out. She thought that she managed to say hello, but the world dropped away too quickly to be certain.
Laura awoke to pain and the stringent odor of alcohol. She winced as a cut across her abdomen was swabbed clean and yet another bandage was applied to her body. A few seconds of self-awareness revealed that her hands and feet had already been attended to and were mummy-wrapped in cotton gauze.
The woman bent over her uttered a sharp command in Greek. A moment later Harry was present, translating for Laura. "Laura, this is Basilia, Captain Gabris' wife. She says that you are to lie still."
Laura made no reply, simply gazing up at him in mute silence. She seemed to have lost her voice sometime during the chase and lacked the willpower necessary to summon it.
Harry looked awful. His expression was set in misery, and she longed to comfort him but instead remained quiet and obediently still while Basilia finished cleaning her injuries. Afterward, she was wrapped in a coarse blanket, and Harry carried her below deck to a small room.
Laura slept and did not awaken again until late that evening.
Laura sat cross-legged on the bunk in the tiny crew quarters that they had been assigned. Her hair was everywhere-flipped forward over her face, sticking out in wild and crazy directions. It had dried uncombed and thus had tangled into a hopeless rat's nest.
Fighting tears, Laura attacked it again with the comb, grabbing a random section and thrusting the comb's teeth into the mess. She yanked hard and then yelped as a clump of living hair was yanked out by the roots.
Furious, she threw the comb and clump at the bulkhead, feeling hot tears coursing down her cheeks. She barely had any dexterity of hands thanks to the bandages wrapped around her palms; only the ends of her fingers protruded from the bindings.
Harry left his position of exile against the bulkhead and went to pick up the comb. He came to her then, making soft soothing sounds as he approached as if she were a wild animal. His weight settled tentatively on the bunk beside her, just one knee.
"Here, let me," he said, smoothing the hair out of Laura's face with his hand. He made no mention of her tears once they were revealed. Instead, he groomed her hair back and then chose a small second patch and began to work the snarls free with the sort of meticulous patience that only he brought to tedious tasks.
At first Laura could only think of her attacker. Her gut churned with revulsion and shame and anger-oh, so much anger. Only there was a world of difference between Harry's caring touch and the way her attacker had abused her.
Laura remained wire-taut beneath his touch, only gradually relaxing until finally she lay with her head in his lap, clinging to him while he worked. Eventually, her angry sobs gave way to weeping, and finally, she was too dry to produce another tear.
Harry ran a hand through her hair, and the strands flowed through his fingers. Every last snarl had been removed. "Laura, I'm taking you home as soon as this ship puts into port," he announced.
Laura went from being water to steel in an instant. Her head shot off his lap, and she sat upright. "What? No! We're on a case!" she argued. "Why would we give up now?"
"Laura!" Her name was a cry wrenched from the depths of Harry's soul. "Laura, you were raped! I saw-" His teeth gnashed, jaw clenched so tight that she worried about his teeth.
"Oh, oh no-" Her face drained of blood. He believed she had been violated. She felt more shame over Harry's believing it than the actual memory of her attacker's hands on her flesh. Did Harry think she was dirty? This whole time he had been thinking-
"I should have been there to protect you," Harry said. "This is my fault. I knew there were people after us, and I left you alone. That bastard-" His hands clenched into fists and he doubled over. He had that same murderous rage in his blue eyes that she had seen just before he entered the bathroom.
"Oh, God, no," Laura croaked.
"We need to get you home-to see a doctor," Harry insisted, not hearing her denial such was his guilt and anger.
"He tried," Laura told him. She kept her hands to herself, longing to touch him, unable to bridge the small deep divide between them. They had never been so far apart.
"Laura, I saw," Harry insisted. Harry gazed at her with misgiving, uncertain if she was to be believed. Laura supposed that it was natural enough for him to doubt-to wonder if she would lie about it to protect him.
"He tried, but he got something caught in his eye," Laura said with savage satisfaction. Her anger toward her attacker trumped everything else-feelings of shame and helplessness were felled before it.
"The truth?" Harry pleaded, obviously wanted so very badly to believe her.
"He tried and he failed," she assured him, putting her entire force of being into her gaze, willing him to believe her. One day ago, they would have been touching, but it was as if over four years of familiarity had vanished overnight. They were strangers.
Harry nodded in uneasy acceptance. "I'm more worried about you than me," Laura said softly. Everything was falling apart. She was going to lose him over something she could not control.
She drew a startled look from him. "Me?" he asked. "Why ever?"
"You killed a man, Harry," she said and he flinched. He looked away, and the dim light of the cabin reflected off wetness on his cheeks. "I wish it had been me. You're going to suffer more for it than I would have."
"Better me than you, Laura," he said. "Better me than you." And then he turned and left her alone in the small room beneath the sea.
Part 11 - Maltese Confessions
"Harry!" Captain Gabris appeared on the aft deck, moving with swift sure strides. The Greek man wore a look of irate determination upon his face. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Helping?" Harry set down the crate that he had been about to haul to the cargo lift. He had been working alongside the crew for two days straight, immersed in the exhausting physical labor that allowed him to fall into a dead sleep at night.
His skin had begun to bronze thanks to continuous exposure to the Mediterranean sun, and he wore an outer coating of salt from sweat and sea that had chafed his skin raw in places. The work was hard, but it freed him from the burden of thought, of introspection and self-reflection.
"Well, you're not paying me enough to help!" Gabris scolded. "My Basilia is fit to be tied! She says that you're neglecting your wife! You are to cease, or I shall have no peace!"
"Eh, Basilia said what?" Harry asked, not because of a failure to understand the words, but because the accusation caught him completely off guard.
It was true; he spent his days on the deck while Laura remained below, resting and healing. However, at night, they shared a bunk, lying together but apart. They barely spoke, but Laura cried, and sometimes Harry did too. She sobbed; he wept silent tears, but he thought she knew.
"We are into port until sundown. You are to take your wife ashore and pay attention to her!" Gabris ordered, advancing on Harry in a threatening manner.
Rather than pick a fight with the man who had saved them, Harry chose to make a strategic retreat. He owed Crius and Basilia far too much to repay their charity with disrespect.
"We are not strangers to Malta, Crius," he explained. "The last time we were here, Laura left me stranded at sea." In revenge for the raft, he had arranged for her arrest. Their first trip to Malta, Laura had locked the connecting door of their hotel rooms and almost been murdered as a result. He chose not to go into detail-their antics could only leave sane people believing the pair of them to be lunatics.
"Your Laura is a beautiful woman," Gabris said, shooting Harry a look of contempt. "You refuse to speak of what happened to you in Marseille-fair enough. But any fool can see that she was attacked. She needs her husband, yet here you are toiling away on the deck of my ship like some damned fool."
Harry lowered his eyes, unable to meet the other man's condemning gaze. He ran a hand through his hair, exhaling long and slow. "Aye, you're right," he agreed, ashamed of his own cowardice.
"I don't understand what was so important that you had to drag me out here to the middle of nowhere," Laura said, glancing around the desolate beach in confusion.
She sat astride a docile sorrel mare, her feet dangling against the flanks of the horse instead of resting securely in the stirrups. Her feet remained bandaged, restricting Laura's movement. Harry had carried her from the carriage he had contracted to transport them from the Calypso to the stable; he had lifted her from the carriage to the saddle of the horse he had chosen for her.
"What's so important? I'll tell you what's so important!" Harry declared dramatically, dismounting the gray gelding he rode. His mount was more spirited than Laura's, and he had caught her envious glances. However, she had not argued with him when he had selected an animal suited to her physical condition.
He tied the gelding's reins to a branch and did the same with Laura's mare, leaving the horses in a shaded location that afforded suitable grazing. Then he helped Laura down, swinging her into his arms.
She squirmed, her small form shifting against his chest, and he swallowed hard, fighting down his body's instinctive reaction to her feminine charms. The last thing she needed was his rutting after her like a randy dog, not after what she had endured.
He hurried and carried her to a white sand beach, settling her beneath a palm tree. It was balmy and breezy, and they had an unobstructed view of the azure water. The ocean was dotted with boats of all sizes and shapes for as far as the eye could see.
"See?" he said, making a grand sweeping gesture with his hand. "See-Malta! We're on a sultry Mediterranean island together! No bodies, no Mildred, not a shovel or mercenary in sight!" He shot her a sideways glance to see if she shared his enthusiasm.
Laura laughed for the first time since the attack in Marseille, and it was like having his sun emerge again after being so long hidden behind clouds. She reached for his hand, and he held hers, luxuriating in the simple contact.
They sat together for a long time, gazing out at the ocean, watching waves churn in and out with the eternal rhythm of the sea. "You were right; this was important. Thank you, thank you for bringing me here," Laura said eventually.
He nodded, pleased. It was a small thing, but for the first time in days, he felt as if their connection was restored, as delicate and tenuous as it might be. It was the first step on the road home.
"Laura," he began uncertainly, "I don't know what to say, but we desperately need to talk."
"That's usually my line," Laura shot back with an expression on her face that he could not interpret. All he knew was that her smile was gone.
Harry swallowed, closing his eyes briefly. He knew fear; lately, he lived with it every waking moment of every day. He was losing her. The time in Paris had given him just a taste of life with her; then cruel fate had yanked her from his grasp far too soon.
"Today, it's mine," he said, hoarse with emotion. He looked down and to the side, away from her. He sensed Laura's movement rather than saw it and flinched slightly when her hands touched his shoulder.
"Harry, why?" Laura asked. She allowed her hand to fall away. "Why do you shy away from touching me? Is it-do I disgust you?"
"What?" He swung on her, shocked speechless at such ridiculous rubbish. The look on Laura's face stopped him dead. Her eyes were round with unshed tears; her expression was a mask of misery. She seriously thought it possible-that he considered her dirty or damaged.
"I tell myself that it's completely irrational agonizing about such a thing," she continued. "I know you well enough, I think, to realize that you're fixated on what that man did to me, and then I start to worry-"
"Oh God, no, Laura, love. You could never disgust me. You're beautiful." He reached for her as he was prone to do, seizing both sides of her head with his hands, pulling her into a hard open-mouthed kiss. For the first time in days, he did not worry about frightening or repulsing her, and she rewarded his aggression, emitting a moan of pleasure, scrambling closer until their legs were pressed together.
The kiss lasted forever and solved many, if not all, of their problems. "I'm a bloody idiot," Harry said once they eventually broke apart to breathe and hug one another. Touch was the affirmation of life and love in all human cultures; they clung. "I was afraid that my touch would repulse you after the way that animal attacked you."
"No," she said, "your touch is what makes me forget."
"We'll have to be sure that you receive plenty of it, then, eh?" He grinned and was delighted with the way she curled against him.
Her right hand rose to his face. Her palm remained wrapped, but the fingers were free to rub at the scruff growing on his cheeks and jaw. "You're getting furry," Laura mused.
"Does it bother you?" he asked. It was difficult to remain clean shaven on a freighter; the facilities were minimal.
"It's very rakish on you," Laura responded with a sly smile as she pulled him down for another kiss. It seemed that he would be getting no straight answers anytime soon.
"These misunderstandings do seem to define our relationship," Laura said sometime later. She gave a shaky laugh. "Do you remember our last visit to Malta?"
"All too well," he replied. "The infamous Cannes Agreement: strictly business as I recall."
"That was a mistake." Laura's hand crept to her mouth, and she worried her thumbnail. "We've made so many mistakes over the last several years."
"Strictly business was your idea," Harry pointed out, more than ready to place blame where it belonged for that particularly miserable period of their association. "I'll admit-I screwed up. I should have trusted you in Cannes. But business only was a completely unnecessary test also."
Laura's eyebrows shot up, and she looked at him sharply. "Test? What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means what it means, Laura," he returned. "You were testing me again-looking to prove that I'd hang around while there was no possibility of sex."
Laura's delicate complexion colored a deep pink. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"Laura, let's be honest if we're going to discuss it at all," he continued, rather enjoying his ability to tease her while addressing what had been one of the more tumultuous trials of their entire relationship.
"I guess maybe I wondered if you'd stay for the agency when sex was off the table," Laura admitted reluctantly.
"See," he said, "that's where you underestimated us both. You know I'm a connoisseur of exquisite things. My staying had nothing to do with sex or the agency and everything to do with the value of the woman."
Laura looked at him, clearly startled; then the meaning of his statement registered, and she turned a lovely shade of red. "Thank you," she muttered, wiggling her toes in the sand.
"You're welcome." He reveled in the sweetness of the moment. Her value to him was such a simple truth, yet he had held off for years in revealing it to her, afraid that she would attribute it to nothing more than empty flattery.
"Wilson burned me. I changed after him-maybe for the worst. I put every last part of me that wasn't organized or controlling under lock and key," Laura muttered, an unexpected admission that caused him to straighten. It was not anything he did not already know, but it was something that Laura never discussed.
"I know," he said. "I've seen tantalizing glimpses of the real you. I've wished desperately that you trusted me enough to be yourself with me."
"If the real me is too wild or crazy or dangerous?" Laura clearly wanted reassurance that she would not get left if she let her guard down.
"Do you remember to whom you're talking?" he chided, giving her a quick lift of his eyebrows for emphasis.
Laura tilted her head back to take a long view of him. Her smile was a smirk and contained a hint of promise. "Do you really want to let that genie out of the bottle?" she asked.
"Absolutely," he said, grinning. He caught her bandaged foot, tugging at her bare toes. "Do your worst."
"I might surprise you," Laura said, thoughtful and teasing at once.
"I'm looking forward to it," he promised.
Crius' Calypso put into port on the Greek island of Mykonos. Laura and Harry bid their new friends farewell and then boarded a ferry bound for Tinos and then another for Kato Aghio Petros. The final ferry to Rafina deposited the travel weary pair upon the Grecian mainland.
"I need a shower, a meal and a new pair of shoes-in that order," Laura said as they trudged down the hallway of the Hotel Corali which was located in Rafina's central square.
"How are your feet?" Harry asked in concern as he unlocked their hotel room which was located-at his specific request and out of consideration for Laura's injuries-on the ground floor.
"Aching," Laura replied.
"Rafina has limited shopping," he cautioned her. The city was small with a population of perhaps five thousand. Laura might be disappointed with its offerings.
"I don't need a mall," Laura replied as they inspected their room and began to get settled. "I need some solid sandals and a couple of changes of fresh clothes."
"Would you like company?" Harry asked, though his heart was not in the offer. He had other things he would much rather be doing. "I could stand to acquire a new shirt," he admitted when he drew a skeptical glance from Laura.
"Thanks, but I could use some down time to myself. I'll pick up something for you," Laura said. "You could use some new socks and underwear too. I know your sizes."
"That may be the most wifely thing I've ever heard you say," Harry teased with a sudden grin. He was starting to get used to the idea of-and was also looking forward to-their impending marriage.
"Watch it, buddy." Laura's hand danced close to his face, threatening a smack. With lightening quick reflexes, Harry caught it, kissed her palm and then inspected the healing lacerations. She had removed the bandages that morning.
"You'll have some very fine scarring," he said.
"Just as long as I regain full use, I don't mind. I was lucky not to sever a tendon," Laura replied. He nodded and traced the longest pink line with his fingertip, and she shivered.
"Take it easy on your feet, all right?" He leaned forward to press a kiss to her cheek and then her lips.
"I will," Laura promised with a small smile.
Harry wound up inside Aghios Nikolaos-a small white church that was Rafina's most famous landmark. It was built where an old Italian fort had once stood on the hill overlooking the harbor.
He sat alone on one of the benches at the back of the church, staring off into the middle distance. The killing in Marseille had left him deeply troubled although he went to great lengths to hide his anxiety from Laura. The taking of a human life-no matter how despicable-was repugnant to him. Yet, he had never experienced anything like the murderous rage that had gripped him when he had first discovered Laura naked and bleeding-and he had believed she had been raped.
Harry leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, head bent as he grappled with how to pray. He believed in God but had never been religious; however, it was the need to unburden his soul of guilt that had led him to his current circumstance. A part of him doubted that he could be forgiven for such an awful act, which made asking that much harder.
There was a soft rustling as another visitor took a seat on the bench beside him. The scent of lavender filled his nostrils; Harry recognized it from the plane. The CIA had found him.
"Hello, Doris," he greeted without looking. "Small world, isn't it?"
"Getting smaller every day, Mr. Quintain," Dorie said. Her reply was light and quick and full of irony.
"Today, I'm just Harry."
"Harry, then." Doris nodded. "I come bearing gifts."
"Are you Greek?"
"No, I'm Welsh on my mother's side, Italian on my father's."
"Fair enough, then," he said. "Go on."
"The Royal Lavulite and the computer chip are only a day ahead of you and Miss Holt," she explained. "We managed to delay the shipment for two days in Rome. Apollo Kalivas received it this morning."
"So all is not lost?" Honestly, Harry had lost track of his sense of urgency. The trip had been trying and exhausting, and it was only Laura's sheer cussed determination that had kept them on course.
"Not yet," Doris assured him, "but you'll need to act fast. The good news is that the blueprints of Kalivas' estate and security system that we provided you in Paris are still relevant. Have you studied them?"
"I understand what needs to be done well enough," Harry said. "There are still a few details that I'm working out."
