By Lauryn Poynor
No real introduction is needed to this small expansion on Woman of Steele, but I will note that I've always wanted to explore the mystery of Anna, to write about her past and Steele's. Think of this as a teaser to a "prequel" which I hope to be working on in the not too distant future. Special thanks to Madeleine Gilbert for encouragement.A word of warning to those who are sticklers for canon; there is a reference in the story to something left out of the filmed episode but suggested by an earlier version of the script. I've always thought it plausible so I incorporated it here.
"Jeans and a black leather jacket? Is this the new you?"
He weighed the effect on her, with a well-practiced inner calibration that left him secure in the power of his charm. "Give or take a few accessories."
"If only I'd known before the agency sunk a small fortune into Italian suits."
"Laura, I assure you that impulse is never wasted."
As they stepped from the elevator and out into the parking garage he kept up a steady stream of chatter, hoping she'd be distracted until he unveiled his surprise.
"Oh, I don't know," she was replying. "Sure, the Auburn will never fit in a sub-compact parking space, but isn't that a part of its appeal? Or have you suddenly become allergic to being noticed?" They rounded a corner to the section where the Rabbit had been parked that morning.
"Merely expanding my options. Say hello to maneuverability." He gestured grandly at an ice-blue vintage Ducati motorcycle. Was it a gasp or a sigh that he heard? No matter. He still imagined her, limber frame draped seductively across the bike, like a model at a motor show.
The real Laura, he now observed, was bolt upright and staring at the object as if it were a species jetted in from a game preserve; exotic but quite possibly dangerous. He watched her expression shift gears from allurement to reconsideration. "It's beautiful, but, how did you? –"
It was the sort of open-ended question he fielded from her with regularity, especially where finances were concerned. " It's hired. Or I should say, borrowed. No agency funds were harmed."
Thus free to indulge as she wished, she stroked the custom seats and glistening frame. "How thoughtful. His and hers," she said, picking up the smaller of a pair of helmets. She bent down to inspect the contents of a cargo rack. "And a picnic basket." Her eyes widened at its bulk. "Or is that a whole sidecar?"
"Motoring always gives me a hunger."
Laura swung a leg over the bike and straddled it. "Hop on, Mr. Steele," she invited him, not shy at all.
He stood back, slightly bemused at this role reversal. He was sure Marlon Brando or James Dean had never been told to "hop on"; they were always in the driver's seat. He watched as Laura twisted her long tresses into a knot and tucked them under the helmet. To hell with movie heroes, he decided. Silly buggers didn't know what they were missing.
"You do know how to drive this thing," he remarked, not sure if it were a statement or a question.
"I had a boyfriend at Stanford with a Panhead Harley. Keys," she said, all no nonsense, making him think of the brash but brainy young woman she must have been then. "I can handle this little Italian job."
It seemed a rather dismissive way to talk of a Ducati, but never mind. He tossed the keys into her hand. "Easy Rider, calc professors. Your college days continue to astound me."
"I'd tell you about them, but I'd have to shout over the rush of the wind." She fired the ignition and nudged the throttle to a sinuous growl.
He answered, a touch louder, "We'll table that discussion then. Till Monday at four pm."
"Sorry, client meeting."
"I'm sure they'll find it fascinating. The more the merrier."
"Are you going to stop talking and get on?"
He'd never heard a more inviting proposition, so he climbed up behind her and they threaded their way through the garage past earthbound Datsuns and BMWs to the sun-baked streets.
"When I saw the sign I thought we were going to Los Amantes Lookout."
He'd changed places with her on the bike when they'd turned off-road. "But that's so predictable."
"And crowded. Especially on the weekends."
"Taken inventory, have you?"
"Not since high school."
Ordinarily, he might wish to pursue that line of inquiry but Laura, exploring the perimeter of their newfound destination, seemed a bit restless; the last thing he wanted to do was to make her feel trapped. "No matter if we were surrounded by humanity," he assured her. "One creates a paradise of one's own. " Once, he'd watched a family of Belgians, grandmere and aged aunts in tow, plant their beach umbrella firmly in the sand, completely indifferent to the fact that several ladies of the evening, congregating like a school of fish, were swimming back and forth to sailors on a nearby barge.
