By Lauryn Poynor
Nattily attired in a dark suit with a crimson square in the pocket, Remington Steele emerged from his office. Puzzling, he peered around the reception area as if it had suddenly become larger than he remembered.
Not a client in sight, or even Mildred; Laura was sweetening a cup of coffee, pencil behind her ear.
He shot her a wary glance. "Laura, do you ever get the feeling something's -- missing?"
"Mr. Steele.” She stood, one hand on her hip. “You, of all people, should know a man should never ask a woman an open question like that.”
Steele thought a moment. "Point taken. Lord knows where it might lead."
Laura pinned him with a look. "To the word 'commitment,' perhaps?" She strode over to Mildred's desk and set down her coffee.
Steele loosened his collar and tie. "Actually, Laura I was thinking of something a touch more obvious than the minefield of male/female relationships." He gestured around the room with a sweep of his hand. "Where have all the flowers gone?"
Laura was matter-of-fact. "I suspected it was an inside job. I wormed the story out of Mildred before she went to lunch."
"And?" Steele prompted.
"I guess somehow she thought I wouldn't notice, but she had Fred deliver all the bouquets to some nursing homes in the area.”
Steele sighed in mock irritation. "Can't argue with the gesture, but I wish they'd asked first.” He waited a long, slow beat. “I've always wanted to deflower you, Miss Holt, and now I've missed my chance."
Laura tried to repress a smile. “Why do I suspect you started this whole business just to be able to say that line?”
“I've always held to one very firm belief in life: a day without a spot of flirting is a day wasted.”
“If that day ever comes when I'm around you, Mr. Steele, remind me to check your pulse.”
Steele put his hand over his heart. “The kiss of life is all I require.”
"I see. After all your flower arranging, you still haven't learned your lesson. Secret admirers are supposed to worship from afar.”
Undaunted, Steele crossed swiftly to her side. "Yes, but I was only pretending to be your secret admirer. So much for the rulebook." He grinned like a swashbuckling pirate and pulled her into an embrace.
Laura struggled, but only slightly. "You never give up, do you?"
"Well, not until my credit runs out."
Steele had unerringly struck a nerve. Laura yanked herself away from him. "Your credit!” she shrilled. “That's a fine way to put it!”
He recoiled from the reverberation, backing up against Mildred's desk. "Laura, could you shriek a little higher? So that only dogs can hear? I still haven't recovered from Rocky Sullivan."
She shifted to a low growl. "How on earth did you think you'd get away with it? Charging it to the agency as if it were your own private bank vault!”
It was textbook Steele. His audacious act embodied all that infuriated her about him - yet attracted her, too - the volatile mixture of double-dealing and supreme confidence, his keen ambition to play every angle if she was the reward, his indifference to the standard rules of engagement, his maddening certainty that once the ruse was discovered (as he knew it would be) the romanticism of the gesture would yet win him the game, set, and match. Laura dug in her heels, determined to deny him.
The grim resolve must have shown in her _expression because Steele gave a noticeable flinch. “I guess 'all's forgiven' is out.”
“It's just like you to throw the cost of your little deception in my face after I've been chained to that ledger in there going over every last expense --”
“Ah, making excellent progress, then.” In a spirit of self-preservation, Steele deftly removed the sharpened pencil from behind her ear.
"Only if we're trying to waste more money than the Pentagon! Your spending habits could clean out an armored Brinks truck!”
Steele cocked his head. “I've never tried that gambit, actually. No fortress is impregnable, you know.” He perched with one leg on the desk and sketched idly in the margin of Mildred's legal pad.
“Don't start with me!” She threw up her hands.
Laura wondered, scams aside, if the man had ever owned a checkbook before this, much less balanced one. Did he just shake off the dust of each city and move on, ill gotten gains jingling in his pocket -- then when things went bust, charm his way into the nearest four star hotel? The bittersweet irony of it all was that no one knew better than she at this very moment how surprisingly full the company coffers had become. Since they'd re-made the agency in his image, they'd pulled in clients like a supercharged magnet. So, if Steele spent with one hand while raking it in with the other, as long as the balance tipped far enough in the right direction, she'd be foolish to give him up. Thank heaven that columns of figures made his eyes glaze over or he would have caught on to this even more than he had. Not quite as vexed now as before, upon reflection, she jerked a thumb toward Steele's office. "While I slaved away like Bob Cratchit, what were you doing in there?"
“I'll show you.” She followed him into the room. "Catching up on current events," he said breezily. Steele handed her a portion of the morning's newspaper.
"Another feature on you in the Style section.” Laura salted the observation with sarcasm. “Must be a slow news day."
