Chapter 3: Priorities

Laura woke to the smell of bacon cooking and coffee brewing, and a pounding headache that made both meaningless at the moment. Her hand reached up to lay against her head, and she groaned audibly as she turned over in the bed. She opened her eyes cautiously, testing the effect of the sunlit room on the headache, relieved to find light did not intensify the pain. Her sight line focused on the glass of water and three pills lying on the bedside table, waiting for her in case she needed them. She said a silent prayer of thanksgiving for Mr. Steele's foresight, popping the pills into her mouth and washing them down with a greedy drink of water.

She pushed herself up to a sitting position and sucked in a deep, hissing breath as the headache escalated from painful to pulse pounding with the movement. She concentrated on ignoring the pain needing the restroom, a shower and a good teeth brushing, in that order. She stood up gingerly, relieved to find the floor was not tilting this morning at least and made her way to the dresser. Pulling out a sweater, jeans and a bra, she made her way to the bathroom. A hot shower did wonders for the tight muscles caused by the skiing and skating the day prior and blessedly helped take the edge off the headache as well. By the time she had dressed, brushed her teeth and pulled up her hair, the headache had diminished to a tolerable but annoying throb.

She made her way to the kitchen, then leaned against the door jamb smiling as she watched Remington. He'd pulled on an apron to protect his sweater and jeans against any accidental spills, though the man was nothing if not meticulously neat while at work in the kitchen. He was whistling a happy little tune, as he scooped omelets out of the pan in front of him and onto plates already crowded with bacon, fruit and fresh croissants. Two steaming cups of coffee were added to the tray, which he picked up and carried to the living room and placed on the table in front of the sofa. She laughed as he'd said not so much as a word to her when he'd passed, but once he'd dropped off the tray of food, returned, effectively trapping her against the wall between the two arms on which he leaned.

"Good morning, Miss Holt." Intense blue eyes pierced golden brown ones, her arms moved of their own accord to loop around his neck.

"Good morning, Mr. Steele." She watched his hips sway, as he moved slightly closer. Her tongue swept across her lips, moistening them in response to his movements.

"Glad to see you finally joined me. I was beginning to wonder if you planned to sleep the day away." A hand left the wall to trace a path down the side of her face, before lifting her hair over her shoulder, providing access to her neck.

"I'm here now. Are you going to wish me a proper good morning?" Her voice was husky, meaning clear as fingers threaded through his hair, chin tipped upward.

"I could, perhaps, be persuaded." A hand skimmed down his back, over his buttocks, then back upwards over his side, his blue eyes glazing at the touch. "Mmmm, I believe you've convinced me." Lips brushed, settled, pressed more firmly, the touch of tongue causing a hand to clasp the back of his neck, urging him deeper. He moved closer, then closer still, until an arm reached around her hips, pulling her tight against him, their bodies melding. They dared each other with their bodies, their mouths, their hands. She conceded the match, breaking her mouth away from his with a deep gasp, leaning back against the wall.

"That was some good morning," she commented, trying to catch her breath, then laughed at his self-satisfied smirk and the wag of his brow. She sidestepped him as he stepped forward, intent on going a second round. "Food. I'm starving."

"Ah, yes, must keep your strength up. Come on, then." His hand pressed against the small of her back as they walked over to the couch. She sat down on one end, propping her back against the arm before grabbing a plate, while he mimicked her on the other side of the couch.

"Have Jocelyn and Monroe left for the day?" She'd only just recognized the quiet of the house around them.

"Mmmmm. Long ago."

"You didn't give them a hard time last night, did you?" She watched him closely, saw he was considering his words carefully before replying.

"Never said so much as a word to Jocelyn." She nodded, waited for him to continue, frowned when he didn't.

"And Monroe?" she asked, her tone suspicious.

"Laid him out in the hospital waiting room." He shrugged his shoulders, continued eating.

"He was with you when it happened, you know. He would have only known about it second hand."

"Regardless of how he knew, Laura, he knew and kept it from me."

"Only because I asked Jocelyn not to say anything." She watched him pick up a piece of bacon, take a bite, his countenance darkening as he chewed. He sat up and set the plate calmly on the coffee table. She watched him expectantly. Better to get this fight out of the way then sit around all day waiting for it to come.

"Are you sure you want to get into this right now, Laura?" His voice was tight, clearly his anger was already simmering once more.

"May as well," was her blithe response. She flinched, realizing her words and tone had taken him from anger straight to fury, as his skin literally flushed with the intensity of it.

"Have it your way, Miss Holt. I'd rather hoped we could at least make it through a pleasant breakfast. But since you insist, would you mind telling me what in the bloody hell was going through your head to think it was okay to hide this from me?" He was shouting by the time he was finished.

"I was thinking I would be fine. That I wanted us to be able to enjoy our vacation, after years of trying to take one, only for something to always get in our way." She spoke calmly, trying to diffuse his anger.