"How did you find this place?" They'd climbed the bike through a rough, narrow passage in the canyons to emerge at an overlook that was smaller and less exposed than Los Amantes, but with an equally spectacular view.
"The Steeles have blazed trails since time immemorial." He declared this in so confident a manner that he almost believed it was true.
"Well I hope you can find the way home."
He gazed up at the sky reflectively. "Doubling back is a specialty of mine."
She rubbed her hands together. "It's rather nippy up here, Mr. Steele. Should I build a fire, or is that one of your talents, too?"
"In a pinch." More often his outdoor survival instincts had told him not to hang about long enough to get cozy, but he'd rather not pique her curiosity on that score.
"You've done all the preparation for this trip. At least let me gather some firewood."
"Gladly, Miss Holt. Your self-sufficiency is my command." He could always rely on Laura's independent streak. He smiled as he watched her small, determined form disappear into the leafy shadows. Her absence would give him the opportunity to uncork the wine and lay out their feast. It was a meal, he vowed, that delighted in contradiction: rustic, yet elegant, artful, yet simple, with centuries of aspiration behind it. His Belgians had managed, according to their lights. He'd known nobles and peasants alike who'd trudged through creek beds, hedgerows, and brambled fields just to find the perfect setting for the perfect repast. Surely the impulse was the same here in America. Steele expelled a sigh of satisfaction. He'd done the legwork; now it was time to reap the rewards.
He spread out the tablecloth like a ship's sail, setting the blue dinner plates off against its whiteness like swirls of sky. A picnic basket with a cooler compartment was a luxury he'd never tried until now, but there was room for cheeses wrapped in wax paper and a hearty chunk of Bayonne ham. He began to slice up the ham and a crusty loaf of bread, everything at a peak of freshness. The end result was perfect; the mini-sandwiches, spread with fig mustard, lay in such neat little triangles he imagined they could dapple a Kandinsky painting.
The fresh cheeses had taken some industry to find, but nothing was impossible, with the right connections. He cast his eye over a mound of soft, creamy Coulommier from the Brie family, a Tourmalet from the Pyrénées, a dense mountain Beaufort from Savoie, and a tangy Bleu d'Auvergne, a sampling of flavors from the softly ripened and sweet to the robust. He accompanied them simply with the sliced bread, cornichons, and red grapes.
The dessert, still in the hamper on its cushion of ice, was to be the finish: a lemon tart ringed at the bottom with a secret layer of dark chocolate, a seduction not perhaps revealed at the very first bite. He'd once described his efforts to weaken Laura's defenses as a noble struggle, as indeed it was, but it ran deeper than the urge of conquest; like a lover's knot waiting to be untied was the unstated but more central notion that what he wanted most simply was to please her, and to show her he could please her, if only she would let him.
Laura's face, always so expressive, was even more of a study in the firelight; she was the object of his concentration from the curve of her lip to the slant of her brow. What was presently revealed, he wondered? Indulgence, affection, or something more? A streak of mischief, perhaps even daring, in the glance she gave him now.
They'd eaten their fill, half-reclining, with the serene and leisurely enjoyment that any open-air banquet deserved. The remainder had been packed away, leaving only the tablecloth, the wine, and glasses. "Is the wine to your liking?" he asked. It was a fine Bordeaux, but with enough youth and fruitiness to accommodate the palate of a novice.
"It's wonderful, but I'm afraid one's my limit." She tipped the neck of the wine bottle into his tulip-shaped glass, filling it deeply with red. "But don't stop on my account."
"Drinking solo is a dangerous habit."
"You didn't bring me up here alone just to play it safe."
In all honesty he wasn't sure what he'd had in mind for their little escape. Though he'd planned meticulously it was without a certain object, like casing Tiffanys without being sure precisely what was in the vaults. After all their hazards of late, with Descoine, with Anna, the need to get clean away, to some place where they could think clearly again, had nagged at him, even if he didn't quite know where such strategy would lead.
"And in case you've forgotten, one of us has to drive home. Bottoms up, Mr. Steele."
"I got into a spot of trouble the last time I did this."