"Work fast," the CIA agent urged. "Kalivas' daughter is getting married in two days, and he's throwing a huge celebration. The computer chip and gems will be locked in the safe; it's the ideal opportunity for you to slip in unnoticed."
He nodded, hesitated and ventured, "About Marsielle-"
"All taken care of," Doris assured him. "It took some doing, but we cleaned up the mess." She noticed his wince and laid a hand on his arm. "Don't take it so hard, Harry. You did what any man in your shoes would have done. We've taken care of the Algerians that were after you also."
"Ah, so it's safe for me to return to France?" he asked.
"Safe as houses."
"How reassuring," he said, faintly bitter.
"It has come to our attention how you were mistakenly involved in this operation in the first place," Doris told him. "We're aware that you aren't being compensated; we want you to know that your services are appreciated. The Company remembers its friends."
Harry glanced at her sharply, feeling vaguely threatened and not at all reassured. He could not wait to complete the mission and get back to the much simpler life of Remington Steele.
"Doris, I'm going to need a few things," he told her.
The older woman produced a notepad from her handbag. "Fire away, handsome."
Part 12 - Breaking and Entering
Laura returned from her shopping expedition toting three bags and a box. Enough money had been spent and enough purchases made to satisfy her female sensibilities. She had acquired new tops, skirts and lingerie. For Harry she had picked out two lightweight shirts in styles he favored along with socks and boxers, including a pair of white silk shorts covered in red hearts.
She found Harry on the bed crouched over blueprints. "This was what you've been doing?" she asked dryly.
"What needs to be done, Laura, if we are to be finished with this infernal assignment and free once more to resume our idyllic lives," he replied, looking up. "Did you find new shoes?"
"Right here." She patted the top of the box as she set both it and the packages down. She came to stand over him, observing him at work. He was always so utterly intent and absorbed while planning a job. The severity of expression enhanced his masculine beauty.
"How is it coming?" she asked.
"Well enough. I've worked out most of the kinks." He looked up then, blue eyes regarding her intently. The evaluative once-over he gave her made Laura take note.
"What is it?"
"I have two potential plans," Harry explained. "One is more dangerous than the other, especially if I'm going in alone. Are you feeling up to a break-in?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world."
He patted the bed beside him. "I'll bring you up to speed."
"Hardly your most persuasive line for coaxing me onto a bed," Laura muttered beneath her breath. Ever since Malta, they had engaged in a long slow dance, a resumption of sexual tension, a courtship that Harry refused to rush.
"Excuse me?" He looked up-clueless? Could he really be so oblivious? He was driving her mad.
"Nothing," Laura muttered, perching upon the edge of the bed.
He grinned, blue eyes gleaming with a wicked playfulness, and he caught her with his arms. "For effect, it seems to have worked," he teased, stealing one soft kiss and then another.
He rolled her onto the blueprints which crinkled beneath her back. Laura fought laughter and lost. "You call this catching me up?"
His fingers stroked the side of her face; his lips grazed hers. "I call this catching up," he agreed between kisses.
"This is risky. We might be seen," Laura said, glancing up at the full moon overhead. The pair stood alongside a fence that surrounded the Kalivas estate-an immense piece of land along the coast that was west of Athens on the Mediterranean Sea.
Apollo Kalivas had chosen a beautiful August night to host the wedding celebration for his daughter. The balmy Mediterranean heat made their apparel all that more uncomfortable. Harry wore a tuxedo and looked delectable. Laura had on a tight top, trim jeans and running shoes-all black. Harry carried a leather satchel that Laura would smuggle into the main house while he walked in through the front door.
"No choice," Harry replied, spanning his hands across her narrow waist, boosting her above his head. Laura grabbed hold of the bars of the iron fence and gritted her teeth, hauling herself to the top of the eight-foot-high enclosure. Harry's hands were on her backside, supporting and lifting her higher.
Laura reached the top of the fence and perched, panting and wincing at the pain the physical exertion caused her tender feet. Within seconds Harry joined her on the pinnacle. He climbed with fluid grace. His lean body always belied his lithe strength, and it was only when he was in motion that it became evident.
"Laura?" he asked, concerned.
"I'm fine." She nodded.
He dropped and she followed him over, falling into his arms. He caught her neatly, hands under her arms, sparing her the jolt of a hard landing. In all his years as her partner through one caper after another, he had never failed to catch her, and there had been many times when her life had depended upon his competence. She could not fault his behavior while she had been recovering. Harry had been solicitous-helpful, considerate, gentle-to a fault.
Laura allowed her hands to linger on his biceps and forearms, savoring his hardness. By no means oblivious, he slid his hands across her back. Their attention to one another was methodical and deliberate and completely conscious. It was a dance meant to end only one way. Yet, the anticipation was destroying Laura's control from the inside out, and she felt the wildest part of her rising to the surface.
The din of the party filled the night air, coming primarily from the rear of the house where guests had gathered around banquet tables and the outdoor dance floor. Harry and Laura had entered onto the property from one of the sides where they were less likely to run into wandering guests.
They were halfway to the house when voices greeted them-a couple reveling in passionate drunkenness, laughing and carrying on. Although Laura understood not a single word of Greek, their intent was clear enough.
The couple reached them with startling swiftness. Harry latched onto Laura's wrist and yanked her to him. His mouth smothered hers, and he backed her against the trunk of an olive tree, covering her body with his own. It was a clever maneuver designed to conceal Laura's unusual attire.
"Harry," Laura whispered, linking her hands on the back of his neck. She was starved for erotic contact, and he suffered also. His body communicated its pent-up frustration; she could smell his sweat and feel the way his chest heaved and heart raced at her proximity.
"They're not leaving," Harry muttered against her mouth. Their teeth touched, and it was all Laura could do not to reach for the front of his silk shirt.
"I can't take much more of this," Laura told him. They slid together, touching at torso, hip and thigh. Her warning carried so many more layers than he could ever suspect. His unequivocal assurances that she was safe with him to be herself had tugged a thread from the tapestry of her self-control. A temptress was rising within Laura, and she only prayed that he loved her enough.
"Me neither." He pressed his face alongside hers. His quick clever hand slipped forward, taking a liberty he seldom indulged although she had long ago ceased to object. He cupped her breast against his palm, massaging her through blouse and bra. Laura whimpered and closed her eyes. Her need of him was immense and determined to escape, to be shared as it was meant.
"I love you," Laura whispered, pressing her face against his throat. It was the second time she had said it aloud. He had knowledge of it, but she had not worked up the nerve since that night in Paris to give him the words. It was unfair because she knew he craved love with the intensity of a child unloved.
A jolt ripped through Harry. His response was involuntary; his movements powerful and masculine and aggressive. He was upon her like a fever. His kiss dominated and claimed, taking possession of her. He never touched her without control, but they were both lost to reason within a heartbeat.
His knee parted her thighs, pinning her against the trunk. His hands worshiped the curve of her breasts through the thin material of her top. Laura gasped at the unexpected contact. Her fingers clung to his hair, and she moaned into his mouth, riding his thigh. The contact was exquisite torture.
He was a fine rooster-stiff and erect and bold. His tongue delved into her mouth, and she closed on it, suckling and nipping, and then his hands were on her ass, lifting her higher, parting her thighs so he stood between them. The evidence of his desire was there, straining against the front of his trousers, secure against her sex. Laura gripped him with her inner thighs, the same as any mount-horse or man. Harry set the rhythm, grinding them together against the trunk of the tree.
Then the partygoers were past, and Harry lowered her to the ground, eliciting an involuntary cry of denial from Laura. "Ooohhh!" Laura seethed, curling her fingers into her palms to stop herself from grabbing hold and pulling him back.
"No time for dalliances, Laura. We've got work to do," Harry chided with tongue in cheek. Her consolation was his obvious discomfort. He dragged a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face. His hands shook; it was clear how close he had come to taking her against the tree without regard for propriety or the job.
Laura waited, crouched in bushes along the side of the house. She heard crunching and rustling and tensed, relaxing only when Harry joined her.
"I've cut the cables that feed the images from the security cameras to the office," he told her. "Only two of their monitors will go down. With any luck the guard will assume that it's a malfunction."
"Let's just hope that no one wants to disturb the boss about technology glitches on his daughter's wedding night," Laura said grimly. Harry nodded, making no verbal reply.
Laura's access point to the building was to be a small rectangular basement window. Tall hedges afforded excellent cover for the crouching pair of thieves. Harry used a glass cutter to create a small round opening, and then he reached inside and unlocked the latch. The window swung on a hinge, making the fit even tighter.
"Feet first. If you get stuck, I want to be able to pull you back," he advised. Laura did as he advised, pointing her legs toward the narrow opening. It was her job to make the initial penetration of the house and gain access to the secured areas.
"I thought you measured," Laura fumed, easing first her feet and then her calves through the window.
"That was before you ate all of that baklava last night," Harry said, earning a sharp jab from Laura's fist to his arm.
Then her hips were in the frame, and their banter ended. Harry's hands supported her head and shoulders, keeping her stable and off the ground. "How're you doing?" he asked.
"Regretting that baklava," Laura muttered, squirming a bit because it was difficult to gain leverage, and the idea of getting stuck scared her.
"Easy does it." Harry held steady, and Laura's hips gradually passed the entry, allowing her waist to skim through. Her lower half was left dangling, and the squeeze was on again as she tried to fit her upper torso through the opening as well.
The metal scraped uncomfortably against her breasts, and tears pricked at her eyes. Laura stretched her arms over her head in an attempt to make herself long and skinny. In doing so, she lost all momentum, and it was Harry who propelled her the last couple of feet.
It was a huge relief when Laura finally cleared the window and dropped to the floor of the wine cellar. She crouched in the dark for a few moments, catching her breath. She removed a small flashlight from her pocket, switched it on and shone it around the room. The beam of light revealed rows of bottles resting upon wooden wine racks-all was as it should be.
"Laura?" Harry's voice floated down to her, hushed and concerned. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Laura stood and put her face and hand to the window. "Pass me the bag."
He did so. "I'll go around and meet you inside," he said. "Laura, be careful." He gazed at her, clearly hating leaving her alone.
"I'll be fine," Laura assured and shooed him on his way.
Laura had committed the blueprint of the basement to memory. Aiming the flashlight, she made her way through the wine cellar and into an adjacent hallway. There were laundry facilities and a locked door that led to the security rooms where the lavulite and computer chip were being kept.
There was a number pad that controlled access to the door. It was unlike their usual break-in which required nothing more challenging than a set of lock picks, and Laura was nervous even though Harry had coached her. They were working with strange technology that Doris Heskel had supplied.
She knelt and opened the satchel, extracting a screwdriver which she used to remove the housing of the keypad. From there she got out a piece of portable equipment that Harry had explained as a decryption device-a computer that would figure out the security code.
Laura attached the decryption device via two wires to connectors within the housing. Then she punched in the activation sequence and waited pensively, keeping a sharp eye on the stairs. It would be a lousy time for a member of the household staff to decide to visit the wine cellar.
Lights and numbers flashed on the LED; perhaps five minutes later, a sequence of five numbers was locked on the screen. The door emitted an audible click. Laura propped the door open just an inch to keep the lock from engaging again.
Hastily, Laura disconnected the wires and shoved the tools back into the satchel. She replaced the housing on the number pad and then crept past the door and into another short hallway, allowing the security door to shut behind her.
The lighting in the hall was recessed, and an eerie ambient glow emerged from the room at the end. Pressed against the wall, Laura peered around the corner into a room full of computer terminals and security monitors. As Harry had promised, two of the television screens flickered with snow because of the lack of input.
There was a single man bent over a computer, munching on a plate full of food. He had his back to the dead security monitors and appeared to have not even noticed the malfunction. The computer in front of him was DOS-based; the monitor glowed with surreal green text on black background that caused Laura's eyes to water just looking at it.
Laura estimated that there were perhaps six feet between them, leaving her with the quandary of how to approach him. She needed to get close without having him hit the alarm button.
In the end Laura opted for a combination of stealth and guile. She traveled about two feet into the room and then stopped. "Excuse me!" she exclaimed, causing the man to start and spin in his swivel chair. "Is this the way to the ladies' room? I seem to be lost!"
The man answered in Greek, speaking sharply. He stood, reaching for her, a bruising hand locking on her arm. Laura caught a glimpse of Latin features-brown hair, mocha skin, dark eyes-and a frame that was both muscular and lean. He wore bifocals and had a scar on his chin that ran laterally from his lower lip, bisecting his face. He was the most unlikely computer technician that Laura had ever seen.
He said something in Italian and then repeated the phrase in Spanish. Laura managed to catch the general gist: you don't belong in here.
"I'm sorry. I don't understand," Laura apologized as he snarled at her. He had a cruel touch, reminding her of another man. She yanked her hand out of his grasp and with the other took the Taser from within the confines of the satchel.
Laura shoved the Taser at the man's chest and activated it. The Taser delivered approximately thirty seconds of electrical pulses that overrode the command and control systems of his body. Then she secured the man in a corner, binding his hands and feet with bungee cords.
It took her a minute or so to figure out the security console. On one of the monitors, she spied Harry loitering casually in the upstairs hallway outside of the other secured entryway to the basement. He held a glass of champagne and appeared in his element-classy and elegant from head to toe.
They had discussed using handheld radios but had ultimately deemed it too risky. Harry needed to blend in and avoid suspicious behavior, so while they carried the radios in case of an emergency, their plan relied upon coordination and stealth.
Laura located the correct button and buzzed Harry in through the upstairs door. His reaction was feline. He grabbed the handle as soon as the lock released, glanced around one final time to be sure it was clear and then slipped through the door.
Part 13 - Theft and Seduction
"Did you encounter any problems?" Harry asked, joining Laura in the security rooms which were the heart of the estate. Having penetrated this deeply, their risk of capture declined precipitously. Nonetheless, he guarded against becoming careless whenever he had Laura along on a job.
"Not a one," Laura replied with a well deserved smugness. Harry surveyed the room and discovered that she had the single occupant secured and unconscious in the corner.
"Nice work," he complimented and Laura preened. Really, he had expected nothing less. The woman was competent to a fault, and she had absorbed everything he had told her with unerring precision.
"The safe is over here," Laura told him, pointing to the wall on the opposite side of the room.
"I have to hand it to Doris-so far her schematics have been spot on," he said. Harry followed Laura to the safe, extracting a portable torch kit with an oxy-acetylene tank from the satchel. It was a miniature torch-the tank would only last for a few minutes-and he had not been able to bring a second because of its weight.
"Let's hope her accuracy continues to hold true," Laura said, verbalizing Harry's thoughts precisely.
Harry pulled a pair of goggles over his head, leaving them perched on his brow while he studied the safe. He measured the dimensions, calculated from memory, and then measured again.
"Measure twice, cut once," Laura said, watching him from a few feet back. He could feel her eyes on him as he would her hands, and it was an intensely erotic experience-being subject to her scrutiny while in the middle of such a delicate operation.
"Precisely," Harry agreed, pursing his lips. Her observations pleased him. If they ever fell upon times hard enough to necessitate a life of thievery, she was going to make a sublime partner.
Satisfied that all was as it should be, Harry gave a sharp nod and pulled the protective goggles over his eyes. He turned on the torch and made four exact cuts beneath the combination lock. It was a task that required absolute precision-just a millimeter off and he might sever a wire that would sound the alarms.
The steel rectangle dropped aside, and Harry turned off the torch, returning it to the satchel. He removed a small fire extinguisher and aimed it at the glowing hot metal. A single quick blast cooled the steel immediately.
He attempted to insert his hand, face twisting in a grimace at the tightness of the fit, and then he removed his glove. As he had suspected, the opening was still too narrow for his hand.
"Harry?" Laura's voice held a high note of anxiety.
"Not to worry, I expected this," he replied crisply. "I need your hands, Laura." He glanced at her then, blue eyes connecting with brown, that incredible erotic tension humming between them like a live current.
Laura bit her lip and his gaze followed, watching her tongue flicker to wet dry skin. He had no choice then, leaning forward to kiss her slow and thorough, returning moisture to her mouth with his own. She tasted of honey and walnuts, and he suspected that she had been into the baklava that afternoon as well.
It was seduction-pure, simple and consuming. They had been making love all evening, building toward an incredible climax. It was time for the penetration of the safe, an act he had always savored with sublime satisfaction.
Laura hesitated and then removed her gloves, turning her hands over to his sure guidance. He guided her dominant hand to the opening. "There will be four wires that aggregate into a single connector about three inches down," Harry explained. "I want you to disconnect the second wire from the left."
Laura nodded and eased her hand into the cut in the steel, once again biting her lower lip. Harry had the sense not to distract her with another kiss during the operation, no matter what the temptation.
"How am I supposed to tell one from the other?" Laura asked nervously.
"Close your eyes." Harry laid his hand across her face to ensure her compliance, and when he removed it, her lashes rested upon her cheeks. "Good," he said, "now see with your fingertips. The fingertips contain some of the densest clusters of nerve endings in the body."
"Got it!" Laura yanked and Harry braced, relaxing after a second when a barrage of alarms did not go off.
"Well done!" he complimented.
Laura pulled her hand free, flashing him an ecstatic smile. She was simply glorious and loving the entire art of the heist as completely as did he. They were kindred souls. When they had first met, he had suspected as much, and during their first break-in together, he had known.
He returned all of their equipment to the satchel and extracted a stethoscope. He replaced his gloves. "You're kidding!" Laura exclaimed.