"Enjoy our vacation? Can't say I much enjoyed myself last night. To be all but making love with you out there," he swung his arm towards the backyard, "only to have you collapse, having no clue what was wrong, only knowing I couldn't get you to wake. Have you any idea what your little secret put me through? What the cost could have been should you have had a hemorrhage?"

"I'm sorry. You know I wouldn't have put you through that intentionally. I thought that I was okay. I knew how you'd react if I told you." Count to ten, Laura. Don't let his anger ignite your own. He has the right to be angry. One...two...three...

"How I'd react? What, that I would have taken care to make sure you were okay? That I'd not have given you glass after glass of wine? That I'd not have agreed to the hot tub? That I'd have insisted our... other activities...wait until we knew you were in the clear?"

"Yes," her voice rising, now taking on an edge of its own. "Exactly that. You would have hovered, coddled, would have tried your best to wrap me up in bubble wrap until our trip was over, just in case. Yes, damn it, exactly that. I thought I was fine!"

"You thought? You thought?! Did you or did you not bounce your head off the ice?" He watched her chin rise stubbornly, as she refused to answer. "Did you?!" he repeated the question through clenched teeth.

She glared at him and crossed her arms in response but answered. "Yes, but..."

"Were you knocked unconscious when your head hit that ice?"

"Yes, but..."

"Did a medic have to bring you to?"

"Yes, but..."

"Did that same medic tell you that you likely had a concussion, recommend that you go 'round to the emergency ward?"

"Should I answer, or are you just going to cut me off again?"

"Funny how you always accuse me of hiding behind flippant remarks, Laura. Seems to me you give as good as you get. Did he or did he not tell you that you likely had a concussion and recommend you go round to the emergency ward?" He stood, began to pace the length of the room, trying to contain his anger.

"Yes." She said the word resentfully, refusing to look at him in her anger.

"Then again, I ask, what in the bloody hell were you thinking keeping this from me?"

"I've already answered that and told you why."

"Because you thought, what? That I'd insist we sit out of some activities? Make certain you were okay?"

"Because you'd have been protective and overbearing."

"Protective and overbearing..." He shook his head, repeated the words, stunned they'd crossed her lips. "Why is it when you make me sit out when I've been injured it is 'caution' yet when I would insist on the same for you it is 'protective and overbearing?'"

"I've never sat you..."

"Convenient memory now, Laura? After Buckner's men got hold of me, you all but sent me home to bed while you and Mildred worked the investigation. After I was injured on the fence in London, you insisted that you be the one to go to the Earl to see if he was my father. When I broke my leg during the bachelor case, you made certain I stayed in bed while you went and chased down a murderer. Need I go on?"

Her anger deflated. Her hand reached up, rubbed at her brow. Why am I fighting with him? I knew last night that he was right. I know now he was right. I shouldn't have hidden this from him. I wouldn't have stood for it, if he'd done the same to me. The intensity of her headache had doubled from the arguing, from the escalation of her temper. Her fingers dropped from her brow, both hands moving to massage her temples as she closed her eyes.

"I'm sorry. I should have told you. I don't want to fight anymore. You're right." Her voice was strained as she spoke, but it was her willingness to accept responsibility so quickly that shocked him. He turned to look at her, saw her hands on her temples, the grimace on her face.

Damn. I should have known she was not up to this argument yet, not so quick on the heels of her collapse last night. I should have simply let her comments go, addressed this when she was in better health. Now look at her. Damn.

He walked over to the couch and took one hand from her temple, waited until she opened her eyes to look at him. "Let me," his voice was soft when he spoke, regretful. She stood at the slight pull on her hand, and watched as he positioned himself against the arm of the couch, before stretching out his legs. On a second tug of her hand, she climbed back on the couch, positioning herself between his legs, before letting her back and head lean against his chest. His fingers replaced hers at her temples, began to massage. They both were silent until he felt her take a deep breath, and letting it out, fully relaxed against him.

"I'm sorry. It was too soon for that, uh, conversation. I should have realized you weren't up for it yet." She shook her head against his chest, his fingers feeling her wince of pain at the effort.

"No, it's fine. It was going to happen sooner or later anyway. I'd rather get it out of the way now than have it between us all day."

Silence reigned between them again, this time comfortable, companionable, as he massaged her temples, eventually moving down to work the knots out of her shoulders as the headache began releasing its grip on her.

"For the record Laura, and this is the last I'll say on the matter, no vacation is worth risking your health. I'm not here to ski, I'm here to spend time with you. I don't care if that time is spent on the slopes or lying here on the couch with you watching the snow fall. I'll be just as happy either way."

"Does that include laying here with me while I take a nap?"

"It includes whatever you want."

She pushed herself up and moved to the end the couch. "Then scoot down and get comfortable."

He raised his brow at her, but did as she asked, shoving a pillow behind his head, lying on his back. Once he was settled, she stretched out next to him, wriggling around until her head was tucked below his chin in the center of his chest, and one leg slung across him. She lifted her head, her finger brushing across the cleft in his chin and kissed him before snuggling back down again.