"With those divorcees from the Malcolm Marcall case," Laura mused.
Though her manner was matter-of-fact, there was a hint of something apart from the professional in her voice. Did Laura agonize over every chance he took with other women? At one time he might certainly have hoped so, but the desire to make her jealous had lately been supplanted by the desire to make her feel something more durable, more than would flash in a moment, even though he liked seeing the spark.
"I bet they had their hands all over you."
Score one for jealousy. He winced. "It was all rather a blur, actually."
She shot him a look that said that fallback was rather convenient, if chivalrous on its face; he still was avoiding the question.
"A much more pleasant blur later on, on the floor of the office. From what little I remember." It was more misdirection, but perfectly true. He tried hard to recall what he'd said to her on that occasion; perhaps he might need to say something similar but the moment passed, and they were back to their well-worn habits, dancing once again around the edges of their emotions.
She was toying with him now, with the effrontery of a French gamine. "You know, you're awfully easy to take advantage of."
"And with you I have to try so damned hard. Flirt madly. Shower you with compliments. See what a little moonlight can do."
"I could make it easier on you."
If this was a mere bluff, it was shockingly direct. Whatever smooth remark that had been on his lips vaporized in an instant.
She lifted his wine glass. "First, you have to finish this off."
He equivocated. After all, the Bordeaux was still a Pichon-Lalande, birthed by the sandy banks of the Gironde. Not meant to be swilled down like Guinness, but who could blame him for being a Philistine at a time like this? He tossed it back, and quickly.
His heart skipped at the bright, careless gleam in her eye. Mercilessly, she poured another glass, filling it nearly to the brim. "Third time's the charm."
He downed this one a bit more slowly, the better to watch her reaction. Something was on her mind, that was for certain; maybe this time he might stay just sober enough to find out. Steady, he cautioned himself, as the alcohol insinuated its warmth into his veins. His flesh tingled as her fingers brushed his forehead, smoothing back an errant strand of hair.
"You look like a poet," she declared, her image floating magically in his vision.
He might have managed a better impersonation if he didn't feel so thoroughly content. He reclined back on his elbows, trying to gather up his drowsy wits. "In wine, there is poetry …" he pronounced rather grandly, before losing his train of thought.
"So I've heard." Her mouth turned up in amusement.
Under the influence in more ways than one, he could hardly avoid getting caught up in a certain romanticism. What, at this golden opportunity, should one say to a beautiful - but as yet unattainable - woman? With borrowed inspiration, but no lack of feeling, he sat up and swept a hand over his heart, holding his glass aloft with the other. "'Wine comes in at the mouth, and love comes in at the eye. That's all we shall know for truth, before we grow old and die. I lift the glass to my mouth, I look at you and I sigh.'"
She smiled softly. "An Irish poet."
"Full marks, Miss Holt. A toast to a difficult woman. Maude Gonne. William Butler Yeats proposed to her four times. She said if they ever married she could no longer be his muse. Love and art wrecked on the shoals of reality, and all that. Perhaps she was right."
The sky had shaded to a dusky blue and the city spread out before them like possibility.
Laura plucked the glass from his hand and set it down. "Perhaps." As if she needed to arrive at a decision, she pressed him into the soft ground, her body swiftly covering him, her breath against his cheek. The kiss was almost startling, abrupt and fierce, but as she clung to him, fraction by fraction, it became immeasurably slow and deep. He had so acclimated to its rhythms that for some time after, it seemed somehow impossible to divide by half, his secrets from hers.
They were stretched out, side by side. "Laura, do you believe in fate?"
"As something that determines us? Not really."
"I know this is going to sound idiotic, but after all that's been thrown in our path lately – and I don't just mean the professional risks, I know we cheat death daily -" he only half-joked, "but more than that, " he began to confess, "since Anna.." He stopped, sobering, feeling his courage sink a bit. Perhaps even saying her name was a risk, but they had come this far through the fire together; he had to believe it was safe to look back, not only to count their blessings, but to see where they were going from here. He looked to her for a sign of solidarity.
"Go on." There was the curiosity he often sensed from her whenever he had something to reveal, but no apparent tension; she seemed relaxed, and steady, and open to him.