"Sometimes old fashioned know-how trumps technology," he replied very seriously and applied the ear pieces. Turning his head to the side, he pressed the centerpiece which contained the diaphragm that picked up and amplified sound waves to the safe just above the dial.
Laura fell silent out of respect for the task at hand. Harry felt her hand creep beneath his jacket, pressing to the small of his back. He made no objection, finding the touch to be both steadying and stimulating.
Spinning the dial and listening to the soft resonance of tumblers was an old and familiar exercise for him. Daniel had spent hours upon hours coaching a young Harry in the art, teaching him the patience and skill to succeed.
"Ahh," he breathed out in satisfaction, hearing the last tumbler click into place. Laura exhaled on cue, and he wondered how long she had been holding her breath.
Flashing a grin, Harry grabbed the handle and pulled the safe door open. It swung out to reveal the usual-currency, important papers, etc.
Harry reached immediately for the blue velvet pouch that was dead center in the middle of the safe. With haste he yanked his gloves off and tore open the fastenings, spilling the contents into his open palm.
Translucent blue stones poured into his hand: Royal Lavulite, also known as Royal Azel. The cut and polished gemstones were perfection manifest, more valuable than diamonds or emeralds, among the rarest of all precious jewels. He was in awe-lost in the oblivion of rapture.
"You've been waiting for this score for a long time," Laura stated, recalling Harry to himself. He realized that he had been staring, lost in the deep blue depths for some time, and she had been a witness to it all.
He flushed slightly and grinned ruefully. "You must admit, Laura, they're the score of a lifetime." He hoped that she remembered that he had given up his pursuit of the lavulite to remain in Los Angeles with her.
"Such satisfaction," Laura teased, chuckling at the purr in his voice. "Was it as good as sex?" she teased.
He shot her a mildly irate glance. Then he returned the gems to the velvet pouch and retied the fastenings, tucking the lavulite away inside his trousers' pocket. "I wouldn't know," he shot back. "It's been a few years. Sex is but a distant memory."
Laura's eyes widened; her lips parted. Too late he realized what he had revealed-maybe too much? He leaned forward and kissed her hard in order to shut her up before she said something to demolish his male vanity.
He ended the kiss, but she grabbed his head and pressed another quick smooch to his lips. "I haven't been with anyone either."
As simple as that, they had declared their fidelity to one another. It left Harry feeling stunned-faintly discombobulated even. He barely knew what to say. Luckily, Laura was not requiring minute introspection.
"I need to change," she said and reached into the seemingly bottomless satchel to extract a tiny ball of black cloth and a pair of matching black heels.
His eyes bulged as she shook out the black dress. "Is that a slip?" he asked, thinking it must be an undergarment.
Laura replied with a coquettish smile. Then, without a word, she peeled off the black top, pulling it over her head and dropping it to the floor. Her black jeans followed, shimmying down her hips to reveal a lovely expanse of freckled ivory flesh to his hungry gaze.
Laura had on burgundy lingerie: a lacy unlined bra and matching thong panties. She swiveled with purposeful deliberation, swinging a firm bare backside for his perusal and lifted her arms, wiggling until the black silk slip dress settled into place. The hemline was scandalous. He had seen baby doll lingerie that covered more.
His mouth had gone bone dry. He had nothing to say-no smooth lines, no charming compliments, absolute silence. Laura stepped into her high heels, so obviously savoring her triumph, and he could not begrudge her a single second.
"I'm ready," Laura announced.
He straightened and recovered some verbal facility. "Shall we go?"
Laura grinned. "Aren't you forgetting something?" she asked.
He drew a blank, spreading his hands-what?
Chuckling, Laura reached into the safe and extracted the small plastic case that contained the computer chip they had been sent to recover in the first place.
"Oh," Harry said, "that!"
They were almost through the front door when the alarm finally sounded. Harry and Laura traded a look over the din of men shouting and shared the knowledge that their ruse was up. Their lives were in real danger if they did not escape.
Through mutual consent they broke into a sprint, racing down the front steps and toward the circular driveway where guests checked their vehicles in and out through a valet service. The private road leading off the estate was at least a half mile long and controlled by a security gate!
"Harry!" It was Laura who spotted the red Ferrari pulling through the roundabout. The amorous pair of partygoers from earlier stood on the front step awaiting their ride.
"Oh, excellent taste, Laura!" Harry complimented, changing course. The valet was a mere lad of perhaps sixteen, and he offered no resistance. Harry snatched the keys from the valet; Laura took them from him.
"I'm driving!" she exclaimed, heading for the driver's side.
"You usually do," Harry agreed with an affable grin, pulling open the driver's side. "Ciao!" Harry saluted the astonished couple as Laura gunned the Ferrari and sent it hurdling down the driveway.
The sleek Ferrari skidded to a halt in the parking lot of the train station. Laughing, Laura and Harry tumbled out of the vehicle, slamming the vehicle's doors closed. It was none the worse for wear from their high speed chase. The owners would get it back unharmed.
They had stashed their duffel bags at the station earlier in preparation for such an eventuality. Harry rounded the bin where they had hidden the bags and was relieved to find them still there. He tossed Laura hers and grabbed his own.
Carelessly, the pair raced through the station where passengers awaited their trains and on into the yard. In the distance Harry heard the squeal of brakes announcing the arrival of their pursuers. But it was too late for them-he and Laura were in the wind.
They caught up with a train pulling from the station. It started slowly, barely moving five miles per hour due to the heavy load, and it was a cinch for them to race along one of the freight cars. It was unloaded, so the doors were open.
Harry boarded first, leaping to the running boards, grabbing hold of the handrail. He extended his arm to Laura who seized it, and forearm to forearm he pulled her onto the car.
They were still laughing when they tumbled to the floor of the train, dropping their duffels, struggling mightily to catch their breath. Laura rolled toward him and came to rest against his chest; he leaned against the edge of the doorway. His mind was spiraling-maybe he had consumed a bit too much champagne at the party; maybe the heist had left him intoxicated.
Either way, Laura caught him unprepared. She pounced, capturing his mouth, shoving the jacket of his tuxedo off his shoulders. His tie followed, flying off across the interior of the rail car. Their mouths remained locked together as she attacked the small row of neat buttons of his dress shirt. She got into an argument with his cuff links.
The train lurched as it picked up speed, throwing Harry against the door. He laughed and grabbed for the handrail running up the wall. "Laura, easy," he murmured, separating their mouths.
She growled and came after him again, asserting her possession of him once more, mouth hot and hungry. He felt her groping for one of the duffel bags with her hand, and it concerned him. He assumed that she was reaching for contraception; they were hardly in an appropriate setting to consummate their relationship, especially for their first time.
He ended the kiss again. "Laura, this isn't right," he said, letting her down as gently as he could. These last few weeks had been immensely frustrating for both of them. But Laura deserved silk sheets and a down mattress, not the cold metal floor of a train car.
Laura closed her eyes and exhaled long and slow, sinking back onto her haunches. She remained astride his lap. When she looked at him again, it was with a fleeting weariness. Then stubborn determination took its place.
"Of course not," she agreed. She smiled sweetly and he regarded her warily. Her response was a little too neat. Sometimes he forgot that Laura was a conman in her own right; it was she who had created Remington Steele out of whole cloth.
"Laura?" He had suspicion in his voice.
"You still don't trust me," Laura stated with a strength that brooked no disagreement. "There's no other possible reason that we haven't made love yet."
"Laura, don't be ridiculous!" Abruptly, he was hurt and furious. "I've bloody well waited for you! In Paris so that I wouldn't be taking advantage following the death of your father." And after Marsielle-he should not have to explain that-not to her. What kind of man would he be if he had pursued sex following a rape attempt?
Laura understood well enough to follow his process. "And after Malta, Harry? What's been the delay since Malta?"
"We were on a freighter, Laura," he replied, suddenly very quiet. Then they were traveling, and he had been-quite
frankly-exhausted from a conscience that allowed him very little sleep.
"And since we reached Rafina?" she asked.
He had no ready answer. He had resumed his seduction of her but had been taking his own sweet time, incorporating anticipation of both the heist and the consummation. He had already waited years; a few more nights were easy enough.
"I trust you," he said flatly, jaw set. Although, the argument was forcing him to perceive things from her point of view, and he understood how his reasons might appear to be excuses. "I just want everything to be perfect."
Always, he had been terrified that his best would not be good enough for her. So much of his value to women came down to the skills that he brought to bed. Yes, intellectually, he realized that Laura was different. It did not stop him from wanting to make their first time together superlative.
"Prove it," Laura said, part taunt, part demand.
"Fine! How?" He would submit to whatever test she cooked up. They were on a moving train; her options were limited. Most likely it would involve some variation of Truth or Dare. He might wind up surrendering another year or two of his life.
"Close your eyes."
"Why?" he countered automatically. His blue eyes remained wide open. Laura smirked and arched her brow as if he had just proven her right.
"I closed my eyes when you told me," she reminded him. "I did everything you instructed, and our lives were hanging in the balance if we got caught."
"Fine," he bit off. Fuming, he closed his eyes.
"Now put both hands over your head," she told him.
He had misjudged the game-it was Simon Says.
"This is ridiculous." He raised his arms, and his hands found the metal handrail. He latched onto it, not knowing how long she intended to force him to play her game.
"Shh, Harry." Laura pressed a gentle kiss to his lips and then another to his cheek. He felt her moving, rising up onto her haunches. "It's not ridiculous," she said. "I'm sorry."
He heard a metallic clink; he registered the snap of cold steel upon his wrists. Too late he resisted, blue eyes opening, arms jerking downward, but the handcuffs held fast.
"Laura, what the hell?" He rattled the cuffs, resisting the restraints again. It was too much-he could not wrap his head around it.
"You are perfection," she whispered. "This-between us-is perfection. It doesn't matter where we are, just that we're together." Her small hands cupped his smooth jaw. He gentled beneath her touch. No matter what, he had absolute faith that she would never hurt or betray him. He met her gaze and found only love there.
"I know you trust me," Laura said. "Now I'm trusting you with the real me. I did try to warn you." Her smile was impish. The genie was out of the bottle for certain.
"Aye, you did," he agreed with a great deal of irony. It did not take a conman to see that he had been conned.
Part 14 - Bonds of Steele
"Laura, don't you think this is a bit Neanderthal?" Harry asked. His lithely muscled frame lay long and lank, cat-comfortable even with his arms cuffed above his head. His white silk dress shirt hung open, revealing a tantalizing expanse of tanned chest.
"Wouldn't Neanderthal be you clubbing me over the head? I prefer to think of myself as a feminist," Laura said. She remained astride his lap, hands gripping the sides of his face.
"Not my preferred seduction technique," he agreed. He was glib and urbane as if women handcuffed him every day. "This was very avant-garde of you-cutting edge cavewoman without a doubt." He rattled the handcuffs for effect.
Laura laughed to cover her nervousness and chagrin. She was losing him. A part of her was terrified-and he was the one wearing the handcuffs. It was imperative that she establish their connection or things could very quickly go south.
Gone was the man who worried so much about disappointing her; not a trace of upset or annoyance remained on his countenance. Harry was perfectly flippant and irreverent and could keep up the facile banter indefinitely. His expression was damned near inscrutable. The man knew how to slap on a mask, and Laura had very little chance of penetrating his guard.
Laura stared into his blue eyes, and he arched his brow with a cultured nonchalance-what of it? But there was tension in the lines near his eyes, and his front teeth were sunk into his lower lip. She understood then with heartbreaking insight exactly what he was braced against-being used for his body.
She extended a hand then and felt him tense. She flipped a lock of hair back from his forehead and smoothed the strands into place. The scruff of his beard was gone, jaw shaved clean, but his hair had grown a bit long during their time in Europe.
At her touch, Harry exhaled hard through his nostrils, snorting with what could only be called impatience. The silence had become painful. Cautiously, Laura leaned forward to see if he would accept her-not an aggressive advance but a kiss. She brought her lips to his, almost but not quite touching, and stopped with an inch separating them.
He closed the deal, coming to her. It was a chaste touch, a mere brushing of lips, but there was nothing skilled, practiced or superficial in it. She was past his guard. Laura cupped his jaw, running her hands toward his ears to push the strands back again. It was an excuse to touch his hair which was luxuriant and thick and soft like sable.
"You took the cuffs from Renault," Harry said.
Laura squeezed her eyes shut, sending a quick thank you heavenward. He was talking again-really talking. "You noticed? I thought that I'd pocketed them unobserved," she said.
"I just didn't say anything." He stared at her hard as if she were a complex mystery to be unraveled. "Have you been planning this since Paris?"
"No." She considered. "I'll admit; it occurred to me. You were right about waiting until I wasn't trying to assuage my grief."
"And now?" He wanted to know what had finally provoked her.
"Now?" She thought a moment. "Now, I'm terrified. I feel so much, and every time we get close, you find an excuse to retreat. I can't help thinking that if we don't do this soon, it will never happen."
"Laura, you've made your point. This really isn't necessary," Harry said. "Let me go." It was not a demand or a plea, merely a request.
She seriously thought about it and then made a face. "If I let you go and you run, I'll never catch you again. Besides-"
She ran a finger down his breastbone, teasingly toward his navel. Her smile turned impish again, and he engaged her, breaking into an involuntary grin. "I rather like you like this."
"Promising to cooperate isn't going to get me out of my predicament, is it?" As always, he was astute when it came to reading people and situations.
"No," she agreed, "I worked too hard to get you here. You'd never fall for the same trap twice."
He laughed, blue eyes admiring. "A damned fine con it was too; you set me up and took me down."
Laura smirked. She was not going to offer him some empty platitude or apology. She had loved tricking him, getting the better of him, turning him out for her own pleasure and perusal. She did not want an empty victory that came at the expense of their partnership though.
"We both know this-" She used her hands to encompass the entirety of it. "Isn't going to happen unless you want it to."
"One hell of a trick pony, eh?" he observed. "How do you stay on top?"
"Harry?" Her voice held a note of impatience and very real anguish. She needed him to tell her it would be okay. Anything taken from him without permission was no better than rape.
"Tell me you love me, Laura," he ordered. He caught her eyes, compelling compliance. "Tell me and you can have anything you want-everything I've got is yours-body, heart, soul."
"I love you, Harry. I love you." It got easier every time she said it. There had been a time when she had thought it would make her weak, when she had feared exposure-no more. He brought her strength.
Harry surged toward her, coming up short when he reached the end of his restraints. "Laura, I-"
She caught his face, smothering his mouth which was hungry beneath her own. Laura felt the last knot of tension in her chest unravel. He was hers-no resistance, no regrets, no reason to hold back.
She suckled his lower lip, kissed his upper, turned her head to the side in order to draw her tongue across his lips, seeking entry. He opened his mouth and Laura delved deeper, running her tongue across smooth white teeth, upper and lower. His tongue matched hers, dueling with her for dominance. Even handcuffed, Harry could hold his own in the sensual arena.
He still wore the white silk dress shirt though the front buttons were undone, revealing dark hair and a tanned chest. Laura had not managed to get it all of the way off before handcuffing him to the handrail. Her options were even more limited now that his arms were bound.
Laura broke the kiss. Harry watched with dark blue eyes while she performed a quick search of her duffel bag. He started when she came up with a pocket knife. She snapped open the six-inch blade and reached for his arm.
"Laura, love-" Nervousness threaded through his voice. No real fear, but he was definitely uneasy.
"Shhh, trust me," Laura hushed, capturing the sleeve of his dress shirt. She inserted the knife-sharp part of the blade facing outward-against the inside seam beginning at Harry's wrist and sliced through the silk.
"Laura, this is a two-hundred-dollar shirt!" Harry protested, seriously aggrieved.
"Too late now. I'll buy you a new one," Laura promised. It took some doing, but she managed to free his left arm. He did not protest when she repeated the process, ridding his right arm of cloth. The ruined shirt peeled away to reveal his bare chest.
Laura swept her gaze and then her fingertips appreciatively across his hard pectorals, scraping his nipples with her nails. She lingered on his chest for a long time, playing with the curly hair, learning his body. Gradually, she explored his sides, stroking every indentation between ribs, caressing washboard abs. Her thumb delved into his navel, and Harry inhaled between clenched teeth, creating a wet hiss.
"You're beautiful." Laura prayed that he would take the compliment as she intended-not as faint praise for a man whose worth was measured in corporeal terms. He was quick and clever and intelligent-complicated and compelling-a fascinating collage of attributes that just happened to be wrapped in a gorgeous face and body. Physical perfection hardly mattered; she loved his soul.
"Laura, please, I'm a man," he retorted with a quelling frown. There was perspiration on his brow, and his muscles were taut. He held his entire body at ready, and his defined physique was a work of art. "Can't you dignify the admittedly well-deserved flattery with adjectives such as 'handsome' or 'striking'?"
"I suppose I could think about it," she teased. She ran her fingers across the expanse of flesh just above his waistband, stroking outward and then inward across his abdomen. Muscles contracted beneath her touch, and his entire body reacted in a shudder when Laura finally reached for the top button of his trousers.
"Laura, ah, please, careful with the zipper," he pleaded, losing his skilled articulation of moments before.
She discovered the difficulty for herself a second later. He wore his pants indecently tight at times-less so with business slacks-because both jeans and tuxedos appealed to his vanity. Harry had a very real problem pressing against the fly of his pants.