"This is what I want, Mr. Steele," she told him on a yawn, her body growing heavy against his.

"What's that, Miss Holt?" he asked, his hand stroking her hair.

"Us. Like this."

"Happy then, are you?"

"Mmmm,"she murmured on a sigh as she drifted off. "It's perfect."

Once he was certain she was well and truly asleep, he reached for Agatha Christie's, The Body in The Library, that he had laid there that morning. He'd predicted fairly accurately that they might be spending a good amount of time on the couch that afternoon, as she napped, healed, thus figuring some reading material might be the order of the day. He'd just flipped open the book when the words she had said as she drifted off reverberated in his head once more.

It's perfect. I can't think of a more apt description of either the moment or where we are at last clearly headed.

He craned his neck forward, kissing the top of her head, before lying back again.

"Indeed it is, love, indeed it is."

Laura slept most of the day away. They wiled away her waking hours doing a crossword together, playing a game of chess at a table in front of the fire, and, much to her delight, watching Gone with the Wind in the screening room. He kept meals simple and light throughout the day, a salad and noodle soup for lunch and lemon pepper chicken with tomato parsley rice for dinner. By ten that night she was fighting sleep once more and irritable. As she said, she was sick and tired of being sick and tired. It was only once she was soundly asleep that Remington had separated from her for the first time on the day, yet only long enough to shower and prepare for bed. Returning to her side, he'd spent the remainder of the evening finishing off the Christie book that he'd read periodically throughout the day as she had napped. Book complete, he'd turned off the bedroom lights and nestled in beside her before falling asleep as well.

Laura woke before dawn broke the sky on Sunday morning. Three things occurred to her within the first moments of awakening. Firstly, as she tentatively opened her eyes she found not a trace of the headache that had been plaguing her for nearly thirty-six hours. Secondly, her mind was fully aware, no longer hovering between wake and sleep as it had been over the last day. And, thirdly, a certain man had her spooned snuggly against him as he slept. Glancing down she found a hand belonging to that very man had claimed a breast as his own, as had been the case two mornings before. A wide grin graced her face. All-in-all it was not a bad way to start a new day, not a bad way at all.

Carefully extracting herself from his embrace, she slid from bed, then tucking the covers around him kissed him softly, smiling as he kissed her back even as he slept on. A shower, a blow dryer to her hair, a quick application of makeup and change of clothes later, she arrived in the kitchen. The coffee maker was just finishing off the last few drops of intoxicating brew when Monroe wandered in. Pulling a second cup from the cabinet, she filled it, and handed it to him without word. She could see the bruise on his left jaw where Remington's fist must have landed two nights before and cringed slightly, knowing it was due to her.

Taking a sip of her coffee, she raised the mug in the general direction of his face, pointing at the bruise. "I'm sorry, he shouldn't have hit you."

Monroe laughed deeply as he added cream to his coffee. "Of course he should have. I'd have done the same had positions been reversed. Truth be told, I was surprised that Mick didn't give me a more thorough thrashing for what I'd done."

"You hadn't done anything. It was my choice to hide it from him, not yours."

"It matters little where a secret originates, it matters only who keeps it. I chose to keep Jocelyn's council and thus yours. He'd a right to be angry with me for doing so. I bear him no ill-will. This is the not first time we've taken a swing at one another, would be surprised if it's the last."

"Mmmm," she acknowledged as she took another sip of coffee. "He told me how you met. Throwing punches over a woman, wasn't it?"

Monroe laughed. "Ah, yes, the bewitching Adana. I'd fancied that I'd found a woman as true as stars in the night skies. Then the night Mick appeared, I found she was nothing more than a temptress of the sea."

"Temptress of the sea?"

"Siren, sea nymph. In maritime mythology, the sirens used their beautiful song to lure men to their death. One look at Mick, and Adana began singing her song for him."

"And was he? Lured?" She asked the question with practiced nonchalance, looking at him over the rim of her cup as she took another drink.

Monroe laughed loudly. "Mick warned me about you. Appears he was quite correct in his assessment."

"How is that?"

"I believe the phrase he used was 'the most damnably curious woman' he's ever met in his life."

Laura grinned, shrugged a shoulder. "Nature of the business. So was he?"

"Lured? No, not Mick. His code of honor runs deep. He'd not allow himself to be tempted by a woman, even one as beautiful as my Adana, if she was otherwise preoccupied."

"There's an exception to every rule," she noted drily.

"You speak of Anna now." Monroe noted the look of surprise on her face, shock that he had so easily guessed to what she referred. He laughed warmly, then sobered. "Anna was not an exception, she was a deception. Mick had no idea the woman was married. His devastation at her death was as much about her lies and manipulations coming to light as it was for what he imagined he felt for the woman."

"How is that?"