Truth, for him, had rarely been admissible, whenever he had something to lose, but he had fought all this time the need to tell her, to explain as much as he could. "Things were moving so swiftly then, I couldn't think, only react. Every stratagem of Anna's was pulling me back, to the way I was then, to protecting us both, out of instinct. She knew I would shut you out."
Laura spoke and some of the tightness left his chest. "You're here. We're here. She didn't win."
His thoughts drifted back to Anna and their history together, back to a secret that no one else knew. "Anna taught me that we were different from other people, we had to live in the moment, where nothing could last. If we loved, it was all the more powerful because it was fleeting. And time was both her ally and her enemy to the last throw of the dice."
"She only had to hold onto you for just long enough. That was all she needed."
It was frightening to think of how close she'd been, how cleanly the trap had almost sprung. Rather closer than he'd ever managed to confess.
"Laura, I slept with her."
He saw her turn away, just slightly, her face shielded by her hair. "Of course. She'd have to make sure of you, wouldn't she?"
He'd known Anna in all her moods; she'd always been a creature of temperament, of fire and ice. Yet only once before had he seen her so frightened, so shaken to her very core. "I want you to be careful of Marleau. Will you promise me?" she implored. "I will." And there was such relief as she drew him down to her, tears on her cheek. "It's always been us against the world," she reminded him. "It's what we mean together, my love."
Her memory felt estranged from him now, spiraling down into the darkness. "I want so badly to wish it all away, but I can't." He felt suspended on some point of judgment, declared wanting on all sides. When he found the courage to meet Laura's gaze he found it oddly steadying. "You knew, didn't you?"
Strange, he thought, how his life had become transparent to all but himself.
"I wanted you to suffer, but I think Anna took care of that."
On the surface it was a clean break, but he'd learnt not to underestimate Anna's hold on him. Days after the shooting, he couldn't quite shake the feeling that she was there, looking on as he stewed in regret, dissecting him in that coolly ironical way that he once admired but now found dreadful. His blood chilled to think of her turning that gaze, like a sharpened blade, in Laura's direction. Anna might be crossed, momentarily, but she could still double-cross, even under lock and key. "Laura, I never meant -" he began, but that mitigation hardly mattered. "I'm so sorry I dragged you into this."
"You didn't. I just couldn't face standing on the sidelines, even if that was where I belonged."
He hated to hear the resignation in her voice, as if she would always be an exile where his past was concerned, however she fought against it. "If I made you think that, even for a moment, I deserved to get my head blown off."
A faint smile played upon her lips. "Point taken, but I hated to give Anna the satisfaction."
"That aside, there are a host of things that I can't expect you to forgive."
Her brows knit together pensively. "Maybe I don't have to. What claim do we have on each other's lives? Until we answer that, it's hard to know the rest."
"I know when I've treated you badly." After weeks of picking his way through the ruins, there was one possibility he'd held on to. "Laura, perhaps there's no meaning to this at all - but I've begun to think that the ghosts of our past come into the present for a reason - to show us, in the end, what really matters."
"It's certainly given us the chance to think about that. Not that we've arrived at anything, precisely."
Her words were perhaps finely calibrated not to reveal any sign of hurt, but he felt an undisguised sense of relief. At least she was talking as if there were still a future to decide.
Laura considered it. "I've been trying so hard, all this time, to define our relationship. I needed to do that somehow. But now I wonder."
"Maybe things will simply happen as they are meant to happen. That is, if we let them." Suddenly aware of how momentous he sounded, he shook his head ruefully. "Here I go again, talking rubbish about fate."
If anything should have cured him of believing in a load of star-crossed nonsense, it should have been Anna. But he didn't want to think of her now, not when he could rest under Laura's soft gaze, so earnest and warm, despite all he'd done to disenchant her.
She leaned up and kissed him on the forehead. "But I like hearing you talk rubbish."
"Lucky for you I've drunk all the wine then, eh?" He looked across at her almost shyly.
"Do you think I'm a difficult woman?"
"Hardly, at the moment. You're not giving me the swift kicking I deserve."
"Well, what about all the other moments? Do you believe I'm difficult then?"