The tip of Laura's tongue pushed past her canine tooth, worrying her upper lip. She bit into her tongue lightly, studying the problem, her fingers fluttering against Harry's abdomen, index and thumbs of both hands locked on that top button.
"God help me," Harry prayed as Laura eased first a single digit and then a second into his pants, slipping between silk and linen, creating a barrier between him and the potentially lethal metal teeth of the zipper.
"If you wouldn't wear your pants so tight," Laura complained. She had a rosy blush blossoming in her cheeks and was thankful that the silver light of the full moon helped her hide her discomfort. It was not the first time she had touched him so intimately. However, the silk boxers were the thinnest barrier yet between her and the quintessential him.
"If you've got it, flaunt it," Harry muttered with that flippant arrogance that usually drove her straight up the closest wall. In that particular moment, though, she understood exactly what drove his irreverence.
"We must somehow break past these barriers that keep us drawing the line at the bedroom door," Laura muttered, doggedly determined and wholly focused. She seized hold of the zipper tab with her left hand and began to tug.
Abruptly, she realized that Harry was shaking and froze, scared senseless that she had hurt him. "Harry?"
He had his head thrown back and dangled tensely in his restraints. "Nothing-Laura," he gasped, and it was then that she realized he was laughing. "It's just-you're doing a splendid job of demolishing every potential barrier in your path."
Chagrined at being labeled a steamroller, Laura tugged the zipper the final inch. Her cheeks were red hot. Gingerly, she eased his pants open, and then she got a good look and released a squeal of delight. "You wore them!" The white silk boxers covered in red hearts had been a gag gift.
"You gave them to me, Laura," Harry responded, sounding affronted and maybe even a little hurt. The glance he shot her was clear enough in meaning-of course I wore them.
"I'm sorry. I'm not laughing at you." Laura immediately stifled her amusement, remembering how much she had cherished a certain carnival gift which she still wore on her left hand. And her single most treasured possession was that black piano he had given her. They had exchanged precious few presents.
Harry groaned. His hips rolled in a long smooth undulation, thrusting his member against her hand with the begging determination of a cat that needed stroking. His head rolled back again, exposing his throat in a subconscious gesture of surrender. True to his word, he had capitulated. Laura rewarded his compliance and allowed her palm to settle over the tent pillowing his boxers. She caressed him with increasing surety, light and steady, covering width and breadth. She had had a fairly good idea of his dimensions, but he still managed to impress her.
Laura swiftly lost interest in the silk boxers when there were so many interesting things underneath. Reaching beneath him, she hooked her fingers into the waistband of his pants and tugged. Harry hesitated for a split second and then obediently lifted his hips, permitting her to slide his slacks and shorts down his long legs. He released a muffled grunt, his only comment as his bare backside came into contact with the metal floor of the train car. She forgot to remove his shoes, got tangled, lost patience, and finally pulled every last article of clothing off his body-except for his socks, and honestly, they hardly seemed to matter.
He was breathtaking. Laura knew she was staring, but she couldn't stop. She felt him watching her through narrowed eyes. He remained tense, waiting on her whim, and this time it was not defensive on his part but rather the natural result of anticipation.
"Laura, I want to see you," Harry demanded.
Laura tilted her head back, considering the command. She could have denied him or challenged his right to give orders, especially given his current circumstances, but this was a give-and-take. It was as much about sharing as discovery.
Rising to her feet, Laura stripped away the little black slip dress and cast it to the floor of the train car with the rest of his garments. Wearing a small smirk, she postured for him. The burgundy bra pushed her breasts high; the thong panties were a mere scrap of material in front and exposed her firm buttocks to the rear. She was damned proud of the lingerie which had been purchased precisely for his perusal.
"Remove the bra first," he said, "slowly."
Laura flashed him a stripper's smile, showing all of her teeth, adopted a wide stance and bent forward from the waist. She rotated her chest toward him, lifted her hands and started at her neck, caressing her throat, hands drifting tantalizingly toward her breasts. Harry swallowed hard more than once, and he pulled at the restraints binding his arms. His obvious frustration drove Laura to slow the dance even more, working her hips, rocking as if he was already inside her.
"You're far too pretty to be as smart as you are," Harry mused, tilting his head to the side. The man's entire manner just dripped suave disdain.
"Same could be said of you if you were a bit brighter." Laura moved to stand over him, his bare legs passing between hers.
His mouth pulled into a grin, and he shook with silent laughter. "Sassy mouth you've got there."
"I'm not the one wearing the handcuffs," she pointed out smugly. She stopped over his stomach and leaned forward, locking gazes with him.
He arched one perfect eyebrow at her. "You will be."
"I'm counting on it." Laura shut him up with a hard kiss that slanted his head back. He tasted like champagne; his flavor made her heady. He had nothing to say when she ended the kiss.
Flaunting her assets, Laura opened the front-fastening bra, allowing the material to part, revealing her breasts. She shrugged the bra straps over her arms, and the flimsy garment fluttered away, leaving her clad in only panties and heels.
"Ah, Laura, you're lovely. Now the panties," he said, voice thick and full of the Irish. He was certainly enjoying himself, but Laura did not begrudge him, although she had never envisioned the evening turning her out as his private lap dancer.
He needed to pay for being so damned smug. Laura swiveled, performing a neat half-turn that left her backside toward Harry. Provocatively, she tipped her hips back, presenting him with her rear end. Then she tucked her thumbs into the straps of the thong and peeled it away one excruciating inch at a time. She could not see Harry's face, but the strangled sound he produced as the scrap of material fluttered to the floor was extremely satisfactory.
Harry looked fit to be tied when Laura finally turned back. The man wore a look of near desperation-white knuckles and ragged breathing. Abruptly, she was done playing. He needed her to the point where the game was becoming cruel. Hesitating, Laura lifted one foot, reaching for her shoe.
"Laura," he commanded, "leave the damn heels on and get down here now." He was close to bursting with anticipation, on the ragged edge of suffering. Laura hurried to him.
Laura lowered her foot and sank to her knees, settling astride him. She positioned her knees to the side of his legs so that the hair of his legs tickled her inner thighs. She rested the fingertips of her left hand upon the flat plane of his abdomen. Her right reached between them.
Harry emitted a wet hiss as her hand closed around the base of his shaft, cradling his balls. His penis pressed fully erect and flat against his stomach. Laura swept her fingertips along the thick vein on the underside and wrapped her hand around him, lifting him.
"I don't think I can wait," Laura whispered, teasing her thumb across the sensitive head of his penis. She used a circular caressing motion to spread the moisture pearling there, drawing a shuddering moan from Harry.
"Laura, I don't know how long I can last." The admission was forced from him. There it was again-his fear of disappointing her. Even handcuffs had not entirely eradicated the performance pressure he felt.
She needed to free her hands so she settled astride him, the head of his shaft against her hot core. He moaned and bucked his hips, penetrating an inch. His girth shocked a gasp out of her. It was a function of her stubborn intellect that she was not lost right there.
"Harry?" Reaching out, Laura grasped her lover's face, establishing close and intimate eye contact between them. In their current union no truth could be evaded. "I've never really believed in true love or soul mates. My father stole my daydreams right along with the security he took with him when he left."
His eyes flinched, and in that moment Laura learned exactly how he thought of them-the value he ascribed to their bond. Harry's childhood had been hellish in comparison with her own-what she knew of it-and yet his romanticism had somehow survived. In her mind it made him stronger than she-to retain such idealism in the face of such adversity.
She spoke with haste before the hurt had a chance to settle. "That was before-I know now. I'm meant to be with you like this. We're not just this moment; we'll have this again and again." It was a bold promise, the kind he was incapable of making, and exactly what he craved.
It amazed her the way that they were both compromising to make their relationship work. Laura was all about the past and future; Harry was a creature of the here and now. Together they were changing in order to grow. He was teaching her to embrace the present; she was showing him that there was a future.
"I rather like the sound of that," he said quietly. Then, exasperated, he asked, "Laura, why must women always talk so much?" He rolled his hips to make his point, and his shaft buried itself deeper within her.
Laura trembled and gasped and grasped at his shoulders for support. "Oh my, oh my, ohhhh!" An unexpected thought occurred to her. "Harry?"
Regrettably, the reallocation of blood from the male brain precluded an immediate reply. "Laura?" he said eventually.
Ironically, it was the question forced to her lips that made her blush and not their position. "Where are the condoms?" She knew he had some-she hoped.
He blinked and blue eyes grew wide. "You mean-you don't?"
Shit. Laura shook her head. "I thought-I mean-I assumed-
you-" she sputtered.
"I did in Paris, but they got mislaid somewhere along the way," he managed with remarkable evenness for a man in his position.
Laura bit her lip.
"Are you on the pill?" Harry asked.
"Bollocks," he swore.
"Do you want me to stop?" Counter to the question, she slid further along his length, taking in more of him, one precious inch at a time. He was thick and it had been years. "Tight," she hissed, flexing her vaginal walls around him. She had the body of an athlete which meant excellent muscular control. He had the natural strength and grace of a simply sublime male animal in his prime.
"Yes." His reply was fervent, but there was absolutely no clarification from him as to which comment the answer pertained.
"Harry?" Laura was lost, looking to him for guidance.
His reply was not the one she expected. Once again he spoke with remarkable lucidity. "No child of mine will ever be left without a father, Laura. The real question is whether you're ready."
She thought about it for exactly ten seconds. "Yes." Then she rode him down all the way to the base, leaving herself fully impaled. Harry had no warning, no time to prepare; his entire body convulsed and he cried out, arching toward her.
"Ahhh," she moaned, allowing her body time to adjust, waiting for his blue eyes to open again. When he did look to her, their gazes locked, and the connection between them was all consuming. It was about rapport and the places and the ways in which they joined. It was wet and hot, tight and full, two souls becoming one. It was primal-it was love.
Bracing her hands on his shoulders, Laura lifted and fell, coaxing a guttural moan from Harry. His voice was thick and creamy with his Irish lilt, "Ahh, yes, Laura, love, that's it-"
She leaned forward and captured his mouth, drinking life from his lips. She was aware of the rocking of the train on the tracks, the scent of night, the silver of the moonlight dancing on their skin. It all fell to the wayside as she strove to find her rhythm.
Every time their bodies parted, his extraction created physical hurt, and every reunion was joyous. Their moans and sighs created a medley of sound, the music of lovemaking. It was such a perfect blending that Laura lost track of where her body began and ended.
Laura made love without closing her eyes, unable to remove her gaze from Harry's face. He was such an amazingly expressive creature-ecstasy and agony playing out in equal parts upon his countenance. She had never thought to see him like this-completely open to her. He was hers, hers to treasure and to cherish.
Wet, so wet- Laura's damp hair clung to the back of her neck and a fever ran deep, burning her from the inside out, and the balmy Mediterranean night exacerbated the issue. Her mouth mated with his even as their bodies joined. Their flesh was slick with perspiration, and she was so wet for him that there was no friction, allowing her to glide. She was his private lap dancer in a whole new meaning of the word.
"Harry," she whispered, saying his name for the pleasure to be had in the act. So long, so long without a name to attach with his face. It would have been impossible for her to truly love and make love with him without it.
"Yes," he agreed, and as nebulous as the word might be, Laura knew that he was with her-reading her thoughts, partaking in a communion that transcended the mere physical.
With a whimper, Laura tilted her hips forward, grinding against him in order to bring her clit against the base of his shaft. The contact was excruciating-exquisite-too much for her to bear. Her body clenched on his, experiencing those little tremors that began in the muscles gripping him tightly.
"Laura, I need-" Harry rolled his hips, arching so that he was buried to the hilt inside of her. He strained against the handcuffs so hard that she registered a distant worry that he was hurting his wrists. But it was his plea-his need that touched her more.
"I love you," she said. As always, the words coaxed a physical convulsion from him as if his entire body clenched and let go like a heartbeat. It was that final push that sent her straight over the edge, falling from one orgasm into the next. White light exploded behind her eyelids, leaving her blind. She heard and felt Harry follow, his voice raised in a shout. She was still coming when he was spent, emitting a long low wail, riding him through the continuous climax. When it was over, she collapsed upon him exhausted.
"My arms are getting sore."
"Oh, of course." She leveraged upright and reached for her duffel, digging through the bag. A minute passed, and her search became increasingly frantic. Harry watched with silent consternation.
"Uh-oh!" Laura exclaimed.
"Uh-oh? Uh-oh? Bloody hell, Laura!" Harry howled in righteous indignation. "How am I supposed to pick a lock in this ridiculous position?"
Laughing, Laura held up the key which had been concealed in her palm for him to see. "Kidding!"
Harry collapsed in relief. "I'm going to throttle you." It did not sound like an idle threat.
"I love you too," Laura said and set her lover free at long last.
Part 15 - Gordian Knots
"The train is slowing," Laura said, peering out the open doorway of their rail car. She held her body poised and erect, moving with an athlete's grace. Laura's delicacy always belied her strength although Harry knew better than to underestimate her. She wore jeans and a cotton t-shirt with sneakers, all of which she had dug out of her duffel bag.
"We should be in Thiva," Harry answered. He had also changed into slacks and a lightweight shirt. "We boarded a northbound train out of Athens."
"I'm starving," she said. "I'd like to find something to eat soon."
"I'm getting there myself," he agreed. It had been a demanding twelve hours in more ways than the mere physical.
Meticulously, he bent over his ruined dress shirt from the night before, rescuing the second of a pair of gold cuff links. They were Cartier, eighteen-carat gold, and had been a gift from Daniel many years before. He gripped them in his palm and transferred them to his duffel bag, stowing them with the lavulite and the computer chip.
In her enthusiasm, Laura had caused considerable harm to his tuxedo. The jacket and pants were salvageable if he could get them to a skilled tailor and dry cleaner. His shoes had been recovered, but his tie was lost forever. He had scoured the car twice and was convinced that she had thrown it over the side.
Harry had a mental vision that he could not shake: a pasture somewhere between Thiva and Athens and a billy goat with a black silk bow tie dangling out of his hairy mouth.
Contemplatively, Harry accessed Laura's stance. Her slender back was ramrod straight; that small deep gulf stretched between them once again. He was at a loss, having no idea what was going through her mind. It was nothing new to him, however; her female brain had always been the root of the complex mystery that was Laura Holt.
The night before she had slept curled in his arms, cheek upon his chest, dozing the best she was able. He never objected to being both her mattress and pillow when they found themselves in a bad way, which seemed to happen with surprising regularity. Laura lacked his ability to sleep anywhere no matter how uncomfortable the surroundings. Since awakening, she had been quiet and withdrawn.
His tied tongue seemed to have formed a Gordian Knot once again. Trouble was their relationship was far too complex to simply cleave through with a broad stroke. When she got quiet, Laura required cautious handling and a thoughtful approach. She was upset, and he did not know why.
Feline quiet, he approached her with the natural stealth of a thief, reaching out to brace a hand against the side of the car's doorway. "Laura?" His tone was quiet and questing. He came to a stop behind her so that his chest pressed against her back and leaned forward so that their faces aligned. Instinctively, he knew the importance of touching to affirm their bond and offer her the unspoken reassurance she needed to open to him.
"Hmm?" She hummed her reply. Her arms were crossed tight, but it was not remotely chilly. She did not shy away or retreat from him which emboldened him. Harry applied his fingertips to the juncture of her neck and shoulder and found tension.
"Are you all right?" His voice held the high note of inquiry, specifically asking the opposite of his actual words-what's wrong?
It took Laura a long time to respond-long enough for him to worry that stirring the pot was not the smart course. He was also concerned that Laura would retreat from him into her formidable fortress. He was so tired of being alone.
At last she said, "What I did last night-it was pushy."
She startled a chuckle out of him. "Ah, I see," he said, understanding at last. Laura felt awkward and maybe even embarrassed. It was, after all, the morning after.
Laura continued unbidden. "I did what I always do and made a unilateral decision for both of us without asking you."
He smiled then because at least it was not his worst fear-that she regretted having made love. He could deal with a Laura self-conscious about her natural assertiveness. He could comfort her if all she needed was her lover's reassurance.
"Yes, last night was something of an executive decision on your part, but I did need a push," Harry said. He brushed his fingers along Laura's shoulder, following the line of the clavicle. Her skin jumped beneath his touch.
She turned her face toward him. "Are you angry?"
"What? No!" he exclaimed. "Laura, I had no idea how frustrated you were until those handcuffs snapped shut."
Her cheeks flushed a lovely shade of rose. "I'm sorry. I should have tried communicating better."
"Laura, you did try. I wasn't listening. If there's one thing about you I've learned, it's that in addition to being forceful, you're always so careful with your feelings."
"Yes, mine-" Her recrimination was directed inward.
Harry took her arms and turned her to face him. "Laura, there were so many ways that last night could have gone wrong. But you were just as careful with my feelings as you were with your own." In his entire life, a woman had never put him before herself. It was a humbling gift to receive, and one he wanted to reciprocate.
She stared up at him with disbelieving hazel eyes. "You're really not upset?"
He grinned. "Last night reset my standard for erotic. I'm fine-more than fine." All he wanted was to lift her up out of doubt and fear-to have her join him on the wind. They were so close to that rare gift of true happiness, however fleeting it might be. He wanted her right there beside him every step of the way.