"He'd unwittingly been forced to compromise a part of him to which he'd henceforth been true. He should have known then the truth of her. It was not until she rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of her grave that he realized that the woman was without a soul."

"You knew about that? About her coming back?" Setting the coffee cup on the counter, she lifted herself upon it to sit, before grabbing her mug again.

Monroe assessed Laura carefully as she did so, leaning his backside against the counter across from her, crossing his legs at the ankle, assessing how much he should tell her. Mick had shared the harm Anna had caused upon her return, and the devastation left in her wake. Perhaps, in sharing, he could reestablish the balance, making up for some of the harm done by the secret he'd kept from the man when the woman before him had been injured. He shrugged his shoulders. He was a gambler by nature, this was just another roll of the dice.

"Not when it occurred, no. It was some six months later, after I'd arrived in Los Angeles and he'd helped me set up shop. He called in a favor, asking that I provide a lad a job once he returned from probationary camp. Wanted to help the boy walk the straight and narrow upon his return. That night, we returned briefly to our old ways, imbibing far too much, reminiscing about days past. It was only when we were shockingly in our cups that the subject of the cunning Anna came up."

"I take it you were not a fan of Anna's?"

"I'd met the woman but once, knew her for what she was the moment she first spoke. I loathed the woman, as did every person that intersected with Mick's life with any type of longevity."

"Why? He loved her. One would think that his, ummm, associates would have been happy for him."

"Loved." Monroe uncharacteristically snorted. "No, not loved. Tied into knots would be the more accurate description of what he was. The woman was smart, I must give her credit for at least that. More so, she was cruel. We could only stand by, watch her identify his weaknesses, use them against him to bind him to her. She wanted only what no other woman before her had managed: to bring him to heel. Soon, even that was not enough. It was clear she would not let go of her grasp on him until she brought him to his knees...which, of course, is what hearing of her 'death,' learning of her lies, did."

"And that night in LA? I suppose he told you she tried to kill him?"

"He did not speak of Anna directly that evening, though it was clear by what he did not say that he'd at last recognized her for what she was. He spoke only of the grievous injury he'd caused someone in his life upon Anna's return... and the cost." He watched her flinch, then immediately conceal her response. "Hmmmm. It's as I assumed then, I see." His words earned him a frown from her, then a sigh.

Is there not a single person from his past that does not pick up immediately on the merest twitch? She decided there was no use in denying it. She watched him study her, kept her gaze on him, refusing to give so much as an inch, drawing another laugh from him.

"I see Mick was right there as well." He grinned at the roll of her eyes.

"Oh, what was he right about now?"

"You are stubborn, feisty."

"I am glad to hear Mr. Steele speaks of me in such a flattering light. Stubborn, feisty, damnably curious." Laura shoved herself down off the counter, moving to the coffee maker to refill her cup, before leaning her back against the counter, facing Monroe once more. She knew he was continuing to assess her, stamped down the urge to snap at him to stop. Instead she fixed an intentionally neutral look upon her face.

"I imagine Anna was not at all happy about your presence in his life."

This time it was Laura's turn to give an unladylike snort. "There you would be wrong. I wasn't so much a thought in either of their heads when she was here."

"I find I am inclined to disagree. She would have only had to take a single glance at the two of you together and know what I knew upon doing the same."

"Oh what, exactly, is that?" She was growing irritable. They'd spent too long on one of her least favorite topics - the time Anna had been in their lives - and knew it was at least in part her fault, as she kept asking questions. Damnably curious. Okay, I'll have to give that to Mr. Steele.

"That you had succeeded where she had failed."

She gave her head a shake. "I'm sorry. You've lost me now."

"She would have known at a glance that it was you that had finally brought Mick to heel, not she, try as she might."

Her eyes flashed fire at the man. Had it been Remington upon which that look was leveled, he would have already been on guard, trying to decide between fight or flight, whatever would diffuse the situation the fastest. Monroe, however, was not Remington, and as such found himself square within her sites. Standing up from where she reclined against the counter, she walked briskly over to where Monroe stood until she was nose-to-nose with the man.

"Let me be clear with you, Monroe," her voice was clipped, angry, her finger poked towards him. "I have not now, nor have ever attempted to bring Mr. Steele, 'to heel'. It is our differences that make us the successful partners that we are. We challenge each other, push each other, argue with one another, find fault with one another's logic and at times, infuriate one another. I do not need, nor want, a compliant Mr. Steele. I am not Anna and I resent that you would even imply that I am."

Monroe found himself leaning decidedly backwards across the counter, avoiding the finger that had been poked towards him several times as she laid into him. Despite her anger, he could not help but admire the fire in her eyes, the flush across her skin and the honesty with which she spoke. I can see why you fell for her, my friend. Each time I interact with her, she is more captivating. Now, he held up his hands, in surrender.

"Poor choice of words, I assure you. Perhaps you'll allow me to try again?" Laura spun away from him, picked up her cup of coffee off the counter, then turned to face him.