He quirked an eyebrow at her query. "It's not a belief, precisely, it's more a mathematical certainty, like the laws of motion, or two plus two is four."
"Oh, you're going to pay for that!"
She playfully wrestled him, handhold to handhold, bearing him once more down to submission. If she'd planted a victory flag on the field he wouldn't have minded as long as her lips kept teasing his lips, his throat, and her palms were pressed to his.
"If that's my penance," he declared, vanquished, "I should transgress more often."
She pulled herself up, gazing down as if considering what to do with him. It was a moment that seemed to hold every gamble that he could ever risk.
For so long he had hoped to impart to her the proofs he'd arrived at about their association; the freedom she'd given him to make the world anew; the purpose reclaimed from an aimless life; the sharp pleasure whenever she smiled at him, or flared up at him in defiance. He was learning to value other things; the solid comforts of a solid life; the feeling that he mattered; the pleasant shock that his name was a force for something good in the world (obliging that streak of knight-errantry the movies had nurtured); a sense of attachment that was beginning to hold less fear of confinement. Was he capable, would he ever be, of knitting all these strands together into something whole, a life he could furnish with things that would last?
The feeling of Laura's lips grazing his ear reminded him that they had only stopped for breath. "You're thinking too much, Mr. Steele."
The charge had never been more apt, but so many questions were turning in his mind. Before Anna's intrusion into their lives, so easily effected, he might have thought the time had come when he dared confess to Laura all he felt and hoped.
Her body, her scent surrounded him, mingling with grass and earth. Was it a cheat to say he loved her? He thought he had loved Anna, but what was that worth now? With Laura, was it so different? He felt the same headlong rush of desire, the same challenge to possess her, the same marveling at her singularity and wit. Both of them had held themselves apart from him, shying away from confidences, forcing him to surmise about what was in their hearts.
What had he really known of Anna, what had he tried to know, in a few short months? By comparison his relationship to Laura had been a lifetime, a rather unaccustomed luxury he'd never had with a woman before. Was what he felt for Laura more lasting and real? Every instinct told him that it was. But did the slow, more measured progress of their lives together deepen their emotions, or merely make it seem that way?
As if wanting to confound him, she spun their world forward on its axis, letting her hands precipitously wander, to glide down his chest, his sides, his hips. She angled off of him, to give herself free play, her breath coming close, her grasp urgent, exploring. His senses tumbled in free-fall, bounding far ahead of him - if she touched him there –
He caught her wrist. "God, Laura, wait –"
The recoil was almost instantaneous. He tried to pull her close, to hold her, but she'd twisted away and free, and had already begun to walk away from him.
He sat up, slowly mastering himself, his thoughts. "Laura, I want to be sure of things. I have to," he said, with all the gentleness he could put into the words.
"You don't need to explain. It's too soon, isn't it? After Anna."
He clambered swiftly to his feet. "That's not it at all -"
But she wouldn't let him off so easily. "Your past. Your damned past."
With the slender grace with which she always moved, she knelt to gather up the empty glasses and the tablecloth, folding the latter up with elaborate care. Back turned to him, she murmured, "I could throw myself at your feet and it would make no difference."
"Laura don't say such things, don't think them –"
She straightened and stood, tensely alert to him, her eyes dark and fierce. "Then make me understand."
The words spilled out of him, as they often did only when affairs had reached a crisis. "It's not nobleness or chivalry that's held me back all this time. It's wanting to make certain you were with me – that somehow, despite all the odds, we could believe in the both of us. I've had a lifetime of putting on false pretenses, always standing outside of myself. Not knowing what part of me was real."
He saw sympathy return to her gaze and he almost couldn't bear it.
Because," he explained, with some bitterness, "that's how it's done. Trust yourself to keep the proper distance, and if you feel a spark of genuine emotion, best to bury it, because it would only prove an inconvenience. You become some shadow of a human being -"
"If you think you were ever like Anna, you're wrong. She could never have made you her pawn."
"Defending me with my own foolishness." He gave a short, dry laugh. "I believed in Anna. Maybe now, with us, that's all I'm doing. Getting you to believe, too. "
"That night at my loft," she said calmly, "when you brought the champagne. You said you weren't the same man. That I'd changed you."