Laura smiled for him then-a sure resurgence of joy as her fear was doused. His hands clasped the sides of her face in a caress that cherished, and he bent forward to claim her mouth. It was a superlative kiss-sweet and hungry-and it lasted forever.
Under cover of waning night, they stole from the rail yard, toting along the usual baggage of tramps and vagabonds-two duffels, a top secret computer chip and three million dollars worth of rare gems. For Harry it was all in a day's work, but he thought that Laura found a certain illicit thrill in the situation.
It was Laura who spotted them first. She skipped a step and then drew to a sudden halt which brought up Harry short. "Up ahead," Laura said with a nod, "four men-looks like they've found us."
"Damn. Here we go again," Harry agreed, catching sight of the group ahead at the train depot. They were Grecian in appearance and had the look of ruffians everywhere-large and muscular-though at least they were groomed and dressed a notch above the average henchmen.
They had not yet been spotted, but it was a matter of mere seconds. Laura had already turned to flee in the opposite direction, and Harry followed hot on her heels. He whirled only to discover that she had stopped; this forced him to make a sudden halt in order to avoid falling over her.
One of the two men behind them one was exceptional; the other fell neatly into the category of generic goon and thus needed no name. Harry recognized Apollo Kalivas from the photos that Daniel had provided.
The Greek magnate was five-foot-five and powerfully built with a barrel-shaped chest and stocky limbs. His hair had turned silver but had not receded, and his eyes were topaz gems. He wore an Italian suit, and his only piece of jewelry was a plain gold wedding band on his left ring finger.
Both held firearms trained upon them, and Harry thought he recognized a Walther semi-auto in the hand of Kalivas, but he might have been mistaken. Guns were not his forte; Laura, he was confident, would know for certain.
"So, the famous detective Remington Steele," Kalivas greeted him in Greek, "we meet at last. I am Apollo Kalivas."
"Ah, you know who I am," Steele responded as Harry dropped neatly into his assigned role. He postured, radiating Steele's casual confidence even under duress. Remington Steele was a man of the world who faced life and death with savoir faire.
"Excellent. It is good to see that my reputation has preceded me as yours has you. I take it that these are your men, Kyrios Kalivas." He used the term of respect deliberately, seeking to establish his equality with the man. Kalivas had left the door open; Steele merely stuck his foot in to prevent it from closing.
"I believe that you have something which belongs to me," Kalivas said. The man had an air of self-importance and the associated vanity. Steele read him as a man who could be manipulated if the right approach was adopted.
"Yes, of course," Steele said, "if I may-" He unzipped the side pouch of his duffel, moving with slowness and deliberation so as not to disturb one of Kalivas' trigger-happy goons. Laura stirred and murmured an inaudible protest, but Steele's look warned her to silence. He was not going to sacrifice their lives for the jewels and the bit of silicon.
Kalivas accepted the items with a minimum of fuss. "I take it you were hired to steal from me?" He checked the gem pouch and the chip to ascertain that everything was intact and then nodded in satisfaction.
"Ah, stealing is such a vulgar act," Steele replied glibly. "Kyrios Kalivas, I am a man of honor. The owners of the Royal Lavulite wish their property returned. I was hired to facilitate the recovery."
Kalivas chuckled. "Who is the woman?" He indicated Laura with a nod. "My sources have been unable to turn up a name for your female companion."
Laura stirred, aware that she was being discussed, but remained thankfully silent. Steele's conversation with Kalivas might be the only reason they were not yet dead.
"She is not important," Steele replied dismissively. "I seduced her, manipulated her into helping me because I needed a pretty decoration on my arm in order to infiltrate your estate. As one gentleman to another, I would request that you spare her. She knows nothing and is only a woman."
"Ha, the woman has been with you since France," Kalivas replied. "I know she is more to you than a mere diversion. Nevertheless, I am also a man of honor; I do not harm women."
Steele held his tongue. Honor had not prevented Kalivas from hiring assassins willing to kill and rape a woman; however, the man was posturing for both his minions and a worthy opponent. Steele had won a concession. He would not speak out of turn and lose it.
"The woman may go," Kalivas announced for the benefit of his ruffians.
"I thank you, Kyrios Kalivas," Steele said, offering no resistance when two of the goons took hold of his upper arms. So long as Laura was present and Kalivas kept his word, Steele would go without a fight.
Laura could no longer hold her tongue. "What's happening? Tell me what's going on?" she demanded, looking to Steele who was being escorted away.
"Don't interfere, Laura," he warned. Their gazes caught and held for a brief moment. The truth stretched between them as a lucid and painful revelation: he would sacrifice himself for her. He saw recognition and understanding. Her mouth opened, and then she asserted her formidable will; the protest died on her lips.
He had no idea how long Laura remained in the train yard watching as he was taken to the back of a limo and forced inside at the point of a gun. All he knew was that when he craned his head attempting to catch a glimpse of her as the limo pulled away, she was nowhere in sight.
There was a good chance that Laura's release was merely for show, and Kalivas intended to send one of his henchmen after her once appearances had been satisfied. Harry's money was on
Laura; her intelligence and resourcefulness were more than a match for any man. Good thing too because now he was counting on her for rescue.
"Really, Mr. Steele, you are making this unnecessarily difficult." Kalivas' fist connected with Steele's jaw just to the right of his chin which drove his head to the left. They were in a warehouse-a cavernous space full of crates and a forklift. Kalivas' men were in attendance, a cheering, jeering audience for their boss.
Steele had been secured, wrists bound behind him, rope about his chest and legs keeping him tied to a wooden chair. They had removed his shirt. He had lost track of time; they had been at it for a while. The pain had begun to override all else.
"Tell me again who you are working for," Kalivas demanded, pacing in front of his captive. Thankfully, the man was right- handed, so Steele was spared having a ring driven repeatedly into his face.
"I was hired by the owners of the lavulite to recover their stolen merchandise," Steele insisted, stubbornly sticking to his story. It increased his credibility. Unfortunately, it also seemed to anger Kalivas more and more as the day dragged along.
Kalivas' face contorted in fury, and he spun, delivering a short punch to his prisoner's gut. Steele grunted but bit off a shout of pain. He had broken ribs-he was certain. Breathing had become increasingly difficult; his chest was on fire.
"Why did you steal the computer chip?" Kalivas asked for what must have been the twentieth time. "Who are you working for?"
Head swimming, it took Steele a time to gather his thoughts enough to give his standard reply. "I took the chip because it looked like something important-something you probably should not have. Remington Steele is not a thief. If I'd been there to steal from you, then I'd have emptied the safe."
Kalivas hit him again, this time a backhand to the side of Steele's face. It was a mere love tap in comparison to the gut punches, but he wound up staring at the cement floor of the warehouse again, watching crimson drops patter into the blood already pooling there.
He had slipped up-referring to Remington Steele in the third person. He was losing it, and he could only hope that he could hang on long enough for Kalivas to tire of their game or until the next time he passed out and won a brief respite.
"By now, my son, Colin, has caught up with the woman, Steele. Do you think he'll have some fun with her before he kills her?"
Steele jerked his head back, glaring at Kalivas with blue eyes full of hatred. "Ah, that provokes you, does it? The woman means more to you than you let on."
It took Steele a moment to recover his composure. "Colin will never catch her. Laura would never walk into the same trap twice." His faith in his partner was evident because Kalivas scowled.
"You are a dishonest bastard," Kalivas snapped.
"Vain men are easily manipulated," Steele replied. "Some are so foolish as to dismiss a woman out of hand merely because of her gender with no regard for her true worth."
Kalivas turned to stone. The man's entire face transformed with fury though not a single muscle moved; his topaz eyes were lit with hatred. Steele experienced a fierce but short-lived satisfaction until Kalivas went to the portable tool chest on the side of the small room and returned with a pair of pliers.
"I'll start with your teeth, and if that does not bring the truth out of you, then I'll remove your tongue," Kalivas informed Steele with a sneer.
"Truth doesn't change because you don't like the sound of it," Steele returned. Kalivas came at him then, and Steele clenched his jaw shut, prepared to put up one hell of a fight. The struggle that followed was brutal, and the chair tipped over, breaking under the combined weight of the two men.
Kalivas shouted to one of his men for help. The henchman was careless, thinking the downed captive not a threat. Kalivas and his goon were grappling with Steele, seeking to immobilize him. With his wrists secured behind his back, Steel's best defense was to remain on his back and use his legs.
Steele managed to land a solid kick to the goon's groin which doubled the other man over and brought him down. Kalivas' looming face was the last thing that Steele saw before the Greek magnate kicked him in the head.
Harry woke up in the arms of an angel. He had died; he must have because his head had been split open, and each breath was excruciatingly painful. He had died and gone to heaven; his angel smelled like Laura and sounded like Laura and had Laura's soothing hands.
"Oh, poor baby," she crooned, stroking his hair. His scalp was one of the few places on his body that did not hurt like hell. "My Harry, my love."
"He's starting to come around," announced another voice-male, British accented. "I'm giving him a shot of morphine for the pain."
"Is he going to be okay?" Laura inquired.
"We'll know more once we get him to a hospital," the male voice answered with the typical vagueness of medical professionals.
"Laura? Laura, I-" He attempted to open his eyes, but he was falling into darkness. He felt her grip his questing hand, squeezing tight.
"Shh, I'm here. I won't leave you," she promised. It was the last thing he heard as he dropped off the edge of the world.
Harry despised hospitals with a passion, so he was climbing the walls and plotting his escape long before the doctors deemed him fit for release. It was Laura's threats and coddling that kept him there until the third day when he received an unexpected guest.
"Hello? Knock, knock, may I come in?" Doris Heskel stood politely outside the open door, awaiting an invitation before making entry. The CIA agent was casually dressed in a floral print dress with her light brown hair drawn into a pony tail.
"Dorie, welcome! Please come in." Harry eased from the bed, favoring his bandaged ribcage. According to the doctors, he had only four broken ribs-a remarkable thing really considering how he recollected the pain. Thankfully, he was appropriately dressed-hospital gowns were awful things. Nay, hospitals were awful places where one checked his dignity at the door.
"Look at you! You're looking so much better!" As women were want to do, Doris made a show of checking over his face with such obvious concern that it was a prick to his vanity. Laura had done the same thing and laughed when he had complained, making no reply other than to press a patronizing kiss to his forehead.
"I've still got all of my teeth anyway," Harry replied offhandedly. Upon regaining consciousness, it had been his first and foremost worry, and he had been vastly relieved to find all intact.
"What a beautiful pair of shiners," Doris said, touching his chin in order to turn his face so that she could see both sides. She clucked maternally, and he cooperated in turning his head, enduring the inspection with an air of long-suffering.
"Where is your lovely Miss Holt?" she asked, taking a seat in one of the room's two chairs. Harry assumed the other opposite her. He moved gingerly but deftly.
"Laura stepped out for a time," he said. She had wanted to locate a Greek laundry, claiming that their clothing was past smelly-stinking to high heaven to be precise. Harry chose not to volunteer the information. If the CIA did not know, they did not need to know.
"Well, I'm sorry to have missed her. Give her my regards?"
He nodded, ordering his thoughts before speaking again. "I'd like to thank you for saving my life."
Doris appeared surprised. "I owed it to you, Harry. You were doing us a favor recovering the computer chip."
"Yes, but-" He met her gaze with blue eyes that were knowing. He understood the way of things. "Your organization was attempting to use Kalivas' connections to get to this Hezbollah, eh? With Kalivas dead there won't be much chance of that happening. There must have been those who felt I was an acceptable sacrifice."
The gleam in her eyes told him he was right. "You're a sharp one, Harry. However, I don't leave people behind, and besides, Kalivas' son, Colin, was more than ready to step into his father's shoes. It may take longer, but we'll do what we need to do. If you ever tire of being the great detective Remington Steele, then give me a call."
"Thank you, but no," he refused with fervency. "Truth be told, I cannot wait to leave this life of spydom behind and return to being Steele."
It was not lost on Harry that the CIA had needed to recover their precious computer chip also. However, he felt it would have been ungracious to say so. If not for the scientific mumbo jumbo that allowed them to track the chip, he might never have been located and rescued. It was an equitable trade.
Doris laughed. "Fair enough. Here, I brought you a present." She reached into her purse and extracted the blue velvet pouch which held the lavulite.
He made an attempt to conceal his surprise, accepting it from her with a soft exclamation. "Ah, Dorie, thank you." He smiled his gratitude, and he had the good sense not to ask why. Harry untied the pouch and emptied the contents into his palm and was greatly relieved to discover cuff links which he removed and stowed in his front pocket. The jewels glowed in his hand, each one a piece of the sky.
"We only wanted the chip. If you'll be so good as to return this to MI-6, you'd have my gratitude. But if some, or all of the gems, get lost in transit, the Company does not know what happened to them. A real shame but an acceptable loss." She smiled, looking so sweet and pretty and very grandmotherly: Harry would never dare cross the woman.
Business concluded, Doris was not one to linger long. They engaged in some idle chitchat, and then she rose, making her excuses. "Harry, you have my card," she said, leaning down to kiss his cheek.
"That I do," he agreed, engaging the two-cheeked kissing ritual. He waved a cheery goodbye to Doris and then collapsed upon the bed as soon as the agent was gone, which was where Laura found him ten minutes later.
"Harry? You look exhausted," she said, wearing a look of concern as she came to the bed. He opened his eyes and sat up, patiently enduring her inspection.
"I am; I am," Harry agreed with heartfelt sentiment. "Laura?"
"Yes?" Her hands were in his hair again, stroking back the longish strands. He made a mental note: Remington Steele needed to visit his barber.
"It's time for you to ask-about going home."
"Ah," Laura said, enlightened, "Harry, will you come home with me?"
"Yes, Laura, by all means, let's go home," he said and wrapped his lover in his arms, drawing her close.
Part 16 - Uncomfortable Truths
"Here it is, Harry. As you requested, an authentic birth certificate for Remington Harrison Steele-born in Navan, County Meath, Ireland, on May 16, 1953."
"Ah, excellent, so that makes me ... thirty-three?"
"It seemed reasonable enough."
"Why Navan, Daniel? Navan is so-provincial."
"I knew a girl from Navan once, so the place holds a certain fondness for me. If you have some other preference, Harry, it's easily enough rectified."
"No, no, this is fine. So mother Maggie, father unknown-how very apropos."
"Harry, a good lie incorporates the truth-"
"As much as possible. Yes, yes, I know-doesn't make the subject any less-"
Daniel sighed and a ragged bout of coughing ensued before he continued, "This is the longest you've ever inhabited a single identity. I never thought I'd see the day you settled down."
Harry chuckled. "Daniel, I'm getting married; of course, I'm settling down."
"I never thought I'd see the day you tied yourself to one woman either-no offense to Laura, of course. But Harry, really, for better or worse?"
"Laura and I have already seen our fair share of better and worse, Daniel. We've taken years to get here. I've been committed for some time already. We're simply making it official."
"It's still amazing to me."
"Daniel, you-you're going to be there?"
"Don't be ridiculous. Of course, I'm going to attend your wedding. Harry, you're like a son to me."
Moving with deft silent steps, Laura backed down the hallway toward the bedrooms until the conversation faded and she could hear their voices but not make out the words. She had not intended to eavesdrop although, in truth, she had remained in the hall doing just that for longer than was decent.
She had not overheard anything that disturbed her or was even surprising or a secret between the two men. However, the entire situation made her uncomfortable, and it was a relief to retreat without getting caught.
One thing nagged at her-Daniel's relentless and chronic cough which had persisted for the entire month that they had been in Europe. She could not believe it was solely due to "the London damp" as he ascribed. There was obviously something much more serious-much worse-than the old conman would own to.
She was snooping; she knew it was wrong; she did it anyway. In the hallway she made a right instead of a left and entered Daniel's bedroom. During their first stay at the flat, she had caught glimpses of the room's interior but had never entered.
The bedroom was much like the man-quick and bright, genteel and charming. Chalmers favored clean lines and elegant simplicity. He had furniture in walnut, and the colors of his linens were cream and dark blue. There was a Monet on the wall over the bed, and Laura studied it for a minute before deciding that it must be authentic-because Daniel would never own a reproduction when he could steal the real thing.
They had made peace and were currently on good terms, so Laura felt guilty rifling through his things. She found nothing of interest in the dresser and moved on to the nightstand where she hit the jackpot in the form of small orange pill bottles with white caps. She counted eight different prescriptions, removing and lining up each of the bottles upon the nightstand.
It was proof of what both she and Harry had suspected: Daniel was a lot sicker than he would admit. Still, the reality of it in the form of those pill bottles left Laura staring. Her jaw worked and tears pricked at her eyes, leaving her blinking.
Her hand extended to sweep the bottles off the nightstand and back into the drawer when something else caught her eye. It was a glimpse of gold at the back of the drawer; it was-
She reached for and extracted the gold pocket watch. She already knew it was the same watch, but she opened it anyway to be certain and listened to the soft strains of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."
"Ah, Laura, you've opened quite a Pandora's box with that drawer," Daniel said. His tone was smooth but contained a distinct undercurrent of anger which was hardly surprising.
Laura winced but turned to face him, meeting his gaze without flinching. "You're ill. Harry and I both noticed-only you're not volunteering information, and Harry is too thoughtful to intrude."