"I'd choose my words very carefully, if I were you. Mr. Steele is not the only one that knows how to throw a punch around here."

He nearly laughed at the statement, he found it so amusing, but wisely recognized she might carry through on that threat if he did. Instead, he carefully evaluated his choice of words before he spoke again.

"Anna would have seen that he had chosen to wisely align his loyalty and his life with you. In part because of that marvelous display from you I saw a moment ago, I suspect."

"Better choice of words, but cut the charm. It doesn't get Mr. Steele out of hot water and it won't you either." She laughed when she saw the corner of his mouth quirk up to smile, then straighten back out at her warning. "Okay, so maybe it will help you get out of trouble. Now what did you mean by 'the cost'?"

"I've never seen Mick turned inside out by a woman before and he was certainly that over you. That's all I will say on the matter. There are things said between friends that must stay that way."

Laura gave her head a quick nod.

"I can understand that...and respect it." She glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was nearly six-thirty. "What time are you and Jocelyn leaving for the slopes."

"A couple we made the acquaintance of yesterday will be here in thirty-minutes or so to pick us up. Jocelyn and I thought you and Mick might want to make use of the truck today, if you were feeling up to it."

She walked over to Monroe, placing a kiss to his cheek.

"Thank you. I am going a bit stir crazy after yesterday. Maybe I can lure Mr. Steele into town with me. And, speaking of which, I think I am going to go see if I can go convince him to make me breakfast. You and Jocelyn have fun today."

"We'll do our utmost, I assure you."

Monroe's eyes followed Laura as she left the kitchen, a bit envious of his longtime friend. The woman clearly respected Mick, challenged him, was intensely loyal to him. You're lucky you found her first, Mick, otherwise I might have had to try to win her heart as well.

Instead of waking Remington immediately as planned she pulled on the coat he'd given her three nights before and wandered outside. The conversation with Monroe had been unsettling, bringing up memories that she'd long ago tried to put aside. Granted, every now and then, something would happen that would remind her of the time Anna had been in their lives. Like when he left me in both body and mind the night before last when he'd found out I'd kept my injury from him. For the most part, however, she never gave the other woman a thought at all.

She wandered down the pathway to the hot tub, sat on a lounge nearby and allowed her thoughts to carry on. When the tall, leggy, glamorous blonde had entered their lives nearly two years before, she'd allowed herself to be intimidated. How could I not? She was just like the long string of women he brought around those first days, heck, just like Felicia. Buxom, legs for days, hair always perfect, always dressed as though they are ready to walk the runway. Far more his type than I ever was. As Felicia once pointed out...who would have ever thought that I would be his type? Certainly not I. Yet... here we are, how many years later now?

Yet, had it only been that Anna was Remington's classic type, she would have been fine. Of course, there was no "only" about it. The night he'd come to the loft to speak, after he left her sitting alone and humiliated at the table at Club Ten, it had been clear to her that he'd once cared very deeply for the woman, perhaps even loved her. In her mind, that he still loved Anna - yes, loved as she'd come to accept - was clear when in a matter of hours, she had become all but invisible to him.

During the Glee Club tour, she'd finally taken a moment to be completely honest with herself. The only positive that had come from Anna's appearance in their lives, was that she had finally realized her partner was capable of deep and abiding emotion for a woman. That it had not been her, even after all the time they had been together, even after all the time they had spent exploring their relationship over the year prior, had stung. Very true. Yet still, that the capability was there at all had given rise to hope.

Until, of course, she'd ended their relationship a few scant days later.

But still...

Monroe's words continued to repeat themselves in her memory: "twisted him into knots," "cruel," "exploited his weaknesses to bind him to her." The idea that anyone had used his gentle heart, his craving for intimacy, his need to be needed in order to toy with, to harm her Mr. Steele, made her simultaneously ache for him while fury boiled in her blood. I saw what she was capable of when she was here: manipulating that cowboy into hitting her, turning Merleau and Mr. Steele on each other, killing Merleau in cold blood, turning that gun on Mr. Steele. How had it never occurred to me that she had used him in the same manner while they were together?

She'd known when she ended their personal relationship in Cannes that she had wounded him deeply. She'd seen it on the yacht when she'd made it a point to get a little, ummm, too into distracting Smith, with the purpose of wounding him in retaliation for Joelle; she'd seen it when he'd told her he was worried and had pulled her into a desperate kiss; she's seen it at the balustrade when she told him their personal relationship was over. Two fingers moved to rub along either side of the bridge of her nose.

Two nights ago I told him that when he removes himself from me because he is hurt or angry, he takes everything: partner, friend, almost lover. Just the half hour that he'd removed himself from me that night had hurt, deeply. When he had done it with Anna for two days, it was devastating. Yet for three months after Cannes he'd had to deal with the 'cost,' as Monroe put it, and had been 'turned inside out'. It never even occurred to me what he was going through. Okay, that's a lie. I saw it in his eyes - the hurt, the loss - all the time. I just chose to ignore it, to focus on what my decision had cost me. And four months later, I did it all over again, except this time I made certain to take it all, leaving not even the business relationship behind.