"And you said that you had only changed my name. Ungenerous to your worthy efforts, I must say, but perhaps I wouldn't want to claim credit for me either."
She came to him, stood before him, placed a hand over his heart. "I think what's in here hasn't changed. You were willing to go to the ends of the earth for Anna's sake. Not for yours. That was the man you were then, and the man you are now. For what it's worth," she said softly," I don't think a woman as perceptive as Anna could be completely unmoved by it, no matter what the endgame."
"Thank you for that," he said, and he meant it. "Though," he added more lightly, "it's not exactly the kind of solicitude I wish to cultivate in the fairer sex." He'd hardly expected to find, in her analysis, any sign of faith in him, implicit or otherwise. He squeezed her palm.
"I doubt it's the first time, with your former lovers. Especially the more ruthless ones. Fascinating, what sins they could drive you to commit."
He raised an eyebrow. "You sound as if you don't mind."
"I don't, really. I understand it. I've often wondered exactly the same thing."
"Now you're teasing me. But I don't mind that, either." He was glad for the lightness in her eyes, and the impudent lift of her chin. Like the sun coming out after shadow, their reappearance seemed to promise that everything would be alright. In gratitude he made a silent vow; he'd lost one love, he wouldn't lose another.
"It was a lovely night under the sky and stars," she reflected. "I thought if I could get you to set aside your inhibitions, maybe I could do the same with mine."
"You sacrificed a marvelous Bordeaux."
"In a good cause. You were honest with me – more than I thought you ever would be. When I said I wanted you to suffer, it wasn't true." After a pause, she amended, "Well, it was true for a couple of hours. But then I thought of you waiting for Anna the night she disappeared, and how it must have felt, so long after, to find her again."
He raked a hand through his hair. "Rather bitter, and sweet, and unnerving all at once."
"Maybe I was trying to compete with her tonight," she admitted, "I'm not immune to that kind of reaction. But it's not as if I haven't considered seducing you before."
"I'd be grateful for more detail on that last point. Should you ever care to elaborate."
"One day," she promised. "Maybe even soon." She furrowed her brow in an almost studious manner, lending a beguiling schoolgirl innocence to the prospect.
"Then I've far more to look forward to than you have. My rare moment of honesty was just that – rare -" he pronounced. "Anna once said to me that deception was an art best practiced on other people, never on oneself. The irony is, the more I think back on that relationship the more illusions I seem to require."
"She can hardly begrudge you that."
"Perhaps not, but it's rather meager as a long term strategy," he said dryly. "It occurs to me we need to prepare along those lines. Somehow I don't believe that Anna's done with either of us. "
He saw her react; an unconscious squaring of the shoulders. There was such forthrightness in the gesture, a courage he couldn't match. For all his confessions, he couldn't tell her what he truly feared:
Laura, I lost her through my own fault. She was in desperate trouble when I knew her in Monte Carlo, had been for some time - part of her admission had been true, in some form he had yet to realize. Anna, his willing executioner. Gun pointed squarely at his heart. In that instant, that was when he knew.
"Mr. Steele .."
The sound of her voice finally registered; he stared down at the grip on his arm. "I'm sorry, Laura."
"There's time for thinking about Anna," she said gently. "You're allowed to let it rest."
If only that were as easily accomplished as she wished; meeting her gaze, he managed a smile. "I've certainly done my best to spoil your evening, haven't I?"
Releasing him, she shook her head. "Hand over your heart? Reciting Irish poetry? I don't think I'll forget that for a while."
"Yes, well they're about the only lines I know. Learnt them in a pub."
She gave him a playful shove. "You charmer."
He was relieved to be able to take refuge in their banter, and he suspected she was, too.
"Well, I suppose we should push off home," he said, kicking some dirt on their waning campfire. "I'll get us clear of the woods. Then the open road is yours."
"Do you think you can find it?"
"I think so, but keep a compass handy." Thank heaven that Laura was always prepared for every contingency; not a bad skill to have when navigating in the dark.
They rode into the night, her arms tight around his chest, as the bike picked its way down the steep hills to the curve of the highway.
[ Steele A State Of Mind ]