"Whereas you have no qualms about intruding-digging until you unearth all the morbid little details. The truth is that I'm dying." Chalmers approached the nightstand and swept all of the pill bottles back into the drawer, sliding it shut. Then he extended his hand palm up toward her.
"I'm sorry." Laura carefully closed the watch and placed it in his hand. "Daniel, Harry needs to know."
"What? That an old fox like myself can't outsmart the Grim Reaper? It would only ruin whatever time is left to us." Chalmers removed himself from her immediate vicinity as if being close to the truth caused him physical discomfort. He retreated to the other side of the room, staring out the window across the Thames.
"Harry will finally be yours-as you've always wanted."
"No!" Laura exclaimed, angry and horrified. "Not like this! And besides, I thought we had put this behind us! Harry isn't a prize! He's a man who cares very deeply for both of us. We've both been wrong and inconsiderate all of these years, playing tug-of-war with him, trying to make him choose."
Daniel made no response, but his head bowed. Laura sensed that they were in agreement; his words of accusation were merely the result of bitterness and fear. She could forgive what he had just said, but they needed to move forward.
"The watch belonged to the Earl of Claridge. He meant for his son to have it," she said instead of commenting upon his illness again. As with Harry, there were simply times when it was more productive to redirect the conversation.
"Yes, but it was stolen," Chalmers agreed.
"Harry received it last year with a note: 'Your father always wanted you to have this.' It was signed Patrick O'Rourke." She already knew with a high degree of certainty where they were heading. However, first and foremost, Laura Holt was a detective. She simply could not rely solely on intuition.
"O'Rourke was a dear friend of mine. When I was first diagnosed, I was overcome by the desire to pass something along to my son-some legacy-no matter how small."
"Harry is your son," Laura said just to confirm. She crossed the short distance between them, coming to stand beside Daniel in the picture window overlooking the Thames.
"Yes." It was a rare and precious truth that Chalmers had been keeping to himself, and Laura heard the recrimination and fear in the man's voice. There was no reason for her to give voice to her own thoughts on his cowardice.
"You need to tell him," she said instead. "He deserves to know."
"He's gotten along quite well without knowing. The truth can only dredge up all of that adolescent anger again. If you had seen him at fourteen when I finally found him, you'd understand, Laura."
"Daniel, listen; my father passed away about a month ago, and I never got a chance to know him. He left when I was a child, and I was so angry that I lost my opportunity to say goodbye." Laura spoke with urgency because they were not only discussing Harry and Daniel; the subtext of the conversation in her mind concerned Laura Holt and her absent father, John. The parallel was too strong, and her empathy for Harry was too great.
"Harry is a remarkable man," Laura continued, almost in tears. "You should give him a chance to overcome whatever anger he felt. You simply can't not tell him."
"Laura, you're an extraordinary woman, and Harry is lucky to have you. I'm truly happy that you're getting married, knowing that he won't be alone any longer. But this is simply between Harry and me. Please, let it be." He pressed a chaste kiss to her cheek, leaving Laura discombobulated. Chalmers, the smooth-talking old charmer, knew exactly how to throw a woman off track.
"Ahem." There was a light rap on the door, and Harry cleared his throat. Both Daniel and Laura turned to face him. The pair of them must have looked as guilty as thieves caught with their hands in the church donation box.
"What are you two up to?" Harry asked, looking worried. "Should I be concerned?"
"Nonsense," Daniel returned smoothly. "I was just welcoming Laura here to the family."
Laura turned away from Harry to dash her tears against the back of her hand. Then she put on a fake smile and returned to her lover's side. She avoided looking into his face because if she did, her eyes would give her away.
"Good." Harry glanced uncertainly between the two of them, aware that more was going on than being said, and then allowed the matter to drop. "I have a birth certificate now."
"Mildred sent mine by courier; I should be receiving it tomorrow morning." His hands were reaching for her, and Laura pushed past him. "Excuse me, I need to use the ladies' room."
She fled into the hall and directly into the guest room which she and Harry shared. In the bathroom Laura locked the door and turned on the water before allowing the first sob to escape. She stared into the mirror at herself, one hand covering her mouth, brown eyes wide and staring, watching as grief transformed her face.
"Laura?" Harry rapped insistently upon the bathroom door. It had not taken him long to follow her.
"I'm fine," Laura called out. Always, the man's instincts with regard to her emotional state were astute; he knew which way the wind was blowing with uncanny accuracy. Laura chalked up his talent for knowing when she was upset to his being the cause of so much of her aggravation. There were times when she felt that she was already prepared for motherhood.
The bathroom lock posed no challenge for her master thief. Harry was through it in a heartbeat. He found her curled up on top of the shower mat with her knees pulled against her chest, hair flipped forward to conceal her face.
"Laura?" He knelt before her and brushed her hair back. "Here now, why are you crying? Have I done something wrong? Whatever it was, I'm sorry."
"Not you." Laura shook her head, hating the fact that she had been unable to keep her emotions in check. She was not crying uncontrollably or loudly, but the tears would not stop coming, sliding down her cheeks. Her hair and the neckline of her top were wet, and her nose was runny.
"Shh, there now." He had her in his arms, cradled upon his lap. Harry's hands stroked her back, and he settled her head upon his shoulder. "What, then?"
"Daniel-" A croak from her dry vocal cords cut the explanation short. She scrubbed at her tears with her hand, and Harry produced a handkerchief that she used to the same effect.
"Laura, did he say something to you?" Harry's question contained agitation, and Laura gave a hard shake of her head. He was prepared to confront his mentor on her behalf, reacting with a protectiveness that was heartwarming.
"No, no," she assured him, "in fact, he's been very sweet."
"What's wrong, then?"
"We were right," she said. They had discussed Daniel's chronic cough; this was not happening in a vacuum. "He's ill. Harry, he's dying."
"What?" Harry flinched with his entire body; Laura felt it move through him. Even intellectual preparedness did not mitigate the emotional impact of such news. Harry was so strong, so accustomed to loss, so capable of internalizing his emotions-
Laura knew Harry was not going to deal with Daniel's relevance in his life until it was too late. And Chalmers-the charmer, the conman, the coward-had kept his secret for close to twenty years. There was no reason to believe that Daniel would start talking now. If she had not so recently lost her own father, she probably would have kept her mouth shut, but her loyalties in the matter were clear.
"Harry, he's your father," she said. Her pain was entirely empathic-for him and not herself.
His response was delayed. "Yes, he's the closest-"
"No-" She cut him off, grasping his face so that they were eye-to-eye, leaving no room for misunderstanding. "He's your father. The watch was in the nightstand beside the bed. I found it while I was snooping. He confessed to me. He's your father, Harry."
He froze, staring at her with unblinking blue eyes, and from the look on his face, Laura felt like the Grinch stealing Christmas. Belatedly, she questioned the rightness of what she had done. But it was too late-
"He didn't want to tell you," she rushed to add, taking advantage of his silence to attempt damage control-anything that would mitigate the severity of his reaction. "He's afraid you're going to be angry. Harry!"
He did not quite dump her off his lap. Laura landed on her backside, aware of the sharp hiss of pain he produced as he surged to his feet, having forgotten his broken ribs. Laura scrambled after him, but Harry was already to the bathroom door before she stood.
"Wait!" Laura called after him, following him though their bedroom and into the hallway. His movements were stiff and careful, belying his usual grace, and she knew that he had hurt himself due to his carelessness. His ribs were far from healed.
She stopped outside of Daniel's bedroom, unwilling to trespass again, and watched from the entryway as Harry made a beeline for the nightstand. He yanked open the drawer and dug through the pill bottles but found no trace of the watch.
"Good Lord," he breathed, holding multiple bottles in each hand, examining the labels. "How could he hide this from me?" The question, rhetorical, and the look he gave her, devastated. He returned the bottles to the drawer and slammed it shut, causing Laura to wince.
Laura only shook her head. "I gave him the watch," she explained instead. In that moment she would have given anything to take him into her arms and comfort him, but his stance set him apart. He would come to her when he was ready-if he was ready.
"Excuse me, Laura," Harry said, circumventing her as he headed toward the outer rooms. His every move meant business. "I need to have a word with Mr. Chalmers."
Part 17 - Of Fathers and Sons
"Where's the bloody watch?" Harry demanded, storming into the kitchen, catching Daniel in the act of pouring tea from a stainless steel pot. The cup and saucer were of the wide and heavy Amsterdam style, cadet blue, appropriately masculine. Daniel had owned them since Harry had been a mere lad, and tea drinking was an unfamiliar custom.
It was to his credit that his protégé's outburst left the old conman unfazed. Daniel regarded Harry with a look both mournful and reluctant and finished pouring his tea. Then he took a seat at the kitchen table and reached into his pocket, removing the gold watch that had sent Harry halfway around the world searching for his father the year before.
"I take it that Laura told you?" Daniel extended a closed fist over the middle of the table. He opened his fingers and released the pocket watch, allowing it to spill onto the polished walnut surface.
"Laura always looks out for me," Harry agreed, brows tightly knitted as he glared at the watch. It was evidence, yes, but of what? Proof it was not. He remained standing, too tense and restless for the confines of a chair.
"An admirable trait," Chalmers said, methodically adding sugar to his tea. Each spoonful was precisely measured, and the transition from bowl to cup was seamless; the old man's hands were rock steady so that not a single granule of sugar escaped.
In watching the ritual, Harry was staring into history-his own, his father's-in every sense of the phrase. Daniel's hands were capable and confident like his, the true heritage that father had bequeathed to son along with the skill and knowledge to employ them in the familial craft.
"Laura felt I was entitled to know," Harry replied. His tone was cool and collected, but his anger was only barely checked. "The question is-why didn't you tell me yourself? I'd think twenty years ago would've been the appropriate time, eh, Daniel?"
"I wanted to and I tried a hundred times over, but you had so much hatred for your father built up by the time I finally found you that I decided to start out as your mentor and work from there."
"I was the biggest mark of your entire career, wasn't I? Duped for almost twenty years," Harry reflected bitterly. Daniel flinched, such naked pain on his face that Harry's gentle soul cringed and ached. Instantly, he regretted the jibe, but there was no way to recall it.
"It wasn't like that," Daniel said weakly, then succumbed to a ragged coughing seizure that dragged Harry into an even deeper guilt mire. It was the reminder of the other man's mortality that served to smack his righteous anger down to size.
"How was it, then?" Harry demanded. He was willing to listen. If the dual news of his father's identity coupled with his imminent mortality had come from any source but Laura, he was sure that he would have been unreasoning.
"It was all I knew how to offer you," Daniel wheezed. "I admit I'm a coward. As time passed and we established a rapport, I was too terrified to risk telling you the truth. The lie was so much easier."
"I can't believe this!" Harry burst out, communicating his immense vexation with his hands, arms spread wide. "Twenty years-twenty years, Daniel, that I spent trying to imagine who you were, what you looked like, were you alive? Did you think of me?"
"Yes!" Daniel assured him with heartfelt fervency. He spoke as if everything depended upon the answer, and his words tumbled forth. "Every day. I had no meaning, no direction, no purpose. My life was aimless until I found you again."
"I need more explanation than-my life was shiftless, here's a watch!" Harry exclaimed. He indicated the artifact in question with a sweeping motion of his hand. "What was the point of sending it in the first place?"
"I was diagnosed last year. Knowledge of my own mortality brought me to a crossroads, shall we say. I wanted to tell you then, but my courage failed; so I sent you the watch instead. It brought you to Patrick O'Rourke who-if not for his untimely passing-"
"Would have directed me to you," Harry nodded, comprehending the roundabout revelation all too well. He understood precisely what it meant to be unable to speak of certain things; he also knew the importance of taking action in preference to words. He and Daniel had much in common with regard to how they communicated.
"As a teenager you weren't ready to hear the truth, Harry," Chalmers continued. The experienced confidence man possessed astute perception; he knew when he had won his audience's attention. "I had to walk on eggshells, watch every move I made lest I send you running. Recall the time you were sixteen?"
Harry nodded hard. He remembered all too well. "Nine months later you tracked me down in Greece. I was shocked that you bothered."
"I was simply mortified that even after two years you trusted me so little as to leave over something so trivial."
"Daniel, you got stabbed. You almost died," Harry said with a sudden sheepish grin. A bit of reminding, a touch of hindsight, and he suddenly recalled exactly what he had been like as a teen. Daniel had a more than valid point.
Abruptly, Harry hooked the chair opposite Daniel and sat down hard. "What about my mother?" It was a raw wound, less so than his father's abandonment, but still a hurtful subject. Yet, he had to know.
"Maggie was a dream-jet black hair to her waist, eyes like the sky, the most exquisite lady to ever grace my life. I'll never know what she saw in me. I was too young and too foolhardy to realize what I had until I lost her."
Harry swallowed hard. Maggie-his heart ached for the woman he had never known. "What happened?"
"I tried to pull off a daring, ambitious caper and went to prison. I learned while I was incarcerated that she was with child, and later I heard that she had died in childbirth. The baby was put up for adoption. Eventually, I was released, but I had no idea where you'd gone-"
Daniel's hands spread, speaking his frustration and helplessness in the matter. "Please believe me, Harry; I wanted to find you. It took me years just to track you back to Ireland. I was horrified when I realized what you'd been through-how you'd been abused-"
"I don't need your apologies," Harry snapped, hating to be reminded of the past-that past. He had survived it; there was no reason to speak of it. In fact, he was no more capable of giving voice to the memories of his hellish childhood than he was of speaking the emotions of his heart.
"Perhaps you don't need to hear it, but I damn well need to say it!" Daniel exclaimed in anguish. "What you went through was because I was such an egregious failure-"
Harry tapped the walnut surface of the table with his middle and forefinger, staring down at the wood. So far he had managed to look everywhere in the kitchen except into his father's face. He wanted to leave; his instincts screamed for him to run.
It would be no thanks to Laura if he were to resort to his old ways. In fact, he knew instinctively and without being told what this opportunity to make up with his father meant to his lover. In a way his second chance symbolized what she had so recently lost. It would break his Laura's heart if he were to throw it away.
Laura would look her father in the face.
"Harry, I've been the best father to you that I knew how." Daniel spoke with such honest misery that it broke Harry's heart to hear someone he loved in so much pain.
Harry looked up and at long last met his father's gaze. "I know you did," he said, and abruptly, his anger broke, enabling him to look upon Daniel with forgiveness rather than acrimony.
They were two of a kind, he and Daniel. How could he reasonably condemn the man for being unable to express his emotions verbally for fear of rejection? Difficulty in speaking his heart was an affliction that son shared with father. They both put stock in deeds rather than empty words, understanding the ephemeral nature of glib promises, the capriciousness of life.
The fact remained that Daniel was the man who had saved him from a hellish existence, who had been there for him whenever he needed something without question or condition for the last twenty years. His father was not in fact some stranger but rather the person he would have chosen to fulfill the role if such things were a matter of choice.
"We've had some good times," Harry said, speaking of what they had shared instead of how he felt. He reached out and took the watch off the kitchen table, allowing the action to signify his acceptance. It was his way, and Daniel, more than anyone, would understand.
"Do you recall," Daniel began, taking his cue from Harry. The older man's manner was expansive, expressing a joy measured in every last iota of his relief, because his worst fear was past. "The time that we..."
Hours later Laura found Harry alone in the living room sitting on the sofa in front of the coffee table. Daniel had long since gone to bed, proclaiming exhaustion, but Harry was too worked up and restless for sleep.
He glanced up in acknowledgment as she joined him but did not cease his game of solitaire. His hands moved fast, shuffling the deck, turning cards, making the deck perform for him like a trick pony.
Laura sat beside him, touching thigh-to-thigh, and her hand settled on his knee. She watched him put the cards through their paces for a while without commenting. "Doesn't it defeat the purpose of solitaire-cheating yourself?" she asked eventually. She smiled with eyes and lips, clearly amused.
Harry glanced up in surprise. "How did you know?" Only a trained eye should have been able to follow his sleight-of-hand, and while she possessed many amazing skills, cards were not Laura's area of expertise.
"I didn't until you gave it away."
"Ah. I'll remember to watch myself if we ever play poker."
"So," Laura said with an air of anticipation that could have made a cat grin, "what's your real name?"
Harry ceased playing and glanced her way. His smile was fleeting but real. "How many times have you asked me that through the years."
"No idea, but this time I'm expecting more than prevarication," Laura responded primly.
Harry leaned over, bringing his mouth directly to her ear, and brushed away her hair. He kissed her cheek and then whispered the answer that had once been the single most contentious piece of "missing" information in their relationship.
Laura drew back and looked him in the eyes. Her brow arched; he nodded. Then they both laughed, sides pressing together, shaking until Harry gasped. He pressed a hand to his ribcage. "Oh, oh, that hurts. We must stop."
"Yes, but, I still can't believe-"
"Stranger things have happened, Laura," he chided, suddenly very serious. "Apparently, I was named for Daniel's father who happened to be a bootlegger and something of a scoundrel from the sound of it."
"Ah, good breeding," Laura teased, and they were laughing again until his sides were in agony, and she had been reduced to tears. They were winding down when Laura struck without warning.
"You're worried about Daniel," she said, exposing the infection within him to open air. He winced and sighed, wishing not for the first time in their long association that Laura was more tactful and less astute.