Laura turned, looking back at the bedroom where Remington still slept. Two nights before, it had only taken him knowing that his distance was hurting her for him to return to her side. Yet, she'd allowed his hurt to go on for months and still he'd come back willingly to her, the moment she'd open the door to him. It's time you start realizing what a gift that man in there is, Holt. And there's no time like the present.

Returning to their room, she went directly to the bathroom to change, reemerging in his shirt that she'd slept in the night before. He'd shifted to his back while she was gone. She slid into the bed, then moved over until she could tuck herself into his side, her hand automatically moving to his side to stroke there. He flinched against her touch.

"Your hand is like ice, Laura," he mumbled.

"I was outside," she told him by way of explanation.

Turning his head, he opened one eye and peeked at the alarm clock, then turned back, awakening now, and frowning at her.

"It's barely seven o'clock. What in the blazes were you doing outside at this time of the morning?" Taking her hand in both of his, he began to rub warmth into it.


"Couldn't you have thought inside, where it's warm at least?"

She ignored his question. She'd decided while she was changing that it was time for them to have an open and frank discussion on a topic of some importance. She was nervous and didn't want him getting mired down on the details of where she'd chosen to go and think, otherwise she might lose the courage to bring up the subject.

"I need to talk to you. It's important." The tension in her voice roused him the rest of the way from sleep, and dropping her hand, he pushed himself up on an elbow to look at her.

"It is your head? Is it worse?" She shook her head emphatically in reply.

"My head's fine. Maybe more clear than it's been in a long time." With a sigh of relief, he reclined on his back again after shoving a pillow behind his head. Laura flipped herself around to where her head was resting against his stomach. Grabbing his hand, she began tracing his palm with her fingers.

"What's on your mind, Laura?" The fingers of his free hand began playing with her hair.

"I don't want to make the same mistake I did in Cannes, and just assume that we are on the same page. Unless I'm wrong, I think we both know with the way things are going, that, sooner than later, we are going to be turning that corner." When his hand stilled in her hair she had to resist the urge to laugh.

"Now I'm the one that doesn't want to make any assumptions. Are you saying you're ready to consummate this relationship?"

"In a way, yes. Not today, but soon enough that I think we need to discuss our preferences for birth control. I know what I'd prefer, and that will take some time."

"Which is?" His fingers resumed their explorations of her hair.

Lacing her fingers with his, she let their joined hands drop to her stomach and turned her head to look at him. "That we both get checked out, make sure everything is clear, and, if so, I go on the pill."

"I don't mind taking responsibility for that side of things, always have in the past, without fail. I'd want whatever what makes you most comfortable." He tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear as he spoke.

"I meant what I said the other night. I want to know all of you. I don't want any, um, barriers between us." She watched as his eyes almost crossed at the thought. Seeing her watching him, clearly amused, a flush spread up his skin. Laura sat up quickly and turned to face him. "You're blushing!" she laughed with delight. "Who'd have thought that the unflappable Mr. Steele would be set off kilter talking about sex?" She shrieked with mirth when his hands grabbed her and flipped her on her back, settling on top of her, all in one movement.

"A man does not blush, Miss Holt." He pretended to frown in consternation at her, but the smile quirking at the corners of his mouth belied his attempt to appear put out.

"Oh, then what do you call that red tint that just climbed up your face?"

"Hmmm, a mantle of discomfiture?" He lifted a brow to her.

"Nice try..." she giggled.

"A cloak of disquietude?" A wag of both brows accompanied this suggestion.

"Not buying," she sing-songed. She sombered as she saw him grow serious, his hands moving to either side of her face, thumbs brushing her cheeks.

"Are you sure, Laura?" His voice was quiet, his eyes searching her own. Her fingers found his hair, toyed with it absently.

"Yes." She answered him simply, without a single inflection of a question. If asked, she would have sworn he stopped breathing the moment he heard her answer.

"How long?"

"Until I'm protected?"


"I'm not an expert on the subject. I've only been on the pill once, shortly before... shortly after DesCoines came into our lives for the second time. Then Dr. Miller recommended that I complete a full course before, ummm, engaging. Granted, he tends to be on the cautious side, but I'd rather be cautious then surprised."

"So a month from the time you take the first pill?"

"Essentially, barring any complications, yes."

"And once you are protected?"

"Then when we both agree the time is right, we move forward." Hearing her words, he exhaled deeply, then dipped his head until his forehead rested against her own. She laughed softly, rubbed her fingers briskly against his scalp. "You act as though you just got a reprieve from the death penalty," she teased.