"As if you haven't read it yet,” he said smugly, putting down the pencil.
Laura lifted her chin. “Why should I want to?”
“Laura.” He gave her a sharp look. “I thought you pored over every column-inch of me.”
A blush stole across her cheeks as if she'd been caught unawares reading a Charlotte Knight novel. Laura cleared her throat. “Any clippings we've saved have been for agency archival purposes,” she offered primly. “There have been a number of people hiring our services who've been rather easily impressed by that sort of thing.”
“I've always liked that quality in a client.”
He flicked a glance at his rather dashing news photo. "There are times I have to remind myself that I can scrub up nicely." Steele tugged at his ear. "Adieu, Johnny Todd."
"Undercover work is hell. It's a good thing I noticed you still had that earring in when you came to work this morning."
"I'm eternally grateful, Miss Holt. It doesn't really go with this chalk stripe."
"I should have called the society desk and given them a scoop.” She brightened at the thought. “I can see the headline now: 'Diamond Studs Aren't a Guy's Best Friend.'"
Steele covered his mortification with a hint of cloak and dagger. "It wouldn't do to reveal our elements of disguise to the criminal fraternity."
Laura's brows lifted. "They read the society pages?"
"You'd be surprised. As a famous bank robber once said, 'that's where the money is.'"
His partner hated being caught missing the obvious, but she refused to show it. "Thanks for the tip."
"Don't mention it. I guess I owe you one."
"More than just one, Mr. Steele. I think you owe me a three, followed by several zeros. The florist bills, remember? Time to pay the piper.”
"A fine romance this is," Steele sniffed. He reached into his jacket pocket. "Shame to waste all that hard work."
"Your elaborate ruse?”
Steele leaned on the desk, poised over his checkbook. "Cold, hard cash seems so impersonal." Straightening, he put down his pen and paused as if weighing several more pleasant options. "Perhaps we could take it out in trade," he said sultrily.
"Trade?" Their eyes locked and Laura felt an exquisite heat course through her veins. Maybe it was the still strong scent of the flowers wafting in from the reception area, but she was suddenly finding it hard to breathe. "What are you suggesting?"
He shook his head. "Your terms."
Then why did Laura feel like a girl at an Arabian slave market who'd just lost her seventh veil? "My terms? I think you mean yours." The odd thing was that, as exposed as she felt under his gaze, she'd always taken pleasure in it, too, and in the mambo they danced that was all looks and words and going so far and no farther. But now that they were seeing each other often outside of work, and in increasingly romantic settings, it seemed more and more natural to take that next step. So why couldn't she get off the dime? There was no denying that their attraction had been instantaneous. So, what would have happened if she taken Bernice's advice at the start? “He's here, you're here. Go for it!” It might have been easier then, before their double lives had become quite so inextricably linked. But there had to be a point of no return somewhere. They'd either have to let things combust or freeze.
Despite the resistance in her words, thought Steele, she seemed on the verge of something. Something rash, an impulse. Perhaps, the impulse he'd been anticipating since the day they met. Strange. One moment she was dunning him good and proper, the next, her hormones were spiking like a surge on Wall Street. Had his flower buying binge actually worked? Admittedly, he'd chosen some of the varieties for their reputed aphrodisiac effect. He sniffed the air.
“You know,” Laura hesitated. “On the stakeout, when you admitted you were jealous of my 'secret admirer'…”
“Yes?” Steele eyed her speculatively.
“You were terribly convincing.”
She moved over to him slowly and slipped an arm around his waist. “Your ploy almost worked. If it hadn't been for the interruption of the case …“
“If you're trying to torture me with might-have-beens now, I guess I deserve it.”
“Not entirely,” Laura confessed. “We were both trying to get the upper hand. Me with my 'secret admirer' and you by playing jealous of your own competition. Sometimes I wonder, Mr. Steele, in this relationship, who's taking advantage of whom?”
“The eternal question, eh?” She splayed a hand against his chest and felt the beat of his heart increase its tempo. After one immeasurably long and earth-moving kiss they were no closer to answering the question than before, but damned if it really mattered.
Steele murmured against her ear. “It was a rather tawdry trick to pretend to be your secret admirer.” He thought better of the term. “Well, perhaps not tawdry - but probably desperate. Let me make it up to you. No tricks,” he promised.
“OK...” She would reserve judgment, but she wasn't about to stop him when he was this contrite.
“I could buy you your weight in chocolate.”
Laura let out a breath and blinked. "You're a dangerous man, Mr. Steele."
With a flourish, Steele wrote out an IOU to seal the bargain; ten seconds ticked on the clock.