"Ah, Laura, I'm sick at heart," he confessed. He set down the cards on the table and placed his hand upon hers. "To find my father only to discover that he's dying. This might be the last time that I ever see him." The thought was winnowing from within, distinguishing angst and heartache from his generally optimistic nature, lifting away the lighter particles until all that was left was a morass. He felt like hell.
Laura turned her hand over and interlaced her fingers between his. She tilted her head to the side in order to observe his profile. "You don't want to leave him-that's natural."
"We can't remain in Europe forever," he said, releasing a long sigh. He was only giving voice to the thoughts that had been cycling through his head for the last couple of hours. "We'd lose the agency." It was their future-at least the one they planned together.
She hesitated before offering, "I could go back and run it alone. I'm capable-"
"No, Laura," he interrupted, turning his face fully toward hers so they were nose-to-nose. "I know you're capable-that's not in question. But I'm not falling into that trap. We're about to enter into marriage together. I won't take vows and then turn around and break them. You'd never believe in me again."
Laura nodded and licked her lips, and he saw the tension ease from her slender frame. She had been braced for his acceptance and prepared to follow through on her offer, but she had been dreading the possibility that he would agree. She no more wanted him gone than he wanted to go.
"There's only one solution then," Laura said with the matter-of-fact practicality that he had come to expect from his partner. She drew a look of inquiry from him, deliberately stringing him along until she was certain that she had his full attention.
"What are you thinking?" He was afraid to ask; too often Laura's solutions were the exact opposite of his. But he also acknowledged that her unique perspective often allowed her to see things he missed, and he believed it to be the same for Laura. It was one of the many reasons they made such a superlative team.
"Daniel should come to LA with us."
Harry sat up straight; his hands seized both of hers. "Really?" Her generosity left him genuinely stunned.
"Of course. He can stay at your penthouse. We're going to need to find someplace together anyway."
"Within a month Daniel is going to involve me in one of his madcap schemes, and then you'll be furious with both of us," he felt compelled to point out if for no other reason than to cover himself. It established plausible deniability, or I told you so, in looser terms.
Laura grinned. "Just like old times," she said lightly. "After all, do we really want everything to change?"
This was why he adored her. Hands flying, Harry caught and framed her face and kissed her square on the mouth. The lip smack ended with a "MUA" sound as he hit his feet.
"I'm going to tell Daniel!" he exclaimed with childlike enthusiasm, aware of her adoring gaze and indulgent grin. He literally bounded across the living room, luxuriating in the absolutely fantastic feeling which he could barely identify. It was indescribable. It was mysterious. It was-
He felt safe. He knew what it meant to be loved. For the first time in his entire life, he was at home in his heart.
"Well, I'm off to find a dress. You boys have a nice morning!" Laura declared, bursting into the kitchen. It was only just 8 a.m. Harry and Daniel were lazing about the breakfast table wearing dressing gowns and discussing that day's best picks at the track.
"Have a nice trip," Harry said, accepting the kiss that she dropped on his lips. Laura snatched a scone off the platter in the middle of the table as she zipped past.
"Have fun," Daniel intoned, watching Laura go with wide eyes. "Goodness but your lady has energy."
"Laura is a morning person," Harry agreed with a grin, whereas he and Daniel were the exact opposites. Harry preferred to sleep late; he was only up at such a ridiculous hour because he had an appointment with a tailor at 9 a.m. to have a new tuxedo fitted.
From the outer room, the bell buzzed and Chalmers looked up, clearly startled. He and Harry traded puzzled glances as Laura's voice called out, "I'll get it!"
"Are you expecting anyone?" Harry asked to which Daniel shook his head no.
"Mildred!" Laura's exclamation rang out bright and clear. Harry shot to his feet so fast that his battered ribcage snarled a protest, causing lancing pain along his entire side. He ignored his body's protests, almost sprinting from the kitchen.
He arrived to find the two women locked in a bear hug. There was a large orange suitcase parked squarely in the middle of the entryway where Mildred had dropped it.
"Mildred, I didn't mean for you to bring my birth certificate in person!" Laura said. She was quite understandably teary eyed.
"Oohh, honey, you didn't think I was going to miss your wedding, did you?" Mildred released Laura and moved straight to Harry. They locked in a hug that caused him to grunt, ribcage aching something awful. "Boss, it's good to see you! And I must say-it is past due that you asked Miss Holt!"
"I'm delighted to see you also, Mildred, and you're quite right," he responded and was aware of Daniel's observing the exchange of greetings from a safe distance, remaining in the entryway to the kitchen.
"Mr. Chalmers," Mildred said, acknowledging Daniel with icy reserve. Her mistrust was understandable considering things that had occurred in the past, but Harry hoped that she would see her way clear to acceptance. Daniel had agreed to accompany them on their return to Los Angeles.
"Ms. Krebbs, what a pleasure to see you again," Daniel greeted suavely, deliberately oblivious to Mildred's distrust.
"Mildred, I was just on my way out the door to buy a dress, and besides, I need to catch you up," Laura interjected. "Come with me?"
"Don't say another word!" Mildred was right on it, prepared for a marathon of girl bonding and dress shopping, a titan of strength, a veritable cyclone of energy, in spite of the fact that she had just come off a trans-Atlantic flight.
In a gush of giggles and gossip, the women were out the door and gone. Harry and Daniel traded another long look to which the son offered a Gaelic shrug, the father rolled his eyes, and the pair retired once again to the track listings.
"Royal Jest to win, Candyman to place, Tommy's Gambit to show in the third," Daniel said.
Harry shook his head. "Steal My Heart to win, Tommy's Gambit to place, Candyman to show," he retorted.
Daniel tapped the tip of his pen against his writing pad, creating an ink blot. He looked askance. "Harry, really, a filly running against colts!"
"Bet however you want, old man," Harry replied smugly. "My money is on the filly-"
Part 18 - Rings 'n' Things
"This," Laura declared, coming to a teetering halt atop a grassy knoll, "this is perfect!" She spread her arms wide and maintained her balance in three-inch-heeled strappy sandals by the sole virtue of her athletic coordination.
Behind her a waterfall poured into a stone-ringed pond full of brightly colored Koi. Above, the sky was clear blue, and the English sun had seen fit to make a rare appearance. The Japanese garden was unbelievably beautiful. Laura stood amidst a collage of purple, yellow, orange, pink and red sculpted plants-it was perfection.
"I'm not certain this is legal without a permit," Minister Charles Donnell worried aloud, huffing along with the rest of the wedding party. The short man was portly-nearly a quarter round as he was tall.
"Not to worry," Harry assured the other man with an engaging grin, "the bride and I are fast on our feet. If a copper shows, we'll just-" He made a skedaddling gesture that accompanied a double click of his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
"Mildred, can you please keep watch?" Laura asked the older woman who was bringing up the rear along with their preacher's wife, Margaret Donnell, who was also acting as their photographer.
"I'm on it," Mildred replied with military precision that was only lacking a salute. Laura would not have put it past Mildred to resort to tackling anyone who dared interfere with the wedding of her "kids."
"Oh, my goodness," Minister Donnell breathed, turning several shades paler. The man glanced about nervously as if expecting a park official to jump out from behind the closest manicured bush.
"There, there, sir, they're only kidding," Daniel said, patting Mr. Donnell on the shoulder. "Besides, I have a friend on the Bench if unforeseen trouble should arise.
"God help me," Mr. Donnell prayed. He glanced around and then moved to the top of the knoll, huffing and puffing the whole way. He began his preparation, issuing instructions on where everyone should stand. The bride was arranged before him to the right and the groom to the left.
"Are you ready for this?" Laura asked Harry, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. She wore a red silk dress which had a simple halter top and a long sheer skirt that flowed to her feet. As a child she had dreamed of wearing red; as a grown woman she did so without fear of condemnation, knowing that her mother was safely an ocean and a continent away.
"I ... I think so," Harry mused, meeting her gaze. He was nervous-a relief to Laura because it meant that she was not alone.
Harry wore a tuxedo and was every inch the dapper and debonair man she had first met all those years ago-and more. He pulled off formal wear with a grace that left her envious and thankful that neither of them was an opera or theater buff because he would outshine her every time.
Laura put her hands out, and Harry reflexively took them, joining them together. Although the ceremony had not yet begun, they remained locked in that position as the minister created a berth around them, suddenly finding something to fuss with on the other side of the gathering.
He looked straight into her eyes-their gazes locked. Laura saw it then; he was scared and uncertain. Remarkably, it gave her strength because it meant that she was not alone in her fear. "It's okay," she whispered. "I love you."
His expression grew stolid, remote and impassive, and his hands steadied. The transformation startled Laura and unnerved her on a deeper level. The man was still capable of masking his true feelings from her; it was an ability that continued to defy her attempts to read him. She had a feeling that he would never entirely lose that mystery, no matter how close they grew.
"I know that, Laura," Harry said and then leaned forward to kiss her petal-soft lips. His eyelashes brushed against her cheek twice when he blinked, and his hands were rock steady within her own. It was the touch of her expert thief and sophisticated lover.
"Ahem." Minister Donnell intruded, having decided their time alone was sufficient, and perhaps fear of a fine or jail time serving as his motivation to hurry. Harry broke off the kiss.
"As the couple have requested, only their first names will be used for the ceremony although the legal documents do list the betrothed as "Remington Harrison Steele" and "Laura Elizabeth Holt," Minister Donnell announced.
The English clergyman went on to deliver a lovely introduction, perfectly scripted, defining the institution of marriage without being overly verbose. Then he signaled Harry to speak his vows.
Harry gazed at Laura with those bright blue eyes of his, and for a moment there was only silence. At first Laura assumed he was only composing his thoughts, but a part of her was perturbed, expecting him to panic and freeze up. After all, how could the man who was so facetiously glib on every other subject be struck dumb when it came to verbalizing his feelings?
"Ah, Laura." Harry cleared his throat and found his voice simultaneously. He was bold and he was confident, and there was no room to doubt him. "You are the only person in my entire life to look me right in the eye and say 'I love you' and mean it. You and I were trapped in that awful mutual fear of intimacy for years, and it was your courage that saved us. Words are hopelessly inadequate to describe the admiration and adoration I hold for you. You're my partner and my best friend. You have my heart, and I promise that I'm going to be there for you."
Mildred emitted a muffled sob. "Oh, that's so beautiful!" Her motherly face was awash in tears, and it was Daniel who offered Mildred his handkerchief which she accepted with a watery hiccup, dabbing at her cheeks.
The minister indicated for Laura to recite her vows. "I, Laura, take you, Harry, to be my partner, loving what I know of you, and trusting what I do not yet know. I anticipate the chance to grow together, getting to know the man you were and will become, and falling in love a little more each day. I promise to love and cherish you through whatever life may bring us."
Laura delivered the vow with great solemnity, but her choice of phrasing was not a coincidence. She caught the amused gleam in Harry's eyes. The man still had surprises up his sleeve; he was not giving up all of his secrets yet.
The exchange of rings proceeded, thankfully, without a hitch. Harry managed to say the words correctly and without stumbling. "Laura, I give you this ring, that you may wear it as a symbol of the vows we have made this day."
He slipped the stainless steel band that he had won for her in Paris onto her left finger. His hands lingered on hers, grasping her fingertips, and he studied the ring. A compression of his lips indicated his displeasure with the piece of jewelry, but Laura had insisted.
His band was a gold Claddugh ring-the traditional Irish wedding band. Laura placed it on his left hand ring finger and spoke with clear bold confidence. "Today we have moved from I to we. Harry, take this ring as a symbol of my decision to join my life with yours until death should us part. I walked to this place to meet you today; we shall walk from it together."
Minister Donnell made the declaration. "For inasmuch as Harry and Laura have made this solemn covenant of marriage before God and this company, I declare them to be husband and wife, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen."
"You may kiss the bride."
Harry leaned forward and captured Laura's mouth in a kiss that revealed more of his heart than ten thousand words. The man might have tied his tongue, but he had not forgotten how to kiss. In return Laura clung to him, becoming aware that her cheeks were wet only as the minister delivered the blessing.
"May the Lord bless you and sustain you; may the Lord pour the riches of his grace upon you, that you may please him in body and spirit and grow together in love all the days of your lives. Amen."
Their lips parted and they hugged. Harry's mouth drew alongside her ear. "I'm taking you shopping for a proper ring the moment we return to Los Angeles."
Laughing, Laura drew back in order to look up into his blue eyes. "Why Harry, what could possibly be more appropriate than steel?"
The taxi stopped at the top of the courtyard roundabout and deposited them in front of The Dorchester, the "inherently British" hotel on Park Lane in London. They had parted company with Daniel at the restaurant after dinner. Harry's father would return to his Chelsea flat; he still had to pack and attend to certain arrangements before he joined them for the flight to LA.
Harry left Laura standing with Mildred while he paid the driver and arranged for the valet to take their luggage to their rooms. Ironically, Mildred's single bag probably contained more clothing, shoes and other sundries for her two-day visit than Laura had possessed for her entire month-long vacation.
"Oohh, I'm so happy for you two!" Mildred gushed. "My goodness, I'm as nervous as if I were the bride! Are you nervous, Miss Holt?" Mildred's mouth formed an O and her eyes got wide. "Should I call you Miss Holt? Is it Mrs. Steele now? Or maybe Mrs. Holt-Steele?"
Mind reeling, Laura barely knew what to say. The other woman's barrage combined with the bubbly that Laura had consumed over dinner had her befuddled. "Mildred, calm down, please!" She held up a staying hand, and her features twisted into a frown. "This isn't going to be our first time," she admitted without really thinking.
"It's not?" If possible, Mildred's eyes got wider. She was practically salivating-wanting the details. However, there was not a snowball's chance in hell that Laura was telling Mildred about the train ride.
"What am I supposed to call myself? Laura Holt. Laura Holt-Steele. Laura Steele. Mrs. Remington Steele." The mind boggled. Laura asked rhetorically because the whole topic of surnames had thrown her completely. She had given the matter no prior consideration. She pressed a hand to her temple. "I can't believe this-I've married the man I made up."
"Ah, Laura, don't worry it," Harry drawled. The man seemed to materialize at her side, taking her elbow. "You've always been married to your work anyway. Taking Remington Steele's name as your own was the natural culmination."
He laughed and Mildred joined him. Laura shot her husband an aggravated glare and delivered a light punch to his bicep. "Mildred, can you find your room without difficulty? I've had the luggage sent up," he said.
"I'm good! I'll see you kids in the morning!" Seldom had Mildred seemed happier. They parted ways in the elevator. Mildred got off on the fifth floor; Harry and Laura continued on to the roof suites.
As they started down the hallway to their suite, Laura wobbled and Harry reached out to catch her arm. "Steady there," he said, and she stifled a giggle, clinging gratefully to him for support.
"It's not me," Laura informed him properly, "it was the-two?"
"Three," Harry corrected, fishing for their room key in the pocket of his tux.
"Three bottles of champagne that we went through at the restaurant," she concluded. Laura reached the door to the suite first and walked into it. She put her hands on the surface and pushed away, flipped around to face Harry. She pressed her back against the front door for support and beamed up at her husband.
"You smell deliiish," she purred. She caught the lapels of his tuxedo between her fingertips, stroking the material. She nuzzled his throat, sniffing him appreciatively.
Harry chuckled. "That's the flute of champers you dumped in my lap, Laura." He had the key out, and then his arms were around her attempting to open the lock. Laura seized the opportunity to pull him down into a long slow kiss that further frustrated his door opening endeavor.
Abruptly, the door flew open when Harry succeeded in negotiating the lock; Laura's weight propelled it open. Laura's entire world tilted at a crazy angle. "Oh!" Wide eyed, mouth agape, Laura lost her grip on Harry and began to topple backward. It was rare that she lost her balance, and so it scared her that much more.
"I've got you!" Even inebriated, Harry's feline reflexes did not fail. He caught Laura and got them through the front entryway and into the suite, shutting the door behind them. She caught a vague impression of the suite-a sumptuous décor in shades of cream and tawny, understated elegance at its very finest. Fresh flowers and welcome baskets full of fruit, chocolate and macaroons had been left out for them as well.
"Maybe I've had too much champagne," Laura mused, vaguely upright as she loosened Harry's bow tie. She was not concerned with falling; he had a good grip on her, and she trusted him not to let go.
"Do you think?" He was being cute, flashing that adorable smile that displayed his dimples to best advantage. His movements were smooth; he practically waltzed Laura through the entryway and into the living room. He seated her on the divan and evaded the nimble fingers that had begun to unbutton his silk shirt.
"Hold that thought," he said, standing, and crossed to the fireplace where the hotel staff had left logs neatly arranged. Harry set about igniting the fire with his usual deft competence. He turned off the lights, leaving only the energetic flicker of the newborn fire.
"I haven't had this much to drink since we were Pepplers," Laura confessed, watching him.
"Laura, don't mention Pepplers," Harry told her with a voice that forbade. "We don't want to be Pepplers."
"We don't? Why don't we want to be Pepplers?" she asked.
"The Pepplers were a fantastic couple, once happily married but in the throes of a traumatic divorce."
"Ah, yes," she drawled, "and I always suspected both of them had something of a drinking problem."
"Mrs. Peppler was a complete lush," Harry said with heartfelt agreement.
Laura shot back, "Well, Mr. Peppler drank with other women-the louse."