He lifted his head and smiled at her. "Funny, because I feel as though you've just given me everything I've ever wanted." Brushing his lips across hers, he rolled them both over until she was laying on top of him. He palmed the back of her head, bringing her lips back down against his. "Kiss me." He murmured the words against her lips, felt her smile, before her lips began moving across his, nuzzling, before becoming more demanding. Teeth nipped a lip playfully, a tongue touched demandingly, then searched for his own when he opened to her willingly. Pressing a hand against the back of her head once more, he rolled them over, until he claimed his place atop her again, exploring her mouth, tasting her with a quiet fervor. The kiss ended only when their need for air became greater than their need for contact.

"And until then?" He asked the question on a gasp of air.

"We continue..." Her mouth grazed his neck, punctuating her words "...on as..." he groaned as her mouth found his earlobe "we have been."

"As in before Vail..." He pulled his neck away from her seeking mouth, burrowing his whiskered face into her neck, nuzzling until she groaned deep in her throat, "...or since?" his tongue lathed the bruise in the crook of her shoulder.

"Both, wherever the mood takes us." She gasped when his lips found the hollow of her throat.

His lips claimed hers hungrily, the kiss deep, bordering on urgent as a hand found a breast, a thumb a nipple and brushed against it. Her back arched, fingers sinking into his bare shoulders, her hips grinding against his arousal, drawing need filled moans from both of them. His mouth left hers, found the underside of her jaw. "Where's the mood taking us now?" He rubbed his whiskers against her, then began to suckle the skin there, his fingers plucking at her nipple.

"Where do you think?" She asked on an exhale, while pulling her head from his, and dropping it to his shoulder, her lips, teeth, tongue, grazing across it.

"I want to hear you say it." He was teasing her, she knew, but she was growing impatient, needing to feel his hands against her bare skin. His hips circled, his arousal rubbing against her mound, upping the ante. Her hands grabbed at his buttocks, pulling him tighter against her.

"Touch me." It wasn't a request but a demand. His hands moved eagerly to the buttons of her shirt.

As the doorbell began to peel in the living room.

"Ignore it," she ground out, then with a shove at his shoulders, they flipped over, and she straddled him, her fingers moving to undo the remaining buttons as the doorbell rang again. As her fingers reached the last button, it suddenly dawned on her, what day it was and who was likely at the door.

Laura launched herself off of him, his groan of frustration audible, as he shoved himself up on an elbow, watching her head towards the bedroom door.

"Put on your robe and grab mine," she called behind her as she shot through the doorway. "I have to get the door before they leave."

He flopped back on the bed, a hand brushing through his hair in frustration, before he pushed himself up and out of the bed. Throwing on his robe, as directed, he grabbed hers off a hook on the bathroom door and followed in her wake towards the front door. Arriving, Remington found the foyer empty and the front door standing open.

"Laura!" He called out. Receiving no answer in reply, he crossed the deck, and descending it, resisted the urge to hop around as the snow covered his bare feet. Well, on the upside, there's no need for a cold shower now.

Turning the corner of the house towards the garages, he found Laura dressed only in his shirt, signing a piece a paper as the twenty-ish year old delivery man stood, none too subtly, taking in the view presented by the cold air combined with the silk shirt she was wearing. Remington glowered at the young man, who quickly turned away taking great interest in making sure the tailgate to his pickup was secure. He held her robe up as Laura threaded her arms through the sleeves, before cinching it around her waist.

"Laura, it can't be any more than 20 degrees out here. What are you thinking coming out here wearing only a shirt, in front of a delivery man no less?" He continued to glower towards the truck and the young man inside until it was out of site. Placing his hand on the small of Laura's back, he nudged her towards the house. His persistent partner had other ideas, however, and spun to face him, beaming. He raised a brow at her in question.

"Do you remember the promise I made to you on Christmas morning, when the Santas were holding us hostage?"

As though I could forget. Up until that moment, I don't think I've loved her more.

"...One flexible flyer coming up..."

He could still hear the words, as though she had just said them.

"Of course. But what has that to do with you standing out here trying to catch your death of cold while a delivery boy ogles you?"

"I always keep my promises, Mr. Steele." She pointed to an area behind him. He slowly turned around, suspecting what he would see, even before he saw it. Leaning against one of the garage bays was a tandem Flexible Flyer with a large red bow wrapped around it. Laura wrapped her arms around him from behind, pressing her cheek against his back. He remained still for so long, that she began to worry. She dropped her arms from around him, took a step back.

"You don't like it. I guess it really is kind of silly, giving a grown man a sled." His hand reached behind him, grabbing hers, and giving her a tug.

"Come here, Laura." Laura moved around him, then turned to face him. Before she could look up, his hands found both sides of her face, lifting it, his lips claiming hers in several kisses, so tender they left her breathless and dazed. "I think this is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me." He pulled her into his arms hugging her tight against his body. "What am I going to do with you?" Wrapping her arms around him, she hugged him as tight as she could, before releasing her grip, and leaning back to look up at him.

"I have an idea if you are truly at a loss for one." His mouth lifted in a devilish grin and he wagged his brows at her, wringing a laugh from her.