"Who knew candy and flowers had such an effect?" Laura mused, still in a bit of a trance.
"Couples across the globe, I'll wager. Years of advanced science behind it. Saint Valentine has a lot to answer for, and it's still nine months from February."
Laura opened the desk drawer, removed the phone book, and began rifling through the yellow pages.
"Laura, what are you doing?"
"There you are, Mr. Steele. A list of all the chocolate shops in the city. One a month. That should keep you busy for a while."
"Just one question. How much do you weigh?"
She colored slightly and waved a hand in the air. "Oh, ah, just round it off to an even hundred pounds."
Circling the desk, Steele pinched her side experimentally. "You mean for now?" he teased.
She gave him a look that could freeze mercury. "Remember what I said about never asking women certain questions? You're zero for two."
"Ah." Steele folded his arms. "Do you want change back from that three-thousand dollars, or should we let bygones be bon-bons, eh?"
"Silly question. Zero for three."
At his crestfallen look, she relented. "I'll consider it, Mr. Steele. You get to keep the difference. On one condition."
She bit her lip. "You never mention any of this to Frances."
“And have two crazed chocoholic women after me? Besides, Donald would have my hide. Falling afoul of a dentist can be a frightful business. Have you seen 'Marathon Man'?”
“No, but I have a feeling I'm going to have to run one of those every week. Chocolate goes straight to my hips.”
“There are other ways to work those extra pounds off, you know.”
“Why do I think that by tomorrow you're going to hand me a book that's a cross between a calorie counter and a sex manual?”
Steele considered the idea. “I'll get to work on it straightaway. Now then. Care to have a nice fat gourmet lunch?”
“You wouldn't be trying to take advantage of me, would you?”
“Nonsense. I'll pay the check this time.”
“That wasn't quite what I meant.”
He offered her his arm. “Shall we, Miss Holt?”
As they walked through the outer doors, Steele hung a sign. “Out to lunch. Back in one hour.”
Laura smiled. “Better make that two.”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Laura had circled the date on her calendar, but it wasn't on her mind as they walked up the stairs to the loft. The past eight hours had put a strain on even her overactive work ethic. Keeping track of three suspects in one day had been more than she bargained for.
“Tired?” Steele paused at the doorway.
“A little. I think I'll call it a night.” She thought of something. “Wait. I'll get that movie book for you that I borrowed.” They stepped inside.
Laura rubbed her eyes. Either it was a mirage or she was staring at a bucket of champagne on ice and a candlelit table adorned by a large exquisitely wrapped Godiva chocolate box.
“Have you forgotten what day it is? Your first installment.”
“Oh, my! How did you arrange this? I was just expecting the UPS guy at the office.”
“Well, we could invite him, too, but why have to split the booty?”
She gave him a warm smile. “It's not so bad having someone to share it with.”
“I was hoping you'd say that. I'll tell Fred I'll get a cab home.”
Minutes later they decamped decadently to the sofa, as a progression of foil candy wrappers began to litter the coffee table like loose pirate treasure.
Steele kissed the chocolate corner of her mouth. “Hmm. I think that's hazelnut praline.”
“Enrobed chocolate almond truffle.” Laura sighed and put down her champagne flute. “I think I'm going to regret this. Why is it you never gain an ounce?”
“Perhaps because you've been out-gorging me at a ratio of three to one.”
“You're right. I'm incorrigible. But you still have an unfair metabolism.”
“Luck of the draw, I suppose.”
Laura was nagged by the notion she had to get up and moving before something settled permanently. She rose from the sofa. “I'll go put something on.”
“Laura, that's hardly in the Godiva spirit, is it? After all, the lady was known for riding through town in a state of -“
“I meant on the stereo. For us to dance to.”
“Yes, of course. If you check that diet book I gave you you'll find that dancing burns off fewer calories than what's described in chapters four, five, and six.”
“I think those authors aren't exactly Walter Cronkite when it comes to objectivity. They run a sex institute.”
“I knew it was something with a lot of PHDs,” Steele said airily. He watched Laura place the needle on the record. “What's up?”
“The classics are always in fashion, eh?”
the intro started, she led him to the center of the room. “It's not the
Starlight Ballroom, but it'll have to do.” Even though she'd tested the
proposition several times before, she still marveled at how well they fit
together on a dance floor. She leaned her cheek against his shoulder. Life
would still be a game of chance, Laura knew - with Mr. Steele it could
hardly be otherwise -- but by hook or by crook, maybe someday they'd get
to the payoff. “I think they're playing our song, Mr. Steele.”
…I'm a sentimental sap, that's all,
[ Steele A State Of Mind ]