"Mr. Peppler remained faithful to Mrs. Peppler in spite of some very determined advances by aggressive divorcees," he confided. "But I agree-the man was an unscrupulous cad."
Laura chuckled. "When I recall all of your conquests back then, it's strange to think that you'd be faithful to a role."
"Laura," he scolded, "I'm always faithful to my role."
She could not disagree. "You're right," she said instead, watching him, and discovered that she was being watched in return. Harry remained near the mantle, loose limbed and at ready. She had the impression of being stalked, and it reinforced her feline association with him.
"Sorry. About what?" Her circuitous return to his original statement had left him puzzled.
"Let's not be Pepplers," Laura said. "Let's promise that before things ever get that bad, we'll sit down and talk."
"Agreed," he stated with much fervency, and she knew it had been his original concern. As a couple their failure to communicate was at the heart of the majority of their problems.
"Now," Laura said with a predatory smile of her own. "Why are you over there, and I'm here alone?" Laura beckoned him with a come-hither smile and a crooked finger.
His return smile was slow and deliberate. She had never seen his blue eyes so bright. His bow tie hung loosely around his neck, and the top half of his shirt was unbuttoned; combined with the black trousers, his attire reminded her of a male dancer's. "A true connoisseur knows that anticipation is fundamental to seduction," he returned.
"I've anticipated enough," Laura said, and her command was imperious. "Please get your gorgeous backside over here now."
"Yes, ma'am." He grinned and went to her.
Part 19 - Home
"We've been a long time in arriving here, eh?" Harry crossed the room to Laura, fingers deftly undoing the remaining buttons on his shirt. He literally stalked, moving with the lithe power of a large cat, unconscious of his inherent grace. He only had eyes for Laura; she was a visual feast.
"It hasn't always been easy," Laura agreed with a dreamy smile. She remained under the seductive spell of the champagne, sprawled across the divan, a splash of red upon cream. The V-neckline of her dress displayed her cleavage to best advantage; it was clear at a glance that she had forgone a bra in order to meet the demands of the dress. The flowing silk skirt had fallen away to reveal shapely stocking-clad calves, but it was her smile that held him captivated. He came to a halt at the foot of the divan.
"It's been worth it," he said, regarding her with a gaze that devoured. Laura's lips curved into a knowing little smile, and she beckoned to him with a crooked finger. Her supreme confidence in her attractiveness was intoxicating. Within his regard Laura shifted and squirmed; her restlessness and her rosy flush told her experienced lover far more than any words.
"Ah, Laura, you're lovely," he drawled. His blue eyes were midnight, pupils expanded, and the rate of both his heart and breathing had hastened. His adrenaline was rushing, excitement pricking his skin as if he was about to pull some wildly daring escapade.
With cool precision, Harry shed his shirt and allowed the garment to fall, revealing his muscular chest and the white wrappings that swathed his still healing ribs. His socks and shoes followed, leaving him clad only in the tuxedo's black trousers.
"How are your ribs?" Laura asked, regarding his injury with sudden concern. He heard the inquiry and the worry in her voice.
"I won't be performing any ambitious heists anytime soon," Harry said. He sank to his knees before her. He took no issue with equating the position to one of worship. She was the other half of his soul; it was only natural to pay homage to her.
"I'm nervous-" Laura blurted out as his hand captured her leg, enclosing her ankle.
"Natural enough to be nervous on your wedding night," he said. Truth be told-he was experiencing trepidation also, but it was of a wholly organic variety. He had never wanted anything more in his entire life than Laura, and she was finally his.
"It's not that," Laura corrected him, "but maybe I'm a little scared-"
"Fear can be a most intoxicating brew," he said in quick and light riposte, engaging her gaze with a significant glance.
A bright flash of brown eyes and an appreciative grin told him that Laura remembered. Laura chuckled and they smiled at one another, caught up in the humor of the shared memory. The distraction worked as he had intended, but only for a moment. He used the opportunity to unfasten the top strap of her sandal, slipping it from her arched foot-Prince Charming and Cinderella in reverse.
Unfortunately, his Laura was nothing if not dogged. "I think maybe-"
"Mmm, I'm not chained to the wall-could that be the source of your anxiety?" he asked. If subtler methods would not work, he was not above resorting to outrageous teasing.
His taunt provoked a muffled objection from Laura who blushed like a bride on her wedding night. "That was an act of desperation!" she protested sheepishly. Laura attempted to sit up which resulted in her leg being leveraged away from him. He kept a firm grip on her and made short work of her other sandal, freeing her foot.
"Yes, but perhaps it's what's bothering you?" Suddenly serious, he looked at her, bringing his seduction to a momentary cessation out of consideration for her discomfort.
Laura looked startled, and then he saw dawning realization in her expression. "Yes, that's it," she agreed with such startling honesty that it provoked a chuckle from him.
"Is this going to be an issue?" Harry asked. He elevated Laura's right leg, settling her ankle upon his shoulder, and stroked his fingers upward along the length, beginning at her ankle, past her knee, caressing her through the black silk stockings. His touch was experienced and precise, teasing and tantalizing.
Laura sighed in pleasure and subsided, allowing her eyes to flutter closed. "No, I'll get past it." He heard her surrender, felt it in the relaxation of her muscles when she let go of the fear and chose to place her trust in him, and it gladdened him.
"You're easily the sexiest thing I've ever seen. Such a pretty meal," he murmured, inundating his voice with a sinister note of Big Bad Wolf-along with the implication that he intended to consume every inch of her. It was not a tone he would have dared use with her in the past, but the rakish part of him had ventured out to play.
Laura's eyes popped open, and her breath caught on a hitch as he swept her skirt aside, exposing her to his gaze. For such a tiny thing, it always amazed him that she had such knockout legs. Her black silk stockings came to just above the knee. Harry pushed the skirt high resulting in an inch-by-inch revelation of a sassy eight-strap suspender belt which she wore over a pair of panties-both lace, both black. The lingerie was the prettiest setting he could have imagined for the gem of her sex.
"Laura, I'm developing a particular fondness for your choices in lingerie," he confessed, shifting his crouched position slightly in order to relieve some of the pressure in his pants.
"Harry, please, I-" Laura thrashed, caught up in a fever of need. She was ready for him-he could smell her. He was ready for her, fully erect, eager to penetrate her hot core, to be wrapped in that slick heat again.
But a part of him wanted so much more than a quick interlude that would be over far too fast because years of abstinence had frayed his self-control. He wanted and needed to be the one in charge-to seduce and possess her in the most fundamental way. He sensed no resistance from her, and in fact, Laura seemed to understand his desire. In his mind, fair was fair; she had gotten her way with him on the train.
It was not until her other ankle came to rest atop his opposite shoulder that she understood exactly what he had in mind. "I need you," Laura gasped.
"You have me," he assured her. He was hers-heart, body and soul. His hands slid beneath her buttocks and locked around her hips, pulling her across the divan so he had better access. Her final position resulted in her knees being hooked over his shoulders, hips tilted upward.
He had an experienced eye for such things, but it was his clever fingers that confirmed that these panties were even more risqué than the pair from the train. The material parted, permitting him unimpeded access. "Tsk tsk, Laura, I'm surprised at you!" he scolded, mocking shocked sensibilities.
Laura squirmed in reply, her feet kicking up in empty air. "My ass you're-oh!" The penetration of his index finger to the first joint robbed her of speech.
He pressed his mouth to the inside of her knee and ran his tongue across her inner thigh, taking his own sweet time in the discovery. Laura thrashed and extended her hands for his head but was unable to reach. His smile was smug, and he continued to taste her in a leisurely fashion. Eventually, he heard her sigh and whimper.
The coy design of the panties permitted his mouth to replace his hand. The first tentative lap of his tongue reduced Laura to mewling. She had the flavor of honey and spice, the heat of a fine tea, and the kick of an excellent scotch. It was his first taste of her, and already he had acquired a fondness because he was a connoisseur of exquisite things, and she was gourmet dining in black silk and lace.
Laura's body tightened and twitched, and Harry barely had time to register the warning signs before she had skyrocketed straight into fireworks. The suddenness and ferocity of her climax shocked him, and he kept her cresting with only the most minimal flicker of his tongue against her clit.
"Please, no more, no more, I can't breathe," Laura gasped, squirming away from him, hands pushing against the divan for traction to enable her retreat. Her entire body glistened with perspiration, and her muscles were taut and cramping.
His nature was not cruel; he allowed her to escape, gently settling her hips upon the divan. "Ah, that was heavenly," Laura crooned with a contented sigh and relaxed.
"Always happy to be of service," he teased, but he could not have been more pleased. His slightest touch, his most subtle direction, allowed him to ratchet her need precisely as it suited him. She responded to him so beautifully it barely felt real. The part of him that had always believed they were made to be lovers had firmly been vindicated.
He was not immune to need. His hands shook as he struggled to his feet and unzipped his fly. He hooked his thumbs beneath the waistband of both trousers and boxers and shed both in the same smooth motion. He removed his watch and set it upon the end table, leaving him naked except for his wedding band.
"Harry," Laura murmured his name in welcome and scooted to the side so that he could settle beside her on the divan. He moved with great care because of his broken ribs. Her arms were open for him, her thighs parted for him, but when he settled atop her, she stirred. "I'd like to take off this dress."
"Of course, sit up." Laura did as he suggested and turned so that he had access to her back. He slowly lowered the zipper, taking great care not to snag the silk because the dress was one he wished to see her wear again.
Laura scooted off the divan and stepped out of the dress, leaving her clad only in stockings, suspender belt and panties. Her bare back was to him, and he stared with dry-mouthed anticipation, waiting for her to turn and face him.
Her hand flitted to her undergarments. "Leave them on," he commanded, and his tone was heavily authoritative. He startled both her and himself.
Laura turned to him with wide eyes, and his lips parted. His expression was enraptured because she was simply stunning. Her hair was a dark tangle around her face-lips moist and slightly parted, eyes dark and dreamy. Her breasts in particular were stunning-high and pert and full-and his mouth watered at the sight. Her waist was narrow; her hips had a slight flare; her ass was tight and tiny. Her legs were muscular and sleek, and it was to his chagrin that he admitted the truth-sometime in the last several years, Laura had become his physical ideal for a woman.
"Would you like me to put the high heels back on?" Laura asked with a coy smirk. She drifted toward the divan, placing herself within his grasp.
"Next time," he said, catching her wrist and tugging her down to him. Laura settled on the divan beside him, her hands grasping his head. He dipped his head to nuzzle her throat, wrapping his arms around her. The pale skin across her chest was speckled with a delightful pattern of freckles that covered her breasts and stomach. He pressed a tiny kiss to one and then another and yet another until Laura locked her hands on his ears.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
"Counting freckles?" His earnest reply earned him an irritated huff and a cuff to the ear. With a firm grip, Laura guided his mouth to her breast. "Later," she said, "you can do that later."
Her bossy tone caused him to chuckle, but he did as she had bid. Her areola and nipple were a dusky rose color; the pert bud was erect and eager for his attention. He flicked his tongue across the tip of her nipple, eliciting an entirely satisfying gasp from Laura.
"Ah, love," Laura sighed, contented. Encouraged, he brought her nipple to his open mouth, covering her with wet warmth, massaging the exquisitely sensitive bud with the raspy side of his tongue. Laura had her hands in his hair again, fingers tangled in the longish locks. Her whimper and sighs were all the encouragement he needed, and he was dedicated wholly to his task.
Side-by-side, their bodies sought the position of consummation and communion. Laura hooked her leg across his hips, opening her sex to him, and he settled between her legs, his shaft snug between her thighs. He removed his mouth and straightened in order to align their torsos.
"It's never been like this before with anyone," Laura whispered, pressing her lips against his jaw and throat in an admission that left him stunned. Oh, he had wondered-her behavior in bed seemed to vacillate between the extremes of inexperienced novice and brazen seductress-but he would never have asked. It was simply ungentlemanly, and also irrelevant, to inquire as to what and who had come before him.
"So, none of the others matched up, did they?" he said, sounding very smug and very Irish-and damned happy if he trusted his own ears. If Laura was not careful with her flattery, he might wind up being insufferable. She would have only herself to blame.
"Not even close. I'm not saying anything more," Laura scolded, "or your already colossal ego will swell until your head bursts." She regarded him with sudden keen interest. He knew the look well enough that it set off mental alarms.
"What about you?" Laura asked. She stretched and extended her leg even further, straddling his hip to grant him a precious bit more maneuvering space.
"What about me?" He shifted so that the head of his penis located and wedged against her entrance.
"Turnabout is fair play," she said. "Have there been other women like this?"
There was only one correct answer. He offered her a boyish smile. "What other women, Laura? I've never been with another woman like this." He had truth on his side; lovemaking with Laura was incomparable.
He gave an experimental thrust. The panties granted his member the same easy access his tongue had enjoyed earlier, and the head of his penis penetrated the wet heat of her labia.
Laura stared at him, and for a moment, he was certain that she would call him on it, but she must have recognized truth at face value. She grinned and let it go, tossing back her head. Her hands were on the sides of his face; her lips smothered his in a consuming kiss. "You taste like sin," she said between wet open-mouthed kisses.
He laughed. "I taste like you."
"Oh!" Abruptly recalled to the memory of where his mouth had been, Laura landed a swat on his chest. Her hands encountered his bandaged ribcage, and her touch modified to gentle. "Easy," she said, "I don't want you getting hurt." Her hands rose to his shoulders; one of his settled in her middle back, the other tangled in her hair.
"Ah, me either," he agreed rather fervently inasmuch as he possessed a strong aversion to pain. Nothing, though, could have stopped him from thrusting forward, penetrating her one precious inch at a time. His eyes remained open and locked on her face the whole time. At first Laura did not notice, but then their gazes caught and locked. Her eyes widened, but she did not blink or look away.
"Mmmm." Laura emitted a sound, part grunt, part cry as he reached full penetration. She licked her lips and then kissed him again, lingering against his.
"I've wanted you like this for years," he admitted, holding himself within her, savoring the sensation. He was buried to the hilt, every fraction of his shaft wrapped in her silk, his balls resting against her perineum.
"I've fantasized about this," Laura returned. She was making no effort to resume a rhythm of motion, allowing him to remain within her as long as he wanted. "How many times have we lain together?"
"Aye, I have too." He had imagined this moment countless times, and the reality exceeded his every fantasy-so hot, so wet, so perfect. "Too many, too many."
There was nothing between them, not even a condom. With the obvious exception of Laura, he could not remember the last time he had engaged in sex without protection. Yet, it was the last thing he desired. Protection: even the word felt wrong. He did not want barriers between them.
After all the years of misunderstanding and evasions, the fact remained that he had always longed to be open to her, like this-a communion of bodies, hearts and souls. Lovers should have no need to guard against one another, only to keep the other safe from harm.
"We're not moving," Laura complained with a groan, shifting her hips in an undulation that suggested the rhythm to him. He groaned and complied, adopting a lazy pattern of thrust-withdrawal-thrust, each time slipping a little further out of her and then returning to full penetration.
It was a precarious balancing act for Harry-too hard or too fast and he risked stabbing pain from his injured ribs. Too slow and he might just go insane. And Laura-Laura had definitive opinions on the matter, writhing and thrusting against him with forceful determination. She grew increasingly aggressive as her orgasm approached, the muscles of her channel clenching around him.
"Laura," he panted, feeling his self-control spiraling away, "I can't last-"
She was not listening. Her lips locked on his, and her fingernails dug hard into his shoulders. "Mine," she gasped, grasping his head, grunting as he thrust into her again. It was possessive and primal; he had been claimed. "My love."
"Yes," he agreed, surrendering wholly, "yours." Before he could make any declarations of his own, Laura threw back her head and released a high keen of pleasure. Her body clenched hard upon him one final time and many repetitions thereafter, but it was only the first that mattered.
Harry shouted and followed her into the nirvana of climax. It was a complete destruction of self and two souls becoming one. He had no further thoughts or reflections, only a memory of a glimpse of absolute perfection. Afterward, he lay against his lover and panted, trying to hold onto that elusive feeling. Eventually, he was contented with simply holding Laura, recognizing that some things were too sacred for mortals to endure for more than a few moments.
They remained on the divan for a long time, bodies intertwined, dozing and watching the fire burn. "I love you," Laura whispered into the hush, stroking the side of his face with her fingertips.
His face turned toward hers. "Laura, I-" Her fingers across his lips cut off the words. Exasperated, he caught her wrist, pressed a kiss to those same fingers, and then removed her hand.
"Why do you always stop me?" It was not the first, and it would not be the last time-if he permitted her interference to continue. He did not comprehend her motivation, and if there was one thing that being Remington Steele had taught him, everything came down to motive in the end.
"I-" She stirred, clearly uneasy. "I don't want you saying it because I've said it, and it's the proper response."
"Trust me." It was a simple request, and not the first time he had asked because of her distrust. He perceived the sudden understanding in her eyes. "Will you trust me to know my own heart and mind?"
Laura consented, a mere flicker of her chin bobbing, and he could tell she was nervous. Her eyes were enormous. It was strange-why should she be nervous when he was not?
Harry caught her gaze and held it so that she could see straight into his soul, so there could be no doubt. She was the one who had given him the words without caution or condition; it was she who had set them free. She was entitled to this reciprocity. It would be the first time he had ever said it aloud, but not the last.
He said the words she had taught him, "Laura, I love you."