"What exactly do you have in mind, Miss Holt?" He dipped his head down, running his lips across her neck, as a hand brushed over her breast, sending delightful shivers down her body. She stepped closer to him, then lay her mouth next to his ear.

"Feed me," she whispered. He stilled momentarily and then broke out into laughter.

"Only you, Laura, only you. Come along then. Let's get inside and see what I can do." He grabbed her by the hand, and together they went back inside.

Over a breakfast of crepes and fresh fruit, they'd argued about the sled.

"You heard the doctor, Laura. He clearly said no strenuous exercise for at least two weeks."

"I'll be sitting on it, not pulling it, Mr. Steele," she'd pointed out drily.

She'd won the battle of wills and they spent an enjoyable morning together outside, sledding, tossing snow at one another and, whenever he was able to get his hands on her, kissing under the light snowfall. He'd mocked her idea to make snow angels, until he found out how delightful the process could be, when a woman was lying on top of him, showing the movements that created the images. They only adjourned to the house when they could no longer feel their fingers or toes due to the cold, and both of their bodies demanded nourishment after an active day outside.

After changing, they'd gone to town, where they'd eaten tasty fare at a trendy café. Following much cajoling by Remington, after lunch Laura found herself sitting next to him in a horse drawn sleigh, a concept that she believed was nothing more than an over romanticized cab ride in the open and freezing air. She'd discovered how invigorating an experience it was, especially when the man burrowed under the blankets with you was bound and determined to stir up all types of delicious responses to his stealthy touches underneath said blankets.

Both couples stayed in that evening, choosing to forgo the dinner that had been planned at a romantic restaurant tucked into the side of the mountain. Instead, Remington whipped up a delicious meal comprised of rack of lamb and rosemary roasted potatoes, followed by a chocolate mousse for dessert, the dessert expressly chosen so that he could enjoy, as always, Laura's love affair with the treat. After dinner, the couples had engaged in a spirited evening of pool and darts, before both couples retired for the evening. For Laura and Remington, this meant one last frolic in the hot tub, where hands and mouths explored, and stimulated, and drove one another over the precipice of desire on multiple occasions. Only when their bodies were fully sated did they, climb into bed and fall asleep, wrapped tightly in one another's arms.

The next morning, Remington pointed the Silverado away from the Gallen home and towards Vail Village where he and Laura arranged shipment of his Flexible Flyer back to LA. The drive to the airport was without the frequent starts and stops of LA traffic, and they arrived well prior to their flight's departure time allowing them to eat breakfast at one of the airport's restaurants before boarding. Once they arrived back in LA, the couples separated as Monroe had left his car in long term parking, allowing he and Jocelyn continue on their way home alone. Fred, as always, was waiting patiently in the passenger pick-up area for Laura and Remington, and within an hour of picking the couple up, their trusty chauffeur had dropped them off at the Rossmore.

Much to both of their regret, Laura insisted upon going home. Nero had been left to his own devices for nearly five days, and she was anxious to check on him, needing to be certain the teen from her building that she'd hired to pet sit had done right by her beloved cat. Left to their own devices in their separate homes, they each worried that the other would back away now that they were back in LA, back to their daily lives.

At Remington's the television was on and one of his favorite movies, White Heat (James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Warner Bros, 1949), was playing out on the screen before him, but he'd found himself unable to concentrate on the movie as his mind wandered again and again to Laura. Across town, Laura was not faring much better, and finally in frustration tossed down the novel she was trying, without success, to read. She'd been unable to focus, as her thoughts were constantly distracted by the images of what she and Remington would be doing at this moment if they were still in Vail. She finally gave up, and after shutting off all the lights in the loft, went upstairs and climbed into bed, where she lay looking up at the ceiling.

The phone rang in Remington's apartment shortly before eleven. With a sigh, he stood up and walked over to the table to on the wall to answer it.

"Steele here."

"I miss you." The sound of her voice made his heart beat faster, while her words were a salve to his battered nerves. He exhaled deeply, as the tension that had built in this body throughout the evening left.

"I miss you, too." On the other side of the line, Laura closed her eyes in relief. His words wrapped a cloak of comfort around her.

"I was wondering if you might want to stay at the loft tonight." There, I made the offer, now it's up to him. Please say yes.

"There is no place else I'd rather be, Laura. I'll be there within the half hour." I don't think I'd have been able to sleep a wink tonight without you next to me.

"Oh, and Mr. Steele?"

"Yes, Miss Holt?"

"Don't forget my pajama top."

"I wouldn't dare. I'll see you shortly."

Hanging up the phone he tossed a pair of pajamas and his shave kit into an overnight bag, and after grabbing a suit from the closet, walked out the front door of the apartment, locking it behind him. Twenty minutes later Laura opened the loft door for him, and thirty minutes after that, they were wrapped around each other sound asleep.

Life back in LA was looking good...very good indeed.